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Danes Down Under: The Rise of Scandinavian Cinema in Australia

Like much of the Western world, Australia has been captivated by Scandinavian dramas such as The Bridge, The Killing and the new Swedish series Death of a Pilgrim. But – as Cath Moore explains – the success of all things darkly Nordic is not limited to the small screen. Scandinavian cinema is also gaining a foothold Down Under.

Scandinavian film in Australia has historically been limited to late night TV screenings on SBS, the country’s sole internationally-focused broadcaster. Art house cinemas have always screened selected Scandinavian releases, but perhaps only as a novel addition to the more financially viable and culturally recognizable films from the UK and America.

However, things are beginning to change. This month sees the inaugural Scandinavian Film Festival, a celebration of Nordic cinema, featuring 21 films from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland screened in seven locations across Australia.


Flow’s (Aekte Vare) portrayal of multicultural Denmark may challenge traditional Australian perceptions of the country. Image: http://æ

Genevieve Kelly, co-producer of the Scandinavian Film Festival, sees the diversity of films on offer as reflective of the region’s shifting cultural landscape.  Flow, for example, is a representation of the multicultural or street culture in Denmark, one which may challenge traditional Australian perceptions of Denmark.  Genevieve suggests the films chosen provide a culturally distinct interpretation of universal themes and a further understanding of the trans-national capacities of Scandinavian film.

Part of the festival’s marketing strategy is to promote film as an avenue for both creative provocation and cultural exchange.  The festival not only provides access to films otherwise unattainable, but also aims to develop an Australian audience base for future Scandinavian cinematic releases.

One can arguably trace the rise of Scandinavian cinema in Australia to the incredible success of crime thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first screen adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. However, from the point of view of distributors, narrative regardless genre seems to be the key selling point.  Mike Vile, General Manager from Rialto Distribution Australia, believes there is a growing awareness of the quality of both process and product from the Scandinavian region resulting in memorable stories made with high production values.

This issue of story quality is also a primary consideration for theatrical exhibitors. Kristian Connelly, General Manager at Cinema Nova, one of Australia’s leading art house cinemas, says Danish films play well for a number of reasons – the international profile of Danish actors such as Mads Mikkelsen, the range of genres and the diversity of shooting locations and story settings. However, as an exhibitor Connelly seeks out quality films regardless of nationality. As he points out, is it possible that audience members see Danish films without knowing they are Danish at all – cultural context is often a secondary concern to a unique and gratifying theatrical experience.

Although Denmark is still seen as a niche cinema, directors with an international profile have made steady box office returns in Australia. According to figures from the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia made A$633,122; Susanne Bier’s Love is all you Need A$625,826; and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt A$622,527. Most successful of all was Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair, netting $A1.6 million.

To put this in context, aside from the comprehensive success of The Great Gatsby (no. 1 at A$27 million), the next top four Australian films in 2013 made domestic sales of between A$ 1.2 million and A$1.7 million, according to Screen Australia.  Given Denmark is a country a fifth of the size of Australia their local impact is impressive.

But while Australian distributors and exhibitors see the quality of Scandinavian films as more important than their nationality or genre, the term ‘quality’ film remains a vague descriptor and requires more rigorous exploration from a narrative perspective – for example what kind of stories, character arcs and film worlds are reflective of such status?  From an industrial point of view, the bridging role of both distributor and exhibitor is clearly significant for a country such as Australia, geographically distanced from Scandinavian cinematic exports.

Sitting at the bottom of the world and consisting of roughly 200 nationalities, Australia is an island with an outward gaze.  From a personal point of view, I think we seek out film stories from nations grounded in a tradition of story-telling more entrenched than our own (white) history has had time to offer.  And given that Scandinavia is 16,000kms from here, initiatives such as the Scandinavian Film Festival and the persistence of Danish films in particular are a welcome connection point back to the world at large.

Cath Moore has an MA in Scriptwriting from the Australian film, television and radio school. She is currently a PhD student at Deakin University, Melbourne.  Her area of study involves the transnational capacities of Danish Screenplays, and the role of these screenplays within a co-production context.

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