On the face of it, there is absolutely nothing queer about Ækte vare (Flow, 2014), the first feature film by Danish director Fenar Ahmad. It is set in Brøndby Strand, a Copenhagen suburb “striking for its ordinariness” with, at its centre, “a cluster of grim high-rise buildings” (Aidi 2014: xxiv), and it features a group of youngsters, most of them ‘with immigration background’, as they spend their days drifting around the estate, stealing, driving fast cars and, not least, dreaming of becoming rap stars. At the centre of the film is Mikael (Kian Rosenberg Larsson, aka Gilli) who is hired as a ghostwriter (no royalties or credits) for the deeply commercial has-been rapper Apollo (Rasmus Hammerich). Enticed by the glamorous world of fancy nightclubs, high-end luxury cars and beautiful girls he is introduced to, Mikael is on the point of forgetting his friends in the suburb, including his girlfriend Jelana (Marijana Jankovic), but in the end he decides to leave Apollo and return to the ‘ghetto’.
With a budget of only five million Danish kroner (roughly 670,000 euros), Ækte vare largely adopted a Dogma 95-like attitude to the shooting: it was filmed with a handheld camera on location in Brøndby Strand and other housing projects; the cast wore their own clothes, and in one scene shot at the actual familial home of one of the ‘actors’, his real parents ‘play’ his parents in the film. In fact, unlike Dogma, the majority of the cast are non-professional actors, some of whom – like Gilli, but also Benny Jamz and Sivas – are prominent Danish rappers. They all grew up in conditions like the ones depicted in the film, so the script merely indicated the general content of each scene, leaving it to the players to improvise the dialogue (Bondebjerg 2017; DFI News 2014; Espersen 2014).
Based on its setting, its plot and predominantly ‘brown’ rap cast, many critics saw Ækte vare as just another rap film – one critic even claimed it lacked vision (in Bondebjerg 2017: 11) – but in my view, it distinguishes itself by the way it queers dominant perceptions of Danishness. My understanding of queer thus reaches beyond the concept’s origins in sexual and gender politics and takes its cue from queer theory’s ‘essential’ anti-normativity. In this, it follows David Halperin’s overall characterisation of queer as “whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which [queer] necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence’ (Halperin 1995: 62, emphasis in original). More specifically, the chapter is indebted to the concept of ‘disidentification’ as originally introduced by Judith Butler (1993) in the shape of a question – “What are the possibilities of politicizing disidentification, this experience of misrecognition, this uneasy sense of standing under a sign to which one does and does not belong?” (219, emphasis in original) – and later investigated in more detail by José Esteban Muñoz (1999).
Also, I intend to challenge – or queer – queer theory by combining it with a Deleuzian approach. While Deleuzian philosophy and queer theory may be antithetical in some significant respects – the posthuman materialism championed by Deleuze and his followers versus the social constructivism underpinning queer theory – they do share some common ground when it comes to the deterritorialisation of any kind of given norm. From Deleuze (and Guattari), I will borrow mainly the concept of a ‘minor literature’ but also a focus on the process of ‘becoming’ which the largely Deleuze-influenced feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti describes as “a time bomb placed at the very heart of the social and symbolic system that has welded together being, subjectivity, masculinity, compulsory heterosexuality, and (western) ethnocentrism” (2011: 31).
Danes and other Danish citizens
In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson cites the idea that “in the modern world everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she ‘has’ a gender" (1991: 5). To Eve Sedgwick, for whom there “could not be any such thing as the normal way to ‘have’ a gender” (1994: 148, emphasis in original), the pairing of gender and nationality suggests that “it may be that there exists for nations, as for genders, simply no normal way to partake of the categorical definitiveness of the national” (ibid: 150). She is thus among the first queer theorists to challenge normative definitions of national identity, a critical stance that has, arguably, only gained in importance with the widespread resurgence of nationalism in the wake of the current so-called ‘immigration crisis’.
