Beofilm // 2006 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // June 20th, 2008
A documentary in 8 chapters by 4 directors about 500 violent stonethrowing psycho punks from hell.
Ah, to be young and a stone-wielding anarchist. Danish, too! If this sounds appealing to your sensibilities, check out Squat 69, a righteously independent documentary chronicling the struggle of the Danish left-wing community house Ungdomshuset (literally translated, "the youth house"), fighting against the state for the right to exist in peace.
The documentary's official Danish title is the tongue-twisting 500 Stenkastende Autonome Voldspsykopater fra Helvede, roughly translates from the sardonic message scrawled on the outside of the building during its tumultuous legal battle: "For sale! Including 500 violent stonethrowing psyko punks from Hell." An apt and prophetic description; the conflict over the Ungdomshuset cumulated in the worst series of riots in recent history in Denmark, making world headlines in March 2007.
The back story: back in 1982, the city of Copenhagen gave a nice piece of real estate over to a group of youths who turned the century-old building into a thriving scene of underground music, left-wing politics, and activism. With a revolving door of occupants, late-night concerts, squatters, and politics, both anarchists and city authorities were happy that each had a place to call their own. The city was happy having all its unsavory leftist elements in one place to keep an eye on, and the punks were happy to have a place to trash and call their own. Ungdomshuset was theirs, and everything outside their doors belonged to the rest of the world. It was dirty, smelly, and unsanitary, but it was home.
But in 1996, when the city attempted to renovate the building due to a recent discovery of unsafe mold and fungus, they encountered surprising resistance from its extremist occupants, who denied the city access to the premises. The city weakly pointed out that it technically still owned Ungdomshuset and that the property was a gift, but the punks disagreed. They owned the building by the right of occupancy, and it would stay theirs, because they were never leaving, ever. The next ten years saw a bevy of demonstrations, frustrations, negotiations, and complications, culminating in the building being sold by the city to a Christian organization (who attempted to reform the punks) and the punks refusing to acknowledge the new owners' rights to actually enter the building they purchased. As the anarchists stubbornly held onto their principles and refused to give up the house, an inevitable showdown loomed on the horizon. It may or may not involve tear gas.
You gotta hand it to these smelly punks -- they know how to stick to their principles far beyond the realm of common sense. After any other sane group of people would have settled, negotiated, compromised, or just plain run from the oncoming wave of stormtrooper-like authority figures in full riot gear, the punks wave middle fingers in the air and egg them on. Despite the increasingly bleak living conditions, the Ungdomshuset crew thrived like some bizarre undersea bacteria living in thermal vents uninhabitable by normal life forms.
Four independent filmmakers approached the group, asking permission to film their struggle and lifestyle, which was cautiously granted (the only media of any kind allowed access to the building). How the showdown between plebes and state plays itself out shall not be covered in this review, but suffice it to say, the Ungdomshuset hits the fan. The film has a rough-and-tumble presentation, a washed-out palate of graininess that suits the gritty punks and their hovel. Shots are often composed with heavy shadows, giving a mysterious and dark look to the interviews. A simple stereo presentation in the film's native Danish language does the job well enough -- there is little to the film from an audio perspective besides on-location interview recordings and bad punk rock band performances.
As documentaries go, it is refreshing to find a film of this kind with little in the way of an agenda, especially considering its subject. At times the film portrays the squatters in an enviable, righteous fashion, but other sequences show them to be nothing more than anarchistic squatters. The film is plain and honest, which is a rare trait; it simply takes its camera into the Ungdomshuset and films what people do and say and how they react to the government coming to tear down their home. Squat 69 neither glorifies nor condemns the youth's agenda, but only records it for posterity. The group is free-spirited, defiantly anti-authority, unreasonably principled, and defiantly admirable; they're kind and gentle to their own kind, but fierce and unyielding to the rest of the world that spurns them on appearance and ideology. Most of the group is revealed to be surprisingly intellectual and well-spoken, educated, and well-read in social theory, talking the talk as well as walking the walk. Watching Squat 69 was strange as I alternated between shining admiration and condemnation of the crazy youths standing up for their principles against all improbable odds.
This disc is as stripped-down and DIY as they get: you can play the film in Danish, or you can play the film in Danish with English subtitles. An interesting thing to note is that, in keeping with the DIY ethics of the subject matter of Squat 69, the retail product is manufactured on demand using DVD-R recordable media. That's right, good ol' fashioned burnable DVDs, like you use in your computer or DVD recorder at home. For any other demographic, umbrage and outrage might result, but considering the political leanings of those who would no doubt be interested in watching Squat 69, I have a feeling nobody is going to mind. Except for one small detail...the disc provided didn't work in my living room DVD player. My player plays everything under the sun like a faithful multimedia workhorse, but ten minutes into the film started stuttering and skipping like a vinyl record. Not good. I'm all for that do-it-yourself attitude, but not at the expense of quality control.
Be warned that this disc is a region-free PAL production, so make sure your player accommodates conversion before purchasing. Alternatively, a home computer or laptop will have no problem playing back the disc if your DVD player chokes.
Squat 69 is a great independent documentary on a fascinating bit of social politics, anarchy and youth activism, personifying the spirit of defiance. Just make sure you've got a backup DVD player in case Squat 69 chooses to defy your player.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Danish)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site
* Trailer (English)