Success Against the Odds: A (Not So) Brief and (Partly) Informal History

in 13rd Tromsø International Film Festival

by Ellen Margrethe Sand

In 1990, when Mr. Hans Henrik Berg, head of the local, municipal cinemas in the town of Tromsoe in Northern Norway, announced his plans to establish an “international film festival” in January, the Norwegian film business reacted with not much more than a smile.

Mr. Berg’s ambition was manifold. He wanted to create a major cinema event and a celebration for his own public, the town’s own inhabitants. (Tromsoe has an historic and remarkable position as a cultural, fashion, industrial and commercial centre).

His ambition was also to allow an opening for quality films that were often presented at international festivals, but seldom available to the public as part of a regular cinema programme.

His firm belief was that the public, once presented with quality films, would demand more of the same. And in consequence, that this demand would result in braver programming by distributors and TV-channels.

At the time, not many shared his belief, pointing, for a start, to Norway’s sparse population of only four million people. A poor potential for any kind of niche “product”, let alone a “non-commercial” one. But Mr. Berg proved to be right.

Still – the doubts of the established Norwegian film industry were quite understandable.

In the Arctic

First: Tromsoe is situated way north of the Arctic Circle. If follows westward around the globe, the altitude of Tromsø (69 degrees 39 minutes North) continues well north of Iceland, cuts through the middle of Greenland and Baffin Island (Canada), passes way north of the Bering Strait, then along the northernmost tundras of Siberia.

This means that in January, Tromsoe is not only cold, it is dark. Or rather: It has blue and beautiful winter daylight, further brightened by the snow that normally covers the city, its streets and surrounding mountains. But when the sun has set one night in early November, it does not reappear until January 21st.

(The reason that Tromsoe still offers more vibrant life than most communities along its altitude, is a warm ocean current (The Gulf Stream), that provides a milder climate along the Norwegian coastline).

Second: Tromsoe – a city of 60, 000 inhabitants – had only two cinemas. Not two cinema complexes. Two movie screens. (One of them: Europe’s oldest and still beautifully preserved cinema “Verdensteatret” (The Theatre of the World), built in 1917.

For the duration of the festival, a third and well-functioning theatre is added: the city’s modern and beautiful Cultural Centre (Kulturhuset).

Third: Tromsoe is situated 2000 kilometres north of Oslo, as far from the north of the Norwegian capital as Northern Italy is from the south. In other words: if you set out for Tromsoe from let’s say Southern France, once you reach Oslo, you’re only mid-way there.

Opening year – “Annus Horribilis”

The 1st Tromsø International Film Festival opened in January 1991. Among seemingly very few phenomena that not even Mr. Berg could control, was the US Government. It was also Norwegian royalty. As the film festival opened, so did the US bombing of Iraq. As the festival had just started, Norway’s King Olav 5th – deeply respected and loved by the Norwegian people – died. While the world worried, the Norwegians worried – and grieved.

Mr. Berg decided to tone down the festivities, but keep the festival going. By closing time 5,500 visits had been paid to the festival’s screenings of altogether 19 films.

This year – the 13th International Film Festival in Tromsø (January 14th to 19th 2003) – almost 40, 000 (38,819) visitors were counted at the 115 screenings of 60 festival films from 29 countries.


During its first ten years, Mr. Berg and his then head of programming – Tor Fosse – assisted by a small, but hard-working staff – succeeded in making the festival a “must” for the film business, press and local audience. They did so through a remarkable mix of strategy and quality (films in the programme). For example, Mr. Berg made sure the nation’s (and some foreign) film critics and journalists would attend, by offering special conditions should they choose the Tromsø festival as a suitable time and location for their annual seminar. A few years later, the organisation for Norway’s cinema directors was invited to gather for their bi-monthly, two-day presentations (“Filmtreff”) of coming films (in ordinary distribution) during the festival.

To attract a further “buzz” and celebrities, a minimum of one new Norwegian movie was invited to have its “world premiere” at the festival – a quickly established tradition.


Locally, the 7,000 students at Tromsø University represented a major part of the audience. During the first years of the festival, they truly appeared as a highly motivated majority of the festival public – along with visiting business and movie guests from Norway and abroad.

The students’ enthusiasm caught on to a general awareness, strongly helped by keen coverage in the local press. Today youngsters, students, young adults, families and the elderly queue up in the cinema lobbies or around the block for screenings, supplying a special vibrancy and authenticity to the festival and the town.

Most of the major, national newspapers, film magazines, TV and radio channels cover the festival, more or less on a daily basis throughout the festival.


The impact of the festival in the development of a general, public awareness of non-commercial films in Norway can of course never be statistically proved. But any close observer can see a clear connection.

Already during the first years, the public, Norwegian TV-channel NRK (Norsk Rikskringkastning) had representatives at the festival, resulting in a TV-airing of a few of the festival favourites.

The same went for certain distributors, who would follow up by importing films after observing the reception of the Tromsoe audience.


In recent years, two new festivals for non-commercial films have established themselves in Norway – undoubtedly inspired by the Tromsoe experience:

1) The Oslo International Film Festival (annually in November), established in 1993 (sprung out of the Oslo Film Fest, originally connected to a music- and film club).

2) The Bergen International Film Festival (BIFF) (annually in October), established year 2000 by the municipal cinema Bergen Kino, programmed and headed by Mr. Tor Fosse – the crucial, first programmer of the Tromsø festival, now back in his native city.

Both festivals are open to the public, aimed mainly at combining a public event with press, business and artistic participation.

(The well established Haugesund International Film Festival (August) is – in contrast – mainly for the press and business, presenting mainly commercial films already imported.)

Critical point

Next year a new cinema complex will appear in Tromsoe’s new city hall – now under construction – and be operative for the festival in January 2005.

However, by closure time of its 13th festival, the Tromsoe event – it seems to me – is at a critical point. Quality, strategy, effort, enthusiasm and a certain exoticism have together established its success. But only quality can ensure its position in the years ahead in an increasingly competitive festival world.

By now Tromsoe’s days as a “novelty” certainly are over, and «exoticism» may please tourists, but is hardly enough, in itself, to please film buffs and business people.

This year, the 18 films in the competition section were interesting – still offering few extraordinary, glittering highlights. This may not be a sign of danger – at the end of an international festival year – I am informed – there is generally a rather gloomy mood.

Still – for a festival truly on the outskirts of the world, quality is more important than to other, more centrally positioned events. The one thing that the Tromsoe programmers can not afford is to become slack in their ambition.

Also: Aiming at the world, being an international film festival, the Tromsoe staff must acknowledge the need for a universally accessible presentation.

In later years, the festival has increasingly taken on the responsibility as an outlet and a window into regional and local films in side-programmes.

This is, of course, highly inspiring, also giving contrast, colour and authenticity to the main events.

But its criterion is still “international” – and translation and accessibility to any film, any material, information or stage presentation should therefore – self-evidently and without exception – be given also in English.

Being “local” certainly is being “universal”. Being “provincial” – certainly – is not.