Danmarks sønner (English title: Sons of Denmark). Directed & Written by Ulaa Salim.
Starring Mohammed Ismail Mohammed, Zaki Youssef, Imad Abul-Foul, Ivan Alan Ali, Rasmus Bjerg, Asil Mohamad Habib, & Morten Holst.
Hyæne Film / Det Danske Filminstitut
Not Rated / 120 minutes
Drama / Thriller
Disclaimer: Spoilers +
a lengthy discussion on white nationalism & extremist violence ahead
Father Gore usually writes in 3rd person as a branding thing for the website.
I’m going to drop that for this article. The content demands a serious tone. As I sit and write this, two different white men, wholly unconnected— except by anger— recently gunned down dozens of people in the American states of Texas and Ohio within a span of 24 hours. Ulaa Salim’s debut feature isn’t about the U.S., obvious by its title. Unfortunately, its themes are pressingly universal right now.
Sons of Denmark is speculative fiction that takes us to a very near future, a year following the worst terrorist bombing in Danish history. A 19-year-old man, Zakaria (Mohammed Ismail Mohammed), worries about the safety of his family. An ultra nationalist political leader called Martin Nordahl (Rasmus Bjerg) is capturing the minds of xenophobic citizens in the lead up to the next election with increasingly dehumanising rhetoric aimed towards immigrants.
Meanwhile, a white nationalist group called Sons of Denmark are leaving decapitated pig heads and racist graffiti smeared in pig’s blood in Muslim neighbourhoods. Zakaria decides to help Hassan (Imad Abul-Foul) and his group assassinate Nordahl. He’s sent to train with one of Hassan’s trusted men, Ali (Zaki Youssef), and they bond.
And on the night of the would-be assassination, everything changes forever.
Salim’s film has already been condemned by a Danish nationalist politician as “dangerous.” There’s little doubt it’ll piss off lots of fragile white men who’ll gladly watch Homeland or indulge in any of the other sea of fiction out there that presents all Muslims as terrorists. Salim doesn’t treat the story and its plots lightly, focusing on how cycles of sociopolitical violence only beget more of the same. And though each side of the coin is represented— we see a better look at how Zakaria becomes geared towards violence than we do Nordahl or his white friends— there is a definite case made about white nationalism’s misunderstanding of where power really lies and which peoples are legitimately oppressed, and what damage this misunderstanding creates.
“No matter how long they were here,
they were guests.”
In the wake of violent crisis, despite if it’s a white shooter or bomber, the barely existent veil of civility slips to reveal the overtly racist attitudes of everyday people. Suddenly there’s talk of “the country we had” and other nationalist nostalgia about a time, which never existed, when things were better— coded wording for better for white people.
Salim also shows how those in positions of power use people of colour to their advantage when it benefits them and ignore their concerns when it’s no longer convenient / useful. Malik’s symbolic of how white institutions (i.e. police) use non-white people. He successfully does what they want, going undercover with Hassan’s group. His bosses later ignore his work on the Sons of Denmark when homegrown white terrorism poses an imminent threat. Those in power protect their own, whether directly or inadvertently— most times it’s purposefully, though other times it’s ignorance.
Once civility gives way to these attitudes the media begins to help spread them by letting politicians, and other talking heads, repeat dehumanising language on-air / in print. We see several scenes with Nordahl as he gathers steam for his white nationalist party using language designed to make anybody non-white appear as Other. He refers to brown people as “savage terrorists.” He says immigrants bring “their filth” and accuses them of “cheating, killing, raping, and savaging Denmark.”
The purpose of this language, that becomes a mantra for angry young white men like we’re seeing with Trump’s words, is to dehumanise the Other to a point where outrageous policies aimed at immigrants don’t seem so outrageous, and gradually the scales are shifted from what was once deemed too extreme to what becomes centrist. It’s easier to do or accept violence perpetrated against those considered Other.
Rhetoric, like that of Nordahl’s party, helps not only dehumanise the object, it also whittles away at whatever humanity exists within the subject helping to bolster it, so once young men are steeped in these attitudes and worldviews their own humanity is damaged. Again, this is where the media comes in with its toxic coverage.
In one scene, Nordahl is featured on a talk show and, like Richard Spencer recently on CNN (among other examples from the American media), he’s humanised. The host makes him look playful, framed as someone to whom you might actually be able to relate. Media outlets concerned with freedom of speech give white men unconcerned about the humanity of their actions, or the weight of their dangerous words, an opportunity to fake this humanity— to sell it like a product across the airwaves, over the internet, and through the pages of newspapers / magazines. So many media outlets and personalities remain unbothered by the fact they rarely, if ever, give this same opportunity to people with brown skin.
