Darkland / Underverden
With a sharp awareness of genre, Fenar Ahmad has kickstarted 2017 in Danish film with a bang with his second feature-length film, Darkland. A meaningful and touching film with an inherent social criticism, Darkland is a fresh and thrilling portrayal of the ‘two worlds’ of Denmark: the overworld and the underworld.
The contemporary Danish society
Darkland doesn’t hide the fact that it is analysing the two sides of Danish society: the wealthy upper class, consisting of Danes, and the struggling lower class, consisting of Muslims. Our protagonist, Zaid (Dar Salim), has an immigrant background but has managed to cross worlds to the Danish upper class. A successful surgeon, Zaid lives with his beautiful and very pregnant wife, Stine (Stine Fischer Christensen), in a stylish Danish apartment that almost comes straight from the interior design magazines. The two live a happy and privileged life, surrounded by a close-knit circle of like-minded Danish friends.
The film opens not on Zaid’s life but on his brothers. Jumping straight into the action, the opening shots of the film involve a robbery taken out by members of a local gang, none of a Danish appearance. The brother finds himself on the wrong side of the gang and pleas with his brother for assistance during one of his brother’s dinner parties. Clearly out of place both in terms of asking and location, he is forced back out onto the streets and unsurprisingly ends up being beaten up and eventually killed by the gang.
This becomes a turning point for both Zaid and the film, and not before long the sleek tones and calm cinematography are replaced with unease and darkness as Zaid becomes obsessed with finding his brother’s killer. Much of the rest of the film follows him slowly evolving into the very people he dismissed at the start of the film. He bulks up, takes steroids, and has revenge on all the people connected to his brother’s death. He leaves his cushy and very Danish life and dives further and further into the underworld.
A modern-day superhero
When Darkland was first announced, there was talk of it almost being a superhero film. In fact, when we first started reported on the film’s production, we likened it to a superhero movie. Sure, we were a tad disappointed when we realised Dar Salim wasn’t going to put on a shining red cape and have a catchy name, but Darkland is almost a modern superhero film in itself.
When Zaid decides to have his revenge on the gain, there is a montage of him bulking up and spray-painting his motorcycle a different colour (symbolism for a superhero outfit, perhaps?). He takes injections to give him almost inhuman amounts of strength and paints his face black to hide his appearance. Then, heading into the criminal underworld, Zaid takes out the biggest offenders. More than that, Zaid’s bizarrely-shaped apartment almost looks like a superhero lair; completely circular and separate from the rest of the world.
But Darkland is so much more than just a superhero film. Rather, Ahmad has adopted genre conventions associated with superhero movies and modernised them, resulting in a contemporary and grown-up narrative.
Social criticism at its finest
Excluding Zaid’s wife Stine, many of the characters are of immigrant background, and each has been wonderfully cast. As mentioned above, Zaid has transcended worlds and surrounded himself with what is considered to be the Danish lifestyle: a successful career, a beautiful wife, lots of equally intelligent and beautiful friends, and a stylish apartment. He avoids his immigrant background at all costs and is clearly uninterested when his brother comes to plea for help.
Darkland evokes a strong social criticism in the way it shows the two worlds. There are shots of the quiet apartment building Zaid lives in and then shots of the busy, dirty and loud streets the immigrants congregate on. When Zaid visits his parent’s house, he tells his father off for watching news about the situation in Iraq, arguing they have been in Denmark for thirty years and need to focus on the life here.
Furthermore, there is an underlying theme between the immigrant criminals and the police. Brilliantly played by Roland Møller, the police detective assigned the case cares little for Zaid’s brother (even forgetting his name), and happily arrests Zaid at the end of the film. The uncaring police detective is only another reason for Zaid to take matters into his own hands.
But this isn’t an average social commentary in which immigrants are bad and Danes are good. Rather, the director has moved past this and instead shows that both sides have both good and bad traits, and each is exploitable. Many of the immigrant characters Zaid comes across are kind-hearted and decent people, even if the life they’re caught up in is anything but. Darkland is one of those films that will be cited in papers and texts about immigrant film in the coming decades and is perhaps one of the most unique and refreshing takes on the debate to come from Danish film.
Beyond the complex and multi-layered drama, Fenar Ahmad is an intelligent, thoughtful and careful director. Darkland is his second feature-length film and really highlights his maturity as a director. Ahmad knows how to direct and follow Dar Salim, and carefully positions the camera to highlight to us Zaid’s thoughts and feelings. Locations in the film are carefully framed and beautifully displayed, almost like paintings. Two shots that stand out are in Zaid’s apartment and then in a hotel hallway towards the end of the film; the first shot a cool blue and the second shot a heated orange, highlighting the change in Zaid’s emotional state.
Fenar Ahmad’s Darkland is a dark, humanistic and truly compelling thriller. The characters are well cast (particular Dar Salim as Zaid), and the locations and production design have been carefully designed.
With Darkland one of the first major Danish film releases of 2017, it’s an exciting start to a year in film.