Tag Archives: Liberty

Moral dilemma

Scandinavian expats lose their minds and their morals in Danish drama Liberty, which is set in 1980s Tanzania. DQ chats to creator Asger Leth, director Mikael Marcimain and stars Connie Nielsen and Carsten Bjørnlund about filming Jakob Ejerbo’s celebrated novel of the same name.

As is so often the case with literary adaptations, the road to making Danish drama Liberty was never without its bumps. But despite the challenges they faced, head writer Asger Leth, director Mikael Marcimain and producer Karoline Leth found a way to turn Jakob Ejersbo’s acclaimed novel into a five-part miniseries for DR.

Set in Tanzania in the late 1980s, the show centres on a group of Scandinavian expats. The story follows two families – the Kundsens and the Larssons – as they struggle to adapt to a new culture, and explores what happens when the idealism that brought them to Africa turns to corruption, lies and deceit.

In particular, the Larsson’s son Christian and local man Marcus each seek what the other has – an African identity and a European future.

Mikael Marcimain

The series, produced by DR and distributed by DR International Sales, debuted in February, following its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. But in some ways it’s a minor miracle it was made at all, with the novel being held in such reverence that many previous efforts to adapt it had fallen by the wayside.

“People wanted to do this but it’s a very big book, especially in Denmark,” Asger says. “It’s like the equivalent of the great American novel but from a young Danish writer, about heavy subjects. It was very mature in terms of writing. It was incredibly well crafted – it’s a masterpiece.

“Everything is seen through the boys’ point of view; even the adults [are described] from a distance. There’s a lot of youthful condemnation of the fuck-ups, the hypocrites and all that stuff. But you have to lift it up and make it a drama series. When I read the book, I started in my mind developing these stories, putting together the blanks in the adults’ lives. So we’re developing [those characters and their stories] and taking them seriously as characters.”

Asger began working on the project more than two years ago, planning out a six-part series that featured “an important death” at the halfway point. “But I was given five [episodes], so it was a big rewrite, much bigger than you can imagine,” he says of the DR commission. “It was difficult, but I think we got away with it.”

Marcimain signed on after reading the first three scripts and headed straight into the casting process, which brought together actors from Denmark, Sweden, Finland and different countries in Africa. “I liked the topics about aid workers and corruption. It’s a dark fairybtale and has a web of characters,” he says. “I really responded to that. It was irresistible.”

Liberty stars Connie Nielsen as matriarch Katrina Larsson

“I was a fan of the books ever since they came out but I never thought they would be able to make them into films or series,” says actor Connie Nielsen, who plays Katrina Larsson, the matriarch of the series who is happy to turn a blind eye to her colonialist husband Jonas (Magnus Krepper)’s schemes if it means keeping the high standard of living she is accustomed to. “I just didn’t see how they were going to tell the story. When I was sent the script, I was really stunned that Asger had succeeded in finding a way to give a filmic language to this book.”

Katrina is the friendly face of the expat community in Tanzania, welcoming new arrivals to her home with regular dinner parties, all while her husband cheats on her and embezzles Swedish funding into his sawmill business.

“My character has no morals,” admits Nielsen, who made her name in the US on the back of films such as Gladiator and The Devil’s Advocate and recently appeared in the hit Wonder Woman movie. “Actually, I think their morals and ethics are tested in Africa and whatever seemed OK [in Scandinavia] keeps on getting pushed further and further away. My character and her husband are wondering when [their behaviour] is no longer OK. Where is the limit? My character has a very extreme experience and it’s been very exciting to play her.

“A big part of what we wanted to show is what happens when white people go to Africa. What are we doing there and how do we know what we’re doing there is OK? How do we treat the people in places we go to help? And just how clean is our whole reason for being there?”

Charlie Kamuri as local Marcus

Adding that she has worked with non-governmental organisations in the region, Nielsen continues: “I really wanted to do this because, with my own eyes, I’ve seen that while so many people do so many wonderful things and want to help, there’s also so much unintended damage that we need to ask ourselves hard questions about – is this a form of new colonialism that we’re actually doing? This is, to a large degree, what Jakob Ejersbo set out to try to seek. Who do we think we are? I think that’s what he asked himself.”

It’s through the eyes of Niels Knudsen, played by Carsten Bjørnlund, that viewers see the damage created by those with good intentions. The first episode opens as his wife Kirsten (Sofie Gråbøl) and rebellious son Christian (Anton Hjejle) come to join him in Africa, where Niels is rallying a group of local farmers to the idea of the Danish cooperative movement. But as the two halves of his life come together, the realist in him discovers corruption could threaten his project.

“He has challenges and the challenges grow as the series progresses,” Bjørnlund teases. “His morals are going to get tested. The series shows what happens when you take yourself out of your environment and the moral set you’re used to having, in this case in Denmark, and then you move and you lose your moral compass and things start to slide.”

