[10 April 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I bet it’s a dildo or something pervy like that.” Kevin (Kevin Vaz) is on a tram, leaning across the aisle to bother John (John Ortiz), who holds a small black case in his lap. Even as he resists, you know John will give in: behind him sits Kevin’s tall and intimidating friend, Abdi (Abdiaziz Hilowle), and flanking Kevin and John are three other boys, friends of Kevin’s. The shot remains still for long minutes, save for the increasingly distressing jostling of the tram itself, and the bars that form the vehicle’s interior architecture—yellow and grim metal, providing grips for riders and containing them within visually resonant boxes. John has no escape. And soon enough, he reveals what’s in his case, a clarinet. One bully doesn’t know what it is, but the others around him are gleeful, all pushed in toward John, his precious little space collapsing. Now perched on the bar in front of John’s seat, Yannick (Yannick Diakité) grabs at the clarinet. “Play for us,” he says.
John has no choice. Or, if he does, if he might appeal to one of the adults on the tram, or if he might refuse or get off the tram, he can’t see it. And at this point in Play, you have trouble seeing it, too. Ruben Östlund’s remarkable film, opening Disappearing Act: V, the European Film Festival in New York on 10 April, has by now, about halfway through, immersed you in the vulnerability felt by John and his two friends, Sebastian (Sebastian Blyckert) and Alex (Sebastian Hegmar), as they’ve been cajoled into accompanying Kevin and his friends on a journey far from the mall where they first met. At each step of this journey, you wish the victims—two white kids and one Asian—might extricate themselves from their predicament. But they haven’t, and you know why: the boys accosting them are black.
This isn’t the only reason. The bullies are larger in number, some are larger in size, and they’re certainly larger in affect—mostly older by a year or two, noisy, aggressive, more or less united. Inspired by real events in Sweden some years ago, the film traces the evolving relationships between the two groups and within each, beginning as Kevin and Abdi and their friends approach Sebastian in a Gothenburg mall and ask to see his phone. When they suggest the phone looks just like the one stolen from Abdi’s brother, the victims agree to go along with them to show the phone to the never seen brother.
The filming of their first encounter sets up a pattern—long shots and long takes, the camera panning from one group to the next, lingering on a pair of up-and-down escalators, observing the kids as they occupy opposite sides of a sporting goods shop—that generates tension and apprehension, as you wait for what you expect to happen. It doesn’t matter that what you expect doesn’t quite happen, that the aggression takes such odd and insinuating forms, that its shifts from moment to moment, that the members of the groups turn on each other even more overtly than they do on their apparent adversaries. It does matter, in the scheme of this escalating tension, that the adults who happen by—shoppers or clerks in the mall, passengers on the tram—do their best not to see what’s happening.
It does matter that when a pair of young white men do intervene, on the tram, in fact, they only insert more violence into the already roiling mix. Here again, the camera stays back, as the second set of bullies takes on the first, commanding them to get on their knees, pushing and menacing them. Your view is obstructed here, by the bullies who stand over their victims, by a young woman might be traveling with the would-be mediators and makes her way back and forth in the aisle, agitated and hardly helping to calm the scene. By the time the white men force the black kids off the bus, you may be feeling sorry for the kids scampering away, framed now as they recede from the tram’s back window. When one of the men spots Sebastian cowered in the front of the tram, he offers a card with his name and number, suggesting the boy call him if he needs anything. Sebastian barely looks up at him.
The utter inability of anyone to do a right thing throughout the ordeal is shocking and also not. When adults do intervene at other moments (say, at film’s end, when a white father takes it on himself to take back his son’s stolen wallet), the rationale is instruction, though the example offered is more of the same, aggression and bullying. By the time Sebastian and his friends do make their way home after their long day out, it’s turned dark, as you can see in the windows of another tram. Here the camera is close and still, framing the boy between windows and against a yellow panel, as he’s accosted by an angry mostly off-screen conductor who insists the kids’ parents will have to “pay” because the boys have not, having lost their wallets.
During this ordeal, the film cuts away intermittently to another scene on a vehicle, a glossy train headed toward Gothenburg, a train carrying adults. When a conductor discovers a cradle left in an aisle, blocking doors, he does his best, again and again, to convince the passenger who left it to claim it. He makes announcements, he moves the cradle, he speaks in Swedish and in English, he consults with a colleague—all to no avail. Passengers ignore him, they laugh at him, they treat him as a nuisance, as hard as he tries to impose an order. While he understands a safety concern in blocked aisles and doors, no one else sees it.
And so he plays his role, much as his passengers play theirs, and as do the children, on another journey, in another class of experience. If the boys’ fears and hostilities are vivid, and the adults’ interests are muffled, the lack of empathy is much the same. And this is the problem, that no one imagines or even tries to see another perspective, that play—as performances, as games, as the assumption of roles—takes precedence over understanding.