By and large, the personal trajectory of Fenar Ahmad can be said to constitute an embodied destabilisation of definite national categorisations. Born in Czechoslovakia to communist Iraqi parents who had fled the regime of Saddam Hussein, his first language was Czech, and he did not realise he was an Arab until, at the age of five, he arrived in Denmark and was placed in a refugee camp that grouped its residents according to their ethnicities. Growing up in Denmark, he eventually learned both Danish and Arabic but he did not feel Danish until he attended a Texas high school where his American classmates thought of him as a Dane (Espersen 2014). This fluid national identification process in addition to his struggle for recognition in Denmark may be why Ahmad refuses to be boxed in as an ‘immigrant director’ (Bondebjerg 2017: 9) but also why he takes such an acute interest in Danishness and its underlying norms. His documentary Den perfekte muslim (The Perfect Muslim, 2009), for example, investigates what it takes for immigrants to be fully accepted as Danes. The film asks two focus groups, one composed of ‘ethnic Danes’, the other of immigrants, to define Denmark and Danishness. The immigrants first mention equal rights, Christmas, beer and unions, whereas for the ethnic Danes, the first two things that spring to mind are the flag and allotment gardens. Eventually, they also mention democracy, equality and freedom, but their elevation of the flag and allotment gardens to a kind of primary national emblems is striking, apparently also to Ahmad who gives prominence to both in Ækte vare.
When the results from the focus groups are later used in telephone interviews with 1,000 Danes reportedly representative of the entire Danish population, the end result is summarised in ten points: if an immigrant is to be accepted as Danish, he or she must 1) speak Danish, 2) work, 3) obey the law, 4) attend social functions with Danes, and so forth. When presented with this conclusion, which by and large leaves their integration in Danish society up to the immigrants themselves, the group of – perfectly Danish speaking, working and law-abiding – immigrants do not disagree as such, yet some of them wonder why, then, many of those who meet all ten points are not given a chance due to the colour of their hair and skin, their names or their Muslim headscarves. And Ahmad, who considers himself to be the ‘perfect Muslim’ because he has intuitively done all Danes require from immigrants while at the same time maintaining his outsider status as ‘the Paki who made it’, wonders whether his perfectly blond and blue-eyed daughter, Uma Schmidt Ahmad, will ever be regarded as a true Dane, or if the ‘flaw’ inherited from her father, his last name, will unavoidably tag her as a ‘3rd generation immigrant’.
The Perfect Muslim’s investigation of what it takes to be recognised as Danish is reflective of recent decades’ still tighter Danish immigration policies. While the purported aim of these policies has been to keep (non-Western) foreigners out, also people who came to Denmark generations ago and even their children have been targeted and singled out as not entirely Danish. Unlike its French counterpart, the national Danish bureau of statistics, Statistics Denmark, for instance, carefully distinguishes ‘descendants of immigrants’ from ‘Danes’ who are defined as having at least one parent who is a Danish citizen born in Denmark.1 Whether the ‘descendants’ are Danish citizens themselves and/or were born and raised in Denmark is immaterial: they are, in the words of El-Tayeb, “frozen in the state of migration through the permanent designation of another, foreign national identity that allow their definition as not Danish...” (2011: xx). Against this background, it should come as no surprise that many young Danes ‘with immigration background’ do not feel overly welcome in Denmark.
They are, however, stigmatised not only by their origin, their names and the way they look, but also by their postal code. Since the height of labour migration in the 1960s and early 1970s, immigrants to Denmark have typically been placed in social housing estates outside the centres of the larger cities, Danish equivalents of the French banlieues. In 2010, the then right-wing government officially designated 29 of these estates as ‘ghettoes’, allegedly to clearly identify communities in severe need of social redress, but also because these areas were regarded, in the words of then prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, as “black spots on the map of Denmark ... places where Danish values are no longer held in high esteem” (in Soei 2011: 17).2
Irrespective of the government’s official list, the word ‘ghetto’ has largely come to refer to any low- or no-income suburban housing project. And despite the fact that the residents typically have all kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities, including ‘Danish’, ‘ghetto’ has also become almost synonymous with immigrants, to the point that “dark skin is a significant identity marker both to the inhabitants themselves and to the majority society” (ibid: 128).3 Against the “territorial stigmatisation” they suffer (ibid: 76), Danish ghetto youth have, however, embraced their neighbourhoods which, to El-Tayeb, are “the only possible source of identification” for descendants of immigrants when “the nations they have been born into continue to define them as foreigners on their way out” (2011: 28). The most remarkable outcome of this ‘identification’ with the ‘hood’ is, also in Denmark, a vibrant hip hop culture that has turned the pernicious ghetto designation into a mark of honour. In the words of Benny Jamz: “We all grew up in what you might call ghetto Denmark” (in Hansen 2016).4
An allotment garden ‘ghetto’
While Brøndby Strand is not on the official ghetto list, it certainly is a low-income area with its share of social problems – a fact that Ækte vare does nothing to downtone. Unemployment appears to be the norm, even among the parent generation, and as for the estate’s youth, only the protagonist, Mikael, occasionally works (off the books) as a scaffolder, whereas his friends are all primarily engaged in loitering, rapping and petty crime.
