(A SONG CALLED HATE premieres at DocPoint 2021)
A SONG FOR THE LITTLE GUY
There’s a scene early on in A SONG CALLED HATE, where an art critic talks about the destiny of all performance pieces. “They’re all, eventually, a joke taken too far,” he surmises. Moments before, the two leading members of Hatari, the band taking their anti-capitalist mission against Eurovision, practice their mission statement in front of a mirror. “Hatari is a meaningless word,” they repeat, among a long list of things. Finished, they exchange an impish grin, satisfied by how they’ve muddied the waters.
It’s this that sets the stage for a lingering doubt that permeates throughout the documentary. How much of this is a joke, and how much of it sincere? Just how far are Klemens Hannigan and Matthias Haraldsson, the heads of Hatari, willing to take their elaborate gag, and what is the price they’re willing to pay for it?
The plan is simple: Eurovision is one of the largest entertainment entities globally, each year gathering countries from all over the world together in a single competition. They claim to be apolitical, yet anyone who watches the show can quickly see otherwise. In 2019, they chose Tel Aviv as their location for the contest. So, naturally, Hatari plans to infiltrate the show with their BDSM anti-capitalist techno-metal to perform a song about the nature of hate in the world.
BEHIND EVERY ANARCHIST
Everything starts innocently enough. There are the usual gasps of outrage as Hatari storms the stage in their provocative gear. The pear-clutching extends even further when they announce themselves as staunchly anti-capitalist but cuddly at every turn. The first half of the documentary bounces along with bubbly and almost giddy energy, never once stopping to consider what’s to come.
Sadly, we learn very little about the duo behind the band. Both Klemens and Matthias are charming and talented individuals, but they also, pun intended, protest a bit too much to be believable. They are, after all, from wealthy and influential families, and there’s a wonderfully anachronistic undercurrent in watching them rail against a system they were born into.
By the time Israel looms in the distance and the group makes their journey into Palestine, the mood shifts radically. Talking about political idealism under a thinly veiled guise of pop-art is one thing, witnessing apartheid in person is quite another. They make contact with Bashar Murad, a Palestinian artist looking for a way to make his voice heard. Suddenly big words and pompous preening aren’t enough, and Hatari needs to decide just how much the statement behind their music really means.
GROWS IN THE TELLING
Directed by Anna Hildur, A SONG CALLED HATE is a superbly timely and smart documentary about the necessity of both art and the politics that drive it. By capturing everything, even the moments the band is uncomfortable to reveal, Hildur unearths important truths about any act of provocation, regardless of its origins. A particularly brilliant scene juxtaposes the desperate frustration of those for whom the occupation is a daily reality and the bubble that well-to-do artists from Iceland build to shield themselves from things becoming too real.
But as the lure of fame grows, Hatari finds themselves surprisingly willing to compromise with their anti-authoritarian image in the face of worldwide recognition, and Hildur is there, immaculately capturing ever second.
Told without narration and mostly free of talking heads, Hildur’s film feels more akin to a political thriller than a documentary. Yet it comes loaded with material you couldn’t make up. For instance, watch how unnerved and unbalanced a TV host becomes when Hatari starts giving answers that aren’t pre-established PR speak. At the same time, Hildur smartly and elegantly avoids turning this into an advertising venue for the band itself, despite their attempts to push it in that direction.
“Fighting capitalism takes money,” one of the duo smirks, not quite sorry they’re hocking their wares every chance they get. Hilariously, they pose as outstanding members of society who have the conviction to be unique, but when asked about their costumes, it turns out they’ve got a warehouse of copies waiting for a buyer. And while Hildur is nearly invisible behind the camera, she can’t help but gently prod at her subjects, especially as it takes them down a peg or two when it’s necessary.
It’s almost a shame that Hildur’s vision is strictly limited to Eurovision and its direct aftermath. There are more questions than answers when the band returns home, and none of them come even close to getting answers. There’s no question that their stunt is a worthwhile act of artistic anarchy aimed at a political organization that wields far too much cultural power. But in the end, we’re left aimless with how much good rocking the boat actually does at this level, and just how long is it before the boys themselves are part of the machine they pretend to hate.
I think that’s a sign of a great documentary, though. Hildur leaves the audience wanting more, asking questions, and uncomfortable with a story without a clean ending. As a film, it’s a brilliant piece of journalism. As a documentary, especially as this is her first, it’s an outstanding debut, one that lays an impeccable foundation for the future. Should Hildur return to her subjects in ten years, I believe she’ll find a wealth of material to dive headfirst in. And, who knows, maybe one day a free Palestine, where new artists can finally speak freely.