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(NOTE: This post was written by both David Redmon and Ashley Sabin of Carnivalesque Films* and is posted belatedly because of yours truly, Mr. HTN Editor. But it is still very worthwhile!)

Volda, Norway – The Norwegian Documentary Film Festival is the oldest (14 years) and largest documentary film festival in Norway (click here for a 360 panoramic image). The majority of the attendees are between 18 and 27 years old, and include both native film enthusiasts and recent refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia seeking asylum in Norway.

Each year, a new group of 12 students are charged with organizing every part of the festival: housing, transportation, programming, shipping, music, and so on. One may think this unique approach could be a recipe for disaster, but it’s just the opposite. The committed organizers craft an energetic and vibrant festival filled with food, entertainment, diverse films, and sold-out theaters.

We flew into Volda from Oslo on a small seaplane, weaving in and out of fjords. The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful, with large snow-topped mountains surrounded by fjords filled with crystal clear water. Volda is a fishing town of 7,000 people. It also has the country’s most reputable college devoted primarily to filmmaking, journalism, and teaching. Screenings are in a small downtown area inside a community center, a hotel theater, and the student café. All three theaters show a variety of domestic and foreign films from 9am until 11pm, with games and sweets provided in between each screening. Jonathan Lie, one of the festival organizers, remarked that programmers discovered the majority of the NDFF films at Sheffield, IDFA, and through word of mouth. They also called over 30 production companies in Norway to screen their latest films. “We wanted to present a selection of films which challenge storytelling either visually or dramaturgically.”

Norwegian filmmakers have an opportunity to be state funded primarily by the broadcaster NRK. Films are funded from pre-production through post-production stages. According to Lasse Gallefoss, “NRK’s money partially comes from a TV license from viewers like the BBC in Britain. Everybody who owns a TV in Norway pays a license of 2335 kroners ($365, or $1 a day) a year, so that’s why NRK can finance documentaries.” Filmmakers we spoke to explained how they’ve received funds ranging from $200,000 to $2 million dollars to complete their documentaries, all the while maintaining complete control of their artistic vision. For instance, filmmaker David Alræk graduated from film school just two years ago and is now working on a film in Sweden. “The budget is about $200,000, a lot of money for a young graduate! The funding came from 4 different sources: A Norwegian TV station, the Norwegian Film Institute, Flimmer Film, and one other Norwegian funding source. I believe we are very lucky in Norway to have all kinds of funds. Is it difficult in the U.S. to get state funding?”

Indeed, filmmakers get the support and encouragement they need to start and finish their films, get paid while making them, and pay crew members more than enough to meet basic needs—all with distribution in place for 25-minute, 50-minute, and longer documentary series (all presented commercial-free). The shorter format films allow for a diverse program where audiences can view 2-3 films in one sitting. The cultural value and necessity of documentary film in Norway is stunning, as evidenced by the audience’s viewership. Local sources told us that ratings in Norway are triple that of PBS with an average attention span of 48 minutes before changing the channel.

After watching a full program of films, the Norwegian nightlife began in full force. One evening, an intimate party took place in an old red barn full of candles that was a carnivore’s delight: smoked lamb meat, a variety of sausages, reindeer, and several other delectable delicatessens including porridge and beer. Conversations carried into several after-after parties where we encountered young women wearing several pine cones around their necks and in their hair. We simply assumed it was a unique fashion device and quickly forgot about it.

We were with a group of people walking through the streets, going from house to house while opening doors without knocking (all the doors were unlocked). “After party?” the small group shouted. “No, not here,” an anonymous voice responded from inside the house. After repeating the same routine several times, we finally asked Lasse Gallefoss, “Do you know these people?” Lasse responded, “No, not at all.” Lasse gave a friendly laugh at our confused stares, and continued walking from house to house while passing more young women wearing pine cones and red vans with large groups of young people singing and dancing and making their own wine.

“What’s happening in those red vans?” we inquired to Lasse. “Oh, those are recent high school students who just graduated. We have a tradition in Norway called ‘Russ’ where students rent vans, place tampons in their mouths while drinking beer, and have safe sex in public. Each time they have safe sex, they go into the forest to obtain pine cones as a reward. It’s one of the highest rated reality-TV shows in Norway!”

The vibrancy and enthusiasm of the weekend was matched by the strong turnouts for each film. We screened our documentary, Invisible Girlfriend, to an audience of 200 people who all stayed afterward for a challenging discussion. Pitch forums with Norwegian broadcasters were available on Saturday for filmmakers, some of whom were then awarded distribution grants.

NDFF is an important reminder that filmmaking is also about creating an atmosphere where documentary film is critically celebrated, communally embraced, and financially supported. We left bitten by the love bug of Volda, Norway, and experienced common passions for documentaries with enthusiastic, talented, and fun filmmakers. Not only did NDFF reinvigorate our disillusionment with some parts of nonfiction filmmaking. We also learned about the ritual significance of pine cones.

— Ashley Sabin and David Redmon

*Our trip to Volda, Norway was co-sponsored by the American Embassy in Oslo and the Norwegian Documentary Film Festival.

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