In view of the general denigration of ‘ghettoes’, however, the most striking aspect of Ækte vare’s representation of Brøndby Strand is how inviting it looks. While the high-rise buildings do loom large, Ahmad and his cinematographer, Niels A. Hansen, have managed to confer an air of idyllic allotment garden to these ill-famed concrete premises by consistently focusing on sunbathed green lawns and foliage, sprawled with many-coloured flowers. Also, the inhabitants appear to form a strong local community where everybody knows everybody, like in the much cherished Danish allotment garden communities.
However unusual this largely favourable depiction may appear, it is likely to be quite true to life – after all, Brøndby Strand does have green spaces, and people in multi-ethnic areas do tend to enjoy what Paul Gilroy (2004) has described as a kind of ordinary or banal everyday conviviality, irrespective of origins, religion and skin tone. Yet it is clearly also the result of an aesthetic and political choice aimed at undermining the ‘ghetto stereotype’ as well as, arguably, blurring the normative distinction between allotment gardens as a symbol of Danishness and the ghettoes as “black spots on the map of Denmark”.
As for that other national symbol mentioned by The Perfect Muslim’s ethnic Danes, i.e., the red and white Danish flag (or Dannebrog, as it is called), it is nowhere to be seen in the film’s Brøndby Strand. Given the flag’s otherwise ubiquity in Danish culture – “In one form or another, Dannebrog really is everywhere” (Jenkins 2012: 117), not least in allotment gardens of which it is practically a defining characteristic – this absence is noteworthy. A white-spotted red cloth hanging on a balcony could perhaps be interpreted as referring to the flag in the same somewhat twisted way as the allotment garden analogy, but it only appears furtively in a single scene and could easily be missed. By contrast, the flag – or at least its colours – is omnipresent in much of Ækte vare’s paratext, i.e., the various ‘texts’ that accompany and present the work itself: the film’s poster as well as its DVD and soundtrack covers are all held in ostentatious red and white, either in the form of white text on a flaming red background or red and white text on black.5 If a paratext is, in the words of Philippe Lejeune, “the fringe of the printed text [here: the film] which, in reality, controls the whole reading” (in Genette 1991: 261), this paratextual foregrounding of the flag would suggest if not necessarily – or not only – the film’s own claim to Danishness then at least the national framework against which it wishes to be read.
Ækte vare’s transferral of majority national symbols to minority ground arguably situates the film on a disidentificatory path which Muñoz defines as “a strategy that tries to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance” (1999: 11-12). In order to be able to destabilise Danish national identity from within, the film insists on its own and the ghetto’s Danishness while at the same time, through the (supposed) incompatibility of ghettoes and allotment gardens and the absence of the flag from the diegesis, drawing attention to the way ghettoes and their residents are othered by the majority. But Ækte vare also values local struggles of resistance, mainly in the form of quite transgressive rapping performances.
