Provocateur Mads Brügger’s highly debated documentary series The Black Swan may very well end up being this year’s most talked about programme on Danish TV. Is it necessary to challenge traditional journalistic values to reach larger audiences?

“If you walk down the wrong road, you will get a shot in the neck,” says narcotics dealer “Wassem”. The hooded man is obviously not kidding. He’s threatening Amira Smajic, a lawyer with many years of experience in money laundering, but he has no idea how far Amira Smajic already has gone down what he deems “the wrong road”.

Smajic is filming their conversation for a documentary that will show on Danish broadcaster TV 2 and abroad. And that’s not all that has been recorded. During the 250 minutes of documentary series The Black Swan (Den sorte svane), hidden cameras record Smajic talking fraud, money laundering and other criminal activities with roughly 20 people - dealers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, ex-politicians, and a hardened criminal who claims to be torturing and killing people in Pakistan. The Black Swan clearly documents shady connections between the underworld and the upper class.

As Mads Brügger, the director of the series, says at the end of episode 1: “Scientists use the expression ‘black swan’ for occurences that could suddenly change the way we see the world. If Amira Smajic goes all the way, she might end up as a black swan, a messenger that will force us to rethink Danish society.” That may already be the case. The Danish Minister of Justice was “furious, outraged and shocked” after watching The Black Swan. The Danish federation of lawyers apologised for the actions of two esteemed lawyers in the series. All over the nation you could hear people discussing The Black Swan after its premiere in late May.

While the people on the street were talking about the cynicism and disrespect for society on the part of the criminals, journalists debated the ethics of Brügger. Hidden cameras are always controversial, especially when the lawbreakers they record are easily recognisable and their names clearly mentioned, but the journalists were mostly concerned with Amira Smajic. Is she mentally stable? Can we trust her? She’s tricked loads of people during the years; so why not Brügger, TV 2 and the viewers as well? Brügger discusses this in the last episode of The Black Swan, and he endorses the fact that there is no clear answer. Is this ethical journalism?

When asked if it’s necessary for modern documentaries to go beyond traditional journalism - even ethics - to reach a large audience, Mads Brügger says: “A lot of journalism today suffers from being void of experience. We have some very fixed conventions and assumptions telling us what is possible and what is not possible. It has been interesting to observe some critics’ reaction to The Black Swan, like ‘we all knew there were connections between the underworld and the upper class’. So what have you done about this? Why haven’t you documented it? There’s a large audience with a need to see this with their own eyes. What language does it take to document that? How do the filmmakers act? How do you treat this subject? The great strength of documentaries is that they have the power to challenge and shape reality.”

The concept of shaping reality is central to Brügger’s work. The 51 year old director has often appeared as fictional characters in his own films, most notably in The Ambassador (Ambassadøren, 2011), in which he dressed up as an old fashioned colonial diplomat with a wish to buy diamonds in The Central African Republic. His documentaries have found their own balance between political satire, anthropologist examination, and spy films. The Black Swan has a bleaker tone than his previous documentaries, but it is, essentially, a documentary disguised as a spy thriller.

The Black Swan is not the only Nordic documentary to start a debate this May. In Sweden, the program Kalla Fakta on TV4 was able to document that the right wing-party The Sweden Democrats had created a troll factory with the aim to spread false information and attack political opponents. Like in The Black Swan, the approach in Kalla Fakta: Undercover i trollfabriken confronted ethics, as a journalist never revealed that he was a member of the press when he infiltrated The Sweden Democrats and used hidden cameras.

When asked if the use of controversial tools is necessary in order to reach a larger audience these days, Daniel Andersson, who went undercover in the political troll factory, says: “I don’t think controversiality itself is what attracts attention. In our case, the use of hidden cameras to reveal the story was merely a necessity. To make an impact, the most important thing for a documentary is to raise a question that in one way or another is relevant to people’s lives, and to tell that story in as interesting a way as possible.”

What’s perhaps most surprising about The Black Swan and Kalla Fakta: Undercover i trollfabriken is that they both manage to engage a large audience at a time when the media are suffering from news fatigue. A lot of people seem to be unable to cope with the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, not to mention a climate crisis. Instead, the need for mindless entertainment, like short films on YouTube, seems enormous.

“I believe that people in general do like to learn new things,” says Daniel Andersson, “for example through watching investigative documentaries. But the competition for people’s attention is bigger now than ever before. This puts documentary producers and journalists to the task of conveying information in the most interesting way possible without spicing up reality.”

Mads Brügger agrees: “Conventional wisdom tells us that people are not interested in investigative journalism or complex issues, and that they only want to see YouTube videos that last 15 minutes. But if you handle the subjects in radical way and avoid the clichés and formulas that are connected to certain subjects, it’s possible to reactivate people’s engagement. When that happens, and that’s once in a blue moon, it’s the most fantastic experience you can have as a documentarist. That’s what it’s all about. Some film directors and journalists get very cynical with age, and claim that film, art or journalism can’t change the world. Forget that attitude. It can!”