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All in the Film Family: A Personal Encounter with the National Film School of Denmark

By Pernille Rose Gronkjaer

Filmmaker Pernille Rose Grønkjær. Photo: Erik Molberg Hanssen

I am on the train to Copenhagen from my hometown of Aalborg, Denmark, desperately trying to catch up on my active knowledge about global politics over the last few years. I am on my way to take the entrance test for the documentary department at the National Film School of Denmark. I am 21 years old and have no idea what's in store for me.

With my provincial background, I am not aware that The National Film School of Denmark is a very high-profile, elitist school that only admits a small number of students every year. The school has four four-year study programs available: fiction film (for directors, producers, cinematographers, sound designers and editors), documentary film (for directors and producers), scriptwriting and animation (for directors). A maximum of six students is admitted in each category--that is, six directors, six producers, six cinematographers and so on. It all adds up to about 50 to 60 students in every incoming class.

The film school is internationally known for the talent that it produces--Lars von Trier, Susanne Bier and Per Fly, among them. But I am only going because my mother told me, "Education is important, and local radio and television won't get you anywhere."

I enter the examination room unaware of the level of expertise and experience of the six people on the admissions board, comprised of prominent filmmakers and commissioning editors. The whole situation makes me nervous, but the man on the left quickly makes me feel at home. "Tell us a little bit about your grandmother," he says. His name is Arne Bro; he is a director and also head of the documentary film department. I am surprised. Is he really asking this? All fear disappears as I begin to tell her story.

It is safe to say that there is my life before the National Film School of Denmark and my life after. When you are among just six directors and three producers in the documentary program, there is a lot of room for exploring what kind of filmmaker you are.


Filmmaker Laboratory

Exploring "you" as a filmmaker can be quite hard and very painful at times--especially when your teacher believes that your motivation for telling stories comes from within. Who am I and what kind of stories do I tell? What is really inside me? What is my pain, and how can I use it to tell other people's stories? Looking back, I know exactly what came out of this process; I can recognize it in my work. But back then, it was total chaos.

One of the infamous assignments in the documentary department is "The Family Portrait"--a film in which you profile someone from your family. If you dig deep, this is a perfect way to explore your pain: Imagine combining your not-fully-developed skills as a storyteller with life-long family issues--maybe even childhood traumas. An interesting cocktail!

My family portrait was of my father. I wanted to know more about him. I wanted to ask him about his pain and I wanted us to have one of these life-changing conversations. But I really failed the task. When the cameras were rolling, the only thing I could think of was protecting my father from the exposure. I simply did not ask him anything because I did not know how to protect him. This, of course, resulted in a very boring film and a very painful subsequent criticism. But it raised my interest in finding a way to protect the people I profile and tell their painful stories.

Protecting your characters is all about finding out what is personal and what is private. Personal stories are meant for identification or recognition. As an audience, we see something that we know in a personal story, something we ourselves have experienced or felt. Good personal stories touch audiences and allow them to look at themselves. Private stories, on the other hand, are often too specific and only expose the person portrayed.  


An Unwritten Language

For some of the assignments at the film school, we worked together with the cinematographers, sound designers and editors in the fiction department. This means that we are able to work with highly skilled and passionate people, and this, of course, reflects on the result. A lot of students find their "team" at the film school and keep on working together long after.

There is a strange family feeling at the film school. You become part of a selected crowd, a community with its own language and tradition. As in all families, there are good times and bad times. There are some family members you are closer to than others, some you don't even know and have only heard of, but it is remarkable that when you run into people from the National Film School of Denmark later in your career, you recognize the language and the way of thinking. This is the understanding of the world not being black and white, that the most interesting aspects of life play out in the grey areas.

Take the understanding of a main character--and this goes for both fiction and documentary. A main character has flaws and defects, but also talent and potential. No one is just evil or just good. Identification for an audience is easier when the main character is approachable--when he or she fails, makes mistakes, feels hopeless, succeeds, gets it right or falls in love.    

Good storytelling is crucial. All students take classes in narrative dramaturgy and film history. The teachers--among them, Mogens Rukov, who wrote the screenplay for Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, and celebrated film historian Niels Jensen--are some of the best storytellers in the country.


The Convenient Truth

Denmark's National Film School has its roots in the narrative tradition. The fiction department dates back to 1966, while the documentary department debuted in 1993. There is a very close connection between the way we tell our stories and this narrative foundation. The National Film School of Denmark is considered an art school, which informs how we tell our stories: You develop your story as you would create a painting or sculpture. As a filmmaker, you have to give your story shape, colour and substance, while leaving your mark on it. The imprimatur of the filmmaker is an essential aspect of a film school production.

The common impression of the general public--and surprisingly of many people in the business--is that documentary is the truth. I couldn't disagree more. Every movement in a story is somebody's choice--the director's, the cinematographer's, the sound designer's or the editor's. A film is a subjective selection of what to tell and what to leave out.

I believe in somebody's truth--for instance, the truth of a main character. I also believe in being true, to your main characters. That means understanding them and respectfully telling their story in the best possible way.

A documentarian should guide the audience surehandedly through the twists and turns of the film, finding truth within the footage, rather than trying to influence the audience through imposing pedantic preaching. 

...Back in the examination room, I finish the story of my grandmother. My first test is over. I go down to the Film School cantina, where the rest of the promising film student candidates are waiting. Some are very cool and collected; they talk loudly and draw a lot of attention. I am thinking, "They will get in for sure." In the corner next to the piano, there's another group of students, more reserved than the others. Six months later, these are the ones who turn up in my class at National Film School of Denmark.


Pernille Rose Grønkjær's film The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun has earned awards at IDFA, Chicago International Documentary Festival and Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.