'The Quiet Migration'

Source: Manna Film / Christian Geisnaes

‘The Quiet Migration’

Filmmaker Farzad Samsami was born in Iran, lives in Norway and will shoot his debut feature Zarzis later this year in Morocco, with the support of the Norwegian Film Institute. “I’m glad we’re pushing the boundaries of what we can call Norwegian stories,” Samsami says. “Things are changing so fast, allowing more voices to come up. The way we look at what is a typical Norwegian film can change. I see that as a strengthening of the whole Norwegian film industry.”

Zarzis is not the only film with a less fair-haired, blue-eyed version of Nordic storytelling: at this year’s Berlinale, Iranian-Swedish-Danish filmmaker Milad Alami premiered Opponent, a story about an Iranian refugee in Sweden grappling with his past; and Korean-Danish filmmaker Malene Choi told a powerful story of transnational adoption in The Quiet Migration. Somali-Finnish filmmaker Khadar Ayderus Ahmed brought his first feature The Gravedigger’s Wife to Cannes in 2021 (it became Somalia’s first-ever Oscar submission).

Samsami moved to Norway when he was nine, and started making films as part of an amateur film club before directing his first professional short film Foad in 2013, backed by the Norwegian Film Institute. “If it wasn’t for the film institute, I don’t think I would be where I am now. The institute has supported me, and the films I make are not the easiest ones to get up and going,” says Samsami, who now has $680,000 (nok7.2m) in production grants through the institute’s Neo talent scheme for Zarzis.

From the heart

The feature will shoot from Sept­ember in a coastal town in Morocco. “I wanted to explore these coastal towns in North Africa which are dealing with a refugee crisis, and also fisherman impacted by the environmental crisis,” says Samsami, who had already shot some of his shorts in Morocco and felt a connection to the people there. “I have to follow my heart with the stories I want to tell. For me, it’s important to showcase people whose stories haven’t been told before, or haven’t been told in this way before.”

Other voices are drawing on their own cross-cultural heritages: Nor­wegian Dream, which premiered earlier this year, was a Norway-Poland co-production directed by the Polish-Norwegian director Leiv Igor Devold about Polish immigrants working at a factory, while Norwegian-Iranian Kaveh Tehrani is finishing his debut feature Listen Up! for Viaplay. Second-generation Finnish-Egyptian Kaisa El Ramly directs her first feature Getaways And Dreams, and Japanese-Finnish director Taito Kawata is finishing the new Netflix series Dance Brothers. Finnish-Turkish director Sevgi Eker is now in development on 7pm On A Sunday for Helsinki-Film, while Turkish-Finnish director Erol Mintas is making Earth Song (Mintas is also the founder of Academy of Moving People and Images, for people who have arrived in Finland for various reasons).

“For everybody it’s become self-evident that all people should be able to tell their own stories,” says Liselott Forsman, head of Nordisk Film & TV Fond, which brings together public and private funding partners to back pan-Nordic film and TV series. “We need to open the doors — and the education — for that to happen.”

Forsman recalls a talk she did with the director Ayderus Ahmed in Finland. “He said when he wanted to come into the film industry in Finland, he had ideas about making films about middle-aged white people. It was Auli Mantila who told him, ‘We’ve seen all of that. Now write your own story — bring yourself into this.’

“That would be the danger if you think you can only tell the kinds of stories that are being financed already,” Forsman continues. “We need new voices thinking of what stories we’re lacking and what they can bring to the table.”

The support is more reflective of modern Scandinavian societies. For instance, in the multicultural city of Malmo, Sweden counts about one-third of its population as people born in another country, with 186 nationalities represented.

Hearing the unheard

Jacob Jarek, producer at Denmark’s Profile Pictures who has worked with top directors including Ali Abbasi and Fenar Ahmad, says he is happy to see this change happening for “some years”, as funders and audiences become more interested in immigrant voices. “It comes down to talent — these filmmakers have a lot of talent and a lot of stories to tell that are very interesting,” he says.

Jarek produced Ahmad’s Darkland, Valhalla and Darkland: The Return. The latter film has been the biggest hit in Danish cinemas this spring. “The whole film is inspired by this second- and third-generation immigrant experience,” says Jarek.

The film’s story follows a cardio­logist (played by Dar Salim) who becomes involved with Copen­hagen’s gang culture to try to reunite with his son. “It’s about being raised in this country but still being looked at as a foreigner because your skin is brown or your name sounds ‘funny’,” says Jarek. “There is so much pain and drama in that experience. People watch this film and know Fenar gives it a lot of credibility — he knows what he’s talking about.” Both Ahmad and lead Salim have Iraqi heritage.

Jarek also produced Iran-born Abbasi’s Shelley and Holy Spider. Even with Abbasi’s rising international profile after Border, telling an Iran-set story in the Persian language about a serial killer presented some funding challenges at home in Denmark.

“When we were getting the production grant from the Danish Film Institute, they had to deal with pressure from the right-wing party trying to hinder non-Danish-language films being supported,” he adds. “The DFI was able to support us but couldn’t give us the larger amount they wanted to. If Ali had made a Danish-language film, that would have been no problem.” Getting more of the budget from the Swedish funders proved less tricky, partly because Abbasi had made Border in Sweden.

Producer Elisa Fernanda Pirir was born in Guatemala and has lived in Norway since 2007. After working with Mer Film, she recently set up her own company Stær based in Tromso, northern Norway, and is one of EFP’s Producers on the Move in Cannes.

“The good thing about having an immigrant background is that you feel solidarity with other immigrant storytellers,” she says, saying that she talks frequently to Finnish director Ayderus Ahmed and Nima Yousefi, producer at Sweden’s HOBAB who made Nathalie Alvarez Mesen’s Clara Sola and is working on Mesen’s new feature The Wolf Will Tear Your Immaculate Hands. “We share a lot of information with each other and that’s a positive thing. It feels like we’re fighting for this together.”

Pirir is striving to see support for more women of various backgrounds. “Diversity is different people from different continents and experiences,” she says. “For me diversity is equality and seeing stories we’ve never seen before. If you start seeing stories as something unique, you can get away from the box ticking.”

It is an approach that will affect the types of stories filmmakers are encouraged to tell. Forsman recalls a conversation with Iranian-Finnish filmmaker Hamy Ramezan (Any Day Now), who felt like he was “only expected to write about refugee stories, and he doesn’t want to be labelled only as a refugee writer”. Forsman adds: “It’s complicated; we have to have nuances in these films and series about identities and cultural backgrounds.”

Jarek says thankfully he has not seen Ahmad being pigeonholed in the kinds of stories he wants to tell. “When Fenar said he wanted to do Valhalla, about the Nordic myths, people said, ‘That’s interesting, why not have someone coming from a slightly different experience?’”

Ulaa Salim, who was born in Denmark to Iraqi immigrant parents, is also readying his second feature Eternal, an ambitious climate-related sci-fi drama that on the surface has no connection to his cultural heritage.

Pirir’s slate includes co-producing Nabil Ayouch’s Touda, Inadelso Cossa’s The Nights Still Smell Of Gun­powder, Colombia-set Where The River Begins by Juan Andres Arango, and Dalia Huerta Cano’s Resistance, to shoot in Guatemala in 2024. “I like to think globally and for a global audience,” says Pirir. “We can mix our cultures with new perspectives — it is a great way forward for cinema.

“It’s important to continue talking about diversity,” she adds. “It’s not just a fashion. There have been many years of cinema history that we haven’t seen these voices, and I’m going to keep fighting for that.”