Savina Petkova on Ulaa Salim’s ‘Sons of Denmark‘ (2019)
With discussions around Brexit/EU and Trump/Mexico, new stories perpetuate themes of discrimination and intolerance within the supposed era of equal rights. Whether it is the duration of news or the healthy forgetfulness that aids our European minds, the fact that we still live in a state of exception (a silent version of war times) since 9/11 remains muffled. Ulaa Salim, a Danish director of Iraqi origin, uses his family’s refugee experience to tell a fictional story — in 2025, an extreme right-wing government threatens to expel all immigrants from Denmark following a terrorist attack, blamed on Copenhagen Muslims.
While we think of Scandinavian countries as socially progressive and adept at handling political crises, one cannot help but recall 2018’s two adaptations of the Norwegian Massacre, carried out by Anders Breivik in 2011 — Utoya, 22 July (2018) and 22 July (2018). Much of the discussion around the handling of terror attacks revolve around the ethics of representation under the veil of film fiction (even in the documentary genre). Either allegedly popularising or glamorising the killer, these films are an attempt to come to terms with a gruesome act that has shaken our notion of humanity.
While both films are cinematic treatments of a deep wound in Scandinavian consciousness, popular culture has a way of neutralising its political distress by normalising minority representations as equally Norwegian. The enormous popularity of Skam / Shame (2015-2017), a Norwegian online series that engaging with the ethics of equal representation. One of its seasons is told from the perspective of a homosexual boy, and last season dives into the world of a Muslim teenage girl. In this tradition, Sons of Denmark treads carefully with its fictitious narrative and naturalistic approach. The film’s aesthetics are genre-specific to the slow-burning political thriller, with several grieving songs puncturing the narrative, the eternal symbol of a suffering, yet powerless mother (or motherland?)
Salim’s first feature film represents a near future that seems to come too soon – the film’s loquacious catalyst figure, Martin Nordahl (Rasmus Bjerg), rises from a Nationalist party leader to a Prime Minister with the intent to “throw away all the immigrants”, claiming to protect the nation from crime and war. The film’s backdrop is the mutually fuelled hate-crimes between Muslim minorities and an extremist group called “Sons of Denmark”, that also reflects Nordahl’s rise to popularity and power. Against this background, 19-year-old Zakaria (Mohammed Ismail Mohammed) decides to join an anti-extremist group to assassinate the Nationalist leader. Paired with Ali (Zaki Youssef), the young man leaves his loving family behind with a sincere sense of tragedy, using the same motif of protection as the basis to join a criminal gang. Sons of Denmark bashes the language of sovereign care as well as democratic protection to criticise our contemporary political state of virtual war, while the government uses the language of emotion, masking extreme measures as protection.
The film’s biggest advantage is character portrayal and the gripping performance of Youssef as a tacit fighter for peace and justice. While the plot unfolds, Ali’s character acts as a moral normativity, while taking in both enemy sides’ weaknesses. As it turns out, man is capable of all, and it takes Salim’s directorial sensibility to keep the film afloat while it’s drained in hopelessness and grief, forming a single, nuanced personification of inner struggles in a time of war, where all weapons are considered fair.
Sons of Denmark navigates within a minefield straight to the negligent heart of Proud Europe, confronting the viewer with imagery of physical assaults, acid attacks, bloody walls, and a never-ending cycle of violence that begets even more violent outpour. While the characters seem a bit too typical in their functions, the real issue at stake is the potential therapeutic power of fiction. If we are able to talk about the imminent dangers of political extremism in terms of fictionalised quasi-dystopian future, how are we supposed to adjust our present spectatorial ethic? As a debut feature, Sons of Denmark is fearless, atrocious, and ambitious with its desperate hero ending, yet it leaves one pondering if we are able to be frank rather than dystopian about our present, not only our political future.
Showing in cinemas 3 December 2019