Filming took place in South Africa, and Nielsen reveals that the cast came to know each other intimately as a result of the close confines in which they found themselves during the production.

Carsten Bjørlund’s says his character faces a test of his morals

“We had a very small budget, so I know what kind of underwear Carsten uses,” she jokes. “We were standing on dirty rags somewhere in a field just getting changed. The pool we had to dive into had serious hygiene issues. It was as far from Hollywood as you could get, but it was also such a great experience. I got to work with these great Danish actors and we had such a great time. We froze out asses off sometimes [in the pool] and then we’d be sweating like crazy.”

For Asger, the biggest challenge was the time pressures he faced, with DR setting the show’s February launch before production started. “So we were under pressure all the time, which is very much like the usual showrunner style in the US,” he says. “For a miniseries, the whole thing has to be finished up front with a fixed date and that’s a little hairy. But a lot of the right decisions were made up front so we could take it and run with it. Because of the pressure, it could have gone wrong but hopefully we succeeded.”

Marcimain continues: “There was a lot of work to do because there are a lot of actors involved and strong wills. Also, it’s difficult to boil everything down – what do we choose? We even shot more than you see because there were more scenes in the script. You’re also under pressure because you have this amount of time to shoot it, this amount of time to edit. We had to make fast, intuitive decisions.”

But while the Nordic region is now known worldwide for a certain type of crime show, Liberty is as far from Nordic noir as you can get, both geographically and stylistically.

“Everybody in Scandinavia is continuing to develop [new series] and this is just one more step on a development scale,” Nielsen says. “It was extremely courageous of the producers to try to do something that is rather international and not just having the belief that people would want something that is Danish. They went completely away from that genre and I feel really proud to be a part of it.

“I also feel the fact we’re doing this is challenging Danish viewers to say Denmark is more than these fjords and cities and people. There are Danes around the world and they are doing incredible and interesting things and we should be watching them. We shouldn’t be turned inwards. There’s a big world out there.”

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Stars on show

Television held its own at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world as an array of talent and some stunning new shows landed in Germany for Berlinale’s fourth annual Drama Series Days. DQ was in town to find out more.

For those in the television industry, the chance to rub shoulders with A-list movie stars might once have seemed a pipe dream. But for anyone who attended the Berlin International Film Festival this week, that dream was very much a reality.

Now in its fourth year, Berlinale’s Drama Series Days has established itself as one of the premier television events around the world as the German capital rolls out the red carpet for stars of the big screen – and small.

To find yourself caught up in a maelstrom of photographers’ flash bulbs and screaming and cheering fans might not be an unusual event at a film festival. But to then peer over the barriers and find the stars of Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock posing for the cameras is proof that television is now assured of the same reverence as cinema. And for good reason. The talent the industry is able to attract is of a level never seen before in terms of movie stars signing up for longer-form storytelling. The productions themselves are also worthy of acclaim, with the word ‘cinematic’ a staple adjective regularly dished out to describe the scale of dramas now on screen.

Six-part miniseries Picnic at Hanging Rock stars Natalie Dormer

Picnic at Hanging Rock, which will air on Foxtel in Australia later this year and is distributed by FremantleMedia, is a case in point. Game of Thrones alum Natalie Dormer turns in a standout performance as Hester Appleyard, the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school that faces tragedy when three pupils disappear during a picnic at the titular rock. The series also pops with colour and visual flair thanks to director Larysa Kondracki, making it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter Weir’s celebrated 1975 film adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel, which also serves as the source of the television reimagining.

The six-part miniseries – there will be no sequel that goes beyond the book, delegates in Berlin were told – was one of seven screenings that took place as part of the Berlinale Series programme, highlighting some of the biggest new dramas from around the world.

Others included Israeli psychological thriller Sleeping Bears, written and directed by Keren Magalit (Yellow Peppers, The A Word), and Bad Banks. The latter is described as a six-part Machiavellian thriller set in the ruthless world of international finance and the stock market. Produced by Letterbox Filmproduktion and Iris Production for ZDF (Germany) and Arte (France), it has already been picked up by HBO Europe, Walter Presents UK, RTÉ in Ireland, Sundance TV Iberia and RTP in Portugal ahead of its debut next month.

Two new Scandinavian dramas were also selected. Heimebane (Home Ground) tackles gender issues as a female football coach becomes the first woman to take charge of a men’s team in the Norwegian premier league. Already commissioned for a second season by NRK, it stars Ane Dahl Torp and former footballer John Carew, well known to fans in Europe after playing for sides including Valencia and Aston Villa, as well as the Norway national team.

Heimebane is about a female football coach and also features ex-player John Carew (left)

Meanwhile, amid talk of Scandi broadcasters losing interest in what the rest of the world calls Nordic noir, one show is set to push new boundaries at Danish net DR. Known for its original series including Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Borgen and Broen (The Bridge), DR’s forthcoming drama Liberty stands out as something totally different for the channel. It also marks a rare book adaptation to land on the network.

