There Is No Such Thing as a 'Good Occupation'
An Interview with Connie Neilsen
By Gar Smith / The-Edge

June 13, 2007

Danish star Connie Neilsen discusses her sceen role as an American journalist and shares her thoughts on politics and the American media. Credit: Shadow Distribution
As soon as Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley ended at San Francisco's Variety Screening Room, I set off on an eight-block run to the Prescott Hotel to keep a date for an interview with Connie Neilsen, star of The Situation. Neilson is known in the US for wide-ranging roles in "Gladiator," "Rushmore," "The Devil's Advocate," "The Ice Harvest" and "One Hour Photo" but, in Europe, the Copenhagen-born actress is better known for her award-winning role in "Brothers," a film about the wife of a Danish soldier serving in Afghanistan.

I arrived breathing hard to find Neilsen waiting comfortably in a suite off the lobby looking composed, relaxed and eight months pregnant. She beamed when I told her I'd just come from a press screening of Loach's new film starring Cillian Murphy as a reluctant Irish freedom fighter. I described one climactic scene where Murphy commands a screen without a word of dialog, using only his emotionally charged, labored breathing. "I love Cillian's work!" Neilsen replied, "and I'm a big fan of Ken Loach's movies."

Neilsen mentioned one of Loach's film about a woman who has her five children away while she struggles to maintain a family. "Extraordinary. It touched me deeply. It definitely shows a well-meaning but inept bureaucracy. It's one of the things that the Left is not very happy discussing: What if the bureaucracy doesn't work? What if the government fails in its mandate?"

I told Neilsen of a scene in "The Wind" that depicts an Irish Republican law court dealing with the matter of a money-lender who has taken advantage of a poor widow. "The judges were three women in uniform [members of the Cumann na mBan womens' organization] and they are working the situation out. This was one of the little-known realities of political life during the rebellion."

"I would love to see that presented," Neilsen replied. "I definitely want to see this movie."

At this point, I turned on the tape-recorder.

THE-EDGE: I was struck that both The Situation and The Wind depict soldiers of a foreign occupation force brutalizing local civilian populations. It's the same, deplorable dynamic. It seems this is always what happens during a prolonged military occupation.

NEILSEN: There is no such thing as a "good Occupation."

THE-EDGE: This is one of the reasons I want to thank you for personalizing the Iraq War in this film. This is something that the documentaries on the occupation -- as good as they are -- have not always been able to do.

NEILSEN: They are different.

THE-EDGE: I understand that there are about 450 Danish troops in Iraq. The Danish Prime Minister recently has signaled the intention to withdraw the troops in August. To date, I believe five Danish soldiers have died in Iraq. So I wanted to know your experience as someone who's been following the war from a European perspective.

NEILSEN: When we made "Brothers," which was about the family of Danish soldiers serving in Afghanistan, people wanted to know: "Did this really happened? Were those Danish soldiers killed in Afghanistan?" Well, no. Not that we were aware of. The point of the movie was one that I think American viewers will understand very deeply. People who have seen the movie have been very effected by it. And that is that (I think now we're just now starting to talk about this, although we should have started talking about it a long time ago) -- of coming back [from a war zone] and the enormity of the consequences.

I think, at this point, there are 300,000 soldiers who have passed through active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq and 30% of those soldiers have been declared in need of psychological help. Imagine the effect of those soldiers -- men and women -- on their children. I think America is just beginning to wake up to the enormity of the people they will have to support -- and should support -- in a much deeper mission than is being done now.

The tours of duty will have resulted in larger numbers eventually. I'm not even talking about the loss of life! Not just on our side but how about the other side? The enormity of it is mind-boggling.

THE-EDGE: I wrote an article about a year ago (and Juan Cole has taken a similar approach) where I compared the population numbers of Iraq and the United States. Basically, you can take any figure from something that's happened in Iraq and multiply it by 11 and that will give you a sense of what it would mean if a foreign country had occupied America and started killing people and dropping bombs. It's appalling. The refugee situation...

NEILSEN: Two million people now.

THE-EDGE: So that would be the equivalent of 22 million Americans displaced, fleeing to other countries.

NEILSEN: There's another situation we've created. The refugee population.

THE-EDGE: And this situation is not addressed.

NEILSEN: That's something people do not want to talk about because to talk about the fact that we've "liberated" a country so well that two million people are fleeing from it -- I think that is something that's definitely worth talking about.

THE-EDGE: Is it a measure of "liberation" or is it a measure of something else? I keep seeing the image of soldiers putting their rifle butts and boots through peoples' doors. How that is supposed to equate with "spreading democracy" just escapes me. We see it in Afghanistan, too. We see it every place there is an occupation.

NEILSEN: Well, I think the people are aware of the complete preposterousness of the claim that you are "promoting freedom" through force. It just doesn't work that way. We can fight for freedom ourselves, through force. That has been the way people have obtained freedom. Certainly it wasn't just given to people -- people must often just take it themselves from whoever wants to hog the power over them.

But to actually go in and forcibly "democratize" a place. Yes, one could argue that that was what happened in Germany and Japan. I would venture that it was a cultural process that caught up with Germany and Japan eventually. But it doesn't seem to be a correct comparison. And certainly there is no one left in the world, I think, who agrees with this policy.

THE-EDGE: Many Americans remain uniquely blind to the world. I sometimes note how we used to talk about the Iron Curtain. I see America as a country that lives behind a Silver Mirror -- where everything reflects back on ourselves. We may hear something in the distance but we really don't see what's going on. We certainly don't see what we're doing beyond the mirror.

