CPH:DOX // A civilised country

The Danish military covered up its responsibility for the abuse of innocent civilians during the Iraq War. Is Denmark really so civilised, asks director Nanna Frank Møller?

A Civilised Country opens with forensic pathologist Jørgen Lange Thomsen as he examines the corpse of a woman who apparently committed suicide through hanging. “The body was not hanging for long, or the impression of the knot would be deeper,” he informs us. He works in a slow, deliberate and pragmatic fashion. Director Nana Frank Møller photographs the scene carefully, respectfully concealing the identity of the corpse.

We learn human rights lawyer Christian Harlang has recruited Thomsen to interview eleven Iraqis who claim to have been subject to torture, abuse and intimidation at the hands of Iraqi security forces in the presence of Danish soldiers. The abuse allegedly took place during and following ‘Operation Green Desert’ in November 2004, when the Danes led British and Iraqi forces to investigate Iraqi intelligence concerning terrorist activity in a town, south of Basra.

When Thomsen arrives in Iraq, he listens to harrowing accounts of physical abuse, from beatings to sexual violation and torture using electric shocks. Thomsen gently extracts the details of the events and the trauma suffered as a consequence, which are clearly painful recollections. Shame and trauma prove to be difficult obstacles to overcome, but Jørgen approaches the interviews with the same steady pragmatism as with the cadaver. Again, in these scenes, Nanna Frank Møller respects the subjects’ identities, instead training her lens on Thomsen, allowing us to glimpse, very rarely, the breaks in his professional composure.


The Danish Military High Command repeatedly denied that there was any evidence to support the allegations of the civilians, who were arrested and held by the Iraqi security forces assisted by the British and Danish forces. The case was not allowed to progress, on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

READ MORE: War crimes, lies and a video tape

However, in October 2012, in accordance with several of the claimants reports of soldiers with cameras, Anders Koustrup Kærgaard came forward with a video recorded by Danish forces. Kærgaard was an intelligence analyst in Iraq at the time. He had held on to the video for all those years. He understood that the cover-up would continue and the Iraqis would never stand a chance of seeing justice.

The documentary is solid and well crafted, neither sensationalist nor is it particularly cinematic in form – it would be equally at home on television. Rather it is a sober, no-frills investigation of what took place in that small town a decade ago. The title is unambiguous: is Denmark a civilised country? The answer in this case appears to be a categorical condemnation of Denmark’s judicial system, defence ministry and hypocritical legislation. In turn, the documentary emphasises the bravery and necessity of whistleblowers like Kærgaard, whose selfless gesture is greeted, from all sides, with a wall of vitriol and intimidation.


A Civilised Country  

Original title: Et civiliseret land

Director: Nanna Frank Møller

Runtime: 75 minutes

Country: Denmark

Year – 2014

With English subtitles


By Mark Walker

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