I first met Danish director Andreas Koefoed remotely when I programmed his nonfiction tale of international intrigue The Arms Drop at the 2015 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Later I had the good fortune to meet him in person at last November’s CPH:DOX, where his current film At Home in the World (which subsequently took the Mid-Length Competition Award at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) was having its home country premiere. And now that doc – a patient, fly-on-the-wall take on the current refugee crisis as seen through the lives of several asylum-seeking children at a Danish Red Cross School – has finally reached these shores.
I spoke with Koefoed prior to the film’s May 1st Canadian premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs.
Lauren Wissot: So this is quite a departure from your last doc The Arms Drop, a political thriller about a British arms dealer. Why did you choose to follow the children of a Danish Red Cross School? Was it a matter of wanting to shoot a hometown story? (Or perhaps to travel less and stay closer to home?)
Andreas Koefoed: I started the film in 2010 at about the same time I started making The Arms Drop, so I have been working parallel on the two films. They are very different in style and approach. With The Arms Drop, I was attracted to the mysterious story, and by coincidence I was introduced to its main characters. I felt that I had to take up the challenge to make it, and find the best possible way to tell it, even though I felt on foreign ground. I ended up combining cinema verité with interviews, reenactments, and archival footage in a big mix.
With At Home in the World I feel that I am back with my own film language, making intimate cinema verité scenes, and creating a subtle existential drama that follows kids in a transition period. It started when I read an article about the refugee school and was struck by the fact that 80% of the kids in a class changed over a period of a year. I started asking myself, what is it like to be a kid in that class? How do you deal with all the challenges, a new language, new people, new friends, a new “home” – and at the same time deal with a past that might be traumatic or full of loss, and a future that seems very uncertain and out of your own hand?
I wanted to move into the minds of refugee kids, and to show people how it is to be in that situation. I also wanted to show that these kids are just like Danish kids. They want to play, make friends and have fun. The only difference is that they were forced to leave their homes and countries, and that they have experienced a lot of tough things. It is an obvious point, but because of the stereotyping and labeling of them as merely refugees by mainstream media and politicians we tend to forget it.
Lauren Wissot: With the seemingly never-ending refugee crisis facing Europe right now, your film is certainly timely. Yet Denmark has not exactly had a reputation for welcoming those currently fleeing war-torn countries with open arms. Has making the film had any impact on how you view your government’s policies? How have Danish audiences responded?
Andreas Koefoed: Denmark used to be more open towards refugees, but in the past ten years the right wing party has gained more influence and has inspired or forced the other parties to tighten the policies, making it more difficult to enter the country as a refugee. Through political spin it has become an accepted fact that the integration of foreigners over the past 20-30 years has failed, and that we can’t afford more refugees even though the social science studies show a completely different picture.
This past year the policies have become even tighter, and the right wing government has created a number of symbolic changes that serve to scare away anybody who is considering fleeing to Denmark. The new refugee centers use tents instead of proper houses, and if people carry any expensive valuables they will be confiscated and used to pay for the stay. The very negative branding of Denmark as a host country has succeeded, and now the numbers of incoming refugees have decreased considerably.
I disagree very much with the policies. There is no easy solution to the refugee crisis, but Denmark should take more responsibility and host more refugees. Rather than see them only as a burden, we should see them as a resource. And then we should invest heavily in the common European solutions close to Syria.
The negative image of Denmark’s refugee policy is not the whole truth, though. Red Cross is doing a pretty good job of managing the centers and the schools. My impression after filming at the refugee school is that at least when it comes to the education of refugee kids the system works pretty well. The Red Cross has a lot of really good teachers. They also have enough resources to offer all refugee kids schooling from almost day one.
The audiences in Denmark have received it really well. Of course the people who chose to watch it are mostly people who have a humanistic open-minded mindset, and so the challenge is to get some of the more skeptical people to watch it. The next few months we will show the film to thousands of kids in high schools and secondary schools. They are the future, and they are the ones who will get new fellow students who used to be refugees in their classes. So they can use the film in a very direct and practical manner.
Lauren Wissot: How did you decide which children to “cast”? Why show these particular stories?
Andreas Koefoed: I filmed around ten kids and ended up showing five. I followed my gut feeling, and also followed the cases that I could get access to. Some of the parents were actually mentally ill to such a degree that they couldn’t decide if they wanted to be in a film or not.
I used Magomed as the main character because I was able to follow him all the way, and because of his personality and his story. He didn’t say a word, but from his face you could tell that a lot of thoughts went through his mind. He is very reserved and he fears losing his father, but throughout the film he opens up and takes a step forward in his life. The other characters in the film show other sides of what it is like being in that situation. I liked the fact that through these five kids you almost get a feeling of watching the complex story of just one person.
Lauren Wissot: What were some of the challenges you faced in making the film? Did the school place any limits on what you could shoot – and did any big surprises (revelations?) occur during the process?
Andreas Koefoed: My biggest challenge was to gain the confidence of the kids and their parents, and to figure out how close I could get to them and how much I could demand from them. I think it was hard for them to imagine what the outcome of the film would be, and even I was unsure.
The school helped me a lot and let me film everything. We had an agreement that if one of the kids went crazy and became violent we would have to consider if that scene should be in the film. Luckily, this was not an issue.
Lauren Wissot: Surprising to me, the scene that I found most disturbing had nothing to do with the plight of these asylum-seeking kids. As an American (with Native American friends and colleagues), I couldn’t help but feel a bit queasy as I watched these young victims of, often ethnic, persecution being taught how to make feather crowns and sing the song Ten Little Indians. (I mean, really?) Were you aware of the bitter irony inherent in that scene while you were filming?
Andreas Koefoed: I actually didn’t think of it like that before now. There are two songs in the film, and also the fairytale about Hansel and Gretel. All of them speak to the theme of being a child on the run or in a foreign place. Ten Little Indians is a children’s song that everybody in Denmark knows about – the ten little Indians who fall out of a boat and are saved. In that sense there is a clear parallel to the journey that some of the refugee kids have had. I don’t think the teacher at the Red Cross school thought about the link to the kids’ own situations. Also, the lyrics in the song are not discriminatory in any sense.
Photo courtesy Andreas Koefoed.