Hard Knocks

Albert's Winter, Anders Koefoed's graduation film from the National Film School of Denmark, tells the story of an eight-year-old boy who is goes through a tough time after his mother is diagnosed with cancer. Koefoed seeks to examine those times when life first knocks us off our feet, but also lets us grow.

Albert is eight years old and already facing the seriousness of life. His mother has breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. Albert would rather not talk about it. Meanwhile, life goes on and Albert has new challenges to confront, among them moving to a new school.

"I'm occupied with those times when you face hardships in life. When you leave your innocence behind and move on in life a wiser person."

"I'm occupied with those times when you face hardships in life. When you leave your innocence behind and move on in life a wiser person."

Andreas Koefoed decided to make his film about Albert because the boy's crisis expresses the universal human emotions of someone getting his first knocks in life.

Andreas Koefoed

Born 1979. Denmark. Graduate in documentary direction from the National Film School of Denmark in 2009 and in sociology from Copenhagen University in 2004. Since 2001 produced documentary films in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. His film "12 Notes Down" (2008) has received awards and honours at prestigious film festivals worldwide, among them IDFA Amsterdam, "Full Frame Durham", Silverdocs AFI and Sheffield DocFest. "A Day in the Smoke" (2008) was selected for IDFA's Reflecting Images: Panorama. "Albert's Winter" (2009) is selected for CPH:DOX and IDFA's Short Documentary Competition.

"I'm occupied with those times when you face hardships in life," Koefoed says. "When you leave your innocence behind and move on in life a wiser person."

The director last year made 12 Notes Down, which ran in IDFA's Student Competition and Kids & Docs 2008. 12 Notes Down is about a boy, Jorgis, who has to leave the boys choir because his voice is changing and he is becoming a man. Albert's Winter is about a small boy's first experience with serious illness and fear of loss. These are situations, Koefoed says, in which life reveals its hardness and its beauty. Being afraid of losing your mother is tough. But when illness strikes, the family also becomes more conscious of the importance of their love for each other.

"There is beauty in the film in the love between mother and son and in the family's love that becomes so clear because of the devastating experience they are going through," Koefoed says. He considers Albert's way of coping with the situation life affirming.

"Albert is brave. He doesn't knuckle under. He processes the problems in silence and is ready to move on with his life – changing schools and leaving behind his familiar surroundings," Koefoed says.

Life moving on

The film shows Albert taking the entrance exam at Sankt Annæ Gymnasium, a choir school. Initially, Albert doesn't want to change schools, but when he is admitted he ends up taking all the changes in his stride. Koefoed chose to focus on this change of schools, because it's an image of life moving on.

"It is a sign of Albert's strength that he is able to sing so well and pass the entrance exam, in spite of all everything that's on his mind. It was important for me that, although Albert's mother is sick, the film also shows some of the other things that are going on in his life," Koefoed says.

In the film, Albert is not much up to talking about the things that are weighing on his mind – whether it's changing schools or his mother's illness. Albert's parents talked to him about the factual matters of the disease when his mother first got sick. He knew exactly when her chemotherapy would end. But after that he didn't want to talk about it. As Koefoed sees it, many adults think problems need to be discussed in order to be processed, but children process difficult things in a more wordless way, and that can be just as healthy.

"I don't think every problem in life is solved by talking about it. Some things simply need time to settle. A fear of losing your mother is not something you get over simply by rationalising and analysing. These things take time and they can be struggle," Koefoed says.

Room for contemplation

A small boy who might be losing mother to cancer and has to perform a song makes for a touching story, naturally. It could easily have skidded into sentimentality, Koefoed says. One way to avoid that was to work with a minimalist score, parts of which he composed himself.

"Swelling bombastic music would seem out of place in a film about a young boy. It is better served by a small, derelict organ played with a slightly child-like sensibility," Koefoed says.

Visually, the director was likewise careful not to overwhelm the viewer with emotions. The film goes close to Albert, but it lets the viewer breathe.

"I wanted it to be sensitive, while I tried to avoid making it claustrophobic by including occasional long shots and pauses where all you see is snow falling, with music and maybe Albert throwing a snowball or two – sequences that don't necessarily tell a story but give the viewer room to contemplate," Koefoed says.

Filming family

Albert is Koefoed's nephew, his sister's son. Filming your own family, and someone as young as Albert, presented Koefoed with a host of ethical issues. How would Albert feel later in life that there's a film about him at a tough time in his life that maybe presents events differently than he remembers them? Would Albert's mother, battling cancer, need Koefoed to not just stand there with a camera but really be there for her? After talking it over with his family, Koefoed decided that the act of making a film about what they were going through would be a good process.

"I could feel that my sister wanted her story to be told. Albert thought it was okay, too, that I followed him around," Koefoed says. "On a practical level, it was also a way for me to share a difficult time with my family and get to spend time with them." Fortunately, they got off with a fright – after her chemo, Albert's mother is cancer free.

The personal and the universal

The recent film-school graduate is currently working on several film projects. One is about three Senegalese boys who are discovered by a football agent and invited to tryouts with clubs in Europe, where they scramble for contracts. Before film school Koefoed was a sociology student, and the football film is a way for him to combine personal stories with a sociological, critical look beneath the surface of professional football, exposing the base inequality between Africa and Europe.

Moreover, in collaboration with the director Christian Bonke, Koefoed is working on a film for New Danish Screen. The film follows some of the world's top ballroom-dancing couples, who are partners both professionally and privately. Again, Koefoed is looking to tell powerful, personal stories.

"It was a fun challenge to take up a scene that's so visual and superficial, to dive in and come up with powerful human stories," Koefoed says. "That's what I aim for in a good film – it's what I was aiming for in Albert's Winter to tell a personal story with universal appeal."