Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Excellent article from 'The Conversation' about Danish TV

Soft power: how TV shows like Borgen put Denmark on the map

Sidse Babett Knudsden as Danish PM Birgitte Nyborg returns to Australian screens this week.SBS
Denmark’s award-winning cultural export, Borgen, is back on our screens for a second series following the fortunes of its fictional female Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg. Denmark need never resort to hard power again – its cultural warriors are doing just fine in their campaign to take Danish values and stories to the world.
When we first met Nyborg (played by Sidse Babett Knudsden), she was a naïve but trusted politician, a happily-married mother who’d suddenly found herself catapulted to the top job.
By the last episode of series one she’d fine-tuned her Machiavellian instincts, betrayed loyal colleagues, exploited the symbiotic relationship with the media – and paid the price. Power came at the cost of her marriage. Reality check: you can’t have everything.
Trailer for the second season of Danish drama, Borgen.
In series two, which kicks off tonight on SBS, we find her in Afghanistan visiting Danish troops. But this too has come at a cost with terror attacks back home. Is it a local Muslim backlash or a Danish Anders Breivik at work?

When soft power trumps military might

The concept of “soft power” was developed by Harvard’s Professor Joseph Nye, who theorised that there were three ways that nations could gain influence and power: the first was hard power or military might; the second was economic power or investment; and the third was soft power, or leading by attraction.
Nye cites the example of the Cold War, won by the West without a shot being fired. That war, he said, was won by the cultural values of the West penetrating the Iron Curtain and causing communist citizens to lose faith and reject their own system.
It’s via this soft power that Danish culture is being showcased internationally.

Telling stories to a global audience

Last month Sydney celebrated the 40th birthday of its most iconic building, the Sydney Opera House, designed by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon. The Crown Prince and Princess of Denmark were appointed patrons for the Sydney Opera House celebrations and they seized the occasion to honour their most creative citizens.
Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary pose with Danish TV luminaries, including Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen, during the Crown Prince Couple’s Awards 2013 at the Sydney Opera House in Sydney in October. AAP Image/William West
The Crown Prince Couple’s Awards draw attention to Danish social and cultural achievements and this year the top Culture Award was given to the creative teams behind the first seasons of the drama series The Killing and Borgen.
The citation for the award noted that both series “are characterised by their striking female leads”. They feature strong women who drive the plots and also “provide insight into modern dilemmas and choices and their consequences”. Finally they observed that the teams were “exemplary in their insistence on high quality entertainment to broad audiences”.
Both series were made by the Danish public broadcaster DR– and the award citation noted that they “enraptured not only Danish viewers, but have also enthused, worried and touched audiences far beyond Denmark’s borders".
The award was an acknowledgement that, in a globalised world, cultural industries can put small countries on the map. Danish dramas have won five Emmys recently. Borgen won aBAFTA last year and so did The Killing in 2011. Sidse Babett Knudsen won best actress in a drama series award at the Monte-Carlo TV Festival 2013 and Borgen won best TV series at the Biarritz International Festival of Audiovisual Programming in 2011, as well as the 2010 Prix Italia for best TV drama.
Borgen, Denmark’s house of parliament, and the scene of the hit TV drama of the same name.Helen Vatsikopoulos

How the Danes got serious about TV drama

The successes of Borgen and The Killing were no accident. The producers consciously sought to professionalise the way the public broadcaster told Danish stories.
Twenty years ago you couldn’t find a Danish TV series that rated a mention overseas. Then DR staff decided to get serious – and went to Hollywood.
They hung around the sets of American shows such as The West Wing , NYPD Blue and LA Law. They talked with writers and producers and studied the formulas of multi-episode dramas.
A scene from the first episode of hit US series The West Wing.
Piv Bernth is the head of Drama at DR. Back then she was one of those Danish producer/interns. Recently, during an interview, she told me about the lessons she took from her time in Hollywood.
We started to work out what the Americans do. And then we realised that we can’t do the same things because they have been doing it for so many years, so we have to find another way of working.
That other way had already been laid out in a manifesto by Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier. His Dogme 95 movement eschewed the special effects of Hollywood and its big budget blockbusters and looked locally for stories that were unique to his homeland.
Bernth said she was keen to showcase her society and banish dated Nordic stereotypes:
We’ve always been selling the Scandinavian countries as this place where there is light 24 hours a day and we have all these blonde girls with blue eyes and Hans Christian Anderson and things like that – but we wanted to show the other side, the underbelly.
And they certainly did that with The Killing – a slow burning series in which the dour, uncommunicative policewoman Sarah Lund (Sofie Grabol) takes 20 episodes to solve a grisly murder, alienating her boyfriend, son, mother, colleagues and public officials along the way.
Trailer for the first season of The Killing.
There are no car chases, no special effects and, judging by the leading lady’s omnipresent fisherman’s jumper, no wardrobe allowance. Bernth told me she thought:
the key to get the attention is to stick with your own originality, so we had to find out what is the sort of Danish or Scandinavian originality and then stick to it.

Borgen brings a female PM to the screen – what next?

