Daily Archives: February 25, 2012

Izzat (Norway 2005)

The three friends as part of the East Side crew in 'Izzat'

Izzat is exactly the kind of film this blog is all about. It’s a crime genre film from Norway – a filmmaking country better known internationally for serious social drama until hits like The Troll Hunter and Headhunters in the last couple of years. But Izzat is also one of the first films (possibly the first) to emerge from the Pakistani community in Norway and as such belongs to the broad category of diaspora film.

Migration has become a visible social issue in Scandinavian countries over the last thirty years, but in the UK we are mostly familiar with representations of migrant communities in Swedish and Danish films and TV. Norway has experienced similar inflows from Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa and the Pakistani community is the largest of the non-European groups in Norway – around 35,000 mostly living in and around Oslo, especially on the East Side of the city.

‘Izzat’ is the Urdu and Hindi word referring to ‘honour’ and ‘respect’, particularly in relation to the family and the onus on men to maintain the reputation of the women of their family. In a European context this has led to rather negative representations of South Asian family relations and made it difficult to report objectively on so-called ‘honour killings’ in which young women have been murdered by family members. These kinds of actions are not part of the plot of this film Izzat – but the plot does use the protagonist’s desire to protect his family, particularly his brother and sister, as an important narrative device.

Narrated as a long flashback (but starting pre-credits with a crucial scene from later in the story) Izzat presents us with three young Pakistani boys in their early teens growing up in East Oslo in the 1980s. Bored in “the safest city in the world”, they fall in with a Pakistani criminal gang, ‘The East Side Crew’ led by two brothers, Sadiq and Khalid, and gradually they become part of the gang. The narrative then moves forward several years and we see Wasim and his two close friends, Riaz and Munawar now established as part of a drugs operation. The East Side Crew are opposed mainly by a local operation run by ‘The Bullet’ and his gang of Nordic skinheads. Inevitably the two gangs clash but Wasim also finds it difficult to reconcile his family responsibilities and his close bond with his two friends with the realities of working in a criminal gang and this is where the main narrative conflict arises (there is very little about the police attempts to control the gangs).

The models for this kind of narrative are The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas and Once Upon a Time in America – all of which have been popular and influential across global cinema. But films about organised crime have always been a staple of major film cultures from Europe (France, UK, Italy), Japan, Hong Kong and India. Izzat is on a much smaller scale than the Hollywood films, but it looks very good in CinemaScope and it successfully combines elements from Hollywood, Europe and South Asia. There are a couple of sequences shot in Lahore where Wasim is first sent as a teenager and then later as a gang member. Written by two Norwegian-Pakistanis, one of whom Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen is also the director, the film does to my mind offer a pretty slick crime film. It has scenes reminiscent of the Swedish TV crime series seen in the UK, but also has elements of the domestic cultural world of Pakistani migrants and narrative moments that are quite specific. At one point when Wasim is arguing with Sadiq he points out that he is a Norwegian citizen but that Sadiq can always be deported if he is convicted. The Oslo setting also throws up some interesting juxtapositions with shootouts taking place in near deserted streets. One climactic moment involves a suburban bus and a tense meeting between two gangsters takes place in a genteel coffee shop to the bemusement of the elderly customers. Colour is used quite carefully in the film so that the 1980s has a conventional ‘golden glow’, present day Oslo is relatively muted and the Pakistani scenes are quite vibrant.

The technical credits on the film are very good. There is an extensive use of Norwegian rock music on the soundtrack (with several songs featuring English lyrics) and the central character, Wasim (as an adult), is played by Emil Marwa. I thought he looked familiar but I didn’t realise that he was born in Norway to a Norwegian mother and Kenyan-Sikh father and has had a long career in British TV and film. His first big break was as one of the sons in East is East in 1999. Although he speaks Norwegian (and presumably Punjabi), his accent was considered wrong for the Oslo-based character so his voice is dubbed (something which didn’t go down too well with some Norwegian commentators). Overall Norwegian audiences seem to have been split between enjoying a relatively new kind of action film and criticising it for not being as slick as Hollywood.The film doesn’t appear to have been seen outside Norway where it had 130,000 admissions which doesn’t sound much but would make it a hit.

I have been wondering why in the UK there is no cinema film that I can think of that uses this kind of crime genre structure in a British-Asian context. Instead, British-Asian films tend more towards social comedies or melodramas or, more recently, have become absorbed into the less ethnically-defined category of ‘urban films’. On the other hand, all the elements of Izzat have turned up in UK TV series or TV films. I’m not sure what this tells us about the differences between the UK and smaller European countries – both in terms of representing migrant communities via popular genres or about the roles of TV and cinema films. It would be interesting to know if anything similar has appeared in Norway (or Denmark or Sweden) since 2005.

