Banijay-Sold Canneseries Winner ‘Countrymen’ Broken Down by Writer-Director Izer Aliu

One of the top winners announced on Wednesday night at Canneseries was the Banijay-Rights-sold “Countrymen,” from Norwegian pubcaster NRK in co-production with Rubicon and Arte France.

The show took home two awards, one for performance for its whole cast, and a High-School Best Series Prize, voted by students from local lycées.

The long-format TV series was co-written by revered Norwegian screenwriter Anne Bjørnstad (“Lilyhammer,” “Beforeigners”) alongside newcomer writer-director Izer Aliu, whose debut film “Hunting Flies” won him an Amanda Award for best director at Haugesund’s Norwegian Intl. Film Festival. The story follows four Muslim men who move to a rural part of Norway and end up creating Norway’s first halal cheesemaking business. With dark humor, frequently broken to reveal the characters’ inner feelings, “Countrymen” attempts to immerse the audience into a modern multicultural Norway, without taking itself too seriously.

Variety sat down with Izer Aliu in Cannes to talk about the challenge of depicting stereotypes on screen, diversity, and attempting to not be tokenized in a rapidly changing industry:

How did you come up with the idea for the story?

She [Anne Bjørnstad] had the core of the story in the beginning, the main plot, and we worked on it together. I always liked the idea, to do something about stereotypes, I think they’re fun to make, but [only] if you do it with love. Everyone can have stereotypes. It’s good to have stereotypes, but not stereotypes with evil intent. It’s a fine line to balance, because it’s supposed to be something which is funny, but you want to laugh with people, not at people. It’s a classic thing, but also tricky to be able to say things from that stereotype’s point of view. The main character does the most stereotypical thing, so we decided to take the worst stereotypes and work backwards from that, that was interesting.

How did your own personal background influence your contribution to this project?

The core feeling I felt was that I could do this better than anyone else, as an immigrant and a Muslim myself. I moved to Sweden when I was two-years-old, and I moved between Norway and Sweden my whole life. Groups of people in any setting have a constructed culture, migrants especially have a sort of hybrid culture, and I really wanted to include those details of mixed identity in the story. No one wants to be invited into something, they want to be a part of something. It’s not just like ‘hey look what we did for you,’ and I never had that feeling with Anne. It felt very genuine, we had very good talks, and it didn’t feel tokenistic in any way. That’s really important, and it must be mentioned.

More generally speaking, in the Nordic film industry, and in Norway especially, do you find that there’s a push to increase diversity and to tell stories that deal with issues surrounding identity?

Yes. I think you need to tell it with a specific voice, but what is easy for them is to try to say: ‘Let’s let these people tell their story, but then try to form that story to be something else.’ I think in Norway they’re starting to do more work in the area, but I still think we need to make good things right?

Film or TV is a universal language at its base, in its core, and then this identity issue is another layer that you put on top. I think that’s what’s more defining, the who will put the layer on top. Norway is moving in a direction where they’re aware of it at least, and that’s key to everything, then things will start to form around it. But you don’t want to be given anything either. You want to be worth whatever you’re doing. I think it’s a human thing, not just a minority thing. It’s just part of human worth.

Is there anything you did in production to make sure that you were portraying these issues and communities appropriately, and not abusing stereotypes?

We had an Islamic consultant that would be on set to see if things were done at least correctly, because when things are done correctly, that’s when people laugh at themselves, because everyone does observe things. Everyone has observed rituals, right? And I remember this one time, it was just about a character, just eating with his right hand, that’s something people might forget, but that’s the thing that someone who notices can be like “Oh, that’s good.” That’s when they become the character, and that’s when they can live through the character. I think it’s the small details that gives you that, so that’s why it was important to have him.

I think instinctively there were some times where he thought well… why is this being done? But I hope we managed to convey that it’s O.K, sometimes it’s inappropriate but it’s still O.K. because it’s done with humor, so I hope that if it can give people the double feeling then it makes sense.

What were some of your most memorable experiences of making this series?

There was a lot of times where we had to deal with problems, and I’m mostly proud of those things. I come from independent guerrilla filmmaking, so when something brings me back it’s great. I just hate that feeling of not being afraid, I don’t like not being a little bit afraid on set… because it makes you think. When problems arise that’s when you have to think on your feet, and you have to take time but be reactive. For me it becomes more genuine, maybe it’s not good at the time, but for me it’s more meaningful in a way.

Films or TV should be made I think with three phases to everything: You have the raw instinct, you go out and you make it, and there you have the middle part where most things are made; and then you have the final polished part. I believe you should always make it a bit like this, never only the middle.

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