Life After Hate

A Review of the Documentary ‘Exit’ by Karen Winther

Life After Hate is the name of the American organisation helping individuals leave violent extremists groups and enabling them to start a new life. Norwegian director Karen Winther, who once belonged to such groups, embarks on a journey to tell her own life-after-hate story. She is hoping to find some answers as well: Why do people join such groups? How can someone exit them? What is a former member’s life like? Her highly personal documentary Exit, screened in Nordisk Panorama’s Documentary competition, paints intimate portraits of former extremists as well as gives a glimpse of hope that another life is possible.

As white supremacy and far-right extremism have reached the mainstream (again), and extreme views have started to spread like cancer across the globe, we must stop and look for the reasons. The well-known and ubiquitous rhetoric of us versus them is indeed relentlessly reinforces racial stereotypes and xenophobia, and the ideology of a superior race – sometimes unnoticeably – shapes and plants some thoughts in people’s mind. Nonetheless, it would be so easy, and lazy of course, to condemn people holding prejudices against others without actually taking the time to better understand the circumstances. Not to mention that it would follow the exact same process of how they tend to form an opinion on others.

Karen Winther shows the bigger picture and highlights the triggers that would push someone towards extremists groups. Being a former member of both a far-right and a far-left group, she investigates both sides of the political spectrum. What interests her is the human factor, as in most cases some personal trauma lays the foundation for hatred. Former extremists from Germany, Denmark and the USA share the poignant moments in their lives that fed their hate towards others. The sense of belonging somewhere and the feeling of being (seemingly) understood by someone could flawlessly build a wall around anyone to then lock them up in their own echo chamber.

Since ideologies can barely be separated from extremist behaviour, the discussion of the political aspects must take up some time in the film, especially as former neo-Nazi leader Ingo Hasselbach’s story exemplifies, the hatred towards one political group and/or system can lead to joining another one, its exact opposite. Despite being a prominent member of far-right organisations, his example demonstrates that change is possible – providing that someone is willing to give someone a hand. Today Ingo is working with the organisation named Exit to help others break from neo-Nazi communities, which do not let people so easily go, at least in Germany. Many former members there need to live an exceptionally low-key life and hide even from their former fellow members breathing and living for revenge.

Framing her own path and confronting her own and others’ past, Winther directs a documentary road movie. She narrates the events, uses the technique of voice-over to gradually reveal her shameful secrets, and conduct touching interviews with others to uncover the naked truth about herself and others. Exit is a testament to bravery because not so many former members dare to talk about their past. The stories told could certainly inspire others to come forward and share their exit stories to encourage more people to choose the life of love and not hate.

The film patiently explores the differences among countries, pointing out that Germany’s neo-Nazi groups are the most organised ones, but it fails to clarify that not all skinheads are racist and extremist; early skinheads in the UK promoted unity and solidarity. It’s true that later new kinds of skinheads emerged, adding newer and newer branches to the family, and then the boneheads, the racist skinheads, were born. Unfortunately, this distinction hardly comes up anywhere outside the skinhead subculture, and the mainstream media also distort the image of skinheads. Representation and words do matter. The misconception of the skinhead could of course easily originate in the fact that boneheads call themselves skinheads and their voices start to dominate the public discourse about skinheads. Yet, the media, films and other elements of pop culture must cover the topics related to them with more nuance.

The release of Karen Winther’s Exit couldn’t have happened at a better time considering the surge of nationalist governments and organisations worldwide. It’s not the technicality of the film but the content that will generate a series of conversations about our society. Be prepared for long Q&A sessions, gather some ideas about how to break out from your own comfortable bubble, and reach out to those who think differently. Your voice does matter, too.

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.