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Is Pioneer Norway’s next big hit?

We hear the story behind the deep-sea conspiracy thriller that’s starring at this month’s Toronto Film Festival

Is Pioneer Norway’s next big hit?

Norway’s films have been making a quiet splash in recent years. Jo Nesbø adaptation Headhunters received BAFTA and Amanda nominations in 2012, and Kon-Tiki drew Golden Globe and Oscar nominations this year. But Pioneer, which has a coveted Special Presentation slot at this month’s Toronto Film Festival, could well be bigger than both.

The film, directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg (Insomnia, Prozac Nation) and starring prolific actor Aksel Hennie (Headhunters, Max Manus), is about a deep-sea diver at the start of the Norwegian oil boom in the early 80s, who has to dive 500m to the bottom of the Norwegian Sea to assess the possibility of laying an oil pipeline. His dream of being a pioneer – the divers compare themselves to astronauts – turns to a nightmare when his brother is killed on a dive, and the chain of events that follows is inspired by 1970s thrillers like Chinatown and The Conversation.

The film, though fiction, is rooted in fact – according to Norwegian pressure group the North Sea Divers Alliance (NSDA), 56 deep-sea divers died in the North Sea between 1965 and 1990, five of them Norwegian, often from diving to more than twice the recommended depth. In 2006, Norwegian Film School graduates Cathinka Nicolaysen and Kathrine Valen Zeiner came to producer Christian Fredrik Martin with the idea to research the divers for a movie. They set up shop in Bergen, where there’s a dive research centre, and spent almost two years interviewing divers and researchers who were around in the Norwegian oil boom of the late 1970s and early ’80s.

“The more we dug, the more fascinating the story became,” says Martin, who was also an executive producer on Headhunters. “You had guys spending weeks in tanks pressurised to 400m to prepare for a dive. One lost 10kg in a week; others reported hallucinations and said that breathing gas is like breathing milk. A number of the 250 to 300 divers had long-term neurological damage that’s been linked to diving.”

Martin decided he wanted to make a thriller and contacted Skjoldbjærg, whose claustrophobic 1997 debut Insomnia is considered a modern Norwegian classic. Now Pioneer seems set to cement Norway’s reputation for producing quality realist cinema. “There’s never been as much demand for Norwegian film as now,” says Martin. “Ever since the Norwegian Film School opened in the early 2000s, we’ve been going in the right direction. Headhunters was a breakthrough, but we hope Pioneer can take it further.” 
Pioneer was released on 30 August

VIEW PIONEER TRAILER ONLINE

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