The trade of African slaves was once legal in Denmark, though you’d be forgiven for not knowing. It started around 1650 and was formally banned in 1792, but it continued illegally for at least several more decades. Throughout this period, Danes contributed to the tearing away of hundreds of thousands of lives from the African continent to work in European colonies in the Caribbean, America and Europe.
Daniel Dencik’s debut feature film Guldkysten (The Gold Coast) is an unpleasant reminder of an almost forgotten era of Danish history. Set in West Africa in 1836, it follows the journey of the idealistic and naïve newcomer Wulff Frederik Wulff, who is sent there to start a coffee plantation years after slavery had officially been abolished in Denmark – only to find that it has continued.
Script co-writer Sara Jønsson explains that we see through the eyes of this newcomer, who witnesses something foreign and shocking.
“It’s important for the story that he is not morally depraved like his countrymen on the Gold Coast. He represents hope, even though he is not a traditional hero, with all his prejudices and Western civilisation’s ingrained misunderstanding of the natives.”
The film was created with the help of producer Kwame Boadi of the Ghanian production company inGenious Africa, who explains that the film’s goal was to cast a light on Denmark’s history as a slave-trading nation.
“The film was meant to shock and awe, and inspire a dialogue,” Boadi says, adding that it also succeeds in depicting how depraved humans can be.
“It shows you an ugly piece of history, which you can sadly still find going on around the world. As a producer, you work on solving practical problems, but everybody has a heart. I cringed when I entered those old castles and dungeons where slaves were kept and treated under inhumane circumstances. To see the actors standing naked and in chains, that moved me.”
Dencik, Jønsson and Danish producer Michael Haslund visited Ghana almost two years before they started filming and formed a close friendship with Boadi and his crew. Boadi’s company navigated African bureaucracy, found locations, actors and extras for the parts of slaves and indigenous people in Ghana and Burkina Faso. After 15 months of preparation, the film took three months to shoot.
The schedule set by the Danish crew had to be abandoned, however, when the timetable was interrupted by unforeseen changes in circumstances. The creative process was ultimately more like that of making a documentary, with the filmmakers making use of opportunities as they arose.
“I think that we really learned a lot from each other – we arrived with our method of production, and they with their experience of how to do things,” says Jønsson. “It only worked if we combined the two and really tried to learn all we could.”
One weakness of Guldkysten is that it requires the audience to already have some knowledge of the Danish slave trade in order to understand all the references in the film. Without a voiceover or introduction, the audience lacks some context for the events that unfold, explains Ulla Rahbek, professor of Postcolonialism at the University of Copenhagen.
“There is no sort of framing device; it is not at all pedagogical. I think it is very clear that it was made by an artist. It’s a postmodern film. It’s really playful.”
One reference in the film that might elude viewers, is that the Danish fort used in the film is actually Elmina Castle – built in Ghana by the Portuguese in 1482 and later taken over by the Dutch then the British – which was a central stop in the Atlantic slave trade.
“It gives some authenticity,” Rahbek says. “I think it is important to remember that Ghana was the starting point for both British and Danish slavery – Elmina Castle is where it all began”.
Rahbek adds that the narrative is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which was later adapted by Frances Ford Coppola into the war epic Apocalypse Now.
“It is a complex idea, but we could think of Wulff as a Marlowe character, an idealist who comes to the heart of darkness in Africa but degenerates, and is ultimately destroyed. Guldkysten is a European film, and we only see the effect [the slave trade] has on the white people. The film isn’t really interested in its black characters. As in Heart of Darkness, they are pieces of furniture – they are masses.”
Power of silence
Language plays a big part in the postcolonial understanding of oppression and cultural separation, and both Rahbek and Boadi would have liked the film to have conveyed more local dialects.
“It would have added some spice and colour to the people,” Boadi says. Rahbek agrees, but adds that the actual lack of dialogue served a purpose toward the end of the film.
“Wulff talks endlessly throughout the film, but is silenced in the last third, where there is no longer any need for language. And then there is Lumpa, Wulff’s assistant, who is difficult to pin down because they communicate without words. It is as if their relationship transcends language.”
Sara Jønsson agrees that Lumpa, a curious and open-minded child, is an essential character in the film.
“The hero of the film shifts towards the end, when Wulff is incarcerated. Lumpa takes over the moment he sets Wulff free. From then on, Lumpa carries Wulff’s story and his idealism. Even though they do not speak, I think it is apparent that Wulff comes to many of his realisations in his meeting with Lumpa. It is his intuitive understanding of the world and of nature that inspires Wulff. The brutality that the fictional Wulff encounters is the knowledge that it is his fellow countrymen who are barbaric, not the natives.”
Rahbek says she feels conflicted about the film, but ultimately argues that it does a good job of creating a dialogue about the encounter with the other.
“Yes, it speaks from a postcolonial perspective, where the other is the African slave, but today it could just as well be the migrant, the refugee or the foreigner.” M