Thursday, 6 May 2021

A SONG CALLED HATE - CPH:DOX 2021 review

Now in full swing and launching a selection of cinema screenings today is this year's Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, better and more succinctly known as CPH:DOX. Among this year's selection is A Song Called Hate, following the Icelandic rockers Hatari as they enter Eurovision.

Known for their outlandish performances that blend performance art, bondage gear, leather and growled lyrics over pulsating electronic rhythms, Hatari aren't exactly the first band you'd have in mind for the traditionally 'bubblegum pop', family friendly institution that is the Eurovision Song Contest. Chosen as their country's entry in 2019 with their song HatriĆ° mun sigra (AKA Hate Will Prevail), although the title is as provocative as the fascistic imagery the band uses, they're nice boys really and want to warn about the rise of nationalism across Europe, including their native Iceland. With the expectation that the Enfant terrible band will use the global platform of potentially 200 million Eurovision viewers to deliver a political message that others daren't, the staging of that year's contest in Tel Aviv provokes the opportunity for them to comment (or as they put it "uphold a critical discussion") on Israeli-Palestinian relations in some way.

A collective that expands to over 10 members in the run up to the contest, in reality the band is largely the work of two cousins, Klemens Hannigan and Matti Haraldsson, who have performed together since childhood and who launched the band along with drummer Einar Steffanson in 2015. The frontmen of the band and the focus of this film, Icelandic director Anna Hildur's documentary follows them in the weeks before the concert in Tel Aviv as they embark on a promotional tour of Europe and meet and collaborate with Palestinian musician Bashar for a tour of Israeli-Palestinian borders and camps to see the problems for themselves.

It might sound odd for a film ostensibly about Eurovision - best known for its bright, hopeful outlook on the world - to wade in on the Israel/Palestine conflict, and yes, it is a bizarre amalgam of tones that you have to allow yourself to be taken in by, but to be frank, the Eurovision stage has seen stranger things happen in its time. Matti and Klemens remaining stoic and monosyllabic in interviews with press about what their plans are, but the documentary does capture a slight slipping of the mask as the group collectively ponders what their protest should be, and what potentially career ending repercussions they might face from the power of the European broadcasters. It's clear that they've backed themselves into a corner of staging a protest but with no actual idea of how to pull it off in a meaningful way that will be seen, with a Eurovision imposed 15 second time delay in place to make sure none of the acts attempt to slip anything too outrageous in during their 'live' performances.

In fairness to Hatari, despite the infamy they are courting and the unavoidable feeling that their protest is simply another part of their act, their desire to use their platform to deliver a meaningful message to create social change seems genuine enough, if somewhat naive. For all their pomp and composure, Hildur's camera captures some real moments of truth from the band, such as the Matti's anxiety that leads to tears before their performance, the sharp intake of breath after the loosening of a girdle worn by one member to walk the red carpet, and their collective panic once their small, but effective (and crucially, televised) protest finally takes place during the Eurovision broadcast.

Like 2006's Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up & Sing, that saw the band deal with the fallout from their comments on George W. Bush's Iraq War with unsteady support from some and virulent distain from others, A Song Called Hate never fully explores all the issues surrounding the Israel/Palestine divide, nor does it have the time to do so. Instead it works best as a document on how artists can use their platform and visibility to engage in political activism in a meaningful way and provoke wider discussion on the topic. As to whether they should, that remains open to debate. Whether Eurovision wanted to or not, they gave Hatari a stage and the opportunity to use their performance to send a message to the world, and isn't that really what Eurovision should be about, anyway? A lively, engaging mix of performance and politics, A Song Called Hate is one to enjoy.

Verdict

4/5

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