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‘Tis the season for love and heartbreak, as evidenced by Aske Bang’s Silent Nights, one of this year’s Oscar finalists for Best Live Action Short.

The drama, which the Danish writer-director produced alongside M & M Productions’ Kim Magnusson, chronicles the affair between Inger (played by Malene Beltoft), a young Danish woman from Copenhagen and Kwame (played by first-time actor Prince Yaw Appiah), an illegal immigrant from Ghana that she meets while volunteering at a homeless shelter. Despite their cultural differences, and the disapproval of Inger’s own mother, the two quickly develop a strong bond and move in together. Everything seems perfect and serendipitous, but then Inger discovers a devastating secret that Kwame has kept hidden.

The short, which also marks the 28-year-old’s first since graduating from The National Film School of Denmark, is his latest in a body of work that explores those members of society who are ostracized from the majority because of their differences. Led by Beltoft’s tour de force performance, Bang’s Silent Nights is an emotionally powerful film that asks for us to empathize with and not judge others.

Ahead of the anticipated Oscar nominations announcement, I had the opportunity to speak with Bang about his experience in writing the film’s screenplay with his father, filming in a real-life Ghanian slum, and how he instilled authenticity into a fictional narrative. You can check out the interview below.

ScreenPicks: You’re also an actor, and you have many acting credits to your name. But I want to talk about your background behind the camera. Who are the directors and screenwriters that inspire you as a filmmaker?

Bang: I have a lot of different directors that inspire me. I don’t really have a favourite one. I should say some of my favourite directors should be Ken Loach, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson and Richard Curtis, who did the movie Love Actually. There’s so many brilliant directors around the world. But I am also very fascinated by Woody Allen because he is so productive, he almost makes a new film every year, and sometimes works in front of and behind the camera at the same time. I also dream about doing that someday.

ScreenPicks: You co-wrote Silent Nights with your father, Ib Kastrup, who is a screenwriter. Can you talk about that process?

Bang: Yeah, it’s been very nice to work together with my father. I always wanted to try to do that. It makes sense that we did this project together because we got a story that meant a lot for both of us. We have always talked about movies together. We have the same kind of tastes in movies. My father was just diagnosed with cancer. He’s very ill right now, which is very sad, but it made him very happy that this film got shortlisted. For me and him, a very big dream is to try and work abroad someday in America. It’s been very good to work with him. He’s very good and professional.

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ScreenPicks: Part of the film is set in Ghana, specifically Old Fadama. What was it like filming there?

Bang: Yeah, we shot it in Ghana: It was me; and then my photographer; the main character and my line producer, who also did the sound work down there. And then we found a local filmmaker from Ghana who did the production service for us. He helped us to go to this Fadama slum. I wanted to go to a real slum, where all the poor people are and a lot of people who are trying to go to Europe to get a better life or to help their family.

To shoot there, in the slum of Fadama, with a crew of only four people, made us a little afraid that people would steal our camera and stuff like that. But we paid some of the local gangsters in the slum, so we would be allowed to be there and nobody would touch us. [laughs] When we shot the movie in the shelter in Copenhagen, that was also a real shelter with real homeless people. I wanted to have this almost documentary kind of feeling, even though it’s fiction and we have actors.

ScreenPicks: Making a film is such a challenge, and even getting to that point where you say action for the first time. What was your biggest challenge in getting this film made in the first place?

Bang: One of my biggest challenges was to find my main male character, Kwame, because there’s not a lot of African actors in Denmark. Actually, I was casting one week before we had to start shooting, and I hadn’t found my main character yet. I was very stressed about that. I did a casting of 20 African people who were not actors, and I just had to choose the best one out of them. But my main female character and I were not so happy about the people we had cast. We had a little break and went down to a restaurant to eat. And suddenly I saw this African man who was working in the kitchen as a chef, because they had an open kitchen and use the best Skining knife for cooking. I thought, “This guy will be perfect for my movie.” He had the right look and everything.

I actually walked straight up to the kitchen and talked to this African chef. I told him that I had difficulties finding a main character and asked him if he wanted to go for casting. He said, “Oh, I have never tried acting before.” But he was willing to try and go for a casting. Three days before we shot the film, I did the casting with him and luckily he was very good. And he accepted to be the main character in the film. It was pure luck that we found him at a place where I was not expecting to find him. [laughs]

ScreenPicks: The character of Kwame reminds you that while someone does a bad thing, it doesn’t necessarily make him or her a bad person. He’s just in a place where he’s so desperate and deprived that he’s willing to do something that’s not morally correct. How important is it to show the moral complexities of these characters?

