Sweden’s Göteborg Film Festival returned this month after two pandemic-disrupted editions with an accomplished crop of urgent and highly-political competition titles.
On opening night, there was Abbe Hassan’s Exodus, a tender thriller about the lives of refugees in Europe, while Malou Reymann’s Unruly, the eventual winner of the festival’s Dragon Award, uncovers the dark history of institutionalization and women’s rights in Denmark.
Out of the nine films in the main Nordic competition, six dealt directly or indirectly with issues around class, race, gender, and the role they play in a specifically Nordic construction of power; however, none more potent than Frederikke Aspöck’s scorching colonial satire Empire.
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Set in 1848 on the Caribbean island of St. Croix, now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands but then a central post of the expanding Danish empire, the pic follows two close friends: Anna Heegaard and Petrine.
Both are women of color, but their living conditions are very different. Anna is a free woman and shares her life and a peculiar romance with the white Danish colonial governor General Peter von Scholten at her country house, where she manages her fortune, and the enslaved Petrine, whom she owns. Things are seemingly fine until rumors of a rebellion begin to swirl, setting Anna and Petrine on opposite sides of a brewing uprising.
Aspöck directs from a screenplay penned by Danish writer Anna Neye, who also stars in the lead role of Heegaard. Sitting alongside Aspöck in a quaint cafe in central Copenhagen, Neye told Deadline that the inspiration for the story came from a trip she took to St. Croix in 2015 to shoot a documentary about Black Danish history. There she uncovered the real-life story of Heegaard and the brutal reality of life in the Danish West Indies.
“It was quite shocking because we’ve been told a completely different story about Danish history,” Neye said. “We were told we had nice colonies that were more of a social democracy with benevolent colonial lords, and everyone was just happy.”
Following its debut at Göteborg, Empire was picked up by the Copenhagen-based REinvent for international sales. The film will receive a local premiere on April 20. Below, Aspöck and Neye speak with Deadline about crafting the pic, balancing satire with the violence of slavery, and their hopes for the film’s release.
DEADLINE: What are the origins of the project?
ANNA NEYE: When I returned from St Croix in 2015, I pitched the idea to the Danish Film Institute. They said, ‘Yeah!’ and I had wanted to do something with African and Caribbean female characters in front and center of the drama in a Danish historical context because we’ve never seen that before. That was the driving force. And then, of course, there was also anger. I was furious that such a massive part of our history had been forgotten. Greenland was also a Danish colony, and it’s still part of Denmark, but we still have this colonial mentality toward them. So it was something in our inability to deal with our colonial past that was so provoking.
FREDERIKKE ASPÖCK: The project originated with Anna completely, and I came along two years later, almost six years ago. And I just thought it sounded like an incredible project.
DEADLINE: Is Denmark’s colonial history generally discussed much in the country? Is this part of Danish history taught in schools?
ASPÖCK: It was written about quite a bit in the papers in 2017 to mark the centenary of Denmark’s first journey to the States in 1917. Many events were also held at the time to help expose what had really happened back then because my generation was taught a highly romanticized version of Danish history. There was only one class dedicated to Danish colonial history when I was at school. Today, I don’t know what they’re learning. My kids are over 16, and they haven’t learned about it at all.
DEADLINE: With colonialism being such a taboo subject in Denmark, was it difficult to find financing?
ASPÖCK: There was a great interest in the subject matter because of its topicality and how important the project was. But because it was a period piece, we couldn’t shoot it here, so it took a while to raise the money. We toyed with the idea of doing it super low budget and shooting all the scenes indoors, but we couldn’t make that work. We’ve gone through all kinds of variations over the production style because we just really wanted to get the project made.
DEADLINE: Where did you shoot the film?
ASPÖCK: We originally wanted to shoot in St Croix and found beautiful locations, but it was difficult with COVID to make ends meet financially because going there is quite expensive, so we shot in the Canary Islands.
DEADLINE: The film is whip-smart and satirical in parts. How did you decide on this tone, and did you ever fear being misinterpreted by audiences?
ASPÖCK: It was part of the DNA of the project from the start with Anna, and it continued all the way through the production, and we toyed with how to strike the right balance where we didn’t neglect the horror of it all but also exposed the absurdity of the system. And the formula for that was trial and error.
NEYE: You, of course, can’t take away the horrors and the crimes against humanity that the ideology of racism has caused, but looking at it objectively, it’s fucking crazy. It’s insane. It’s ridiculous. So that’s why we wanted to use humor. This absurd kind of humor was a tool to criticize the power structure.
DEADLINE: We don’t see any violence in the film. Why?
ASPÖCK: The conversation Anna and I had was about whether we show violence on the black body, and we decided we didn’t want to show that. We do have a slap on the cheek from Anna to Katrina, but it was very important for us to see if we could avoid re-traumatizing people. We were also aware of the criticism about past films on slavery having the tendency to be too explicit with violence that we didn’t find necessary. The overall tone of our film is also the prim and proper European facade, so when the violence hits, it has a very strong effect on the audience.
DEADLINE: What do you hope the film will achieve? What would be a success for you?
ASPÖCK: We want to start a conversation. It doesn’t necessarily have to come from us, but we hope that there will be a Denmark that has words to discuss these topics and becomes a country that’s aware of its inequality. We hope that our film can be a stepping stone for other people. Because we need more films that address our romanticized history from a new angle.
NEYE: Often when I talk to white Danes about racism, they always ask, ‘what should we do to change?’ and I’m like, I don’t fucking know. I didn’t invent it, just go and Google it. Maybe this is a bit too hopeful, but if the white Danish majority could start getting interested in the colonial mentality. Not to feel blame or self-hatred, but to become more interested in the power structure of race that came from us and how it trickles down history and what we’re still dealing with today in Denmark.
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