For many jaded Award Season viewers, the Academy Award's Short Film selection represents a refreshing array of talent unspoiled by the influences of cynical big-budget pandering. Among this year's nominees is Aske Bang's Silent Nights, a Danish film that treks the journey of an illegal immigrant through the shelters of Copenhagen to the slums of Ghana. A delicate, deeply human film, Silent Nights follows Kwame, a Ghanaian immigrant, as he struggles to provide for his family in Ghana on the paltry sum he makes in Denmark. Alternately living on the streets and in shelters, he falls for Inger; a virtuous shelter volunteer, whose time is spent caring for immigrants and her alcoholic mother.
The pair embark on a whirlwind romance, a festive affair that sees them cozying up over Christmas and New Year's, swooning through the streets of Copenhagen, and giddily riding rollercoasters in Tivoli like a pair of love-struck teens. But too soon reality bursts their idyllic bubble, and the pair must grapple with racism, secrets and questions of morality. The film ends on a hopeful note, full of the promise of a new generation of empathy and acceptance. Bang's deft direction and attention to detail imbue the film with a remarkable sense of realism; a truly impressive feat for a young director, still fresh out of film school. We caught up with Bang as he explored LA, and spoke about immigration, working with family, and paying gang leaders for protection.
Your past two shorts, The Stranger and Ladyboy, both centred on marginalized characters. What made you choose an illegal immigrant as a focus for Silent Nights?
The reason I wanted to make this film was because in Copenhagen we have a lot of African immigrants right now. I just have a big heart for them. They move around the streets, collecting bottles, because we have this recycling system where you can get money for finding bottles. They're just like driving around, like ghosts, on their bicycles. I just got curious to know more about them. So I wrote this script with my father. He said to me “How about we make a film down at this shelter? About one of the volunteers and one of the illegal immigrants.” So that's how it started.
So much of the film feels very raw and true to life, how much research went into achieving that sense of realism?
I was very careful in that I only wanted to shoot in real places. So in a way it's like a documentary. We go to the real places, we shot in a real shelter, and a lot of the extras in the film are real immigrants as well. We wanted to be very realistic all the way through. I did a lot of research in talking to these illegal immigrants, they were telling me about their lives, their families, and why they were here. I talked to the people who work in the shelter. I also wanted to shoot at real times. So when we shoot Christmas Eve, it is actually Christmas Eve. When we shoot at New Year's Eve, it is New Year's Eve. Also, she needs to be pregnant, my main actor, she's pregnant for real. We had to wait until her stomach was big enough and stuff like that. So the film took one year. Even though we only had like 12 shooting days, it took one year.
What can you tell us about the film's production? Were there many difficulties in getting it made?
One difficulty was to find an African actor. In Denmark we don't have that many actors from Africa. You have this page where you look up actors, professional actors, and there was like no African actors. So I had to fill my cast with real people. So people who live in Denmark, but who didn't go to acting school. So I was just trying to look for a natural talent. I interviewed people in my apartment one week before we had to start shooting.
Then I went to dinner with the female actor from the film, and there we see this guy – it has like an open kitchen – and we see the chef, who's African and he looks exactly like what I was looking for. So I just walk up to him and tell him the situation. I said, “I auditioned twenty people and I'm not satisfied with any of them. I'm making a film, we start shooting in a week. Would you like to go for a casting?” He was just very surprised. He said, “I'm a chef! I've never tried acting before.” But I made an appointment with him two days after, and he just happened to be really good. So I called him to tell him he had the part and we started shooting four days later.
And to make matters more difficult you shot on location in Denmark and in Ghana. What was it like filming in such completely different locations?
In Denmark we had a whole team of twenty people, and we know the language and stuff like that. So when we went down to Ghana we found a local translator who'd guide our team, and he could speak the local languages. Mainly they speak English, but out in the slum where we shooting they have a local language. So that made it easier for us to film there, but it was not easy to just go shoot in the slum. We had very expensive equipment with us, and we were only three people, so we had to pay the local gangs for protection to be able to get there. It was a bit scary. But all the people in the slums, they were very easy to work with. They just thought that it was so funny that we came.
Sounds like a real adventure. You mentioned earlier that you co-wrote the script with your father, Ib Kastrup, what was that process like? Had you worked together before?
AB: I finished film school one year ago, one and a half years ago, and we wrote a feature together. We're trying to find funding for it right now. So while we were trying to find money for the feature script, a producer came to us and asked if I wanted to do this short film. So, you know, it's easier to get started with a short film. It's been very nice to work with him. We always talked about movies since I was a little kid, so we have the same taste. It's been a really good working relationship, and I hope we can make more movies in the future together.
Obviously you're now in LA, you're set to attend the Oscars – did you expect the film to get so much positive attention?
I didn't know that all this would happen. We just sent it over here, and the Academy decided to nominate it, so we're just very happy that people like the film. It's a bit surreal to be in this situation, but it's also funny. I always dreamt about coming here to the Oscars, so I'm very happy about that. I went to the nominee's lunch two days ago where I met a lot of the other nominees. It was very fun. I talked to Viggo Mortensen. He's half Danish, so we could actually speak Danish together.
So here's the million dollar question: what's next for you? Have many people been reaching out to you since the nomination?
I'm definitely getting more attention right now. Mainly from the press, and stuff like that. Over here in America I've got a lot of agents who want to sign me, and a production company who want to go for meetings and stuff like that. Also, in Denmark, I'm making a TV series and it just got greenlit. I don't know if it's because of this [laughs] I hope it's because it's a good story! Of course this helps as well.
Words by Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin