From Stokely to Stockholm
David Schwartz on The White Game
In Roy Andersson’s mordant deadpan vaudeville A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), there’s a scene that comes as a shock even amidst the film’s many non sequiturs. We see a group of enslaved Black people, shackled together and forced by English-speaking soldiers to walk inside a large copper container. The drum is locked shut and rotates slowly above a flame. It is branded with the name Boliden—an actual Swedish multinational metals and smelting company that was founded in 1924. A reverse shot reveals a party of aging aristocrats, sipping champagne as they watch the carnage. The scene’s horror fits into the vision of human suffering and violence that permeates Andersson’s lyrical and largely comic meditations on human existence. And with its focus on Swedish-funded racist oppression in Africa, it also evokes The White Game, the rarely screened but essential 1968 documentary that Andersson collaborated on while he was still in film school. The film captures the planning, action, and aftermath of a mass protest against a planned Davis Cup tennis match in Sweden against Rhodesia. It is a vivid record of 1960s political protest and of a wealthy European nation’s racism.
In the spring of 1968, against the backdrop of U.S. escalation in Vietnam and race riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., clashes between protesters and the police erupted around the world. In April, students shut down Columbia University for a week, until more than 1,000 New York police intervened. Also in April, after months of student protests in Germany, the attempted assassination of student leader Rudi Dutschke brought wide attention to the unrest in Berlin. And in Paris, on May 6, 50 students and 40 police were injured during a day of protests known as “Bloody Monday”; the aftermath included the cancellation of the Cannes Film Festival, which was scheduled to start that week.
Just days earlier in Sweden, in an event that culminated on Friday, May 3, thousands of protestors, organized by the People’s Party Youth League and the Social Democratic Youth League, converged on the small beach resort town of Båstad to demand the cancellation of a Davis Cup tennis match there between Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Sweden. Although it didn’t have an apartheid policy, like neighboring South Africa, Rhodesia was run by the racist minority-white government of Prime Minister Ian Smith. After the execution of three freedom fighters the previous winter by the government, Swedish students began to call for a general boycott of Rhodesia.
As plans emerged for the protests in Båstad, a leftist collective of 13 filmmakers who called themselves Grupp 13 decided to document the event, using five 16mm cameras. The most prominent member was Bo Widerberg, who had achieved international success in 1967 with the lyrical 19th-century tale of doomed love, Elvira Madigan. Also in the group was 25-year old Roy Andersson, a student at the Swedish Film Institute. Andersson told Richard Porton in a Cineaste interview that he had been warned by Ingmar Bergman, an adviser at the Institute whose right-leaning politics were no secret, “If you continue to shoot anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, you’ll never have the opportunity to make features.” So, when it came to making the film about the Båstad protest, Andersson said, “I didn’t dare ask to borrow the cameras, so I got the key and took the equipment without permission. I almost got kicked out of school.”
Although it doesn’t hide its support for the protestors, The White Game gives an impressively wide-ranging view of the story, letting both sides have their say (even a Rhodesian landowner who condescendingly prompts his Black cook to say for the camera that he prefers a European-led government for the country). The film opens with a woman organizer explaining “politics and sports really belong together. Sport has a real political function, and I want to change society. That’s why I think it’s important to protest against this match.” A tennis fan watching a practice session says, “You should keep your opinions to yourself,” reflecting the views of many of Båstad’s residents, that “Sports and politics shouldn’t mix.”
In making their case, the protest organizers frequently evoke Stokely Carmichael (“politics permeates everything”). They also draw connections between the business leaders of Sweden and the oppression of Black people in Africa, specifically pointing to the companies owned by the Wallenberg family, many with business interests in Rhodesia. Whether they are participants in the protest, or bystanders indifferent or opposed to the action, all sides are given an airing, and they all express their feelings thoughtfully; it is refreshing to see the argument play out without the hysteria and hate talk all too common today. But this isn’t primarily a talking-heads documentary. It is a vital work of cinéma vérité, capturing history as it unfolds.
The pivotal dramatic moment is contained in a single long take, around 90 seconds in length. Although there is no record of which of the 13 filmmakers were responsible for individual shots, this particular scene bears the hallmarks of Andersson’s feature films; the camera looks on, uninterrupted, from a notably distant vantage point. From a high rooftop’s vantage point, we see a group of protestors marching on a narrow road, surrounded by the lush greenery of the village. The camera pulls back to show a patch of a paved road, empty but for a group of waiting police officers. We see a metal gate and realize that the police are inside an entry point to the tennis stadium; a group of protesters is surging towards the gate. The camera pans back to the first group, and the chants of “Smith, murderer!” get louder as they approach a different gate. As the chants intensify and the crowd swells, it is clear that the group is ready to storm the gate. The shot ends just as the tension has built to the breaking point. Within minutes the gate is pushed open; a phalanx of police brandish clubs, swinging at the protestors, and then large hoses appear, blasting jet streams of water on the marchers. As the organized march turns to pandemonium, some protestors are injured. Others make it to the main tennis court, which they start to vandalize.
The chaos leads to an immediate victory for the protestors; the tennis match is canceled. (It is secretly rescheduled to be played undercover in France, where Sweden quietly eliminates Rhodesia 4-1). But the protestors are blamed by the press for the clash, even though the violence was clearly instigated by the police. One front page headline blares “The Mob Won.” A Båstad resident hyperbolically compares the noisy scuffle to the Russian Revolution. One of the organizers complains about the media’s control over the story. We see that the newspapers focused more on the violent confrontation than the underlying reasons for the protest.
Despite the media’s downplaying, the action in Båstad was successful in its main goal, and in the fall, the Social Democratic Party won a majority of the popular vote in the parliamentary election, for the first time since 1940. The film, released theatrically in Sweden in September 1968, received wide critical acclaim, and won the Swedish Film institute’s award as the year’s best Swedish film. Praising the film in a daily newspaper, former athlete Lennart Jonsson wrote “Grupp 13’s film shows clearly that the demonstrators are relatively knowledgeable people, aware of social and political problems, and also aware that these problems cannot be solved—entirely—by parliamentary means. Against them stands a group—with comparatively weak arguments, unclear ideas of law and order, and a weak interest for important international issues—backed by a strong police power. This is indeed a serious conflict of interests.” Like the finest documentaries, The White Game is an invaluable, living record of its time that has a lot to say to the present-day audience.