Zetland: Be a part of journalism

Suicide, warlords and community song in focus as Zetland Live visited Aarhus. With a mix of reporting and theater, the journalistic stage show told emotional stories about human life.

By Ole Krogsgaard

”A couple of years ago, I was kidnapped by the Taliban”.

The opening lines from Nagieb Khaja are dramatic, to say the least. The thickset Danish journalist with Afghan roots stands alone center stage in Musikhuset. A chaotic video, recorded by Khaja, of Taliban fighters mounting a machine gun amidst explosions is shown in the background.

The kidnapping did not deter Khaja, a seasoned war reporter who has reported conflicts in Gaza and Syria. He went back to Afghanistan shortly after, but this time to embed himself with the Taliban. Our enemy. Wednesday evening he stood on stage and tried to explain why he is willing to put his life on the line for his journalistic work.  

He was put on the stage by Zetland Live, who on Wednesday evening held a show in Aarhus for the first time. The mission of the small journalistic bureau is nothing less than to save quality Danish journalism. They do it through publication of long format journalistic pieces, their so-called singles, and through live shows, that are best understood as a mix between a journalistic magazine, a live talk show and a theater show. This was their seventh live show and the very first one outside of their home base in Copenhagen.

During the 90 minutes, the audience was guided through 12 different pieces ranging from dance show and community song to a powerful story about coping with the suicide of a loved one, featuring the former Danish prime minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, who has devoted himself to the fight against mental illness after he lost his daughter through suicide.

Then of course there was the story of the Danish journalist who chose to document the war in Afghanistan from the Taliban side. Nagieb Khaja introduced the audience of about 500 to an 18 year old Afghan man, who loves American movies, always smokes the hookah and fights for the Taliban. Not because he’s an Islamist fanatic, mind you, but because he feels the American presence in Afghanistan has brought nothing but death and misery. And all he wants to do, Khaja told us, is to get a good education, get married and have kids.

Khaja wants us to know that when we’re killing Taliban soldiers, we are killing real people. Somebody has to tell that story, and as he told the audience: “I’m the only one who’s stupid enough to do it.”

Every Zetland Live show is a one-time affair, an act of rebellion against what the founders see as a current zeitgeist that focuses only on matters that can be quantified, counted and calculated upon. Zetland wants us to think about, and more importantly feel, the intangible things that matter but do not fit into a spreadsheet.

The visual aspect of Zetland

The visual aspect of Zetland included hats and sparkling sweaters. Photo: Marthe Vee

Jutland Station talked to co-founder and editor in chief Lea Korsgaard about the idea behind Zetland Live, the financing of live shows and whether we can expect a show in English anytime soon.

Were you pleased with your first show in Aarhus?

Absolutely! Everything worked out exactly as we had hoped. We did not get to rehearse the show on stage, so seeing everything go according to plan was fantastic. It was great to be in front of a completely new audience in a new city.

What makes Zetland Live special?

The fact that it’s a one-time live event means a lot. That only this audience gets this exact experience creates a very special atmosphere. As a live stage show it might have some things in common with theater, but theaters repeat their show night after night. That we are a one-time thing, and the fact that all the performers are there voluntarily, gives a lot of team spirit and community.

Why is a show like Zetland Live happening now?

I think we are part of a growing tendency, we might actually be one of the frontrunners of this. I definitely think we will see much more journalism as a show on stage, because in a way it is a substitute for paper. As newspapers are dying, journalism is longing for a new kind of psychical frame for itself. And this show gives people a physical place where they can meet and be part of journalism.

Is this the way to profitable journalism?

We know that some big players are making big chunks of their income through event journalism. Even The New York Times has identified this as a way to make money. We are not making any though. These live shows are barely self-sustaining from an economic point of view, and even that is only because our guests are not paid. We have to find a way to actually profit.

Is Aarhus going to see a Zetland Live in English in the future?

We definitely plan to come back to Aarhus. But unfortunately not in English. There is a sense of security for us and our guests in doing it in our native tongue. Our audience might be able to understand English, but we want our guests on stage to be as comfortable as possible in order to provide the best show. We cannot rehearse the show before we perform, so asking people to do it in English would add a layer of insecurity and that would affect the quality of the show.

Ole Krogsgaard is a Danish journalist, based in Aarhus, doing his master’s in journalism and media.