The act of watching

Maria Ångerman (Finland, 1971) has a BA in Fine Arts and has had several exihibitions and been on various residencies. Ångerman made a few short films over the last couple of years, that were mainly shown in galleries and museums.


Ruben Östlund (Sweden 2011)

The seemingly occasional, but probably meticulously planned framing of Ruben Östlund makes me aware of how I am watching and how the watching itself becomes the main attention in this film Play.

Three boys are being followed and bullied in a shopping centre, into a tram and further through the city and the suburbs, and eventually robbed of an iPhone by five slightly older boys from a different neighborhood. They play with the younger boys and with the fear their behavior evokes in them.

The film mainly consists of long fixed shots, with occasionally some slow panning to follow the action and sometimes even zooming (probably tracking, though it feels like zooming), whether in - to get a closer view - or out, to see the whole stage where the action is taking place. There are no counter shots, no close ups, just the quietly ‘observing’ camera. In fact it often resembles theatre, the way long shots are kept in one place - whether the actors are within the frame or half in or half out of it. Sometimes they completely disappear out of the frame. Then only the continuing sound takes the narrative further and for a moment the watching is put on hold.

Often the action takes place behind a clear forefront, to separate the viewer from the scene, and is developed in a long fixed shot. Eventually the action moves to the far backdrop - in the same shot - where details might become even blurry, or invisible behind a tree or a corner, as if it isn't so important. The important thing is that we're still watching.

The framing is from the viewpoint of a passive passerby. Just like the adults in the tram when someone is hit and humiliated. No one around says a word. More often than not the framing makes the viewer feel like he's watching something he shouldn't, like eavesdropping, but one is forced to keep watching. One laughs at the situations, because the behavior is highly recognizable. At the same time one feels almost bad for laughing. The boys are literally shitting their pants out of fear.

Almost all of the main characters - both the robbed and the ones robbing - have the same names in the film and in real life. The extras consist of family and friends. All this adds to the real life experience Östlund provides us with. I can imagine he uses these particular guys' way of talking and probably also their own jokes.

I enjoy his modest, black humor, the way he makes fun of the typical Swedish conventions. As a Finnish Swede I suppose it's something like when the Flemish laugh at the Dutch, but I'm sure the Swedish laugh just as much to Östlunds approach as well.

Östlund uses real events that he then stages the way he seems most fit. The title seems to refer to his playing with us and the framing. Play also refers to the robbers attitude: it's all a game that you can take part in or leave. It's really your own fault if you are stupid enough to show your iphone to five black guys when they ask you to, as one of them says in the end.

Maria Ångerman