‘Terrence Malick-like luminous’; ‘Angelo Badalamenti’s ethereal contemporary score’ and ‘powerful and ambitious feature debut’ Only a few of the phrases Londen Film Festival Guide used to describe Daniel Denciks feature debut. And so we went from the brutal realism of Babai to the romanticized film Guldkysten.
Guldkysten is indeed beautifully made. Shot in a saturated colour palette of swaying palm trees; gorgeous dark skins; golden curls; pink flowers; white sandy beaches and sky blue oceans. A hypnotizing score by master composer Badalamenti: the tune we can easily recall thinking of the film.
But in the many reviews and articles written on Guldkysten we also noticed it is tempting to be slightly ironic on the film and maker. Daniel Dencik was already a renowned writer, poet and documentary maker in his homeland Denmark; so there were high expectations. We, however, believe his first feature film is brave and ambitious and brave and ambitious projects we can only embrace. It is safe to say Guldkysten is worth watching and very much looking forward to see more of the director.
Daniel is in LA when we talk to him. He is working on a new script and about to visit the dessert of Death Valley.
‘Are you not jungle-traumatized after shooting your first feature film?’, we ask. ‘You’re sure your next film is going to be set in dessert?’
‘Well, yeah’, Daniel replies laughing. ‘It might be. I’m location hunting now.’
It is 1930 and Guldkysten opens with 28-year old Wullf imprisoned and urinated on by two white men. They look similar. Gold hair, dressed in white, speaking the same language: Danish colonialists. Only one of them clearly did something the other two did not like. Behind him, hidden in the shadows of the dungeon, we see about thirty scared looking black Africans. Slaves. All of them completely naked. The first scene secures the signature of the film: sharp contrasts.
Send to Danish Guinea by the head of states to revive some old plantations, Wullf is told he has to create ‘a garden instead of a yard of graves’. As soon as he arrives in the jungle, he eagerly gets to work instructing a group of young natives on how to take care of a plantation. Slave trade has recently been banned. Owning slaves is still legal, buying and selling is not. Wullf is a patient teacher with a heart for nature as well as for his pupils. In passionate love letters to his fiancé in Denmark he documents his residence, the flora and his thoughts on the country. Danish Guinea however houses a dark secret that Wullf is soon to find out.
RMA: I think we’ve never seen such a big, historical production as a first feature film. How come?
DD: The 19th century has always attracted me. The romanticism. I like to read novels from that period, like Herman Melville or Dostoyevsky. A few years ago I was doing some research on slavery for a poem in the royal library of Copenhagen and I coincidently found some letters. Letters from a young, angry, lonely man who was sent to Danish Guinea, now Ghana. I also write, both fiction and poetry, and I was working on a long poem. It was about the sense that humans can lose their individuality due to an experience such as brothels or concentration camps. You know, situations in which a human being becomes a number.
DD: I thought slave trade would fit into this idea as well but eventually I decided not to use it. It was too far away from me. The letters however, I couldn’t let go of. They were so desperate and lonely.
"Well, that’s the story we were told in school. We were the first country to prohibit slave trade officially but in reality we continued to transport slaves another 50 years."
In 1850 the Danes gave the Gold Coast to Britain. It marks the end of 200 years of slave trade and colonialism where Denmark made a lot of money. Until slave trade was forbidden; they didn’t know what to do anymore.
RMA: But slave trade was already prohibited 50 years before they handed it over to Britain right?
DD: Well, that’s the story we were told in school. We were the first country to prohibit slave trade officially but in reality we continued to transport slaves another 50 years.
RMA: Was it important to you to increase awareness with your film?
DD: Definitely, and also the people who paid for the film. It somehow is an unknown story and it was time to talk about it.
RMA: But you didn’t make a documentary about it. Instead you made a poetic feature film. Do you think making a feature film is a combination of both your professions documentary and writing?