What Denmark had was a social democracy in which 70% of women work. It was a place that could one day conceivably vote in a female prime minister. Borgen brought Birgitte Nyborg to power a good year before Helle Thorning-Schmidtwas voted the country’s first female leader.
The Danes, not wanting to be typecast, are now giving up crime and politics for a while. Bernth says there is a major family drama in the works as well as a comedy series and a Danish Downton Abbey that will explore their ANZAC moment: their catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Germans in 1864.


  1. The Danes have made it clear that telling stories deeply rooted in Danish culture need not make such stories parochial or act as an impediment to international success.

    We filmmakers and the bureaucrats who have such a huge impact on the kinds of stories we tell would do well to bear in mind that as far back as 1963 the Senate Select Committee Report on the Encouragement of Australian Productions for television felt that there was:

    “a responsibility to protect an industry with a strong cultural element.”

    In the late 60’s and early 70’s the various bodies involved in providing the industry with a philosophical base stressed that:
    “The industry (should be) pre-eminently Australian in character, not dominated by other cultures; that government sponsorship would support ‘film and television projects of quality’ and produce ‘distinctively Australian’ films that would ‘provide the Australian people with a national voice and a record of their way of life.”

    The Report of the Interim Board of the Australian Film Commission declared that,

    “Australia, as a nation, cannot accept, in this powerful and persuasive medium, the current flood of other nations’ productions on our screens without it constituting a very serious threat to our national identity. The Commission should actively encourage the making of those films of high artistic or conceptual value which may or may not be regarded at the time as conforming to the current criteria of genre, style or taste, but which have cultural, artistic or social relevance. Some may not become commercially successful ventures, but these may include films which posterity will regard as some of the most significant films made by and for Australians. Profit and entertainment on the one hand and artistic standards and integrity on the other, are not mutually exclusive. In the long term the establishment of a quality Australian output is more important for a profitable, soundly based industry that the production exclusively as what might be regarded as sure fire box office formula hits."

    The Danes have shown that we can both be true to these ideals, entertain local and international audiences and perhaps even make some money in the process.

  2. Judging from the comments it does not seem that there are many in the film and TV industries that are reading The Conversation. Has Screen Austalia's 50 grand been well spent. I could sure use it, but then I am a filmmaker and not an academic!

  3. Why did Screen Australia invest $50,000 in a website dealing with film and TV business when we already have two online journals that deal specifically with film and TV and which, judging by the comments, are read by many within the industry? Why not give the money to Encore and IF? Did ‘The Conversation’ apply for the money or did Screen Australia approach ‘The Conversation’ with ‘branding’ in mind? And why was the decision to make this $50,000 gift to ‘he Conversation’ run by the Screen Australia Board first? It all seems very fishy to me.

  4. Why do you both write anonymously? Is it not a little cowardly to make your criticisms in such a way as to make you unaccountable? As for the lack of comments, I suspect that existence of ‘The Conversation’ is still unknown to many in Australian film and TV. I am sure, with Facebook, other social media, blogs and word of mouth that regular readers will arrive before too long. It will be interesting to see how many hits the film and TV segments of The Conversation gets. My main concern with ‘The Conversation’ is that only academics can write for it.

  5. You of all people, James, should know why I prefer to remain anonymous. (I am 'Anonymous 2'). I have a mortgage and kinds in school. I cannot afford to offend Screen Australia power brokers.

  6. Some of the above points are covered in the following part of my letter to Georgie Mc Clean, Manager, Strategy, Research and Communications at Screen Australia

    "There are aspects of this sponsorship that concern me and other filmmakers I have spoken with. I have expressed my concerns in an Opinion Piece – a draft of which is to be found enclosed.

    In the ‘arts, culture and creative industries section” in which we filmmakers work (producers, directors, screenwriters etc) can there be genuine ‘discussion, debate’ if the only people able to generate discussion and debates are academics who are not practicing filmmakers? Would Screen Australia’s $50,000 be better spent on a website on which the thoughts of practicing filmmakers were also welcome? Surely, the initiation of ‘discussion, debate’ should not be limited to either academics or practicing filmmakers but should be open, in a free market of ideas, to anyone with good, confronting, insightful and perhaps ‘dangerous’ ideas?

    You will have noted at least two things from the comments made in response to Tim Burrows’ piece. One is just how many filmmakers are critical of, suspicious, of Screen Australia’s motives in this sponsorship deal. The other is just how many filmmakers choose to remain anonymous. The reason for this, you must be aware, is that filmmakers are, with some justification, fearful of biting one of the few hands that will feed them. This is an unfortunate state of affairs.

    My own belief is that there should be at least one online forum (preferably more) where all involved in Australian film and TV can both contribute as writers (generating ‘discussion, debate’) and take part in the ensuing ‘discussion, debate’, using their own names, without fear of retribution. Such open dialogue is essential in the collaborative medium in which we all work and in an era in which the rules of the digital game change with frightening rapidity."

    I await a response from Georgie to my questions before completing my article.

    On the question of anonymity, two points: If everyone who made a comment put their names to what they have to say it would be much harder for any one person to be victimised. Insisting that comments be attributable to someone (who is registered) heightens the tenor of debate by keeping out of it those who just want to let off steam or have an axe to grind.