Do you have to make something of yourself to be somebody or is being yourself enough? Iqbal, 13, can't see how his performance in chemistry has anything to do with him being a good person. His father, on the other hand, thinks worth is something you earn and is constantly voicing his disappointment at his son's lack of discipline, worrying that it will reflect back poorly on their family.
"I strongly disagree that just being yourself isn't being somebody," says the film's writer, Renée Toft Simonsen, a psychologist, author of a shelf full of children’s books – including her Karla series, which was adapted for film a few years back – and mother of four. Having completed a screenwriting master class programme at the National Film School of Denmark, she is now making her screenwriting debut, adapting the Danish author and politician Manu Sareen's children's books about a boy called Iqbal Farooq.
"I was concerned with the father-son relationship and Iqbal's father's obsession with 'being somebody' and acting like a good Dane. Parental obsession with their children's potential success, and their concern and interest in them doing well, is something I recognise from my own life," Toft Simonsen says. Being interested in your children doing well isn't a bad thing, as long as we remember that we "don't give birth to little machines." Toft Simonsen doesn't subscribe to the idea that you have to do your chemistry homework – not unless you want to be a chemist. Who says everyone has to be good at chemistry?
"I hope the grownups who watch the film will think about how maybe we have too many ambitions for our children," adds director Tilde Harkamp, who is also making her feature film debut, but has lots of experience in TV as the director, notably, of two fiction series for kids and teens, "Isa's Stepz" and "Tvillingerne og julemanden." Harkamp, who has two children, encourages us to stop and think, "I have a child who is different from me, but that has its own qualities."
"It’s important to see your children as they are, not as someone who has to meet your priorities," she says.
A Modern Emil of Lönneberga
All the same, it probably wouldn’t hurt some children to try a little harder, she contends. "I hope children realise there are times when you have to work hard to get smart and accomplish something. Coming up with cool ideas are great – though you can end up taking things too far, like Iqbal does. But you also have to put in the work. So I hope children and grownups will meet each other halfway," Harkamp says.
Iqbal may blow off his school work, but when push comes to shove, he steps up and takes charge – and his bright ideas end up benefitting the whole family. When he, his brother Tariq and his friend Sille accidentally mix up a batch of explosives in a chemistry experiment – making them a target for the two criminals – Iqbal keeps a cool head and devises a clever plan to hoodwink the hoodlums.
Toft Simonsen sees Iqbal as a present-day Emil of Lönneberga, Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren's famous scamp, whose inadvertent mischief-making has also been adapted for film.
"Iqbal sometimes gets one good idea too many and doesn't think it through before he carries it out," Toft Simonsen says. "But he's a lively, spirited child protagonist who cares and dares. I think he's a fine role model, because he’s a good boy who tries to do good. At the same time he’s a rascal who acts when he sees a chance to turn the situation to his own advantage."
The director has put a similar energy into the film's visuals, switching between slow motion and high speed and quick-cutting between angles creatively captured by DP Jesper Tøffner.
More Than Fun and Games
Just as there has to be a balance between fun and play and hard work and responsibility in a child's life, a family film's proportions of humour and seriousness, and its appeal to both children and adults, is crucial.
"The greatest challenge in a comedy is its balance of humour and seriousness," Harkamp says. "You can't do without seriousness, because then it gets too thin. But you can't be too serious, either, because then it's no fun. I have no fixed rule for this, just my intuitive sense and experience. In terms of the humour, it's important to mix things up, so there's physical humour for the kids and dialogue for the grownups. When the comedy derives from awkward situations, we all laugh, children and adults alike."
"The film is fortunate to feature a family of all stripes and types, which gives it universal appeal in itself," Toft Simonsen says, mentioning Iqbal's sharp older sister Fatima, his nerdy, thoughtful younger brother Tariq and their cute little brother Dindua, who lives out every kid's fantasy when his kidnappers give him 1000 kroner to buy sweets.
The film's broad, offbeat cast of characters is key to reflecting today's Denmark, director Harkamp says.
"There's a diversity and range to the characters that makes things a little more wacky and a little more edgy than we're used to seeing in a family film. I grew up in colourful Nørrebro, in Copenhagen, and I know these characters. I like that the family isn't just made up of a father, mother and children but is composed like a fluid organism. There's Sille, who's part of the family without actually being a member. There's Aunt Fatwa, who suddenly pops up. There's the caretaker and the greengrocer, who aren't family members yet are still a big part of their world. There’s an inclusiveness that way towards people who aren't part of the 'correct' way of living, with a house in the suburbs, a car and a dog. A lot of people live like that today: offbeat."
"Iqbal Farooq" is produced by Elisabeth Victoria Poulsen, Christian Potalivo and Mikael Olsen for Miso Film with support from the Danish Film Institute’s Market Scheme.
Iqbal is played by Hircano Soares, Sille by Liv Leman Brandorf and Tariq by Arien Alexander Takiar, while actors Runi Lewerissa, Sara Masoudi, Rasmus Bjerg and Dar Salim are featured in the main grownup roles. The film is based on the 2006 children's book "Iqbal Farooq og den sorte Pjerrot" by the Danish writer and politician Manu Sareen.
The film opened domestically on December 17 and will have its international premiere at BUFF, the International Children and Young People’s Film Festival in Malmö, Sweden on 14-19 March.