With Islamic extremist radicalisation firmly in Australian headlines, it’s a fitting time for Warriors from the North, an account of the Danish Somalis snapped up by Islamic terrorist group al-Shabab, to play on nearby screens. Those looking for an echoing of local leaders’ calls for community bolstering over “death cult” demonising won’t necessarily be disappointed, but certainly surprised to find a story permeated by deep ambivalence. No part of al-Shabab’s fatal zeal is romanticised by directors Nasib Farah and Søren Steen Jespersen, but after hearing the stories of both a recent deserter and the distraught father of one of the group’s young recruits, its pulling power becomes disconcertingly easy to understand.
Much of this anonymous man’s tale unfolds under a pall as greying as these moral dynamics. He features in the film exclusively through actors, and initially in the present day as a blurred silhouette, talking away from the camera to a hotel window view of his home city of Copenhagen. A narrator with an appropriately unplaceable accent re-speaks his words, and they become the most relatable aspect of an otherwise bleak, though not extensively detailed, portrayal of his urban life. Woozily shot flashbacks keep his and other people’s faces constantly out of frame or in shadow, leaving nothing but a narrator’s recitation of is testimony to be recognisably human, so when he says everyone else is in a different world than his, we believe him. Crucially, when he describes the moment two al-Shabab recruiters whisk him into a weeks-long entanglement with scholarly Islamic activists, the spark of brotherhood is impossible to ignore. To go to that from a society that denies him firm cultural roots in Denmark or Somalia leaves no mystery as to why he’s addressing the city itself, and Farah and Jespersen deserve enormous credit for constructing this contrast so ably as first-time film-makers.
He isn’t the only individual caught up in al-Shabab’s web. Camera addresses from other young men are drip-fed, starting with balaclava-clad revolutionaries but progressing to perceptibly reluctant, homesick boys, and finally a total deserter who doesn’t wish what he went through on anyone else. These are a concurrent reflection of our protagonist’s increasing disgust for al-Shabab’s violent activities, which is immediately demonised on the film-makers’ part with early use of footage from a suicide bomber’s attack on a graduation ceremony for Somali doctors. The later documenting of the carnage doesn’t make it any less stomach-churning, though it increases our sympathies for Abukar, a father in Denmark holding his mobile phone aloft on speakerphone as he tries to track down the son that al-Shabab have lured into the Somalian battlefields where such attacks occur. His dismay is symbolic of an older generation that have had the rug pulled out from under them, helpless to do much that would assuage their own complicity and that of the moderate clergy, and so the movie’s view of the symptoms in this dire problem becomes more rounded and relevant.
Fitting for a tale that refuses to go the simplistic view, the most damning part of Warriors is in its refusal to give us easy answers in how to abolish the trend. Abukar makes good use of new technologies to grant himself some clarity on his son’s situation, though more is most definitely needed than just witnessing his pain. Whatever that is, it takes a day-by-day attitude that even our nameless hero struggles to find in himself. He has zero moral victory in being an eyewitness figure for us, and talks freely about how much he misses the kinship he found in the isolated apartment. “I don’t know if I’ll be here tomorrow,” he states, and in that void of uncertainty breeds a more artful moral provocation than most sermons.