Nice People: A Somali Ice Hockey team in Sweden

The International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights has opened in Geneva, Switzerland. I’ve bought my week pass and reserved my seats for a fascinating line-up of films. Inevitably, the majority of my selection is composed of extremely serious and sobering films, and I am bracing myself for a week of learning, and being infuriated and saddened. Yet last night I had the pleasure to watch a wonderful, uplifting, funny and beautiful film that I can only urge you to go and see. It will be shown again on Monday the 7th of March at 18.45 at the Grütli. For those who do not live in Geneva, keep an eye out for “Trevligt Folk/Nice People” in upcoming film festivals close to you.

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In a small town in the middle of nowhere in Sweden live three thousand Somali refugees. Having lived there for a few years now, they speak good Swedish, yet many of the locals are less than impressed by their presence. Their concerns are briefly voiced, “they don’t want to integrate”, “they hang around all day stealing bikes”, and “we feel invaded”. In comes Patrik Andersson, a local Swede with a flair for management and marketing, and a preference for wearing tight colourful trousers, crocodile boots and for dying his hair platinum. His wish is to integrate these men through the medium of sport, and to create an opportunity for Somalis and Swedes to interact. His idea is to train some of these young men in “bandy” (a type of ice-hockey), and for them to represent Somalia for the first time in the World Bandy Championship held in Siberia in nine months time.

Comedy is a strong component of this film: from scenes of the Somali men’s first time on ice, scrambling around like baby giraffes; to wacky yet endearing moments with Andersson who relaxes at the end of the day by driving through car washes; to phone calls to Somalia where bandy is referred to as “football on ice”. Comparisons to “Cool Runnings” are inevitable.

Yet the journey isn’t straightforward for these men. Some of them take practicing more seriously than others, and a lack of commitment initially slows the team down. They start off sitting in a classroom, touching a hockey stick for the first time, and stumbling around forest paths on rollerblades, spending more time on the ground than actually moving forward. The stakes are high to demonstrate their capabilities: the team leader reminds them that they must practice and concentrate, so that the townspeople can see that they are not a burden, and a local businessman, originally from Hong Kong, sponsors their efforts and asks them to do their best “to prove that immigrants aren’t shit”. Some of the men take the opportunity with great pride. My favourite scene was of the eldest team player, who struggled the most with balance, practicing rollerblading while pushing his daughter in a pram down the grey wet Swedish streets at dusk. The directors get close to several of the men, who describe their stories of escaping war-torn regions of Somalia and missing terribly their family members who were unable to follow. One young man is asked what the best thing about Sweden was, his response was that the possibility of having a future was exceptional.

The championship in Siberia hosts a series of experiences for the Somali bandy team, some surreal, hilarious and others infuriating. They experience both racism and solidarity from the locals, good sportsmanship and cheating maneuvers from opposing teams. Although I won’t spoil the outcome of the team’s journey, I can assure you that it does involve them skating around a Siberian ice-rink, representing their country and holding up a Somali flag, with white frost stuck to their long dark eyelashes.

The message of “Nice People” has been told before: sport can be a way to integrate and unite people living together. This is not an intellectual film, and the slickness of its filming and production may hide an intent of the filmmakers to convey a particular political message. Yet in an age when reports of hostilities between locals and immigrants is high, and the refugee debate is so toxically politicised, an uplifting film about an earnest effort to create integration and human connection in a Swedish town is more than welcome. I left the cinema emotional and humbled, and ready to participate in local initiatives that would bring me closer to those inhabiting my city. 

Nice People will be shown again on Monday at 18.45 at the Grütli, at the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights, Geneva.

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