During the last decade or so in Denmark the name ‘Morten Korch’ has become shorthand for overblown sentimentality and an unrealistic longing for a return to bygone days. Morten Korch, who penned no less than 123 novels and died at an advanced age in 1954, was the most widely read Danish author of his day and was eventually knighted for his contribution to popular culture.
His books, mostly sagas and romances about rural Denmark, were a powerful cultural force in the 1950s and several were made into extremely successful films by ASA Film. ‘De Røde Heste’ (‘The Red Horses’), a 1950 drama about a struggling young couple betting their future on winning a horse race, was actually the biggest box office success in the history of Danish cinema.
Like most of the film adaptations of Korch’s books, the story focused on the struggles of an underdog to overcome and eventually vanquish the ill-treatment of a socially-superior foe. Danes flocked to see this film. Some 2.3 million of them in fact. And although none of the other ASA Film treatments of Korch’s stories during the 1950s achieved the same level of success, the films were invariably well-received and well-attended.
One of them was ‘Kampen om Næsbygård’ ('The Battle for Næsby Farm'). This 1964 film flicked across my screen recently and I watched it to the end despite my aversion to sentimentality of any ilk. It was a gripping, if predictable, tale: life at a manor farm is disrupted when a previously unknown heir arrives to disrupt the expectations of the heir presumptive, the patriarch’s snobbish nephew.
Drama ensues, and as in all movies with happy endings, the charmingly winsome young interloper ends up winning hearts, sympathy and the audience’s affection. As well as pitting age against youth (a grown-up nephew versus a young grandchild), the film also focused on the conflict between the familiar and the foreign. Because while the nephew was a blue-blooded member of the Danish upper classes, the newcomer was both illegitimate and half Italian.
In 1950s Denmark, that was about as exotic as you could get. But still, the curly-topped, brown-eyed hero, with a rather darker skin tone than was usually seen in Denmark, won the filmgoers’ hearts. It was a sweet, if saccharin, tale.
Fast forward to 2012 and we’ve got a rumpus about the Danish Film Institute's refusal to help fund a new movie about a dark-skinned youngsters struggling to overcome the odds and society's perceptions of him. The film hasn’t yet been made so I can’t comment on its merit or otherwise. But what’s striking about the DFI’s grant refusal is its citing of the ethnicity of the protagonist. In fairness, this was only one of several reasons given for denying funding. But it was cited nevertheless. The DFI declined to release money because it thought the film would not be a commercial success in the provinces because of the ethnicity of the lead actor.
The dilemma in this is threefold: (1) a refusal to provide grants from a state-funded scheme on the grounds of race or background is illegal. (2) The presumption that a home-grown film with a non-Danish hero will not attract audiences in the provinces is incorrect. ‘Kampen om Næsbygård’ proves the point. (3) The Danish Film Board’s own charter – its legal raison d’être – commits it to diversity.
If you check out the DFI’s website, you’ll see this commitment stated in black and white. The institute operates under the Film Act of 1997 and is tasked to allocate subsidies “to provide a framework for film funding that promotes diversity and risk-willingness in the industry”.
All of this makes the decision appear bewildering, crass and stupid. So the DFI thinks it can promote diversity by refusing to help a film with an immigrant protagonist? What logic makes these people believe that ignoring the ten percent or so of Danish citizens who can’t trace their lineage back to Harald Bluetooth represents a “promotion of diversity”?
Citing the possible commercial success of the film outside Copenhagen is another joke. Film audiences in rural Denmark can be as sophisticated and receptive to new trends as anywhere else. Just look at the blossoming of culture and arts centres across this country of late. Seriously, avant garde artistry is flowering beyond Copenhagen.
And the provincial cultural centres are also remarkably receptive to the great musical icons of our time. If Bob Dylan, David Bowie and The Rolling Stones can find an audience in Horsens (population 54,450), then surely more than a few of the locals will roll up to see a movie about an immigrant kid from Nørrebro entering a song contest.