I don’t know why, but I wasn’t really expecting this to be as topical movie as it turned out to be in terms of its subject matter. Though it’s not technically speaking directly about the current European refugee crisis, it does deal with some of the issues that been created by the huge surge of people seeking a better life in Europe, far away from their war torn homelands.
The story in White People basically revolves around an underground detention center for illegal immigrants, residing somewhere in Sweden, where all the apprehended illegals are processed and detained until the time of their deportation back to their home country. Our main character is Alex, an illegal who arrives to the complex at the beginning of the movie, but the real focus here isn’t so much her personal story, or even her climactic escape attempt from the facility, as it is exploring the and day to day life and politics inside the detainment facility through Alex’s fresh set of eyes.
The most interesting thing about the movie is that there really is no real concrete bad guys here. You naturally feel sympathetic towards the detainees when you see their plight, but the guards are also depicted as nice people who are just trying to do their jobs in making the stay in the detention center as pleasant as possible for everyone. They don’t want the detention complex to be a depressing jail that sucks your life away, it’s more like a sort of weird hotel with prison bars and loss of certain personal privileges. No one is particularly malicious or vilified, is the point I’m trying to make. In fact, the only real villainous entity in the movie, if you would have to come up with one, is the invisible legal system that is at the background, making you comply with the hard, cold letter of the law with no human features or feelings.
White People is a bit unusual thing to watch. It doesn’t really feel like a typical prison movie, there isn’t that much in terms of actual story, it’s few strands of plot with the rest mostly consisting of day to day routines inside the detention complex, and you never really even get to know the central characters that well, though to be fair you do get the occasional hint about Alex’s circumstances, etc. that are to some degree interesting. Even the major sub plot about Alex attempting to escape, so that she can get back to her daughter who is being kept safe and away from the law somewhere in Sweden, serves largely as an excuse for there to even be a slightly dramatic climax just before the ending credits. But even if the movie does not offer much in terms of character development or delivering a particularly complex or gripping central story, it makes up for that through it’s very atmospheric and claustrophobic storytelling. Thanks to that I did find myself being immersed enough that I never found myself being bored by the movie.
While the movie didn’t fill me with much excitement, I did find it entirely watchable. The only missing ingredient here really was a script that told a more compelling story. The visual look and acting was there, with Ville Virtanen making a nice little cameo appearance as the facility’s director (relatively superfluous role, but a nice little treat nevertheless), so it leaves me with optimism that if and when we see more of this type of Nordic co-productions in the future, they are eventually able to fix the issue and come up with something truly great, with lasting power. They are already doing it with TV shows, so hopefully that know-how eventually finds its way into film as well.
As a minor spoiler, the movie does do one particularly fascinating thing at the end, where the movie sort of comes a full circle. Basically what happens is that Alex goes from being a detainee, who even attempted to escape, to being one of the guards at the detention center, presumably by buying her right to stay in Sweden by agreeing to become part of the system as one of its resident guards. There’s a bit more to it than that, but that’s the general gist of it. It’s an interesting twist, that works quite well as a metaphor. You can hate and try to rebel against the system that is oppressing you, but if it serves your own immediate self-interest, one day you may find yourself becoming the very enemy that you used to hate, by willingly becoming a tiny cog in the system and doing to others what you yourself had to endure.