Sweden (2011) Dir. Ruben Östlund
One of the skills of a good story teller, or in this case filmmaker, is the ability to play with the audience’s sense of perception. This may be challenged by a plot twist or a surprise ending but the most efficient method is through the subtle disarming of the audience’s awareness that they don’t even realise that they are watching something with a completely different purpose to what they think the film is about.
Ruben Östlund’s Play, a bold depiction of the actions of a group of immigrant kids, does just that – and such is the polarising effect of the differing perceptions of what is shown, it created intense debate in the Swedish media upon its release in 2011 it with dividing opinions on the sensitivity of its central story which, shockingly, was based on real life events.
The story is rather straightforward – a group of five black young teens, lead by Kevin (Kevin Vaz), prey upon smaller white boys with an elaborate plan to steal their mobile phones. The plan is not only elaborate but also rather ingenious, especially for such young perpetrators, although this is not an endorsement of their actions.
How it works is thus: one or two of the boys approach the unwitting victims to ask for the time, hoping they use a mobile phone to check. If so, one boy will suggest it is the same phone “his brother” lost when mugged a week before. Since the victim wisely won’t blindly hand the phone over they are cajoled by the whole gang to meet the brother to confirm if it is the same phone.
As it plays out, no violence or direct threats are made towards the victims but the potential threat is enough and strength in numbers works in the favour of the gang, what with their younger victims being so easily intimidated.
The three young white boys targeted this time are Sebastian (Sebastian Blyckert), Alex (Sebastian Hegmar) and John (John Ortiz) who is of Asian origin, with Sebastian being the principle target. The trio are taken across town via bus and train rides to a remote woodland area where the resolve goes down, again without violence but the result of astute psychological manipulation and suggestion.
By now you have probably figured out that the controversy surrounding this film is by having the main antagonists being black, leading to accusations of racism on both the part of Östlund’s intent and the way the black kids are presented here. But this isn’t the case at all since the question of race never enters into the gang’s dialogue; if anything shouldn’t the accusation be aimed at the gang for discriminately targeting white kids?
Herein lies the double edged sword Östlund is brandishing here since we know if it were the other way round it would be a different story. Lest we forget this is based on true court cases so slinging mud at Östlund for presenting us with something which is a matter of public record is rather erroneous.
A key scene in which the gang torment a man on a bus listening to music on his quality headphones tells us that they are acutely aware of their colour and how much power the cry of racism holds over a white community.
As the man is humiliated the rest of the passengers do nothing, turning away as it’s not their problem which the boys exploit to the fullest. At one point, Sebastian is told “If you’re going to show your phone to a group of five black guys, you’ve only got yourself to blame”.
The final act is where the pieces come together and offer a wider explanation behind what we have seen. This doesn’t justify the actions but it opens our eyes to the rationale and motivations behind the gang’s nefarious schemes. The issue really isn’t the colour of anyone’s skin but more a rebellion against social status.
As immigrants the blacks presumably receive a lot of grief from their white hosts and are at the bottom of the totem; the boys being picked on appear to be middle classed – John has a clarinet worth 5,000 Kronor in his possession which lights their eyes up.
Obviously the message or intent behind the film is open to interpretation but for this writer Östlund is holding the race card mirror up at both the black and white communities and how it is as much a weapon as a shield in both hands.
With the stark also documentary style presentation and naturalistic performances from the non-professional young cast, it is therefore down the individual how they interpret, reconcile and ultimately decide their attitudes on the central subject.
There is a somewhat incongruous subplot of a wooden baby cradle left on a train that periodically surfaces to the point of frustration at its randomness until a possibly coincidental purpose is gained in the final act. Östlund is playing with us here trying to inject some distracting humour into this powerfully divisive film.
The shooting style is very esoteric with long static single shots in which Östlund allows the cast and the action to wander out of frame, or take place at a distance. This puts the viewer squarely in the role of observer and we almost helplessly look on, powerless to interfere or offer any kind of voice to the situation. It may be a film but if feels very real and this I believe is the galvanising effect it is supposed to engender.
It is difficult to not feel somewhat manipulated by what we are shown in Play but this is manipulation in a positive sense. Some may find the extraneous asides pointless (which they are) and the run time a little to long for what is such a confrontational film but one cannot deny the sheer provocative power and incisive social commentary it possesses.
A distinctly European film with an unequivocally universal message.