Games

Victimhood and 'The Wolf Among Us'

“People like us get forgotten all the time… When we suffer, we do it in silence. And the world likes it that way.” -- Nerissa

Warning: This article contains spoilers for all episodes of The Wolf Among Us.

Speaking in his own defense at his murder trial during one The Wolf Among Us’s final scenes, the Crooked Man, the kingpin of a Fabletown mob of sorts, questions the perspectives of the jurors/townsfolk: “You all act like I’m some kind of tyrant. When your government abandoned you, left you poor and helpless, sniveling on the street corners, I was there to look out for you.” He wants those he most exploited to respect him as a savior, a hero of the people.

This dynamic, between the sufferers (in this case the Fabletown citizens themselves) and the institutions of power, runs through the entire five-episode arc of The Wolf Among Us. Victimhood is a recurring theme throughout the game, consistently used to undermine Bigby’s efforts to solve a murder case far more complex than he first imagined. Issues of culpability and guilt abound, and the game offers no easy answers to the persistent dilemma. The game does, however, send a clear message about focusing on the victim above all else.

There are many victims in The Wolf Among Us, the vast majority of them women, and it is their suffering, largely at the hands of men, that drives the narrative forward. It is the meeting and subsequent death of Faith, a Fabletown prostitute, that kicks off the hard-boiled detective story in the first place. The episode’s titular character is a not-so-veiled allusion to the lack of faith in the systems designed to protect Fabletown citizens. Faith is a victim twofold, first of her murderer and second of structures that left this battered and beaten woman (literally after her encounter with the Woodsman), to go unprotected and unnoticed.

Look deeper still and even those relatively well-off women of Fables are nonetheless sufferers in their own right. Beauty, who appears financially secure and in a loving relationship, secretly works a job to satisfy an imposing and crushing debt. Likewise, her husband, who enters trance-like violent rages, is nearly an allegory for an abusive husband, one she loves but also fears. She too succumbs to the Crooked Man’s promise for answers that the Fabletown government cannot provide, but she does so out of desperate circumstances.

No one is free from a history of suffering in The Wolf Among Us. Even Snow White, Fabletown’s bureaucratic representative, is victimized by Crane, who stalks Snow with lecherous intent. Snow’s folklore history is also steeped in horrid abuse, physical and sexual, by her seven dwarfs. Aunty Greenleaf, the renegade witch in the story, lost her daughter (another female victim) before coming to Fabletown, where she barely scraped by, ignored by the town government. In one scene with Bigby and Snow, Aunty Greenleaf captures well the problem in normal fairy tale stories and even suggests why Wolf Among Us offers its critique: "You think I like being the old woman in these stories? The men are heroes, the ladies are whores... and the old hags like me get to watch everyone they love die."

Bigby, the Big Bad Wolf of legend, is a perfect tool for undermining the hero narrative. The downtrodden of Fabletown distrust him both for his violent and horrid past and his status as a Sheriff of a failing bureaucracy. He is authoritarian in both regards, trying to do good for those who may bristle at his presence. Time and again, Bigby confronts suspicious and resentful townsfolk. Those who do want to help, the women confined to silence with a purple magically-imbued ribbon, are incapable of speech.

The question present but never asked is: how does a person in a position of power help the powerless?

See, the Crooked Man isn’t wrong. Many of the suffering characters did put themselves into positions of exploitation in a way. However, they did so because their options were so heavily constrained. In that case, what do we do with whatever amount of culpability they are resonsible for? The stance that Wolf Among Us takes is to call for a victim-centric approach. Bigby is the primary actor in the events of the narrative, but as we learn at the game’s end, he has been spurred on by Nerissa, herself a victim of exploitation. She portrays both power and vulnerability, never settling into a noir trope of helplessness or as a simple version of a femme fatale.

Indeed, Nerissa is given one of the most biting and moving lines of dialogue in the whole series: “People like us get forgotten all the time… When we suffer, we do it in silence. And the world likes it that way.” That silent victim is precisely the role that female characters (and victims in general) are relegated to in both reality and fiction. Her empowerment is expressed through her ability to set in motion the events that eventually free her from control. She is perhaps the most heroic character of all.

As a capstone to the story’s critique of fable hero stories, while Nerissa is revealing the truth about her self and the heavy weight on her conscience, Bigby is given the option of both touching her on the shoulder and removing her ribbon. Each time, she backs away, almost repulsed by his touch. She is both expressing, yet again, a visceral distrust -- “Nobody cares about us. Not really.” -- and rejecting his ownership over her body and her suffering.

Most of this article discusses gender. While women are not the only ones who suffer, they are a focal point. It’s appropriate then that so many of the characters have complex folklore roots that explore some of these same issues. Even still, the victims of A Wolf Among Us, which may include some of the villains, live in a world that may not be capable of addressing their problems. The solution, then, is both one of empowerment and tempered assistance from others. The issue the citizens have with Bigby isn’t that he’s trying to do good, but that his brand of “goodness” is not consistently or equitably described. The work ahead of him, which so concerns Bigby in the final scene, is how he can help these victims not as a champion, but as an ally.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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