Rap as a minor cultural form
To most Danes, a good command of the Danish language is the most significant marker of Danishness (Larsen 2016), and by that yardstick, Ækte vare’s cast and characters are as Danish as they come. Through their rapping in particular but also just by the way they talk to each other, they do, however, challenge and exceed the boundaries of any normative definition of the national language. For one thing, they include words from a variety of other languages, as emphasised by Sivas:
I am from Brøndby Strand, a very multicultural community. Here are Arabs, Turks, Africans and Iranians. All of us have brought words from our respective languages. Even though I am not from Turkey, I say, ‘Do you have an araba?’, araba meaning car. Using each others’ words, we demonstrate that we have accepted each others’ cultures and differences. That’s why I also want to open up this language to a Danish audience, so we can all understand each other better. It’s a kind of integration in reverse. (in Kristiansen 2014)6
I shall get back to the issue of a possible ‘integration in reverse’, but if the rappers’ inclusion of words from other languages is certainly colourful, their extremely creative approach to Danish grammar, pronunciation and spelling is, arguably, even more transgressive.
Overall, the fact that ethnic minority rappers perform in the language of the ethnic majority recalls what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as the ‘minor literature’ of Franz Kafka. A Czech Jew, Kafka wrote in German, but Prague German, “a fluid language intermixed with Czech and Yiddish” (Deleuze and Guattari 1986: 20) which Deleuze and Guattari characterise as “a deterritorialized language, appropriate for strange and minor uses” (ibid: 17). They stress how Kafka’s linguistic situation bears many similarities to the one faced by immigrants and their children who “live in a language that is not their own[.] Or no longer, or not yet, even know their own and know poorly the major language that they are forced to serve” (ibid: 19). Again, most descendants of immigrants to Denmark, including the Ækte vare cast, actually have an excellent command of (majority) Danish, still the rappers can certainly be said to deterritorialise the Danish language through the ‘strange’ uses to which they put it.
It is difficult if not outright impossible to give an accurate impression in English of the rappers’ usage of Danish. Also, I do not pretend to understand every detail, not only due to the frequency of imported words like ‘araba’, ‘para’ (money, which comes with the variant ‘para Obama’ for black money) and others but primarily because of the way even common Danish words are reworked, repeated, reassembled and uttered in new, highly powerful ways. The language is completely chopped up, rendered unrecognisable and, arguably, distanced from its ‘normal’, representative function. Instead, the words are, like Kafka’s, opened up “onto unexpected internal intensities – in short, an asignifying intensive utilization of language” (ibid: 22, emphasis in original). Though the rap lyrics in Ækte vare are not devoid of meaning – they mainly speak of a kind of low level (imagined) ‘gangsta’ universe in which money is god, and the road to ‘para’ paved with marijuana, guns and police sirens (“fuck the police!”) – the way they are performed gives priority to their rhythm, their sound and their inflection. To paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari, the cry from the ghetto is given a vibrant syntax of its own – a syntax to which the film adds a visual equivalence through the handheld camera’s often abrupt movements and unfocused images which in unison with the rapid editing and overall emphasis on bright colours afford an intense, almost haptic cinematic experience.
If the deterritorialising play with a majority language is a defining characteristic of most rap music worthy of the name (see Kelley 2004, for example), and if it is also quite common for rap films to have words and phrasings from the rap lyrics spill into the dialogue, the fact that Ækte vare’s cast tend to all speak at the same time makes it particularly difficult for an uninitiated audience to understand what is being said. With that in mind, it is worth noting that the film comes with no Danish subtitles, especially when compared to Kunsten at græde i kor (2006, The Art of Crying, dir. Peter Schønau Fog) and Onkel (2019, Uncle, dir. Frelle Petersen) which, because of their South Jutlandic dialogue, were indeed distributed with Danish subtitles, South Jutlandic being a dialect few Danes understand. While Danish subtitles might have made Ækte vare more accessible to a wider Danish audience, they would, arguably, at one and the same time, also have conveyed a peripheral quality to the Danish spoken in the film and attenuated its deterritorialising strangeness, both of which run counter to what I see as Ahmad’s project, namely to enter ghetto culture into the mainstream – “It makes no sense for us to stay underground. We want to go out and meet people” (interview with Danish television channel DR2)7 – without conforming to majority normativity. He is, for example, delighted to hear Danish youths repeat words and expressions from the street slang used by their favourite rappers, even if they have no idea what they mean (ibid.) – which I take as an expression of his, and the rappers’, wish to see ghetto speak make its way into Danish, subtly transforming the national language from within.
