Shut Up Mountain Goat!

INTERVIEW. Phie Ambo's "The Home Front" is a breezy documentary comedy made for Danish prime-time TV, but the title's reference to war is no fluke. The film is about conflict, how they arise and grow, in this case between neighbouring homeowners. The director marvels at the Danes' awkward inability to deal with conflict and the passions unleashed when the facade cracks. Phie Ambo's "Family" won the Joris Ivens Award, and also competing at IDFA were "Growing Up in a Day" and "Mechanical love". "The Home Front" is in the running for Best Mid-length Documentary.

Denmark has roughly six million hedges and fences. Placed end to end, they would circle the globe two and a half times. That's a lot of hedge to argue about. And neighbours do. About a hedge that is too high or suddenly gone, a fence that is too ugly. Over kids who play raucous football from dawn to dusk or a behaviourally challenged dog. Or, perhaps they don't argue enough. Grievances are allowed to accumulate for years, while both parties grow increasingly bitter and the rage builds up, until municipal property line inspectors are called in to try and resolve a frequently impenetrable dispute.

"I find an interesting duality between our self-image as a quaint, peace-loving nation and the awkward and overblown way we have of handling conflicts."

"I find an interesting duality between our self-image as a quaint, peace-loving nation and the awkward and overblown way we have of handling conflicts."

Denmark's National Soul?

Phie Ambo followed property line inspectors on their rounds over two seasons, as they tried to bring neighbours around for a dialogue on one side of the hedge.


Photo of director Phie Ambo
Photo: Per Morten Abrahamsen

Phie Ambo

Born 1973, Denmark. Graduated in documentary film directing at the National Film School of Denmark, 1999. Co-directed with Sami Saif the documentary "Family" (2001), winner of IDFA's Joris Ivens Award. Directed "Gambler" (2006) about film director Nicolas Winding Refn and "Mechanical Love" (2007) about man's relationship with robots. "The Home Front" (2010) is selected for IDFA's Mid-length Competition.

The director views neighbour disputes as a microcosm of sorts for examining how conflicts arise, escalate, culminate and, maybe, are resolved. She wanted to examine how the Danish way of dealing – or not dealing – with disputes between neighbours can become a litmus test of a nation's soul.

"I find an interesting duality between our self-image as a quaint, peace-loving nation and the awkward and overblown way we have of handling conflicts," Ambo says. "It is an experience shared by most of the neighbours in this film that they have been nice for a very long time in order to maintain good neighbourly relations. They haven't addressed the conflict before it blows up. This image people have of themselves as nice and friendly comes back like a boomerang. Tension is allowed to build up until people become bitter and are boiling over with pent-up rage.

"What interests me about these seemingly harmless neighbour quarrels is that they've all come to the last straw. And that's something that I can easily identify with – the point where everything becomes a matter of principle."

"Perhaps the Scandinavian coolness is to blame, which prevents people from going straight to their neighbour and yelling, What you're doing is incredibly annoying! A conflict easily gets very abstract when you don't deal with it right away. It can become a symptom of so many other things," she says.

Photo from
"The Home Front". Photo: Phie Ambo

A Documentary Comedy For Prime Time

Apart from the thematic aspect, the director was driven by the challenge of making a film that could be shown in prime time on a national Danish TV channel, because she was tired of seeing her films relegated to slots after midnight. She wanted to do a quality mainstream production.

"My previous films – "Mechanical Love", for one – are niche films, and I wanted to develop my narrative moves," she says. "I felt like opening up and being less art-housey. And it seemed to me that neighbour disputes and micro-democracy were things most people could identify with."

Moreover, it was important for Ambo to make the film "light."

"I thought it was super important that the film not be too serious, because this isn't a serious issue. A conflict like this might seem serious when you're right in the middle of it, but if you take a broader view, a hedge really isn't that critical," she says.

"Then, it was about finding some characters who were capable of seeing themselves from the outside, who could look at the situation from both sides and say, All right, in this situation I thought I was doing the right thing, bu-ut ...

"The same thing prevents the audience from feeling like witnesses to something they shouldn't be seeing. I make sure to talk with the people in my films and tell them what kind of film they are getting themselves into, so no one will be blindsided. Thankfully, everyone could recognise themselves and signed off on the film," the director says.

The film has a distinctive, circus-like score by the composer Sanna Salmenkallio, who also scored "Mechanical Love" and "Three Rooms of Melancholia".

"It was fun to play around with the music as a narrative element," Ambo says. "The music does so much to indicate when it's okay to laugh."

The Wealthier a Society Is...

... the more weird things like this happen, sighs one character, who is not blind to the tragicomedy of her conflict with her neighbour.

The societal backdrop for the film is a steady increase in the number of neighbour disputes in Denmark over the last 50 years. People don't have close relations with their neighbours like they used to, because no one basically needs to see anyone else. Families function as little self-sufficient units, independent of favours from friends and neighbours, and so there are really no good reasons anymore for tolerating individual differences, big and small. This tendency fascinates Ambo:

"I wanted to take a closer look at the Danes' tolerance in general. Considering what's going on in the rest of the world, it's pretty absurd: Here we are, picking on each other, though these aren't real problems. I could have shown more extreme neighbour conflicts, but I consciously chose conflicts we can identify with to make us realize it's ourselves we're laughing at, not some people in a film. It would be great if the film could make us reconsider whether we really are as tolerant and permissive as we like to imagine."

Our Brain Is Plastic

Phie Ambo is currently working on a film about the human brain. Free the Mind follows the American brain-scientist professor Richard Davidson and his staff in their research on the human brain's ability to change and produce new cells through the practice of meditation. For Professor Davidson this has far-reaching implications. He believes that meditation can transform humankind itself into a more peaceful species.

Ambo draws on her experiences from "The Home Front" in telling a story for a broad audience. "After all, we all have a brain and it's my sincere hope that a lot of people will get to see this film," the director says.