Bang: I think it’s very important to paint a real picture of people. People are complex. It’s very important for me to show the different sides of people. Immigrants will do everything to protect their families and help their families, which I think is a very beautiful thing. Sometimes they even need to do something that’s maybe not so good, but they do it in the act of love for their family, to help them survive.

I wanted to make a movie that was a very realistic picture of how a life of an African immigrant could be when he goes abroad. I did a lot of research up to the movie, and talked with a lot of illegal and legal immigrants. I talked with the head of this shelter in Copenhagen, where a lot of them live, and they gave me a good picture on all the things that they are going through. When you make a movie, you’re only making a movie about one person. You cannot take every person in the world and tell about everything at the same time; you’re making a story about this person.

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ScreenPicks: You tell the story of this homeless man from Ghana who is trying to make a living in Denmark despite the racism and prejudice that he faces. Your past films have also starred these kind of outsider characters that don’t fit into society. In The Stranger, you have a Thai prostitute. In Ladyboy, you have a trans person. What appeals you to these types of characters and stories?

Bang: I have always had a lot of sympathy for people who are minorities. What I normally do when I make a movie, I make a movie about something that when I start I don’t know so much about. I have some curiosity to find out how these people’s lives are. I have a goal when I make a movie about this minority because sometimes people don’t see them as human beings. They don’t even notice them and think about them. In all my movies, I want to show that even though you are different, or if you are a minority, or if you are the bottom of the society, you are still a normal human being with feelings. That’s what I wanted to show my audience. That’s an important thing for me.

Because I always start making movies about something I don’t know so much about, I learn a lot about it and I think that’s interesting. I’ve seen a lot of these illegal immigrants walking around the streets of Copenhagen, and I’ve always been wondering how must their lives be and about their family back home. That’s why I made this movie, to find out. And the same when I made a movie about a transvestite. I saw this transvestite in a bar, and I went up to talk to her. She told me about her life and how difficult it had been. It made me want to make a movie about it.

ScreenPicks: A dominant theme in this year’s Best Live Action Short Oscar finalists is xenophobia within Europe. Many of the films in the shortlist centre on these characters facing this issue of “the other” or “the outsider.” And your film really reminds us how important it is to be empathetic to those people who have different experiences from us. What do you hope people will take away from watching your film?

Bang: My film is first and foremost a love story between two very different people, and it shows how important it is to be empathetic to one another. But I have set my story in a frame of one of the biggest crises in modern European history, the emigrant and asylum crisis. The film shows that you can find xenophobia in Denmark as well as you can find it in the rest of the world. The story is a study in the complexity of love: falling in love, lies, deceit, understanding, forgiveness and magnanimity.

ScreenPicks: Along with surpassing over 100 eligible films, Silent Nights is also the only film from Denmark to make it to the Best Live Action Short Oscars top ten this year. What does this achievement mean to you?

Bang: I am extremely proud. It means everything to me. And I really hope that the American audience will take the film into their hearts.

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All ten live action short finalists are listed below.

Bon Voyage, Marc Wilkins, director, and Joël Jent, producer (Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduction)

Ennemis Intérieurs, Sélim Azzazi, director (Qualia Films)

Graffiti, Lluís Quílez, director (Participant Media, Euphoria Productions and Ainur Films)

La Femme et le TGV, Timo von Gunten, director (arbel gmbh)

Nocturne in Black, Jimmy Keyrouz, director (Columbia University)

The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf and the Boy, Oualid Mouaness, director (Tricycle Logic)

Silent Nights, Aske Bang, director, and Kim Magnusson, producer (M & M Productions)

Sing (Mindenki), Kristof Deák, director (Meteor Filmstudio)

Timecode, Juanjo Giménez, director (Nadir Films)

The Way of Tea (Les Frémissements du Thé), Marc Fouchard, director, and Matthieu Devillers, producer (Existenz, BlackBox and P904)

The nominees for the 89th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 14, 2017.

(All photos are courtesy of Rolf Konow.)

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