Based on Jakob Ejersbo’s novel, it follows a group of Scandinavian expats living and working in Tanzania, and explores themes of corruption, identity, morals and friendship. Hollywood actor Connie Nielsen joined fellow cast members including Carsten Bjørnlund plus creator Asger Leth and director Mikael Marcimain on the red carpet in Berlin.

The Berlinale official selection was completed by two new US series, showcasing the vast range of storytelling television now affords. The Looming Tower, debuting next month on US streamer Hulu and showcased in Berlin by European partner Amazon, is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Lawrence Wright. The story traces the rising threat of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA at that time may have set the path for tragedy on 9/11.

Stars Jeff Daniels, Ali Soufan, Peter Sarsgaard and showrunner Dan Futterman (pictured top) were in Germany to promote the show, which injects reality into a Homeland-style political thriller.

Tobias Menzies (left) and Jared Harris in forthcoming AMC drama The Terror

At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, is The Terror, AMC’s take on the true story of the crews of two British Royal Navy ships that attempt to discover the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s. This isn’t just another historical drama, however. Faced with treacherous conditions, limited resources and a fear of the unknown, the crew members are pushed to the brink of extinction as they face all kinds of dangers, from both human and otherworldly sources.

The mix of horror and the supernatural, coupled with the eerie Arctic landscapes, certainly makes this show one to watch, with co-showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh promising to reward viewers through the 10-part series, which features Jared Harris (Mad Men) and Tobias Menzies (Outlander) among the ensemble cast.

The strength of the drama on show this week in Berlin and the number of small-screen stars descending upon the city were proof of television’s strength at an event usually revered as one of the most prestigious film festivals on the international circuit. With more film talent on both sides of the camera now championing the opportunities offered by longform storytelling, and the chance to develop characters across more than a two-hour period, coupled with television’s new openness to genre and plot, expect to see television play an even greater role in at Berlinale in 2019.

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Talking Liberty

Piv Bernth, the former head of drama at Danish pubcaster DR, and producer Karoline Leth reveal six things we need to know about forthcoming drama Liberty, about a young boy who moves to Tanzania with his parents. The series is produced in-house by DR and is distributed by DR International Sales.

1. Karoline Leth: Liberty is based on a Danish book by Jakob Ejerbo. Set in the 1980s, it tells his real-life story of going to Tanzania with his parents when he was a child. It’s a very famous book in Denmark and I have wanted to adapt it since it was published in 2009, so when the rights became available, I grabbed them. It’s a story about expats and Scandinavian society. They’re going to Tanzania with good intentions to do good for African people, to help them, but the problem is they’re pressing their own system on people who don’t really need that kind of help. So for me it’s also a story about colonialism, because we tried to do good but we really did a lot of bad things. It’s also about families and what happens to the individual when you’re suddenly in a country where there are no rules.

International viewers of Liberty will recognise Sofie Gråbøl from global hit The Killing

2. Leth: The book was so prescient, which is something we’ve been talking about a lot. In Denmark, there’s a lot of discussion over why people coming from other countries are always together in a ghetto. And what do we do when we go to other countries? We do the same. So it’s a mirror.

3. Piv Bernth: This is the first time a book has been adapted at DR – it’s been its trademark to do original stories. Many other people have tried to do their own take on this book, but they treated it with so much respect that they couldn’t work with it. You have to love it but also disrespect it to be able to do it – that was the case for us – and when the concept was presented to me, I really liked it. Then, because the final season of The Bridge is only eight episodes, we had the possibility of doing a five-part miniseries, and this was perfect.

4. Bernth: Liberty is brave for Danish drama because its African setting is a totally different environment from what you’ve seen before in Danish series. It takes place in the 1980s and many scenes are quite on edge, with a clash of cultures. It’s the tale of a white boy trying to be black and a black boy trying to be white, and whether that can be done. It’s a good story with some tragedy, a lot of comedy and a very human ending that shows you are what you are, no matter how much you try to be someone else.

The drama also stars Hollywood actor Connie Nielsen

5. Leth: We have been filming the show in South Africa, which has been hard, fun and intense. We have been living the theme of the book and series ourselves, as there has been a clash of cultures in that we have experienced two ways of filmmaking. We have been working with a tiny Danish team as well as a South African film crew, and that was fun but also challenging. We had to learn from each other.

6. Leth: The all-star cast includes Sofie Gråbøl (The Killing, Fortitude), Carten Bjørnlund (Rita, Arvingerne) and Connie Nielsen (Gladiator, Devil’s Advocate). We’ve worked with so many beautiful, fantastic and gifted people. It was 10 weeks shooting three episodes together and it’s been quite a thrill. Liberty is coming very soon. Produced by DR and distributed by DR International Sales, the show is due to air on DR1 in February, so we are editing very quickly at the moment. It’s a hectic process but sometimes it’s good too. You have to make faster decisions than you are used to.

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