Kathrine Windfeld takes a while to answer. “No, I can’t explain it,” she says. The 42-year-old director’s first feature, "The Escape", is one of three Danish features dealing with the war in Afghanistan, that Denmark has been embroiled in for seven years now. The other two films are Susanne Bier’s "Brothers" (2004) and Annette K. Olesen’s "Little Soldier" (2008, see page 3). So I felt compelled to ask her why women directors, not men, are attacking this subject, even though the majority of Danish film directors are men. On the question of why she chose to do a film about the war, there’s no hesitation: “I want to relate to the times I live in.”
"I like to watch big films, and I'm quite concerned with making a broad statement. I want as many people to see my film as possible. There's nothing underground about me."
Her film, "The Escape", is a high-tension drama about a female journalist, Rikke Lyngvig (Iben Hjejle), who is kidnapped in Afghanistan by a group of Taliban militants who threaten to chop off one of her fingers for each day Danish troops remain in the country. Her youthful jailor Nazir (Faigh Zamani) helps her escape, but she has to promise not to say he helped her, or he risks being executed.
Returning to Denmark, Rikke is hailed as a hero. Then, Nazir suddenly calls her from a Danish asylum centre and asks for her help, putting Rikke in a quandary that will cost her either her personal or her professional integrity.
THE EMOTIONS DEPARTMENT
"The Escape" was shot over ten weeks in Copenhagen and Turkey. The production couldn’t get insurance to film in Afghanistan because of the war, so they had to find another place to shoot the scenes of Rikke’s captivity. For the director, it was difficult to relocate to a country where she had never been.
“My research method would have been to go straight to Kabul, but of course that was impossible. We had to find another location. And we did, in southeast Turkey, where the mountains and earth resemble Afghanistan. Of course, it was hard to say how accurate our portrayal was, since we’d never been there. So I was really happy when our Afghan translator saw our footage and actually believed we had been filming in Afghanistan,” Windfeld enthuses.
“There’s a research period, of course, where you try to get all the facts straight. But my main focus was the drama. I want people to be carried away emotionally. I’m in the emotions department,” she laughs.
"The Escape" is an adaptation of "The Refugee", a sociocritical novel by the Danish journalist Olav Hergel.
“A critique of the war is important as an underlying moral in the film, but it’s not the main storyline. I want to grab people’s hearts, not dictate to them what to think,” Windfeld says. “If you want to tell a political story, you need some emotions to make the politics go down. You know you’ve succeeded when the audience is entertained in the cinema and then think about the film when they leave. Otherwise, everything gets too heavy and TV-news-like, and that’s not the intention.”
AIMING FOR AN INTERNATIONAL LOOK
Though Windfeld is Danish, she has long been an outsider in Danish film. She didn’t attend the National Film School of Denmark but graduated from the Film School in Lodz, Poland, that has produced such world-famous directors as Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Roman Polanski.
“When you go to film school in another country, you don’t get the same kind of network you do when you go to film school in your own country. I didn’t think about that when I decided to go there, but I’ve certainly felt it since,” she says.
In fact, "The Escape" doesn’t feel like a typical Danish film. Mixing action with a political plot and a love affair, it’s a far cry from Danish Dogme films or folk comedies.
“I deliberately aimed for an international look. Bear in mind also that I went to film school in Poland and have done a lot of work in Sweden. My identity as a director is European and international,” Windfeld says. Personally, she prefers big films with big emotions – and, ideally, big audiences.
“I like to watch big films, and I’m quite concerned with making a broad statement. I want as many people to see my film as possible. There’s nothing underground about me,” she laughs. “In terms of craftsmanship, I think it’s fun to make a film for three million euros that looks like it cost five. Making things look big is a sport for me.”
Same with the emotions, which are bigger here than in the average Danish film. “I don’t think you can tell a story that touches people unless it’s painful, too,” she says. “Laughs are fine, naturally, but you shouldn’t just laugh. I’m really much more interested in painful emotions.”
GENDER DID MATTER
According to Windfeld, her position as an outsider is the main reason why it took her so long to direct her first feature. But there’s another reason as well, as the director sees it. “It’s because I’m a woman. No two ways about it.” It’s an issue she knows inside and out. In one case, though, her gender did work to her advantage.
“When Hanne-Vibeke Holst’s bestsellers "The Crown Princess" and "His Wife" were being adapted for TV, Swedish producer Anna Croneman insisted on hiring a woman director because these were feminist novels. There, the success of my women colleagues Susanne Bier and Lone Scherfig helped me,” Windfeld says. “Because they and their films were doing so well, the assumption was that I’d probably do well, too – an amazing declaration of trust, since the longest project I had ever directed ran 28 minutes. And now, I suddenly had to do four hours of TV costing three and a half million euros. I got a shot because the producer was conscious of feminism.”Windfeld proved that she was ready to pick up the mantle of her female predecessors. The TV films of "The Crown Princess" and "His Wife" were seen by half a million viewers in every country they were shown – Denmark, Sweden and Norway. It was a massive breakthrough for Windfeld, who next got the offer to adapt Hergel’s novel "The Refugee".
“It was incredibly liberating to get to that point. I’ve done shorts, documentaries, TV series – and now, finally, I get the chance to debut as a feature film director”.