Some use the down-to-earth term "movies." The French favour the loftier "the seventh art." Others call it the art of "illusion" or "magic." Director Michael Noer has another moniker for film.
"The main theme of 'Northwest' is 'When am I man enough. What's a man? What's manhood?'" – Michael Noer
"Film is the art of the groin," he says with a look like he just made a normal statement. "Film is POW! in your face. It's physical."
Michael Noer likes to communicate directly and to the point – when he is making his films or just talking.
"I remember two clips from film history class in film school. One is a train coming directly at the audience. The other is a cowboy with a pistol. Those are the basic elements of film. We haven't come any further – and maybe we don't have to."
One might object that countless excellent and important films have been made without runaway trains or men with guns. But the point Noer is making is that cinema has the ability to communicate directly, potently and physically, instinctively, without explanation or reflection.
Interested in human fates
If this approach to the world of film doesn't seem all that clear and logical, please see Noer's two features. "R", directed with Tobias Lindholm ("A Hijacking"), is a simple story about a young small-time criminal who is thrown in with hardened convicts and is very quickly swept up in a prison power struggle. It's a blunt film, physical and direct, without much blood or violence but with a constant sense of threat. It's a film that hits you in the gut.
The same goes for Noer's new film. "Northwest", named after one of Copenhagen's most notorious neighbourhoods, is the story of two teenage brothers. Casper, the older brother, is cruising along in his career as a burglar when a more professional outfit approaches him for a big job. Accepting the offer, he quickly finds himself at odds with his former partners – and soon his younger brother is drawn in as well.
"I knew there was more to get out of the criminal environment after 'R'," Noer says. "I was interested in it as film, but I was also interested in the human fates. In my documentaries, I told stories of young people – a neighbour who was having an abortion, a group of friends riding their mopeds bare-assed. I like those kinds of coming-of-age stories. When my co-writer, Rasmus Heisterberg, and I did the research for 'Northwest', we realised that it always takes the smallest cogwheel to get the biggest machine running. The youngest people are always left with the headache. We thought that was interesting. Also, the word 'brotherhood' popped up a lot. Crime is a bond among men: Who can keep his mouth shut? Who can be trusted? Who would tell on the others?"
This is where the train and the man with the gun come in. A kid, with no support from the authorities or his single mother, owing money and favours to two different groups of criminals is a bomb waiting to go off. It's pure film. Pure physicality. You don't have to explain anything.
"The main theme of 'Northwest' is 'When am I man enough,'" Noer says. "What's a man? What's manhood? In my DVD collection I have films like Michael Mann's 'Heat' that I watch over and over again – films that explore men and manhood. There's an inherent conflict there that also affects me. When you ask yourself, 'When am I man enough?' you're thinking about tattoos and muscles and money and cars. Meanwhile, I'm hoping 'Northwest' will have a big life. When is my film enough? When am I filmmaker enough? The whole thing about proving something to the world is a theme I can relate to. Casper gets caught up in that spiral and he drags everyone else into it, too, because his little brother has to prove that he's man enough, too."
Film as visceral art
Looking at Noer, a short, content family man who recently had his first child and whose worldview is essentially sensible and rational, it seems obvious to assume he has a profound fascination with people who stare into abysses he would never dare go near himself.
"That question answers itself," he says. "But it's also about doing things that get out of control, that get a little dangerous. I like a little trouble on the shoot. It keeps you on your toes. It keeps you focused on what's going on in front of the camera instead of what's in the script.
"I didn't make 'Northwest' by feeling my way along – it was made by yelling and punching. A lot of the kids we talked with in the neighbourhood have a restlessness that we tried to maintain. It's pure chaos, pure gut, that you're trying to capture with the camera, say if someone's fighting about who owes who money. 'Faster, faster! Say it faster! Okay, keep that energy, we're rolling!' Films are great for visceral art, the art of the observed, while books are an internal voice. I hope people will be entertained by 'Northwest', but I also hope they'll get some new vitamins. It should be experienced with the gut – then the head can reflect afterwards".
"Northwest" enjoyed its world premiere in Rotterdam and won the FIPRESCI award in Göteborg. The film is produced by René Ezra and Tomas Radoor for Nordisk Film.