When Ruben Östlund’s film Play premiered in Sweden in November 2011, it became debated to an extent rarely seen for modern films. The provocative storyline has three white kids harassed and robbed by five kids who are a few years older than them. And black. On November 18th, a week after the premiere, Jonas Hassen Khemeri published an article called “47 reasons that I cried when I saw Ruben Östlund’s film Play“, which listed instances where the film was apparently racist. A heated, month-long debate followed, back and forth, over whether the film was racist, anti-racist, about class, about abuse of power, or about the rawness of the life of children. What was rarely in dispute, though, was that the film, from an artistic perspective, was immensely well made. At the 2012 Guldbagge awards, Play won for Best Director and Best Cinematography, but lost Best Film to Lisa Aschan’s somewhat less knownShe Monkeys (Apflickorna). Play took revenge by being the Swedish nominee for that years Nordic Film Prize, which it won, cementing it’s place as one of the most significant Scandinavian films of the decade. But while the formalistic brilliantness of the film was never in doubt, few of the participants in the debate over the film took its rigorous style into consideration. But by analysing the style of the film, rather than the dialogue or action, we can arrive at a surprising conclusion: The camera seems to be on the side of the black kids.
What is immediately noticeable about the film is the duration of the shots, and how many of them are long shots. The first shot of the film follows two white boys – who we’ll never see again – in a shopping mall, moves over to a group of five black kids, back over to the white boys, who is approached by two of the black kids, back over to two black kids talking, calling the remaining black kids over, and then the camera follows as the black kids walk over to the white kids, bringing the seven kids together for the first time. The shot is six minutes long, and filmed from the second floor of the shopping mall, with the camera slowly zooming in on the kids on the ground floor. Second shot is of a train cabin, with announcements playing over the PA, which continues playing as the film cuts to acting credits. The third and fourth shot constitutes a strange sequence, first of startled passers-by looking directly into the camera, then of what they are looking at: A pan flute band in full Native American regalia, which then begins playing and dancing in front of a statue. Then, cut to a crowd of people on a stairwell, shot in a way that we can only see them from their knees to half of their heads. After they move we see the point of the shot: three kids standing in an adjacent room behind a glass door. Thus, after ten minutes of the film, are we introduced to the three main characters. Of course, after they leave down the stairs, the camera lingers for half a minute, filming an employee cleaning the glass door.
What this long first section of the film is introducing is not just the principal situations of the film, but also an appreciation for urban architecture, as well as a willingness to play with space and time. And here’s the thing: this playfulness is shared only by the black kids – or the pan flute band. In the shopping centre, the black kids are playing, throwing balls at each other, running up and down on escalators, while all the white kids are always filmed with shopping bags or soft drinks in their hands. Like the camera, the black kids are repurposing urban space for their own enjoyment, while the white kids are acting exactly like society wants them to: consuming. And while this might seem like a small thing, this kind of repurposing of urban space has a significant intellectual history. German critic Walther Benjamin wrote about the Passages of Paris, and how flaneurs like famous poet Baudelaire would walk around in these new spaces. French scholar Michel de Certeau wrote in his book ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’ on how the use of space against its intended purpose could be seen as a kind of creative resistance. And scholars Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wrote about the ‘Nomad’ of the world, who works against striations of space, with what they dubbed a ‘War Machine’. The Nomad with his War Machine, the flaneur, the Everyday Walker, these are disrupting forces in the modern world. And they are commonly seen as ideals. In the Swedish film Microtopia (Jesper Wachtmeister, 2013), a documentary on the need to think modern space differently, the nomad is invoked as someone good, able to use the city in a different, more efficient way. But in Play, the nomad-characters, the black kids, are annoying, loud and violent. A few of them seem to be psychotic. They are playing, but they aren’t playing with the Swedish world out of choice – the way a few white characters are playing with black culture, reggae, dreadlocks and African dancing – but out of resentment, anger and bitterness. There is therefore doubleness to these characters: They are acting in ways that theoretically has a lot of positive connotations, yet they are undoubtedly problematic. They aren’t subverting society in the ‘correct’ way, as told by French philosophers or Swedish architects. Or, they are showing, that subversion is fundamentally a violent and disturbing activity.
But while there is doubleness to the black characters, it’s probably safe to say that the white characters in the film are portrayed negatively. Nobody among the white characters knows how to handle the black troublemakers. Once someone acts against the informal rules of society, they become completely paralysed. When the white kids ask for help from the threatening black kids in a café, they are basically told that nothing can be done until something really bad happens. Many of the confrontations in the film take place in crowded areas, yet nobody intervenes. After the traumatized white kids return home on a tram, without money or phones, they are ticketed by two moralizing attendants uninterested in the circumstances that led to the kids travelling without tickets. Two times are black kids confronted by white people, once by the older brothers of a former victim, and at the end of the film by the father of another victim. Both times the confrontations are pretty violent, and both times the white people confiscate phones from the black kids, even though they admit they aren’t the phones that were stolen. The only logic the white people can handle is materialism or law. The final twist of the film feature two white adults in a heated discussion of the fathers earlier treatment of one of the black kids, and they can only refer to law: ‘He robs mobile phones’ ‘You acted like a vigilante.’ What the film shows is a Swedish society so normalized, that nobody knows how to handle transgressions of the norms, unless the law is broken, or valuables can be returned. It could be said, that the reception of the film showed the same thing: Society wasn’t ready for a film so transgressive, in style as well as content.
I’ve used ‘white’ and ‘black’ as easy designators, even though the film is more complex than that. One of the ‘white’ kids is asian, and when the ‘black’ kids are playing on the phone, they call themselves ‘Muhammed’ and speak Arabic. Yet the complex backgrounds of all the characters are in their confrontation reduced to ‘white’ vs ‘black’, ‘Swedish’ vs ‘immigrant’, which of course is a point of the film.