Premiering on TV2 in Norway on Sunday is the channel’s biggest drama effort ever. Occupied is set a few years into the future, when oil production is deliberately ended, and Russia does not like it.
Created by bestselling crime author Jo Nesbø (the Harry Hole and Doctor Proktor franchises), Occupied is a 10-episode science fiction thriller set 5-6 years into the future. Norway has elected a hardcore green party into office and the government has decided to stop all extraction of oil from underneath Norwegian waters. This occurs in a time when the US provides itself with all the energy it needs (and has left NATO), and wars in Arabic countries have strangled all oil pipelines from that region. That’s when the energy crisis hits Europe and Russia, who looks to Norway in order to fuel their cars. Norway has been one of the leading suppliers of oil the last few decades in real life, but in Occupied the government has decided to go green and start with Thorium in stead, a radio active metal that can be found in large quantities and is considered more safe than other radio active substances. Thorium was discovere by a Norwegian, and yes, it is named after the Norse god Thor. The EU asks Russia for help in convincing Norway to resume oil extraction, which leads to a “silk occupation” with “more Russian presence than normal”.
Jo Nesbø started writing drafts and treatments in 2008, and was originally developing the series for state broadcaster NRK. In 2013, NRK decided to back out, citing a number of reasons for leaving what was becoming one of the most expensive Norwegian TV dramas ever. NRK’s head of external drama, Tone C. Rønning, said that one reason was not getting enough out of the series given its time frame. Conflicts between the team of writers and NRK were also mentioned. However, Norway’s largest private broadcaster TV2 were ready to take on the challenge, which was originally planned to cost around 80 million NOK, a budget that ultimately went to 90 million NOK (9.5 million Euro / 10.7 USD), a substansial budget in any Scandinavian TV or film context. In comparison, NRK’s ambitious thriller series Mammon cost 36 million NOK, while the much hyped war feature Max Manus cost 55 million NOK. -The series’ price tag is due to a number of factors, including the creation of many different types of locations, and setting the quality standards high, concept director Erik Skjoldbjærg told TV2 in 2014. A large cast and not moving the production to a low cost country contributed to the costs. The drama series is also an artistic challenge; it is one of extremely few sci-fi TV dramas to have been produced in Norway, so the production had to consider everything from futuristic technology to wether skinny jeans would be fashionable in 2020.
When Nesbø started developing the concept, he did not realize that a few years later, his ideas would be echoed in real life with Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014. While the Russian government opposes the “annexation” label, with president Vladimir Putin defending the events as complying with international law, NATO and many world leaders condemned the event, with North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Afghanistan, Venezuela and Nicaragua being the only UN members recognising the annexation as legal. Occupied does not go as far as the Crimea invasion, but Skjoldbjærg does feel the similarity: -What happened in Crimea makes events in the series feel closer than when they were first presented to us. TV2’s chief of drama Christopher Haug foresaw that the concept could spark debate: -There are many sides to discuss here. This is a fictional situation, and [even though we aim to] create realism in the concept we have decided upon, this is not an attempt to make a documentary or draw a picture of reality. The events are made up and does not mirror the relationship between Norway and Russia, just as it does not mirror the relationship between Norway and the EU nor Norway and the US.
And debate he got. Russian officials have already protested against the series, before any episodes aired. In August this year, the Russian embassy in Oslo issued the following statement:
“Though the series’ authors try to stress that this is a fictional plot that supposedly has nothing to do with reality, this film deals with perfectly real countries, and unfortunately, Russia is cast in the role of the aggressor. It is certainly a shame that, in the year of the 70th anniversary of the victory in World War II, the authors have seemingly forgotten the Soviet Army’s heroic contribution too the liberation off northern Norway from Nazi occupiers, decided, in the worst traditions of the Cold War, to scare Norwegian spectators with the nonexistent threat from the east.”
Norway borders on Russia in the North, which makes it – together with Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden – “Europe’s new front-line states”, according to a report published by Edward Lucas of the Center for European Policy Analysis in June. He also claimed that in March, Russia organized a military exercise that simulated “speedy seizure” of northern Norway and some Finnish, Danish and Swedish territories. In addition, Norway is one of Russia’s rivals in the Arctic areas. As the series was filmed in 2013, lead actress Ane Dahl Torp fueled the fire by telling members of the press that the series does not only set up Russia as a scary enemy, but it also reflects Norwegians’ “uneasiness about being the EU’s gas station”.
Russia is not alone in reacting. Even a Norwegian independent expert on Russia, Bjørn Nistad, a Ph.D in Russian political history, warned against the TV drama: -I think this is very dangerous. Russia is a big neighbour and we should do what we can do have a good relationship with it. [The series] mocks the 2000 Russian soldiers who died during the liberation of Norway’s Northern parts during WW2, and is a mockery of all Russians living in Norway, and of Russians married to Norwegians. I get very upset when they make a series like this, he said to Dagbladet.
Occupied is however, not about marching armies or skies darkened by bomber planes. Nesbø’s concept is about how a silk occupation affects Norway as a wealthy country, when benefits are kept in place and freedom seemingly is exactly as before. If a population keeps its way of life, physical security and jobs, will their will to resist and uphold democracy be reduced? That is the question Nesbø poses to his TV viewers. A theme also explored by French author Michel Houellebecq in Submission, a novel in which an Islamic party legally and democratically takes the power in France. -It is not necessarily so that everyone will rebel, Skjoldbjærg commented. To the newspaper Aftenposen he added: –The main challenge today is not that fiction grows closer to reality, but that those in power have become better at using narrative methods in the presentation of their policies. In the series, the means to define filtering of information and disinformation is one of the themes. The title of the series gets a different meaning when you see the series. Is it really an occupation if your own government – [the one that supposedly is invaded] – denies that that is the case?
Henrik Mestad plays the Norwegian prime minister who announces the controversial decision. He is joined by a cast of both well known actors and relatively new faces, including Eldar Skar as the prime minister’s bodyguard and Ragnhild Gudbrandsen as chief of the Norwegian police’s security agency. They are joined by Ane Dahl Torp (The Wave, Dead Snow, Pioneer), Vegar Hoel (Dead Snow 2, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) and Lisa Loven Kongsli (Tourist, Twigson), among others. The series has been directed by John Andreas Andersen (Captain Sabertooth and the Treasure of Lama Rama, Uno), Eva Sørhaug (Cold Lunch), Erik Richter Strand (Varg Veum) og Pål Sletaune (Next Door, Babycall) with Erik Skjoldbjærg (Insomnia, Nokas) as concept director, from an idea by Jo Nesbø and scripts by Karianne Lund, Erik Skjoldbjærg, Erik Richter Strand, Thomas Solli, Ina Bruhn and Bjørn Paqualin.
Occupied has been produced by Yellow Bird (The girl with the dragon tattoo, Wallander) and has been sold to the UK, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and all the Benelux countries, with more countries to be confirmed later.
Occupied premies on Sunday, October 4th on TV2 at 10.15 pm.