There’s irony, albeit tragic, in the way Salim presents Zakaria in a specific scene. He juxtaposes all the white nationalist dialogue about immigrants and the idea that only whites can be considered Danish with Zakaria in a car with Malik listening to the radio. A song comes on by TV-2 and Zakaria sings along gleefully, to Malik’s surprise. Such a simple, subtle moment that shatters foolish racist notions that white and non-white people live in totally incompatible cultures, that we’re worlds apart even when we live in the same countries, the same cities. No matter Zakaria’s previous home in Iraq, he’s a part of Denmark. This is also why right-wing nationalists are upset by the idea of multiculturalism. Their entire perspective is built around the existential lottery of where one’s born, and the fact someone from outside their country can become part of its culture eradicates that worldview, leaving angry white men with nothing.
Malik learns the hard way, as an immigrant himself, that white supremacist attacks should be taken seriously, regardless whether they involve actual physical violence. Sons of Denmark‘s opening moments depict Zakaria and other Muslim men in the neighbourhood coming upon racist graffiti drawn in pig’s blood and a pig’s head left nearby. Later in the film, the bloody graffiti and pig head get closer to home, literally, winding up on Malik’s doorstep and all over the front of his home. None of it’s considered overly worrisome by white authorities, passed off as ugly yet mostly harmless. That is, until Malik experiences firsthand the end result of supposedly harmless graffiti and dehumanising rhetoric when it transforms into violence.
This is exactly the intended result. Xenophobic / racist rhetoric is meant to create action. Martin’s campaign and his intensely racist rhetoric wills people into violent acts, like the Sons of Denmark planning to attack after he wins, which they do. Parallel the Sons of Denmark considering Nordahl their messiah with how we’re currently seeing everyday American racists and mass shooters begin to express outright solidarity with Trump’s ideology. Most recently, Patrick Crusius, who killed 20 people in El Paso, wrote about white people being replaced by Hispanics in Texas and other white victim fantasies. He notes his ideas predate Trump’s presidency. Nevertheless, there’s simply no denying the demagogue’s presidency has helped embolden deranged people like Crusius, and the President’s use of dehumanising language towards people, from Mexico particularly, has continually helped strengthen racism’s already strong foothold in the U.S.
Sons of Denmark makes sure to focus on a pressing issue in regards to the rhetoric and language used by people in the public eye. Nordahl’s lack of concern for the hatred he’s inciting is the same thing we see with real politicians who act as if their ideology can’t seep into the minds of their voters, possibly crystallising in violence or, worse, death. There’s a deeper ignorance than the wilful sort at work here because these politicians don’t believe in such a thing as white terrorism. To them, terrorism is inherently brown. So though Nordahl’s ardent supporters take to the streets after he’s elected it would likely only be called a series of hate crimes, rather than a deliberate, concentrated effort to terrorise non-white immigrants. America’s especially adept at this, when media outlets and politicians refuse to describe white mass shooters as terrorists but quickly use the word terrorism as soon as a shooter looks the right shade of brown.
Adding insult to injury is the fact right-wingers, not only nationalists— and regular voters too— are unwilling / unable to see there are root causes to terrorist acts. It’s possible to understand where the anger comes from without condoning it. Hassan puts it best when he explains to Zakaria: “They say they create peace in our nations, but they don‘t see that their dirty wars spawn hatred.” If America, or Denmark, or England were actually invaded by a military force the way they’ve pursued imperialist / colonialist agendas in various parts of the East, killing people and destabilising countless regions, they’d also be seeking revenge. This is the privilege afforded to a country where white people hold the majority of power: you can start all the wars you want and STILL claim to be the victim.
“We will not be led
This film is necessary, even if it’s uncomfortable at times, even if it feels like it’s all too close to home. Salim’s screenplay doesn’t shy away from the fact there are young Muslims who do end up radicalised, whether in the street or in prison. It stresses that, above all else, this violence has become a cycle, and at this point it’s nearly impossible to stop. The biggest point in Sons of Denmark is that white nationalists, and regular people whose ignorance allows these men room to operate, are fundamentally incapable of understanding the effects of colonialism / imperialism, disruptive and deadly processes in which their countries have engaged for centuries. These angry white people frame themselves as fighting back against invasion when this is the same perspective people like ISIS and other terrorist groups hold as the purpose for their actions.
Not only that, white acts of terror are rarely named as such, and their violence isn’t treated with the correct gravity. People care more about radicalised Arabs than they do about the rapid radicalisation of white men around the world. All this leads to repetitive cycles of violence begetting violence. When nobody will listen to Malik a horrifying series of events sets him on a new path of vengeance, creating another cycle with the shocking finale. Salim isn’t endorsing these violent cycles, he’s pointing out how they start, and how we allow them to continue.
The hardest truth is violent racism cannot be dealt with fully within the law until white supremacy is conquered, or, at the least, significantly debilitated. White people hold the majority of power. This leaves many other people powerless, often leaving them with nothing to resort to apart from violence. That isn’t condoning violent behaviour— that’s being honest about the world we, as white people, have helped forge, and the one we continue to prop up until we help change the system.