DVD Review: Northwest

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Long before the Scandi Crime explosion ushered in a wave of interest in all things Nordic, Denmark was making cinematic waves with the revolutionary Dogme 95 manifesto. Timed to coincide with cinema’s centenary celebrations, the document’s publication proposed a new mode of filmmaking that stripped away the excesses of mainstream production and emphasised the recreation of “reality”. Although the movement was wound down in 2002 due to concerns that its tenets had become a restrictive prescriptive framework its influence continues to be felt in contemporary Danish feature film production.

Honouring Dogme’s core ethos of using the medium of film to reconstruct reality without recourse to technical or narrative trickery, Michael Noer’s début motion picture the prison drama R was an uncompromising visceral tour de force shot with hand-held digital cameras and used non-professional actors, some of whom were former inmates. Straddling the boundary between genre and social realism, the film heralded the arrival of a significant screen talent.

For his second feature film, Noer rejects the romanticised version of Copenhagen prevalent in recent films and TV series, offering instead an abrasive and unflinching glimpse at the city’s seedy underbelly. Gritty, tense, and oozing authenticity Northwest is a family drama set against the backdrop of gang war in one of the city’s most impoverished districts.

Casper (Gustav Dyekjær Giese) is a petty thief who dreams of climbing up the gangland ladder. Stealing small scale items for local boss Jamal (Dulfi Al-Jaburi) the young criminal is stuck living at home with his mother (Lene Marie Christensen) who is struggling to raise two other children without a male breadwinner. Yearning to escape from the imprisonment of life under the family roof and claim his place amongst the upper echelons of the local criminal community he starts to moonlight for a rival boss and unwittingly triggers a war between the competing factions. Brother Andy (Oscar Dyekjaer Giese) tosses away his schoolbooks and joins his sibling on a mission that will have repercussions which will be felt for the rest of their lives…

Developed over eighteen months, the storyline was crafted after the director studied the area and its criminal communities with the precision of an anthropologist. Continuing the approach employed in R of engaging members from the area to play roles instead of casting established professional actors Noer is committed to conveying an accurate sense of social realism whilst playing with the conventions of a familiar genre.

Real life brothers Gustav and Oscar Dyekjaer Giese were cast as leads after their mother answered a request on Facebook and sent them along to audition. The director could instantly see the depth of their relationship and knew he had found a pair bristling with raw talent that was equipped for the challenging task of creating two characters bonded by blood that were constantly competing to be crowned senior member of the family.

With R the director formulated a way of making movies that used the screenplay as a blueprint for the story’s structure, allowing performers to internalize what the script was asking from them and improvise. The end results were a composite of scripted moments and primal honesty plucked from the actor’s life experiences. Whilst shooting Northwest actors were specifically instructed not to look at the script during shooting and had to rely on their memories of where characters were supposed to be at the end of a specific scene. Without recourse to the printed text, Noer’s screen talent created new and more authentic dialogue. Encouraged to their character’s inner truth the cast of players drew from their own experiences of living in a crime-ridden and socially deprived region.

Shot in a documentary style, this hard hitting thriller is underscored by a streak of mordant humour. A shock-filled eye-opening film, Northwest’s recreation of a life trapped in a never-ending cycle of poverty and criminality is so successful the film deserves to be placed alongside La Haine, Christiane F, and the Pusher trilogy as peerless examples of European cinema shining a light onto the forgotten and neglected who roam amongst us but are imprisoned by inequality and circumstance.

Northwest is available to order from Amazon.

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