Edward R. Murrow once said we’re prisoners of our experiences. We cannot eliminate our prejudices, only recognize them. As we grow older, we learn of our failings or risk becoming cogs in a cycle of violence. One of our teachers is representation in media. The things we pick up from our favorite form of entertainment; style, dialogue, and, ultimately, worldview. For many people, television and films are their only contact with other facets of society, and it’s where they begin their dialogue with it. Cinema holds the immense power to shape ideas and politics for decades – a responsibility to not treat lightly.
NIMBY, directed by Teemu Nikki, is one of the few mainstream films of the past two decades that deals with racism and neo-Nazism in Finland today; the other is the turgid HEART OF A LION, directed by Dome Karukoski. In that, a Nazi falls for a woman who has a black son from a prior relationship, so he learns to be a human again through the power of love. In NIMBY, it’s a broken heart that drives a man to Nazism. It’s a desire to excuse ideological behavior by acting like all they need is love, which is not what The Beatles meant.
Advertised as a comedy about “the difficulties of tolerance,” NIMBY pretends to be apolitical and an equal opportunity offender. But in its haste to punch up, down, left, and right, it forgets that mocking those in power is not the same as mocking those without it. Even the name, NIMBY, indicates satire not fully fleshed out. Originating in the 1980s, nimbyism is the act of demanding less than savory aspects of society be removed from the presence of more privileged people. Historically this has meant social services, prisons, or breadlines. To conflate that with the desire not to have literal Nazis hanging around your neighborhood would require a brilliant satirist and political mind to work, which NIMBY does not have.
It’s a film brimming with Nikki’s trademark quality directing, especially thanks to a talented multilingual cast and a terrific use of space with a limited budget. But it’s also painfully broad in its satire, uncertain what it actually wants to say, and so timid to make a point that it becomes a highly political film terrified of actually being political.
Led by the effusively charming duo of Susanna Pukkila and Almila Bagriacik, NIMBY is the story of two young lovers (Mervi & Kata) forced by circumstance to come out to their parents. They’ve been together for a year, but neither has leaped to make the introductions. With Kata’s parents arriving into the country, they escape to the countryside to meet with Mervi’s first.
Upon arrival, it’s clear that this is a boondock that people leave for a reason. Nazis occupy the town square, viciously abusing refugees when they arrive at the poorly kept refugee center. Mervi’s ex-boyfriend is now one of the goose steppers himself, happily living up his part as a hateful cretin in a small pond. Her parents are in a polyamorous relationship with their close friends. Once word gets around of Mervi’s return, and with whom, the local Nazi troupe decides to take matters into their own hands to make their mark on Finland’s history.
From the very beginning, it’s clear that Nikki (along with co-writer Jani Pösö) has no idea where to aim his satire. The jokes fly fast, and the pacing is snappy, but it’s like shooting fish in a barrel and still missing. Mervi’s parents are Sunday-liberals, and their partners are the local minister and his wife. Naturally, they’re hypocrites, something Nikki can’t help but overemphasize at every turn. “How does this fit in with your religion?” Mervi asks, smugly. “Jesus forgives, but the congregation doesn’t,” comes the reply. For a second, there’s an indication the film will skewer the two-faced behavior of those believing in an all-loving God, while denying the same from minorities, but it’s a sidetrack quickly forgotten.
I wish NIMBY was biased and onesided. At least that would be a statement, albeit a misguided one. By the time Kata’s parents arrive at the backwater town, Nikki wastes no time reveling in their shortcomings as well. Her father is an alcoholic, despite raising Kata to be a teetotaler. Her mother speaks for peace and equality while “her” religion still circumcises women. The film pays lip service to logic: “Anyone with a brain is against female circumcision,” Kata declares. It’s not long before someone namechecks ISIL. This repeats multiple times. Someone says something racist, the other responds with a counter-statement, and the discussion ends with both parties looking ignorant.
Nikki wants the audience to consider where the line for tolerance should go. Still, his desire to satirize everything overlooks the immediate nature of violence and discrimination that some prejudices bring. By playing both sides and saying that everyone is intolerant somehow, NIMBY succumbs to the Paradox of Tolerance and never recovers.
The problem is that to make a satire about this topic demands willingness and ability to explain why Nazism and its vile right-wing populism is rising so rapidly. There has to be an indication (one that, to the film’s credit, it does flirt with) that this is not an isolated thing which we can ignore. Nikki prods at the notion that Finns aren’t comfortable with facing hard truths even as they’re staring them in the face. But beyond a gentle jab at our sordid history, it refuses to satirize or deconstruct our national ignorance of systemic racism.
Instead, it treats Nazism like an ill-advised pastime, something you naturally fall into when you’re unemployed and somewhat slow. Even Mervi’s ex, Mika, is a redeemable goofball who just wants to be loved. He attempts to firebomb a refugee center, and the film plays it as a gag at his expense. Which, considering what has taken place, comes off as meanspirited and ill-informed, nearly burying the movie right there and then.
Then there’s the infantilization of the Nazis themselves, portrayed here as violent and hateful idiots, but so inept and clumsy that they become harmless caricatures. They drink to the point of passing out during a siege, their weight makes them inefficient at the most basic tasks, and they need double the amount of instructions to get one thing right. Even their leader, pictured in front of two comically large swastika banners celebrating the arrival of his Hitler-approved handgun, is a buffoon believing himself a general in the Third Reich.
Their language is real (and horrific), and the threat of violence is always in the air, but when the situation erupts, Nikki has no idea where to take it. NIMBY settles for loud slapstick, believing the image of a Nazi punching a refugee carries the same effect as the reversal. The difference is that the former is actively trying to eradicate the existence of the latter. Mocking them both is not an act of irreverence, but irresponsibility.
As for the refugees and immigrants themselves? They’re a plot device to solve the corner NIMBY has written itself into—a Deus Ex Immigraniada.
Nameless and without identity, they remain an amorphous blob of them to us in Nikki’s fantasy. Even the previously mentioned attempted firebombing of their refugee center refuses to give them a moment to shine; instead, Nikki films them from a dutch angle to foreshadow a violent response in the future.
It’s arguable that Kata and her family handle the representation here, but they’re wealthy and far removed from those oppressed. A brief aside insinuates that Nikki wants to prod at the idea of wealth as a social divider as big as nationality, but nothing comes from it. By the end, when the unbearably naive mission statement rings out, NIMBY manages to wrestle the moment away from the minorities and give the golden realization to the white folks. If the ignorance comes from us, so too must the solution, the film says.
I don’t think that Nikki, or anyone involved in the film, is intentionally malicious. But NIMBY is the product of being out of touch, unable, or unwilling, to make an effort and stand for something. It skirts around tender issues without committing to a single one, casting a net so wide anything of value swims right through it. Singular moments impress, and there’s an understanding of the inherent politics involved, even superficially (one of the Nazis bears a striking resemblance to Laura Huhtasaari).
But by being timid, NIMBY robs itself of agency, and by focusing on the white experience, it misses the forest for the trees. It becomes, to paraphrase a voice of reason, nothing more than lights and shapes on the screen, signifying nothing.