NEILSEN: Well it's also hard because the news here so rarely looks beyond America. I was actually surprised by how much of the news is local. You look at the big networks -- I'm really surprised by that. Bill Maher made the point on TV the other night that the entire news media stopped its job to concentrate on the story of a Boy Scout who disappeared in the woods. Maher said he was "obviously not a very good Boy Scout because he couldn't find his way out of the forest." But he is so right, in the sense that this shows a complete lack of proportion.

THE-EDGE: It's like the press is looking for opportunities not to be engaged in analysis.

NEILSEN: That's right. There is precious little analysis. Somehow, the press really got itself into a mental knot when they started seeing everything in terms of "bipartisanship" -- a kind of weird bipartisanship where you listen to the Democrats' view and you listen to the Republicans' view and that's what it means to give a measured statement. But that's not news. It needs to be put into relief. People need to see what are the angles. I need you to tell me 'cause that's your job. Why are the Republicans using this statement? Or why are the Democrats saying this in that statement? That is analysis. They must do that because that is the only way it can mean anything.

I don't know. Maybe there is no huge problem with the fact that the news is interrupted by any kind of commercials. If it is a 24-hour network, I can understand it. If it's all-news, fine, every so-and-so-many minutes. But the frequency with which national -- national! -- news broadcasts on any of the major channels are being interrupted by commercials is astounding.

THE-EDGE: And this is something you don't see in Europe.

NEILSEN: No! In Europe, it's a public duty to give the news. Therefore, you cannot benefit from it. It is information to the citizens about their lives. You do not interrupt a newscast with a commercial to "buy this/buy that!" I'm sorry, but those are two diametrically opposed functions in our society and that just cannot be.

And I think that has something to do with the way in which the press is being manipulated and used by their corporate superiors and, even by themselves. Certainly, if they didn't have to compete with other stations for advertising money, they wouldn't be afraid of a lot of subjects.

THE-EDGE: I really wish that one of these years, the Public Broadcasting System or the Pacifica stations might win a Pulitzer.


THE-EDGE: Some of the best reporting on Earth -- certainly in this country -- is available thanks to a small group of people who are in touch with folks all around the world via telephone lines. They'll be talking live to someone in Baghdad who's trapped in a school that's under bombardment and there will be no commercial interruptions. You just get the raw information.

NEILSEN: Except for the three or four interminable fund-raisers! (Laughs) Oh my God, I hate those! Those fund-raising drives drive me insane! It's like "Enough, already! OK, we've sent our money, now please go back to..."

THE-EDGE: But "It's a match!"

NEILSEN: (Laughing). It's too much! It's too long and it's too desperate. If it's public broadcasting...

THE-EDGE: ...give the public a little credit for being intelligent.

NEILSEN: And also, if it's public broadcasting, make sure that the public pays for it through their taxes. Insist on that! Insist on funding from your government. That's one side that's very rarely broached in this country.

THE-EDGE: I wanted to know if you had heard Sean Penn's speech from Oakland from a couple of days ago?

NEILSEN: No, I didn't hear it. Everybody's been telling me about it.

THE-EDGE: At one point, he speaks to the president in absentia and says: "I've walked on the streets of Baghdad, outside the Green Zone, without security, and I've talked to the people. Unlike you. And I've walked through the streets of Teheran. The Iranians are great people. I know this because I've been there. Unlike you."

NEILSEN: You could say the same thing about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.

THE-EDGE: Penn mentioned Katrina, too!

NEILSEN: He did! Sean Penn fished people out of the water! Unlike Bush -- or anyone who even worked for him!

THE-EDGE: And Penn started off with this great line that had everyone roaring. He talked about Bush's supporters who "bathe in the moisture of your blood-drenched underwear!" I have NO idea what that means, but you just wanted to get behind that sentiment.

And later he had a question: "Mr. Bush. You have two daughters. Do they support your war? And, if so, how DARE they not be in uniform?"

NEILSEN: Yeah, he's great!

THE-EDGE: Now I want to give YOU a press packet.

NEILSEN: Oh, great.

THE-EDGE: I'd like you to have my first and only bumper sticker -- for the Department of Peace. So, if you have a bumper somewhere, here's a bumper sticker.

NEILSEN: (Laughing). Thanks. Thank you!

THE-EDGE: And this is a picture of the Fri, a beautiful old Danish ship that I used to sail on. It sailed around the world as a Peace Ship and helped block the French Nuclear tests in...

NEILSEN: In Polynesia!

THE-EDGE: Right! The ship's owner, David Moodie, now lives in Denmark and he is trying to raise funds to restore her. So, I just thought you might have a fondness for old ships or might know someone who might.

In 1980, I was in Denmark to cover the Mid-Decade Conference on Women for Mother Jones. I had just walked into the conference hall when I heard someone talk about this "weird ship" that was approaching port. They told me its name was the Fri. I walked three blocks down to the Nyhaven and here comes the ship, with David and the kids and his crew. I hadn't seen him in six years.

I got on the ship and we sailed over to Sweden to protest the nuclear powerplant at Barsbek and did a balloon launch to show where the fallout would blow if there was an accident.

NEILSEN: Wow! That's incredible.

THE-EDGE: I told you that story because I just wanted you to fall in love with the ship a little bit -- like I did.

NEILSEN: Thank you very much!

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