Becoming minoritarian and mainstream
If mainstream culture is in most respects the very opposite of a minor culture, reconciling these two irreconcilables is, in my view, at the very heart of Ahmad’s queering practice. The process referred to by Deleuze and Guattari as ‘becoming minoritarian’ is key in this context as it transcends the (quantitative) minorities and reaches out towards the majority. A minor literature, they write, is “a problem for all of us” (1986: 19), for if hegemonic normativity is to be undermined, the minorities cannot do it by themselves. The centre “needs to be set in motion toward a becoming-minoritarian” (Braidotti 2011: 20).
The fact that Ækte vare places a white rapper – Mikael/Gilli – at the centre of ghetto culture, can be seen as an almost literal exemplification of the process of becoming minoritarian. Mikael is of course far from being the first white protagonist of a rap film, but whereas, e.g., 8 Mile (Curtis Hanson, USA/Germany 2002) throughout emphasises Eminem’s whiteness that places him as an outsider in relation to the black rap community, Ækte vare distinguishes itself by never drawing attention to Mikael’s white skin tone. Not only does the film thereby challenge any assumed contradiction between whiteness and ghetto life, as part of its queering strategy it virtually has Mikael embody ghetto culture. And yet, with his sparkling blue eyes and crewcut blond hair, he could readily be mistaken for a skinhead – indeed, his physical appearance bears a striking resemblance to that of the neo-Nazi Marco (Alban Lenoir) in the French film Un français (French Blood, Diastème, 2015). In a dizzying spin on Ækte vare’s already multi-layered and sometimes contradictory transgressions of established boundaries, the film thus queers even the distinction between ‘Paki bashers’ and their victims – who typically grew up in the same kinds of poverty-stricken suburban housing projects, as brought out so poignantly in, e.g., French Blood, Made in Britain (Alan Clarke, UK 1982), Meantime (Mike Leigh, UK 1983) and This Is England (Shane Meadows, UK 2006). I consider it to be highly unlikely that Ahmad’s aim would be to deny or belittle the ugliness of white supremacy, rather he points to the absence of any essential difference between white nationalists and brown descendants of immigrants; what sets them apart is mainly how they are defined – and define themselves – in relation to hegemonic perceptions of the national. Indeed, upon closer inspection, Mikael’s skinhead-like crewcut does not differ significantly from those of his brown friends in Brøndby Strand.
Measured by the widespread perception that ghettoes equal dark skin, the very matter-of-factness with which the film presents Mikael as part and parcel of ghetto culture can, however, be said to make his whiteness stand out as somewhat strange, thereby, in fact, drawing attention to it. In consequence, the paradoxical – or queer – effect of the film’s refusal to explicitly address the colour of Mikael’s skin, is that it makes visible what is otherwise an ‘invisible’, normative marker of Danishness, namely whiteness.
On a more general level, Ækte vare arguably invites also its – majority Danish – audience to become minoritarian, primarily by aligning it with the minoritarian white protagonist. But also the displacement of the allotment garden to the ghetto and the way the entire film comes wrapped in Dannebrog can be said to place the majority in the minority, hence queering the boundaries between the two. It is primarily against this background that a mainstream, or majority, audience is key to Ahmad’s political strategy which, it must be underscored, is the very opposite of the mainstreamisation of a minor culture. If the latter will typically result in the minor culture’s ‘re-territorialisation’ – as demonstrated by the Apollo character’s commercial vampirisation of Mikael’s lyrics – Ahmad, by contrast, aims to render the centre minoritarian.
