Almost every film about terrorism makes the subject seem so alien and monstrous that we’re never forced to ask ourselves how we could be capable of it, or even complicit. Sons of Denmark is a grand exception, as it’s a film that examines terror-driven violence in all of its most seductive forms. It avoids the easy stereotypes and assumptions one would normally find in a movie about a young Arab man’s radicalization. Instead, Ulaa Salim’s directorial debut gives us an unflinching and harrowing look at terror’s enablers: white supremacy, unfit justice systems, and opportunist politicians.
One year after a terrorist bombing in Copenhagen, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment have reached a fever pitch in Denmark. Far-right activists have gained major footholds in Danish politics and media, and a nationalist hate group named The Sons of Denmark has grown concerningly active. The film, Sons of Denmark, follows two Arab Danish men as they react to this hostile climate.
The younger of our two protagonists is Zakaria (Mohammed Ismail Mohammed), a 19-year-old who’s eager to return the violence he sees being done against his community by Islamophobes and the eponymous SoD. Zakaria’s arc is where we find many of the predictable radicalization beats—his disillusionment, his coercion by an older mentor figure, his assassin training montage—though director Salim turns these beats on their head by emphasizing just how in over his head Zakaria is. At every turn—and in every shot, since most of the shots are in shallow focus—we’re reminded how short-sighted and ego-serving Zakaria’s decisions are. In the first act, it’s easy to mistake Zakaria’s shallowness for banality on the film’s part, but once the stakes shift into higher gear, it becomes clear that the slow beginning had a thematic point.
Ali (Zaki Youssef) is our other protagonist, an older, wearier member of the militant group that Zakaria joins. At first, Ali seems like nothing more than a stoic, stalwart right-hand man to Hassan, the group’s commander, but in his following scenes it becomes obvious that Ali says very little for a reason. I can’t really describe it without underselling what it’s like to watch the character unfold onscreen, but I should at least point out Zaki Youssef does a phenomenal job conveying Ali’s conflicted natures: his heated devotion to protecting his people versus his sober acknowledgment of his powerlessness to Western institutions.
With Sons of Denmark, Salim has made a procedural/political screed unlike anything else. Instead of just asking “What drives a man to murder for an ideology?” and stopping there, Salim follows that first question up with “And why does it keep happening?” From there, we’re guided to a set of complicated answers which lay on a spectrum of ambiguous to soul-crushing. The final sequence of the movie is sure to leave audiences divided for years to come; my screening resulted in a confused mixture of applause and horrified stares. But I believe everyone should give Sons of Denmark a shot.