Spoilers for Fenar Ahmad’s DARKLAND.
Unlike A Ghost Story, my second outing to the Fantasia film festival was to a movie I hadn’t previously read about. I thought it sounded interesting based on a friend’s synopsis and so I bought tickets for Darkland. I wasn’t disappointed.
Darkland explores how the strong prey on the weak, even looking at how a seemingly good man can abuse power when right desires are pursued to wrong ends. When sheep are being devoured by wolves they need a shepherd, not another wolf. It’s a bittersweet tale that reminds us vengeance makes a poor substitute for justice.
"If the light within you is darkness..."
Zaid is a successful surgeon of middle-eastern origin living in Copenhagen the way most surgeons do: comfortably well. His Danish wife is pregnant with their first child and their friends are delightfully cosmopolitan. This is the good life Zaid chose; unfortunately no one chooses their family.
Disconnected and disenfranchised, Zaid’s brother Yasin intrudes into his high life begging for help. Yasin’s desperate insistence that he’ll “never ask [Zaid] for anything again, promise!” simply confirms the assumption that many last times have passed and would likely come again—if only Yasin’s desperation had not been well-founded.
But Zaid’s world is shaken when his brother’s broken body shows up at his hospital and he must deliver the bad news to his parents—minus the fact Zaid himself sent Yasin away. And so begins a slow spiral of guilt, shame, and rage that will not only destroy Zaid’s idyllic life, but shred his very soul.
Frustrated with the slow pace of justice and the racially-tinged dismissiveness of police investigators, Zaid goes looking for answers. Soon after, he’s teaching thugs a lesson in dramatic power-fantasy fashion.
In his quest to find and kill the gang boss responsible for Yasin’s death, Zaid participates in the same kind of grooming and exploitation of vulnerable young men as the gangs he’s fighting. The movie’s most beautiful moment of humanity takes place around a dinner table, and the scene is heartbreaking precisely because it’s warmth is wasted.
Zaid welcomes Alex, a simple runner in Yasin’s gang, to dinner at his Copenhagen home. Reminiscent of some recent discussions about class and exclusion online, Alex tries drinks he’s never tasted and has trouble asking polite dinner questions fielded by Zaid’s wife. Unable to discuss school or work—neither of which he’s pursuing—Alex gives a passionate explanation of his favourite video game.
This simple moment around the table is a beautiful picture of the kind of justice Yasin needed; the justice Alex needs. It’s heartbreaking because this justice isn’t being pursued. Instead, armed with inside information, Zaid continues his pursuit of Yasin’s killer. Along the way he sticks a gun into the mouth of a young thug and asks him what he has to be proud of. Alex shows up and reminds Zaid, “these are just kids!” Just like Alex; just like Yasin.
A dramatic reversal and unraveling begins with a particularly uncomfortable scene. Alex is sacrificed for Zaid’s self-righteous vengeance when it’s discovered he’s been passing information about the gang to the flawed avenger. A young man in need of a life laid down for him is instead laid down himself broken and bleeding, caught between two wolves. It’s a fitting dramatic irony that Zaid’s betrayal of Alex, who represents Yasin’s desperate life, touches off a sequence of loss that no amount of vengeance can atone for.
In the end, Darkland chases the satisfying conclusion of a revenger thriller and chronicles Zaid’s wasted opportunities. The trap he elaborately sets catches his foot instead. He wastes the opportunity to fight exploitation in a meaningful way, wastes the love of his wife, and wastes the lives of his friends, but watching it all implode is still worth your time.