Even the minorities need to become minoritarian, however. To quote Braidotti, “just being a minority [...] is not enough: it is only the starting point” (2011: 41). While she recognises that minorities may have to “go through a phase of ‘identity politics’” (ibid: 42), they must ultimately disengage “themselves from a unitary identity of others, which is imposed by their opposition to the majority” (ibid: 30). In some respects, this call for minorities to become minoritarian echoes Halperin’s reading of Foucault’s emphasis on the need for homosexuals “to become homosexual, not to persist in acknowledging that we are” (1995: 79, emphasis in original). To Halperin, this means that “our task is to become queer”, understood as “not a given condition but a horizon of possibility, an opportunity for self-transformation, a queer potential” (ibid.). If Ahmad’s queer practice can indeed be said to offer descendants of immigrants an “opportunity for self-transformation”, I would argue that it is even more radical in that it offers a similar opportunity to the majority.
By the same token, Ahmad’s strategy transcends the disidentificatory path described by Muñoz for whom “disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture” (1999: 31). Again, if Ahmad does “crack open the code of the majority” and uses it as raw material for his representation of ghetto culture, he does not stop at those whose Danishness has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant Danish culture. Arguably, his way of politicising what Butler refers to as the “uneasy sense of standing under a sign to which one does and does not belong” (1993: 219) is to destabilise the national normativity undergirding this very ‘sign’, and for that purpose it is crucial that he reaches not only the minorities themselves but also the wider Danish population.
Is this a case of “integration in reverse” then, as suggested by Sivas? Since the word ‘integration’ presupposes (at least) two distinct cultures, one of which is meant to adapt to the other, I do not find “integration in reverse” to be an apt description of Ahmad’s project either. Indeed, through its queering of some of the most common emblems and perceptions of Danishness, Ækte vare rather seeks to undermine or blur any binary distinctions between majority and minority. If it does highlight how ghetto culture “is as Danish as anything else, for it was created here” (Benny Jamz in Hansen 2016),8 the Danish identity to which the film makes claim – for itself as well as for the residents of the nation’s ghettoes – is devoid of the normal, categorical definitiveness of the national that continues to exclude descendants of immigrants from the imagined community of ‘true’ Danes.
What I see as the film’s overall queering of Danish national identity is epitomised in its title, for even the words ‘Ækte vare’ put the Danish language to ‘strange uses’. The first word is deliberately ‘misspelled’. ‘Ægte’, with a ‘g’, means ‘genuine’, ‘real’ or ‘true’, but here the ‘g’ has been replaced by a ‘k’, according to Ahmad to mimic how the word is usually pronounced (Information 2014). The meaning of the (correctly spelled) second word – ‘vare’ – being ‘goods’, the film consequently presents itself as ‘genuine goods’ or, in a more figurative sense, as ‘the real deal’, with a twist. If we are to interpret the title in relation to the issue of Danish national identity, which is so central to the film, I would argue that it should be understood as ‘the real deal’ about Danishness, namely that, in Halperin’s words, “there is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence” (1995: 62).
1. See https://www.dst.dk/en/Statistik/dokumentation/documentationofstatistics/immigrants-and-descendants/statistical-presentation (Accessed: 02/7 2020).
2. “... ‘huller i Danmarkskortet’. ‘Steder, hvor de danske værdier tydeligvis ikke længere er bærende’.”
3. “... mørk hudfarve [udgør] en væsentlig identitetsmarkør for såvel beboerne selv som majoritetssamfundet.”
4. “Vi er alle sammen vokset op i det, som du kan kalde ghetto-Danmark.”
5. See the film’s trailer on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iN8R8vkdT_Y (Accessed: 02/7 2020). The entire film can also be bought or rented on YouTube, with no subtitles.
6. “Jeg kommer fra Brøndby Strand, som er et multikulturelt samfund. Her er der arabere, tyrkere, afrikanere og iranere. Alle har indført ord fra deres eget sprog. Selv om jeg ikke kommer fra Tyrkiet, siger jeg: ‘Har du en araba?’ Det betyder bil. Når vi bruger hinandens ord, viser det, at vi har accepteret hinandens kulturer og forskelle. Derfor vil jeg også gerne åbne sproget op for et dansk publikum, så alle kan forstå hinanden bedre. Det er en slags omvendt integration.”
7. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kY2HuqWKqdw&t=153s (Accessed: 02/7 2020).
8. ”... det er lige så dansk som alt andet. For det er jo noget, der er blevet skabt herhjemme.”
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