No one gets off scot free

24 January 2019

Tiger Talk #1 – Ulaa Salim

Watching Sons of Denmark makes most people go quiet for a while. During the film’s first few seconds Denmark is rocked by the type of terrorist attack we have seen more of around the world in recent decades. The country subsequently rapidly descends into a situation likely to trigger civil war. Is filmmaker Ulaa Salim trying to warn us?

Sons of Denmark takes us to a future Denmark. Populist politician Martin Nordahl’s xenophobic, Islamophobic rhetoric threatens to win him the elections. In a block of flats elsewhere in the city, Zacharia decides something needs to be done and starts preparing Nordahl’s assassination. Helping him are Hassan, a radical religious leader and an Iraqi he considers an older brother.

The characters Ulaa Salim (1987) reveals are extremesalim. “It continues to be important to study such extreme characters”, explains Salim. “Because it isn’t what it seems: the victim can be viewed as the perpetrator and vice versa. They are different, but if you change their colour, they are conspicuously alike.”

Strong sense of injustice

The opening scenes are followed by a rollercoaster ride in which viewers regularly feel compassion with people you wouldn’t expect to be empathetic towards. You feel the enormous weight of their minor decisions. “All the characters are driven by a strong sense of injustice”, says Salim. “However, the conclusions and deeds they connect to this couldn’t be more different.” 

An example. Almost all the characters have a child about the same age. The immigrant and the populist leader prove so similar: nice, worried fathers for their vulnerable children. “Being parents gives them increased responsibilities. Everyone is primarily worried something will happen to their child. My prior work also studied the importance of family.” 

The other lead, Zacharia, is still a child himself. He is assigned to eliminate Nordahl. Like a mirror of vulnerability. “You become vulnerable if you have been portrayed negatively for years whether you are a criminal of not, it no doesn’t matter. He is controlled by his great sense of injustice.”

From ridiculous to realistic

The permanently claustrophobic atmosphere is emphasised by the plethora of night-time shots. Help! Is this our future? No. We can rest somewhat assured. Salim doesn’t think his film will ever become a reality. What Salim’s film intends to do is study our society. It’s not a warning, a political statement or a prediction. “I investigate what could happen to a society if extremism were to become normalised.”

We should listen to each other instead of just shouting.
— Ulaa Salim

Responses to the film have however revealed that we are well on our way to normalising extremism. Salim had the idea for this film some seven years ago when he went to film school. Over the years, responses to the plan were very varied. “At first everyone thought the plot was too far fetched, though - when I graduated 18 months ago - they thought it was almost too close to reality.”

Does he really not want to impress something upon us? Well, yes: “I didn’t want to shoot a substance-free thriller and I strive to make people contemplate what they have watched afterwards. We should listen to each other instead of just shouting. However, the film itself should be pure entertainment.” 

No one gets off scot free

Salim used professionals and untrained actors for the film. He enjoys the dynamic of bringing the two together. “The amateurs often have a raw drive to act and provide more authenticity. That’s why I always wanted to work with them. The professionals arrive on set with a great deal of experience and that is very valuable too. To them, playing alongside amateurs is dangerous, in a positive way.”

Some of his amateurs also played in his previous short films and even made careers for themselves. The man who plays Hassan being a good example. He is a car salesman in daily life, but has played in two Danish national TV productions since being cast in one of Salim’s earlier films.  

Salim was born to Iraqi parents in Copenhagen, yet his origins have little to do with the film. “I didn’t want to create a ghetto film. My film is set in the future and could take place in any neighbourhood. That’s of crucial importance: no one gets off scot free in Sons of Denmark.”  

Salim was also at IFFR in 2016 with his short  film Our Fathers’ Sons. He is of the opinion that it’s an exceptional festival for young makers: “My film was screened before a feature film in a large cinema. That’s really special to a young maker.”

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