Denmark, this tiny peace-loving nation, has stood among the staunchest supporters of America’s War on Terror. Denmark sent troops to Iraq and is currently on the ground in Afghanistan, as casualties steadily mount.
Denmark is at war. It’s hard to believe, judging from the way the returning troops are received. The whole thing looks like nothing so much as denial. People prefer not to learn too much about the soldiers and their bloody realities: killing and being killed. The veterans aren’t hailed in Copenhagen’s Town Hall Square or showered in flags and flowers, the reception bestowed upon sports champions returning from arenas of peaceful competition.
Danish veterans are more likely to be scolded by their fellow countrymen, who do not generally back the government’s uncompromising support for America’s wars. Mostly, though, the returning veterans are all but invisible.
“If someone is a victim in a bank robbery or traffic accident, we are very concerned with what happens to them afterwards. But when it comes to the soldiers, we forget that they have been through events that are probably much worse,” director Annette K. Olesen says.
A majority of parliament routinely sweeps aside any debate about Denmark’s participation in the war with reference to national unity. Still, resignation alone is not enough to explain the screaming silence that prevails. Maybe it’s simply more convenient not to think about Denmark’s distant war and the bloody chaos that easily becomes an abstraction at such a remove.
“We aren’t crazy about conflict. And if we must deal with it, we prefer to add a clever twist to let people know everything is going to be all right. That’s fine in some cases, but it’s not always useful,” the 43-year-old director says.
"Little Soldier" was conceived in close collaboration with screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson. For the past decade, Aakeson has been one of the two most influential Danish screenwriters. Fupz, as he is known, has worked with Olesen on all of her four features. The first, "Minor Mishaps", won the Blue Angel award in Berlin, 2002. It’s the only one of herfilms that can reasonably be said to contain elements of comedy. Otherwise, her films are dead serious.
Her second film, the prison drama "In Your Hands", also competed in Berlin, in 2004, and was followed by "One to One", a drama set in a Danish ghetto, in 2006. Now, in 2009, she is bringing us "Little Soldier". Her films all share a desire to explore reality through the prism of her characters’ – especially her female characters’ – development.
"Little Soldier’s" Lotte (Trine Dyrholm) is back from Afghanistan, her contract prematurely terminated. Something has happened. Something violent. Clearly traumatised and rootless, she is sloshing around at the bottom of a vodka bottle in a small provincial town. She finds a path of sorts in life when she gets back in touch with her father, a trucking company operator and a pimp (Finn Nielsen). He’s not a good father by any measure, but he’s all she’s got. He gives Lotte a job as a driver and bodyguard for an African prostitute, Lily (Lorna Brown), who is also his mistress. An intense triangle drama ensues between father, daughter and prostitute, revealing many surprising facets.
Now, the film is suddenly about two issues that have something in common: no one in Denmark likes to think or talk too much about them. One is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the other is human trafficking and prostitution. Let it be said, though, that "Little Soldier" is not a typical “issue film” with cut-and-dry conclusions or bombastic, boilerplate messages. More accurately, it’s a non-didactic examination of certain inconvenient realities in today’s Danish society, shining a light into some dark corners.
THE CHAOS OF WAR VS. PROVINCIAL LIFE
Olesen and Aakeson did their homework. They interviewed returning veterans and prostitutes in the Danish provinces and called on experts from police and social authorities. The story is drawn from real-life experiences – what real people have experienced, thought and felt, what their experiences tell them. That’s the duo’s method.
“The soldiers told us what it was like to come home,” Olesen says. “They told us about such a basic thing as sound. The sounds are different when you come home. Living in a place where you have to be on guard around the clock makes you much more sensitive to sound. Sound is a sign of danger. We tried to build that into Lotte’s character, along with the lack of an ability to communicate. She can’t communicate what she’s been through. It’s like that with very difficult things. Facing death, it’s as if we have no language. People die in our society, of course, but usually in a very discreet and orderly fashion. In Iraq, people were amidst chaos. There’s nothing orderly about death over there.”
The contrast between the chaos of war and a slumbering Danish provincial town is striking. Coming home and having to deal with things as trite as the price of a carton of milk or a blouse on sale, small everyday things, idle gossip, is utterly impossible for some veterans. It can even arouse a kind of aggression in them, Olesen says.
Again, this can be hard for veterans to talk about – that the things everyone else is consumed with all seem blatantly meaningless. Who do you turn to, then? A lot of veterans shut themselves up in their apartments and lose touch with the outside world. This happens to Lotte in "Little Soldier", until events conspire to lure her back outside. When she meets voluptuous Lily struggling through life, the film’s two themes come together.
PROSTITUTION AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING
“Prostitution is another problem we prefer not to confront,” Olesen says. “It was hard for me, too, to now what to think. I’m a woman and I wouldn’t dream of prostituting myself. I couldn’t imagine anything more degrading and awful. So the kneejerk reaction is to condemn it. Still, this is a good
example of how productive it can be to work the way Fupz and I did. Real life, researching real life, always tells other stories than we could make up.
“We came in touch with an environment that had whole other problems than we thought it would. I was sure we’d come face to face with thousands of women chained to radiators in dark provincial cellars! But it’s not like that. Most of these women arrive here with their eyes open. Some are refugees from poverty.
“I think we have to keep things separate and treat human trafficking and prostitution as two different things.” Working on "Little Soldier" gave her a much more nuanced view of prostitution – an area that growing numbers of people are in favour of prohibiting.
“I find it scary that we assume to tell grown adults that the way they are living their lives is wrong, when what they’re doing doesn’t actually hurt anyone,” the director says. “We can’t help condemning them. But the result is that we let our feelings about prostitution cloud the issue of human trafficking, the fact that some people are here against their will.”
UNPREDICTABLE, REAL-LIFE FEEL
A debate about real-life issues is qualified by adding nuances to your descriptions of the people involved. Examining real life in a film – and, in turn, changing both the filmmakers’ and the audience’s perspectives – is fundamental to Olesen and Aakeson’s way of working.
“It wasn’t particularly premeditated, taking up the topics of Iraq and human trafficking,” Olesen says. “Our process is more chaotic. We mainly do our research to be able to create believable characters, not so much for the story itself. What fascinated me more about juxtaposing a female soldier and a prostitute was the contrast between them sexually. They are, so to speak, in separate camps in terms of their femininity and emotions. Lotte has essentially shut down her femininity, while Lily, both physically and mentally, loudly expresses hers.”
Though it’s been a while now since she wrapped the film, there’s no question that the characters Lotte and Lily have taken on a life of sorts for the director. They are people who act, think and feel, not just pieces in a well-designed plot, following established dramaturgical rules of narrative, thematics and genre.
There is, in fact, an unpredictable real-life feel to Lotte and Lily that rings unmistakably true.