“I can’t breathe,” 19-year-old Talib Ben Hassi (Jack Pedersen) shouts repeatedly, as police officers hold him down in a cell. With those three words right at the beginning of Shorta, writer/directors’ Frederik Louis Hviid and Anders Ølholm evoke the phrase used by Eric Garner and many other African-Americans before they died at the hands of the police who were arresting them – a phrase that has now become the catch cry of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. Yet Shorta is not set in America, but in Denmark, and young Ben Hassi does not die immediately, but is rather lying in a hospital’s intensive care unit, his life hanging by a thread, while angry unrest besets Copenhagen.
In this incendiary environment, Jens Høyer (Simon Sears) is assigned by the Captain (Michael Brostrup) to ride with the older officer Mike Andersen (Jacob Lohmann), expressly to “keep him on a short leash, just until this blows over”. Nicknamed ‘Supercop’ – and not as a compliment – Andersen is an aggressive bigot with a reputation for inappropriate conduct and a tendency to escalate situations. The two cops follow a suspicious car into Svalegården, the warren of estates where Ben Hassi lived, despite official warnings to avoid the area. There Andersen, looking for conflict, first stops, searches and harasses a young Arab called Amos Al-Shami (Tarek Zayat) – who is minding his own business – and then insists on arresting him, only for the two policemen to find themselves under attack from vengeful locals, and cut off from all help. As their situation becomes ever more tense, these two cops, deeply antagonistic towards each other, will undergo something of a rôle reversal, with Andersen acquiring a new-found empathy for the first- or second-generation Others all around, and Høyer learning that in the heat of the moment things do not always go by the book.
Named after an Arabic word for the police, Shorta is a violent siege film, evoking not only Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables (2109) and Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day (2001), but also Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) and John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) and Escape From New York (1981). As this compromised pair, first together and then apart, desperately tries to find a way home through a hostile environment that is more nuanced than they at first acknowledge, ironies accumulate. The same beleaguered residents who complain that the police never come to Svalegården now wish the targeted police would stay as far away from them as possible. While masked gangs hunt the officers, other locals shelter and help them, and some are wise enough to see that the death of a policeman on the estate will only make things worse for everyone there. Disguised in a hoodie, xenophobic Andersen will be mistaken for one of the “fucking ragheads” vandalising property and discover what it is like to be in a racist’s firing line. Yet while there is certainly criminality in this area and young men intent on doing harm under cover of the riots, there are also many trying to make a living within the law, and even an organised neighbourhood watch set up as a working substitute for the absent police – and the police, too, are their own gang, more than capable of closing ranks and upsetting the order that they are responsible for upholding.
Accordingly, Hviid and Ølholm have crafted not just a suspenseful thriller, but also a portrait of societal problems in microcosm, with the labyrinthine blocks of Svalegården accommodating a multicultural melting pot of different classes and races all packed into close proximity with each other. If the film exposes something rotten in the state of Denmark, it also, without being pat or oversimplistic, offers tentative directions for improvement. “I know it’s tough out there right now, but I’m doing my best to change that,” as the Captain briefs his officers before they begin their shift. “You set the agenda.” This is Shorta‘s equivalent to “do the right thing“, a moral injunction that is not so easily followed in complex real-world situations. The results, messy and taut, will leave you breathless.
© Anton Bitel