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Play – a film by Ruben Östlund

January 9, 2016

I was fascinated by Play, not least because I knew it would incite controversy from the moment I saw the gang of five black boys. I’d half expected that the film would then go on the dismantle the stereotype, and implicitly chastise me for assuming that this gang-looking group of people was a gang. It would have been the American way, or the British way; and judging by the Swedish response to this Swedish film, it is generally the Swedish way, too. We could say it’s the way of the Western world, now.

But the film had nothing to say about the home life of the group of boys (based on real people in court cases) who hauled other boys off into the middle of nowhere and played psychological tricks in some elaborate scheme to rob them. It was all about the act itself, and the process of it. On the way, we saw plenty of examples of how people justify group violence; two sets of white vigilante groups attacked the black boys in response to their string of robberies. Law and order are barely present here, replaced by anger and scores to settle.

What I like about this film, shot as though we the audience are spying on things we are not supposed to see, is that it looks like an even-handed observation of teenage relationships and gang culture. There is a racial element, which upset the Left. I think the racial element is the way in which the black boys interact with each other and justify themselves. One of the black boys told one of the white boys that he deserves what he gets if he trusts a group of black guys enough to hand over his phone. It struck me as an intriguing defence; he had basically said, “you should have been more racist.”

This group of boys had made an identity out of being on the fringe, and liked it that way. This is gang culture, and exists in much the same forms for all-white gangs, all-black ones, or mixed race ones – but the use of extant racial profiling as justification for crime does, of course, have to be specific to the racial minorities of any given society. While I have no idea if any black person has ever expressed this view, it seems like exactly the kind of ill-conceived justification a young person might come out with.

Similarly, the youngest black boy had developed a habit for making excuses based off of white guilt. In response to the question of why he is stealing phones, he said that his family can’t afford to eat, while snacking on ice cream. This made me smile a bit because it’s the kind of thing that children do; fib, in order to get away with having done something bad. I expect more passionate members of the Left wouldn’t have liked the suggestion that their softness and sensitivity may be handing ready-made excuses on a plate to children who have yet to learn the difference between right and wrong.

Then there is the relationship between the members of the gang. At some point, one less keen member decides to bail out. He is then violently attacked by his own gang, who think he is betraying them by not taking the game through to its conclusion. The strong sense of “us-and-them” culture makes up a lot of gang mentality, and Play shows the vulnerability of people who get sucked into this life. In this case, the us-and-them will be racial, and it will be class based. The youngest boy also seems rather swept along by the whole affair; he strikes up a rapport with both of the white boys, who are closest to him in age out of the entire motley group of victims and bullies, mixed races, teenagers and pre-teens. His gang is one part of his identity; his age, and his wish to make friends his own age, another.

Allegations that Östlund has made a racist movie are unfair. There are signs that he recognises the racism in society as being more subtle than many people think. White vigilantes aboard a tram indiscriminately ruff up the gang and their victims. Afterwards, everyone involved gets off, except the youngest member of the gang and one white victim. The white boy looks visibly shaken and a white adult stranger comforts him, offering to be a witness in court if need be. He completely ignores the small black boy who was hiding under the tram seats. There was also an uncomfortable moment where John, a member of the victim group who was neither black nor white, was chosen by his two white friends  (against his will) to be the intermediary. The reason for this decision was not spoken, but one fears it was because the white boys felt that the John was better placed to talk to the black gang, himself being a member of a racial minority.

On the other hand, this could be entirely my perception and nothing more. One interesting thing about Play is that one feels as though there’s a chance that Östlund is the one playing, with his audience; he is testing our responses and how each situation can be interpreted in multiple ways, depending on the preconceptions of the viewer. Because no interpretation is given for us or directly stated, we are cleverly forced to analyse our own assumptions and interpretations. This trait is missing from most films about race or other differences. And there are clearly comments about issues other than race. Indeed, all the social differences are covered: class, age, nationality and gender.

The class implications are clear enough; this gang uses their poverty as justification for theft, and with a cute innocence which (almost) warms your heart, use their ill-gotten gains to buy pizza, a luxury that they probably aren’t able to have very often. The way that adults deal with the boys is interesting; they are chastised as children for transgressions, yet expected to deal with their own problems like adults. One of the victims goes into a café to ask for help and is offered sympathy, but not much more. It shows how society tends not to take seriously potential crimes if they take place within the child world. While simultaneously reasoning with him as though he is an adult, they patronisingly suggest that he is worrying about nothing. If an adult said they were being followed by a gang, the staff would not hesitate to call the police. If the victim had been female, the reaction again might have been very different.

I think it’s refreshing to see an observational piece about these relationships in society. Whichever way you look at it, crimes were committed and nothing was solved, because of our confused dealings with each other. The gang repeatedly respond indignantly to the implication that they are thieves, and occasionally speak to their victims as if they are friends or siblings. The victims, accordingly, went along with this – albeit with growing uneasiness, knowing that whatever was said to the contrary, they were being intimidated into entering a dangerous situation. At some point, one of the white boys develops Stockholm syndrome, and helps restrain his friend inside the gang that is holding them both.

Bystanders say and do little in response to violence, and the one altercation between two white adults about accosting a black child who has allegedly committed a crime completely disintegrates into an argument about racial politics, when the relevant point was really a case of people not taking the law into their own hands, and adults not being heavy handed with children. This holds up a black mirror to our increasingly distracted debates on the subject; when we are accused, we get hot under the collar and are unable to see the wrong in our actions compared to the wrong in our intentions.

It can never be offensive to give a statement of fact. It is the analysis or context that makes a statement prejudiced. Östlund stays away from this analysis, instead focussing on statements about the human condition. It is a fact that there are all black gangs, just as it is a fact that there are mixed race gangs and all-white gangs. While one Leftist might argue that Östlund could and should have chosen one of these groups to explore instead, I maintain that it is an intolerable world that makes some facts unspeakable.

When we explore only white gangs, we ignore black gangs and the specific problems which they have. This does not help prejudice. It worsens it, because it hides from view a group of people who are already understood less well than other groups. A prejudiced person might watch Play and think it justifies their racist opinion, but someone who is not racist and capable of considered analysis sees Play for what it is; a meditation on the complexities of human relationships, particularly young people.

I watched this film uncomfortably, wondering when these badly behaved teenagers were going to receive some vindication for their crimes, in keeping with leftist ideals about how you portray certain groups. Östlund stayed well away from this, to a skilful extent. If the viewer wants to place rationalisation on the behaviour of the gang, they can do so with their imagination. Play is not there to give us a lecture, it’s there to observe. In so doing, it was able to explore parts of society most people won’t explore, thus heightening our understanding of these relationships and behaviours. These are allowed to speak for themselves, and the unpleasant choices made by individuals are not feathered or watered down with explorations into the circumstances leading to those choices. It is, in other words, a movie about psychology more than sociology.

I know that some people are concerned about where this film comes from. It’s not Boyz n the Hood, with its entirely black cast a crew; Play certainly does look at black gangs through the lens of white culture. It is therefore more uncomfortable for whites than Boyz n the Hood, because it is pitched squarely at white people in suburbia. The effect of this is that we see ourselves in the equation, as an integral part of the problem of race relations and gang issues in our society. Boyz n the Hood, while fantastic, unintentionally provides a safety wall for white people. There are next to no white people in it. To someone living in Surrey, Boyz  n the Hood might just as well be taking place on Mars. Play does not give the audience that option. It may be Swedish, but it keenly observes the society I know. That is why Play is an important film, and its discomfort is to be expected – to the white Leftists, that’s your world you’re seeing. That’s why it’s painful to watch.

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