Kipling Goes to the Oscars

‘Take up the White Man’s burden
send forth the best ye breed […]
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild
Your new-caught, sullen peoples
Half-devil and half-child.

— Rudyard Kipling, ‘The White Man’s Burden’, 1899.

‘Half-devil[s] and half-child[ren]’ – that is a description as good as any of the Sudanese as portrayed in Danish director Susanne Bier’s and her co-scriptwriter Anders Thomas Jensen’s In a Better World (2010) that picked up an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last night. These are the only kinds of Africans we see in and around the refugee camp where works Anton (a Swedish doctor with a Danish family, played by Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt). On the one hand, the utterly dependent and passive refugees, the ‘children’ of Anton, often literally shown cowering at his feet. On the other, a guerrilla of wild-eyed psychopaths that murder and torture, including cutting up the stomachs of pregnant women, for no apparent reason at all.

Kipling’s poem, intended to cheer on the American colonization of the Philippines, was originally published in 1899. One year previously the British had conquered Sudan. The decisive battle took place at Omdurman. It claimed 16,000 Sudanese lives as against 48 British. According to a young Winston Churchill, who took part in the battle, the victory was then ‘disgraced by the inhuman slaughter of the wounded’. Other soldiers later testified that they were ordered to shoot and bayonet anyone left alive, prisoners or wounded. It was ‘more like a butcher’s killing house than anything else’, said one (quotes from John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried, 2006). But this history is utterly absent from In a Better World, as is the more recent history of the role of oil companies in stoking the fires of the bloody civil war (including, for instance Lundin Oil, the former employers of Sweden’s current foreign minister, Carl Bildt). Here there is no context whatsoever, but simply an image, as absurd as any picture drawn by Kipling, of a hopeless Africa and the brave white man who does his utmost to protect and care for it. As a rather disillusioned Anton returns to Denmark the fourth stanza of Kipling’s poem comes to mind:

‘Take up the White Man’s burden/The savage wars of peace/Fill full the mouth of Famine/And bid the sickness cease/And when your goal is nearest/The end for others sought/Watch sloth and heathen Folly/Bring all your hopes to nought.’

In a Better World is the latest, but not the first, film by Bier & Jensen to serve up a world of brave white men facing up to the irrational evil of the dark-skinned other. In Brothers (2004, Hollywood remake directed by Jim Sheridan in 2009) it is a Danish major, Michael, who has to confront the dark heart of the third world when he is captured by Afghani ‘taliban’. As the US, assisted by allies including both Denmark and Sweden, was rapidly dismantling international law and building its global gulag of torture chambers, Brothers showed us an Afghanistan peopled exclusively by sadistically grinning psychopaths, resembling Nazi caricatures more than human beings. It goes without saying that there were no ‘extraordinary renditions’ in this film, no civilians killed by remote-controlled high-tech NATO/UN bombs. In fact, when British soldiers eventually free Michael the film goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid showing any ‘allied’ violence against Afghanis at all.

In Brothers the Afghani sequence acted as a backdrop for a Danish middle class family drama that was portrayed with great sensitivity and intelligence, resulting in a disturbingly schizoid viewing experience. Similarly, In a Better World returns us to Denmark where the main storyline unfolds. But this time racism abroad gives way to ‘classism’ at home, in the shape of Lars (played by the muscular, dark-bearded Kim Bodnia), a car mechanic and trouble-maker who, without any valid reason, starts hitting Anton when their kids get into a minor tiff over the use of a swing. Lars, the only working class character in the film, goes on to become a representative of the same kind of irrational violence as the Sudanese and Afghani guerrilla fighters. Their impulsive, seemingly ‘inherent’ and therefore ‘evil’, violence stands in sharp contrast to the violent acts committed by Anton’s ten-year-old son, Elias, and his new class mate, the upper class boy Christian.

Elias is bullied in school and suffers from the recent separation of his parents. Christian carries a heavy burden of sorrow and anger after having witnessed his mother’s slow and painful death in cancer. Together they exact a violent revenge (including setting off a bomb) on both the school bullies and Anton’s own bully, Lars. The film’s careful motivation of the violence used by Anton and Elias (as with the, remarkably mild, violence used by Michael and the British and Danish soldiers in Afghanistan in Brothers) stands in absolute contrast to the lack of motivation for the sadistic acts committed by Sudanese, Afghanis or by Lars, the car mechanic. But there is also a rather revolting parallel between the ‘half-devil’, ‘half-child’ peoples of Sudan and Afghanistan and the actual children in Denmark. ‘Our experiment in this film is about looking at how little it really takes before a child – or an adult – thinks something is deeply unjust. It really doesn’t take much, and I find that profoundly interesting. And scary’, says Bier herself about the film. An early working title of In a Better World was ‘Civilisation’ and it is precisely the idea of a ‘civilisation’ continuously threatened by subordinate groups, demanding an ‘impossible’ justice, that Bier & Jensen’s films portray. Children and savages must be taught that this is an unjust world, if need be by ‘wars of peace’. Today just like yesterday. In Omdurman in 1898.

Denmark, a small nation of less than six million inhabitants, has produced an impressive list of first-rate films over the last couple of decades. Unfortunately In a Better World is not one of them.

DANIEL LINDVALL is Film International’s editor-in-chief.

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