As soon as he started his job at the Danish Film Institute in fall 2010, Rasmus Horskjær, who comes from a background in TV satire, knew he was sticking his hand in a hornet's nest.
I associate being young with being in radical opposition, with a wish to experiment and provoke. Movies should be allied with those feelings. They should be radical, experimental,amoral, offensive. Teens can take it!
"On the one hand, you have an inarticulate, snotnosed, pimply, candy-chomping, mobile-yakking, indifferent audience who very rarely pay for their own movie tickets. On the other hand, we have their parents who, in a frenzy of guilt and unfulfilled self-realisation, hair-triggered from sex deprivation and random train delays, just want the best for their kids," he said at the time, identifying a third challenge apart from the lovable, but ungrateful, kids and their guilt-ridden parents: the "great Danish tradition of humanist children's films" that casts such a long shadow over the poor new filmmakers who want to give the genre a shot.
Clownfish, Yes Please
Nonetheless, Horskjær is optimistic about children's films. As the American animation studios DreamWorks and Pixar prove time and again, it is, in fact, possible to make perceptive and imaginative stories that speak to children and adults alike.
"It's a pleasure to take your kids to see "Finding Nemo" or "Up". Those films deal with fundamental, recognisable themes like loss and love, but they are set in fantastical worlds, among clownfish or talking dogs, and they are told with such an abundance of humour and high spirits. They are mainstream entertainment of very high quality!
"We should learn from the clever Americans," Horskjær says. "I think they are in this segment of the industry because that's where things are happening and they want to do cool stuff ! They are not in it because they love kids more than anyone else. You don't have to be a child's best friend to make brilliant children's films. Holding on to your vision, that's what counts.
"In Denmark, I think, we suffer from the scourge of so wanting to be on the children's side. We need to remember that they are living in a world of divorce, where children and removed from their parents and some have a dad who is serving in Afghanistan. We have this image of children as defenceless creatures exposed to constant abuse. There is this huge yoke weighing them down – and it's all our fault! There's a lot of indulgence and guilt in Danish children's films, which makes them a bit unoptimistic.
"Good children and teen films, I believe, are made out of egotism and a joy of storytelling. Plus, we have to learn to be smarter than the kids. They get bored if they can figure it all out. There's no reason to spell it out it ten-foot letters."
Radical Films for a Radical Audience
If American animated films are guiding stars for children and family films, Horskjær considers Stanley Kubrick's ultra-violent classic A "Clockwork Orange" to be an exemplar of how far you can, and should, go in terms of young people.
""A Clockwork Orange" was not made as a teen film, of course. It was made by an original filmmaker with a clear vision. But you can view it as a rabid comingof- age-story set in an absurd sci-fi universe. It magnifies a lot of the target group's emotions. When you are young, you are in opposition to the existing society. I associate being young with being in radical opposition, with a wish to experiment and provoke. Movies should be allied with those feelings. They should be radical, experimental, amoral, offensive. Teens can take it!
"Young people are supremely capable of receiving new impulses. So, I think you should make films that challenge them!"
That's easier said than done, of course, Horskjær grants, with some humility. But as DFI commissioner, he still believes he has a really good deal for filmmakers.
"Children's and teen films should be an attractive place to go for Danish directors. There is more room there than anywhere else. It's the right place to take your wildest ideas, because the audience is superlatively open and receptive."
Rasmus Horskjær, who has a degree in journalism, used to work in youth programming for DR, Danish public radio, writing and directing several classic Danish satires with great appeal to young people.