Last night was the European premier for the Belgian film Black in Tallinn, Estonia. My hosts apparently had some connections and procured a set of free tickets. Because it was the premier, the two lead actors and a co-director came out for a brief forum with the audience. The film was one of the most gruesome pieces of visual art I’ve seen. With multiple gang rapes, visible gun shot wounds, and even a dead dog, the directors made a powerful statement about the life on the gang-dominated streets of Brussels. Though the main plot line followed a classic Romeo & Juliet love story of two teens in rival gangs, the deeper story of the impossible lives these kids lead came through with visceral clarity.
Despite the director’s (and the author of the book of the same name) intentions to show the discrimination these poor youths face, the end of the film left me even more prejudiced and confused about the racial lines along which societies break. Multiple moments in the film caused me to think that if only these youngsters could let go of their pride and accept the help that the well-intentioned police officers were trying to offer, they could break this vicious cycle of drugs, violence, and prostitution. Despite my initial reaction, I know this mindset oversimplifies the situation to the point of fallacy.
Indeed, the proper response is to try to understand the level of hopelessness required for a bright young Belgian to return to a gang that has insulted, beaten, and raped her. She must have been so convinced that law enforcement would be impotent to protect her, that the city would be useless in providing her an opportunity to improve her situation, and that her oppressors were so powerful that she would have nowhere to hide.
Personally, I cannot imagine such a helpless state of mind. For my entire life, I have known that I should turn to law enforcement officers if ever in distress. Even in the land of neocons who have worked hard in recent decades to minimize social welfare, I know that my city will never let me drop to the lowest of lows as long as I keep trying. Never have I lived in such a society in which violent criminals acted with such impunity. Black was a look into lives that still seem to me to be the constructs of fiction, but the directors grew up in that city, and a social worker, on whom one of the characters was based, said of the film that he had never seen such a realistic depiction of his daily life. For those like me, who come from such privileged backgrounds, we may never understand the lives of those whom society has forgotten, but those who aspire to public office will need to. If ever we are to solve the violence that plagues cities like New York, Detroit, and as recent events have tragically shown, Paris, community and state leaders are going to need to take a creative, compassionate, and comprehensive approach to building support structures for their city’s youth. Determining that approach in the million dollar question.
I offer this brief analysis because even though I am conscious of it, my subconscious mind still reels with prejudice. An example:
As I walked along a side street of the southern region of Helsinki, I spotted a trio of teen boys, one white, one black, one Arab. In their track pants and sweatshirts, they resembled the gang member and repeat offender Marwan from the film. Sauntering along the sidewalk, joking with each other, they looked to be up to no good. They stopped next to a flat bed trailer parked on the sidewalk, and two of them reached in. The one nearest me looked over his shoulder suspiciously. Bracing himself he began to lift. The boy on the other side did too. The one with his head turned spotted the man he was looking out for. Then they started to carry the large piece of wood carefully, under the direction of their teacher, toward the school’s wood shop.
When I recognized that I had expected something completely different from what was a perfectly normal and predictable event, I wanted to slap myself. It was a striking example of how even we who are so cognizant of biases and discrimination can fall into these traps. For those who come from less tolerant parts of the world or who have had much more negative experiences to reinforce the stereotypes, I can see how easy it is to allow this type of thinking to persist. With the current mass migration of people of non-white racial backgrounds into parts of the world where whites still hold majorities, it is especially important to look closely at the subjective opinions that so often parade as “facts,” particularly in conservative circles.
Helsinki is indeed a beautiful city, and from my limited experience, I believe it is home to wonderful people as well. From the old man who kindly opened the door for me to the woman on the train who made no fuss when she determined that I had taken her seat, the courteous Finnish people have shown me nothing but kindness since I arrived.
I am already done with the capital though. I’m headed north. After reading some more details on the rail pass that I will be using to get myself around the Nordics for the next 6 weeks, I decided to hop on the next train to Oulu. I haven’t confirmed that I have a place to stay tonight, but what could be more fun than figuring out where I’m going to sleep late at night on the arctic circle?