Realistic pseudo-documentary about teen robbers
Play is a realistic recreation of actual events using non-actors. The filmmaker read a news story about how in his native Swedish city of Göteborg (Gothenberg) a group of young black boys were convicted of carrying out over forty robberies of cell phones and other objects from white boys over a period of several years. They used ingenious methods they’d obviously worked out over repeated performances of their scam. The took advantage of the stereotype of black males as macho and menacing (and the non-black shame at revealing this fear) to seem to threaten their victims without actually using physical force. They also used what they loosely called a “bad cop – good cop” technique. One or more boys behaved in a threatening manner while another, the “good cop,” would say something like, “He’s angry and unpredictable. I’m not like that. I know you are probably right. But let’s just go along with him, and check out the situation, and then there will be no trouble.” The scam was for one of the robbers to ask one of the victims to show him his cell phone. Then he would say his brother had been robbed and this looked exactly like his phone that was taken away from him, had the same scratches. Then he would ask the victims to accompany him to go to see his brother. And during the long ordeal for the three trapped boys that follows, the five black boys obviously take great pleasure also in the sheer “Play” of making their victims squirmy and fearful.
This is about the pattern that is followed in the film with five black boys (Anas Abdirahman, Yannick Diakite, Abdiaziz Hilowle, Nana Manu and Kevin Vaz), who are African but speak Swedish, and three obviously better-off locals (Sebastian Blyckert and Sebastian Hegmar, who are white, and John Ortiz, who looks Asian). The robbers appear in a mall and later turn up causing a disturbance in an athletic shoe store. They begin following the white boys on a bus. The white boys go to a fast food restaurant and ask the women there to call the police. But they say they can’t do that. Adults seem equally intimidated by the black boys, or afraid of seeming racist, and look the other way despite the black boys’ provocative and annoying behavior.
Later the white boys, now under the robbers’ control, are on another bus where the robbers cause a big disturbance, menacing and mocking other riders. Some adults, members of a gang, get on and attack the black boys, who get off with their victims, minus one, who stays on to escape. But one of the smaller black boys stays on the bus. When one robber boy tries to go home, the others beat up on him for doing that. Eventually the black boys take the white ones to somewhere out by a lake. This only ends when the black boys make the white boys put all their valuables, MP3 players, cells, etc, out on a nice jacket and stage a “contest” between one of them and one of the white boys, a race at which the black boy cheats and therefore “wins.” Then the black boys go off with all the goodies, including a clarinet belonging to one of the victims, the Asian-looking John, and worth 5,000 kroner (about $750). John also loses his nice jacket and a pair of Diesel jeans.
The white victims run away and must take a tram or train home. They are without money and, one more of many ironies, instead of reporting they’ve been robbed, meekly say nothing, and instead of receiving assistance are fined (or their parents will be) for riding without tickets.
Meanwhile there is another lesser tale threaded through the film of a child’s crib on a train. It belongs to an African family. At the end, two Swedish men attack two children from the African family and take away the cell phone of one of them, accusing him of being a robber. The boy screams and protests, believably, that he is honest and his large family has barely enough to eat, but when he is attacked he also, unlike the white boys earlier, strikes back hard, though he’s too small to keep his cell phone from being stolen by the adult white vigilantes. Two Swedish women come and protest this illegal and unprovoked assault, but to no avail. Obviously this incident serves to balance out the implication, provocative to some audiences, that the only villains are blacks.
All this is shot in an “observational” vérité style with a middle-distance, largely immobile camera. The improvisation is quite successful, and the film succeeds in making the viewer very uncomfortable. Thanks in part to the “passive” camera and in part to the realism of the recreation it’s hard not to identify with the victims and to be disturbed by the complex reactions about racial stereotypes that the action awakens. While we identify with the victims, at the same time ironically the victims tend somewhat, in the way of boys, who want to fit in to any group they’re thrown in with, or in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, to at times identify with and seek to please their black victimizers. Who, by the way, are not old, perhaps in the 11-15 range.
The action can be described as bullying, but it begins as a con game and ends as a kind of hostage situation. The victimized boys become prisoners in a prison without walls that consists of wherever the black boys take them.
This is said to be a follow-up to Östlund’s 2008 film Involuntary, and in the past he has made documentaries. This is certainly anything but entertaining, but it’s effective and thought-provoking, arguably more so than Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which it might otherwise be compared to. This is more realistic. But I would have to agree with Leslie Felperin in Variety when he describes this film as “formally interesting but far too long.” In fact we get the point in ten minutes. Is it necessary for us to be tortured too in order to understand the nonviolent psychological torture the three middle-class white Swedish boys undergo? Felperin is right also in suggesting that this could be a “core text for civics classes.” It makes points about stereotyping and racism that might be useful in a condensed form. It is also, perhaps, good for those members of festival audiences who enjoy suffering for a slow, torturous two hours and call films that bring about that effect works of art. Nonetheless this is a valid inclusion in a festival. That’s the only logical place for it in this long form. Felperin suggests cutting half an hour. I’d suggest an hour.
Play, not to be confused with Alicia Scherson’s poetic Chilean love story (SFIFF 2006) , has been included in festivals in Cannes, Munich, Helsinki, Vancouver, Toronto, and New York; it was screened in New York for this review. One theatrical release is pending, November 11, 2011 in Sweden.