Hot Docs

Norwegian Democrazy Review: The Free Speech Debate Explodes

Hot Docs 2024

6 mins read

Norwegian Democrazy
(Norway, 87 min.)
Dir. Fabien Greenberg, Bård Kjøge Rønning
Programme: The Changing Face of Europe


Lars Thorsen is a fetid asshole. In a long line of truly execrable creatures captured in films, he’s among the most sordid. With pallid features, a gormless air, and an absolutely acidic mix of self-confidence and ignorance, his appalling behaviour is both shocking and ridiculous, manifesting the chaos of a toddler with the sociopathy of a terrorist.

And yet, according to many who interpret Norway’s liberal laws protecting speech and political expression, he’s free to be such a vile human, with his behaviour even protected from interference by the powers of the police.

Thorsen and his retinue of revolting humans who form Stop the Islamization of Norway (SIAN) are the subjects of Fabien Greenberg and Bård Kjøge Rønning’s brilliant film Norwegian Democrazy, a stunning work of journalistic impact, tenacious filmmaking, and the almost superhuman capacity to be in the presence of such vile individuals for a truly heroic multi-year shoot.

Captured over three years, we see Thorsen and his companions engage in public speech, taking the form of burning Qu’rans, spewing hateful rhetoric about the nature of Islam, and decrying what they believe to be the sullying of a “pure” Norwegian culture. Weaponizing just enough half-truths and misheard facts, Thorsen is an Internet troll who leaves the confines of anonymity to sit in the public square, making use of his rights for expression to cause offence to almost all within earshot.

Greenberg and Kjøge Rønning’s film exhibits a quiet patience, allowing their subject to simply dig his own rhetorical holes. The more he speaks, the more foolish and banal he appears, just as the claims of those around him falter with even the most modest of prodding.

We meet a young counter-protester named Axel who chooses the same mechanism – speech – to engage with these hateful individuals and challenge their demonstrations. In doing such engagement, SIAN members’ even less manifest beliefs that transcend mere Islamophobia and venture into legally dubious eras of race superiority claims come to the fore. It’s fascinating to see the child-like expressions when hints of full-on racism are danced around, as if the other behaviour is more palatable, but the other repellant views are only to be shared among like-minded individuals.

Simply put, Norwegian Democrazy is one of the most powerful documentations of the grey areas of public discourse, stretching to the breaking point the limits even the most open-minded about their advocacy for freedom of speech. While defending views you already agree with is simple enough, it’s these edge cases that truly test one’s own limits, placing the preposterous actions and announcements of Thorsen and his horde in the context of larger philosophical questions about liberty.

The film itself exercises caution, blurring out the T-shirts displaying images that many find offensive, or even the acts of book-burning themselves. It’s a notable point of restraint, of course, but by the same factor, those who strongly believe that what Thorsen and his comrades are doing amounts to a hate crime should be able to at least engage with the film and its focus on its own terms.

Some of the most powerful parts of the film are the various points of view captured in vox populi form, with various individuals from a wide swath of Norwegian society speaking their own truths. It’s but another way in which the film illustrates the power of conversation, and that, for some at least, the buttress against bad ideas is the ability to free express contrary ideas, rather than supressing behaviour on any of the myriad sides. Despite being such an “edge” case, the reactions to Thorsen’s behaviour often exhibit a deep humanity and are presented with nuance sorely lacking in the words and actions that many solidly contradict.

There’s no more timely, no more powerful film about the notion of free expression presented at this year’s festival, and it is both a triumph of documentary filmmaking and a testament to a programming selection that wisely chose to showcase such a work. The end result is a brilliant examination of a deeply unsettling issue, the most assiduously sane articulation of these facets of our crazy world so blisteringly captured in Norwegian Democrazy.

Norwegian Democrazy premiered at Hot Docs 2024.

Read more about the film in our interview with Fabien Greenberg and Bård Kjøge Rønning.


Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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