During a Norwegian documentary seminar in 1997, Margreth Olin listened with interest as British filmmaker Paul Watson spoke about a project he was working on that looked into the terrible conditions in British retirement homes. The idea struck a chord with the Oslo-based director, as she was investigating the same issue in Norway. Eldar Nakken, head of documentary for TV2 Norway, was also in the audience, and as luck would have it, Olin and Nakken were later paired on a panel, which opened the door to discussion of Olin’s film and the potential for a commission. Nakken had followed Olin’s progress since her first film in 1994, In The House of Love, a 36-minute film about a Norwegian factory that processes slaughterhouse remains into animal feed.
After learning of Olin’s current doc, In the House of Angels, Nakken was in. This project chronicles a year in the life of the residents of the Sandeheim home for the elderly, and raises questions about the treatment of the aged in the Norwegian welfare state. Observes Nakken, ‘We are a very rich people, but still we do not treat our old people very well. Standards are not high, almost not human. In 20 or 30 years, most of our population is going to be very old.’
Nakken originally wanted a television hour, but Olin came back with 90 minutes. At that point, Angels producer Thomas Robsahm (who runs Oslo-based prodco Speranza Film, along with Olin and Inger Johanne Rein) sought and received funding of nearly five million Norwegian kroner (US$500,000) from the Norwegian Audio Visual Production Fund, which was the entire budget of the feature-length doc.
As is typical of government funds, there were strings attached, most importantly that the first run must be in theaters. However, TV2 enjoyed some benefits of this arrangement. Nakken explains: ‘That’s the really good part of it – it cost us nothing. When the AV fund gets involved, the rules are that if a broadcaster wants to air the film [after theatrical release], there is no charge. This is because we pay a tax into the fund. So, this brings a bit of the money back. All we had to do was tell them this was a project we wanted to air.’
As an added bonus, the theatrical release went well, which helped build interest for the TV broadcast. ‘The newspapers were full of it,’ Nakken notes. ‘They took pictures of politicians who saw it and were crying. It really shocked Norwegian society.’ Adds Robsahm, ‘[The film] tries to give the elderly a voice of their own – [it] has become part of the public debate about the treatment of the aged.’
TV2 did have to concede on one point, however. ‘We’re not allowed to break up documentaries with advertising,’ Nakken clarifies. ‘We are a public service channel, but privately owned and financed by commercials. We can put commercials around the film, but not in it.’
In the House of Angels ran on TV2′s doc strand ‘Documentary 2′ in September 2000, from 10P.M. to 11:30P.M. ‘We got a rating of 6.2 and a 16.5 share and the curve was very flat. We didn’t lose any viewers for over 90 minutes on Saturday,’ comments Nakken. ‘I was sure I could never get that many viewers, but this film did.
‘It’s one of the projects I’m proudest of,’ he continues. ‘I’ve followed Margreth Olin from the first film she made in school. There are not many Norwegians getting world famous, but she could – she’s a great talent.’ Producer Robsahm agrees. ‘She’s very concerned with people and has a talent for making them speak. She also has a strong poetic side without any arty-farty bullshit.’