“Are you a f*cking foreigner?” the tight-knit group of troubled young men in a boys’ home ask the taciturn newcomer, Juhani, in the 2008 Finnish film The Home of Dark Butterflies (Tummien perhosten koti). Later that night, they urinate on him as a way of showing him his place.
It was Dome Karukoski’s second film as director, and the characterization of Juhani as an outsider anticipates similar characters in some of the filmmaker’s subsequent films, among which the award-winning Heart of a Lion’s (Leijonasydän) racially mixed Ramadhani, bullied by his school mates and threatened by neo-Nazis because of his skin color, is the latest incarnation.
In the early 1980s, the young Karukoski, born with the first names Thomas August George as the son of an American poet and a Finnish journalist, arrived from Cyprus in rural Finland without speaking the language. Because of his name and his perceived status as a foreigner, he was bullied by his schoolmates into his teenage years and is very open about this experience when discussing the comparable character of Ramadhani in Heart of a Lion.
“Those kids who have a different skin color, they get really bullied,” the 37-year-old Karukoski told The Prague Post at the recent Festroia film festival in Portugal, where his film went on to pick up three major awards. He explained how his own worries were tied to the plot of Heart of a Lion, as he recently became a father, but because his wife is of Kashmiri descent, he had to think about how his child might potentially have to deal with bullies in everyday life.
“That has affected us, and it was a big worry for [me and my wife]. It feels terrible, but … I was thinking before my child’s birth what skin color [he or she was] going to be.”
The film he crafted had themes of violence and racism but also an overarching confidence that even the most aggressive characters are able to change, although this balancing act is far from easy, as it required Karukoski to understand the mindset of the neo-Nazis and steer his audience to empathize with one of them while still reminding us that these individuals are part of a violent culture that should be rejected.
This culture is not unique to Finland, of course, and the director is particularly concerned about the rise in racism that often seems to accompany a recession, as it did in his country in the 1990s and does again at present: The far right-wing Finns Party obtained close to 20 percent of the votes in the 2011 general election. “You can be positive, and say 80 percent voted against it, but 20 percent is still a lot.” The results of the recent election for the European Parliament reflected this rising tendency beyond the Finnish borders, too.
In Heart of a Lion, the protagonist is a member of a neo-Nazi gang, or “club,” and seems to reconsider his fixation on ethnic purity when he comes to accept Ramadhani, whose father is black. But a combination of two scenes in the middle of the film demonstrates how Karukoski organizes his material to create a sense of complexity that, he admits, also aims to produce a bigger emotional experience because it “[puts] the audience in a head lock.”
The scenes in question start with a fight between the neo-Nazis and a group of the fathers of children at Ramadhani’s school. Except for Teppo, the club members don’t know why they are fighting, but for once, the audience is on their side, because they are unwittingly defending a racially mixed boy. However, in the very next scene, we witness their brutal actions when they attack a group of Bulgarian gypsies, and this moment serves to remind the viewer what terror the gang is capable of and why Teppo should break with them. The importance of the latter scene is highlighted by it being shot in a single, unbroken take.
Although his films often deal with the character of the outsider, the thread that runs through almost all of them — with the exception of his first film — is camaraderie between young men or women: school boys in The Home of Dark Butterflies, two girls from a conservative community in Forbidden Fruit (Kielletty hedelmä),three unemployed guys on a late-night road trip in Lapland Odyssey (Napapiirin sankari) and the neo-Nazi club in Heart of a Lion.