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What Young Men Do

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Billed as a ‘Nordic Noir’ documentary, What Young Men Do focuses on the 2013 ‘child robbers’ scandal that brought one of Oslo’s deleterious suburbs to the fore of Norway’s attention. Alongside this feature-length documentary, the series of petty crimes also led to Dyb’s 2014 study of ‘Young Robbers in a Global City’. One salient strand in the report pertains to the robbers’ backgrounds in order to further explore the reasons why the 19 individuals in the case have turned to criminal activities against their peers. Televised debates on the subject with prominent figures on the panels are referenced fleetingly in the documentary through the inclusion of archival material, at the same time evincing its topicality. From this premise, What Young Men Do seemingly follow in this carefully trodden path, paying close attention to the lives of three young men from the Oslo suburb, Haugenstua (or HG as the youth note). Noah and Hachim represent the diasporic communities from the suburb, although their sense of identity is most closely observed in the context of the local. What is more, importantly, the youth do not note or even draw attention to any ethnic difference, which proves refreshing. Background and identity seem to be tied to the local, the place where one grew up, and who they grew up with. The difficult subject matter is dealt with in a considerate and sensitive manner, with the spectators perceptually aligning with Noah. We are afforded insight into his thought processes, behaviours, and, quite crucially, his sense of belonging. As a result, the documentary eschews objectivity.        

What Young Men Do falls somewhere between documentary and fiction. It resembles the increasing turn to the hybrid docudrama, bordering on a ‘reality TV’ tone and aesthetic. To this end, the interactions between the youths, at times, ‘feel staged and the acting, at times, seems stilted. The extreme-long, landscape shots of Haugenstua show how the area is peppered with several post-war tall tower blocks, Solfjellet. They offer brief moments of contemplation, as well as sketching out the social geography and centre-periphery relationships. These apartment blocks are a staple of filmmaking in the suburbs of the city (consider the banlieue films of the 1980s and 1990s in France as just one example). The aforementioned suburb is populated by fragmented families and struggling individuals from lower income backgrounds. The characters’ mentalities pertain to a sense of exclusion on the periphery, as Noah presciently outlines, they represent ‘outsiders, a continent of our own’. One of the key ways in which this difference is marked concerns the use of language. Noah discusses how he cannot use ‘kebab Norwegian’ (street slang) in Bekkestua. It is this slang that binds Noah to his sense of belonging in Haugenstua, representing a specific group form of articulation.

Noah’s father, however, lives in Bekkestua, a more affluent area of Oslo. One populated with detached houses, and teenagers that even have their own horses (such as the teenage girl Frida, who shows Noah signs of affection). As Noah lives with the other side of his family in this bourgeois/ middle-class environment, it reminded me of a telling line from Ulf Hannerz’s Transnational Connections. Hannerz writes in the case of Stockholm (Sweden) that ‘(t)he immigrants participate shoulder to shoulder with other Stockholmers in the relationship of their city to the world cent[res].’ (155) For Noah, it appears that he is a victim of circumstance, of location, that has led to his  pathway into petty crime. As his voiceover notes, peer-pressure has played a fundamental role in this turn – a need to appease the ‘elders’ that rule the streets. As Noah is caught in the cracks of these two very different suburbs, he questions the extent to which he has ‘integrated’ or ‘feels at home, expressing ‘Who am I? Where do I belong?’. It is this exploration of his self-identity that leads to his sense of belonging and home pertaining to his contribution to the ways of life. Within the more affluent setting, populated by teens on boat rides, Noah is set apart, at a distance, since he reveals that ‘nobody needed me there’. Noah’s sense of being out of place is neatly evinced by the sequence in which the young man struggles to swim alongside the other teenagers to the boat across the river. The river and the flow of water metaphorically represent the reductive elements of his contract that hold him away from a sense of belonging. Noah’s stunted and limited mobility in this sequence is contrasted with Hachim’s fluid corporeal movements as he thrives through break-dancing. This mobility provides an almost cathartic release of energy that operates as his form of self-expression. The inclusion of break-dancing as an expressive articulation reverberates through films dealing with diasporic and multi-ethnic characters (La haine/ Hate [Matthieu Kassovitz, 1995], of course, being the most evident and memorable example).     

Perusing the ‘Nordic Noir & Beyond’ project, the genre – alongside the regional appellation – has been used loosely and liberally in marketing terms. The notion brings together the paroxysm of Nordic crime TV series and films, from I lossens time/ The Hour of the Lynx (Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, 2013) to Anklaget/ Accused (Jacob Thuesen, 2005) and Jagten/ The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012) amongst others. Against the Nordic backdrop, the allusion to the genre highlights some of the failings and limitations of the systems and institutions currently in place, revealing the social problems – for the younger, disenfranchised generation – living on the city’s periphery. The documentary charts the system of the follow-up team and the social contract that Noah is required to sign. Whilst the intentions and thought-processes behind the contract are designed to prevent the re-offending by young individuals – susceptible to falling into (petty) crime – the impact on the individual in question, as the documentary reveals, is often not taken into consideration. The panel appears to lack an individual that has experienced the same issues and concerns as Noah, and can, as a result, empathise with his situation. However, the conclusion provides a sense of hope for two of the three individuals at the locus of the story, with Noah and Tim finding their vocation.     

Jon Haukeland helms, and the filmmaker has been consistently honing his craft in the documentary genre since 2004. What Young Men Do is Haukeland’s third documentary, following Mannen som elsket Haugesund/ The Man Who Loved Haugesund (2004), the two-part Reunion: Ten Years After the War (2011) and his short fictional film Elva bak huset/ Behind the House (2007). Commencing with the context of the Oslo ‘child robberies’, the feature articulates the youth’s perspective on the institutional systems in place in Norway, expressing how they ‘feel‘ about the approach to reform. The crimes play only a minor role – instead focusing on the individual stories and backgrounds that are all-to-often overlooked.