Our evening class discussed the film in the context of the development of ‘Nordic Noir’ cinema. With its focus on the Pakistani community the film offers us the obverse view to that of writers like Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson in which the effects of globalised crime and migration are viewed from the perspective of a host community gradually realising that a settled social democracy is being challenged. The Pakistani criminals in this film are a threat to order but the community as a whole is not represented as a victim or a problem. What is more obvious is that the Norwegian welfare system is simply puzzled by how to handle the boys in school and how the family ties re-exert themselves. I won’t give away the film’s ending, which is possibly a surprise, but it makes a further comment on the relationship between Norwegian liberalism and Pakistani culture.

The Winter War (Talvisota, Finland 1989)

Exhausted Finnish soldiers in 'The Winter War'

This remarkable film is a good example of what some film theorists have called the ‘national popular’ film. By that I mean a film that explores an important national event, is made by a local production company and seen by a significant audience both in the cinema and subsequently on TV/DVD etc. ‘The Winter War’ was the relatively short and bloody war in which Finland managed to stave off a Russian invasion in late 1939. The war ended in March 1940 with some Finnish territory ceded to the Soviet Union. Technically this was a victory for the Soviet Union but Finland remained independent and the Finnish forces proved a match for a much larger Red Army that suffered casualties on a 4:1 basis, arguably because of poor leadership and misguided strategic and tactical decisions. (The ‘Continuation War’ started in June 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union when Finnish forces attempted to win back territory, this time with German support.)

The Winter War was the most expensive Finnish film production to date in 1989 and it isn’t hard to see where the money went with many extras and scenes of destruction. The PAL Region 2 DVD available in the UK from Scanbox Entertainment offers quite a poor transfer of what I assume was the original print in the European aspect ratio of 1.66:1 – which makes the film seem much older than 1989. The DVD runtime is just over 120 mins which means it offers only two-thirds of the original running time. The Finnish PAL Region 0 DVD runs to over three hours. I found my copy in my local library but if I’d known about the original version I’d have gone for that (it seems to be easily available in the UK). Because I’ve only seen the shortened version, I’ve got be wary in commenting on the narrative – which not surprisingly seemed to be somewhat elliptical!

Director and co-writer Pekka Parikka adapted a novel by Antti Tuuri focusing on a Finnish regiment that is quickly recruited and armed and sent to the front in the Karelian peninsula (strategically the most important target for the Russians as the original border was relatively close to Leningrad). Here the Finns are eventually forced to defend the rudimentary ‘Mannerheim Line’ of trenches against a large Soviet force. The Finnish forces comprise some grizzled veterans alongside a larger proportion of young recruits. They have makeshift uniforms and a motley array of light weapons. The Russians have all the tanks and aircraft and far more artillery. The Finns know what they are doing and they are at least camouflaged by their white capes and outer tunics. In the truncated version of the film, the major achievement is the representation of war as brutal and relentless. The Russian tactics were stupid with massed infantry walking towards the trenches alongside the tanks. Hundreds were shot and killed by the defenders but nevertheless we understand the terror of the defenders faced with successive waves of attackers. The film is remarkable for two absences. We have no access to the Russian perspective so they remain a faceless enemy apart from a few individuals killed or captured at close quarters. There is no representation of Finnish politicians or senior military figures and apart from one speech by a senior officer to his men there is relatively little jingoism. The Home Front focus is on the young wives and girlfriends and the mothers. Because the frontline was so close to home, some of the men get leave – but as one of them says the likelihood is they will go home in a box.

Perhaps because the narrative features an older brother looking after his sibling, several American commentators have compared the film favourably to Saving Private Ryan, suggesting that Spielberg might have seen it. I can’t comment on that except to say that the Finnish film is mercifully free of the sentimentality that too often overwhelms Spielberg’s films. For me the Hollywood films that this reminded me of were those combat films about WWII and Korea made by Sam Fuller and Robert Aldrich – and of course, Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron. But then the real comparison might be with Russian films about the ‘Great Patriotic War’.

So, despite the truncated narrative, I’m glad I’ve seen this – it helps to explain some of the background to those Nordic crime fiction and horror stories I’ve been reading in which Danes, Swedes and Norwegians are fighting as volunteers alongside the Finns and against the Russians in 1939.