Natalia Ames checked in from Lima to see the Danish film Nordvest, and experienced internal jetlag in her attempt to identify with a smalltime Copenhagen gangster.
I was asked to watch Nordvest, a Danish film about young people working for criminal gangs in the suburbs of Copenhagen. On many levels, this film did not seem very ‘antipodal’. Although I am Peruvian, I currently live in the United Kingdom, so the urban landscape of a European capital is not strange to me. In terms of genre, it is certainly not the first gangster movie I have seen, hence the familiarity with which I can approach its narrative and codes. In the context of social problems, the film’s depiction of the criminal underworld is an X-ray so similar to many other countries where the same elements are found: racial conflicts between rival gangs, prostitution, drug dealing and violence.
However, the game suggested by ‘The Other Side(s) of the World’ made me think about the way films travel and make the spectator travel along with them. It reminded me of Dudley Andrew and the essential jetlag at the heart of cinema as an international medium: ‘Every genuine cinematic experience involves décalage, jetlag.’ The slippage and the delay between what is filmed (and when, and where) and its actual reception by the viewers across many different geographies is what distinguishes cinema from other media; this is what makes this art a unique form of travelling.
For me, watching Nordvest did result in internal jetlag in my experience as a viewer. What could a young guy from Denmark, struggling to survive in the gang world of Copenhagen, have in common with me? Cinema answers this question by transporting us in a journey that, usually, leaves us asking many questions about ourselves. I could establish a dialogue with the character of Casper, the protagonist upon whom the whole narrative of the movie rests, and share his anxieties, his fears, his desire of approval, his gains and his losses. This complex character. played with surprising maturity by Gustav Dyekjaer Giese, conveys a strong feeling of empathy, supported by a solid script organised through growing tension.
This sensation of empathy is also established through careful verisimilitude: the gang world is portrayed in a remarkably realistic register that reminds one of the depiction of life in European social margins of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Generic elements from the gangster film, such as the binary of loyalty to and betrayal of the gang and the rites of passage, are further complicated by Bjorn (the gang’s leader) becoming a father figure for Casper and his brother Andy.
One especially interesting scene is a boxing practice at Bjorn’s house, which shows the shift of Bjorn’s attention from the older to the younger brother. As in many other moments in the movie, growing up and becoming a man are seen as kids’ games (which the brothers seem to be unprepared to play, as they are shown as quite ‘unprofessional’ criminals). In the boxing practice, the mise-en-scène emphasizes the looks between the characters, looking for both approval and acceptance. The viewer is able to witness the subtle change from Casper protecting his brother to a competitive relationship, and the desperate search for a father figure or a sense of belonging — all through a playful yet tense approach.
Later, as a result of his actions, Casper finds himself at a dead end: the imperative of ‘belonging to survive’ (loyalty to the gang) becomes ‘belonging or survive’ (escaping from the criminal world before it kills you). In this way, Nordvest asks questions about symbolic bonds, challenging our ideas about the need to establish human ties and confronting our notions on family and identity issues. A gangster tale in the suburbs of Copenhagen, then, becomes a cinematic journey through Casper’s emotions. His fragility, exposed in specific parts of the film, is a window to explore his personality and his motivations — making us his accomplices.
The effect of a Danish gangster film moving me so much made me think about universal concerns, opening a reflection on the way films themselves now travel. By adapting genres to different geographies, they can re-tell stories about family issues, yet treat cinema in a way that it can still be fresh, touching and establish empathy with its characters without judging them. Watching Nordvest in the United Kingdom, a place where I am currently searching for a sense of belonging, made my viewing experience even richer. But in the end, who isn’t searching for it?
Natalia Ames is a Peruvian film critic and journalist, currently following a Master’s programme in Film Studies at the University of Sussex.