DD: Writing is 100% lonely, whilst film is 100% collective. After being in the isolation of book writing I love to make a film. To make something that is driven by more than merely words, like pictures and music.
RMA: Speaking about music: we’d of course like to know how you got to work with Angelo Badalamenti.
DD: I’m a friend of Mary Sweeney who is the editor of David Lynch. They were married. She introduced me to him and he invited me over. Honestly, I don’t know why he did it…. Maybe he saw my film, the documentary, Expedition to the end of the World. Or maybe he simply liked the idea of the film and the fact that he was free to do whatever he wanted. I really don’t know why he said yes, because he doesn’t do many projects apart from Twin Peaks now.
RMA: It’s been a month since I’ve seen the film, and many others have been in between, but I can still remember the tune. It’s really incredible, and it gives the film such a special vide.
DD: For me it was important to give the story a modern, contemporary touch. I didn’t want it to be dusty. It had to be new and fresh.
RMA: How did Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness inspire you?
DD: I red the book, but it’s not one of my favorites. I like the whole storyline, but the language is a bit clumsy. I was more inspired by Apocalypse Now. And also Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night was probably a bigger inspiration than Joseph Conrad.
RMA: Your film is going beyond realism, how did you care about the historical correctness of the film?
DD: It’s closer to a dream than to a historical document. I mean, I didn’t want to have mistakes in the film, but at the same time I wasn’t interested in making a historical film either.
"I have always communicated it is a work of fiction in the end ."
RMA: I guess you do that all the time when you make a documentary.
DD: Yes, this time I was much more interested in exploring the inner world of a character. What would it be like to be Wullf? What would it be like to be a young man coming down to this weird castle? I took a lot of liberty.
RMA: Are people critical about that? It is a very sensitive subject.
DD: I have always communicated it is a work of fiction in the end.
RMA: What was it like to make a fiction film after doing documentaries?
DD: It was really heavy. While shooting a documentary you get many ‘gifts’. Sometimes you are just filming, something happens and that something becomes one of the best parts of the whole film. With fiction it’s really different. Everything you want to show, has to be in the script. So I tried to create a situation where it was much more of a surprise what was going to happen. I think the way I directed the extras is a good example of that. Basically I didn’t direct them at all. They were a bit confused. Even scared. They look into the camera a few times, but I think that’s perfect. The camera is only a point of view. O, they were really scared sometimes… [laughing]
RMA: You put them inside the dungeons without telling them what was going to happen?
DD: [laughing] Yeah, I would leave them there for half an hour and they would get more and more confused. It worked so well. I treated the cameraman the same way. No one is ever fully informed. If the spectator should be surprised, so should they be.
"Sometimes I see filmmaking as diving for oysters and finding pearls. If Martin would catch like two pearls a day it woud be good."
RMA: He’s amazing. [Ed. Martin Munch]
DD: Yeah he is!
He’s trained at documentaries, so he listens very carefully to what is going on. While he is shooting he also listens to the actors and to his intuition. Crucial when you record like that.
Sometimes I see filmmaking as diving for oysters and finding pearls. If Martin would catch like two pearls a day it woud be good. Shot, reverse shot, white shot, close ups. I try to find one minute that is actually finding the scene.
RMA: Your next project in the dessert, could you tell us a bit more about that?
DD: It’s a story about identity, inspired by an old film by Antonioni, The Passenger, with Jack Nicholson. Nicholson is this reporter, lost in the Sahara. At a certain point he comes back to his hotel and discovers that this other white man whom he kind of teamed up with, is dead in the room next to him. He takes his identity. He changes the photo in the passports and goes to Europe to start a new life. What he doesn’t know is that the man was actually a dealer of weapons. For my new film I play with this idea of changing your identity. Only I use women. And the one who passes away is not a weapon dealer but a porn star.
RMA: Sounds very exiting. We are looking forward to it.
Listen here to the amazing soundtrack of Gold Coast