Origins

This is an essay on how this project began on my part.

Let me take you back to 2005. It’s getting close to Christmas, and I’m out doing last minute shopping. Oslo is cold and snowy, and decorated with the gaudy lights and street decorations typical for the Christmas season. I decide to visit the legendary bookstore Tronsmo, which since the early seventies has been ground zero for alternative literature and comics here in Norway. (If you’re ever in these parts make sure to stop by!)

On this particular afternoon, the cramped store is filled with other shoppers so it’s a little hard to move around. But there – just a few meters inside from the entrance – is a smallish table set aside for titles recommended by the staff, as well as the best selling titles. On a sort of pedestal, one book is elevated above the others. I take a closer look. “Ninjateknikk II: Usynlighet i Strid 1978 av Arne Treholt“.

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Front cover of "Ninjateknikk II..." (Oktober Forlag hardcover edition).

Wait a minute. Arne Treholt? The defendant in Norway’s biggest ever espionage case in the mid eighties, the man who according to the media and jury at the time sold state secrets to the Soviet Union and Iraq, and was demonized as a greedy, high-living gambler and womanizer? Still, even among his enemies, he was known as a skilled diplomat, highly intelligent and charismatic. A bona fide wonderboy of Norwegian political life and foreign affairs until his spectacular fall in a highly controversial court case. Was he a ninja?

I remember thinking: “Someone is having a laugh here”, and picked up the book for a closer look. It was a military instructional manual for ninja techniques, including stealth, invisibility, evasion and spiritual techniques. Illustrated by photos that reminded me of my dad’s Jiu Jitsu manual of the same late seventies era, and perhaps the photo novellas of my grandmother’s weekly celebrity magazines. The presentation was impeccable, and totally believable. The text was terse and down to earth, matter of factly dispensing out its words of wisdom to the aspiring ninja. And the imprint read “© Specialkommandoen 1978” and had a catalog number just like any other military manual (UD 17-45).

Ninjateknikk_anim
Collage of images from the book.

My brain got simultaneously bombarded with two things – signals that this was all real, and signals that this was an elaborate hoax. Because it just couldn’t be! But… it could, too! Treholt is a man greatly mythologized, especially by those out to get him. I didn’t know whether to laugh it off or get paranoid about how little I knew about the world, Arne Treholt and what goes on in secret military units.

In the end, I set the book down. I couldn’t buy it then. It was too disturbing.

I wouldn’t find my peace with the book, and its idea that Treholt was a secret military ninja commander, until almost one year later. So lets jump forward to September of 2006. It’s the gala premiére night of my first feature film as producer, “Sønner” (“Sons”). In the audience were cast, crew, friends and family. It was great. One of the people I made sure to invite was photographer Ellen Ugelstad, who I’d met on holiday in San Francisco in the late 90s through a mutual friend. When she had her first exhibition in Norway, she sent me an invitation. So when I had my debut, I was happy to reciprocate.

A few days later, Ellen calls me and says: “I have a friend you should meet. He’s got this movie project”. Now, let’s stop right here for a minute. I get this a lot. It comes with the territory of my job as a producer. A lot of people tend to have the perfect friend (or friend of a friend, or distant relative) with a project that I just have to check out. I most cases, say 9 out of 10, this doesn’t pan out – for any number of reasons. But you never know, in this mysterious world of ours, how connections are made that will last for a long time. So most of the time, if I’m not too busy or focused on other things, I actually will check out these things. Who knows what may come up, right?

Mads Ousdal as Kommandør Arne Treholt. Photo by Ellen Ugelstad
Mads Ousdal as "Kommandør Arne Treholt". Photo by Ellen Ugelstad

So the follow-up went something like this: I asked Ellen what kind of a project this was, she says it was a ninja movie (okay, this is getting interesting) and furthermore, that it was written by “the same guy who did the Treholt book”. BANG! That’s the sound of my brain connecting the dots. The half-finished process in my cortex that had started the year before but never reached its conclusion, suddenly came rushing back. The questions: is it real? Is it fake? Who is this guy? What’s the story? What the hell?

Following this, I received a document by email entitled “Kommandør Treholt & Ninjatroppen”, by Thomas Cappelen Malling. A pitch for a movie that described itself as a “Documentarian / Nature punk / Sci-Fi/ Steampunk / Roadmovie / Comedy / Satire“. With Norwegian ninjas led by Arne Treholt. No less! It was delicious, and needless to say I was thoroughly hooked.

Then, on October the 18th, 2006 (according to my calendar), Thomas and I met for the first time, and began the process of developing the project.

Over the course of the three years that have passed since then, I’ve met many people who’ve had the same, uneasy reaction to the book as myself. It’s quite powerful, because it simply doesn’t add up. In the same way that many enigmas of the Treholt case still linger and itch, the book – and hopefully the movie – can force you to realize that the notion of truth, of historic fact, is just as plastic and mutable as any work of fiction – depending on your point of view. It’s a rich and confusing world out there. Let’s embrace and accept that.

Just like the ninjas.