(Norway 2022; Dir: Carl Georg Rødsten)


The Hell Within

review by Mariana Hristova


original title: Walaac

length: 18

year of production: 2022

country of production: Norway

director: Carl Georg Rødsten

production: Kai Andre Sunde

director of photography: Christer Smital

editing: Linn Heidi Slåttøy

sound: Ådne Lyngstad Nilsen

cast: Hamza Khader, Dunia Alette Dosh Nelson, Anne Marte Naas

festivals: Grimstad Short Film Festival 2022

© images: 'Walaac' (Carl Georg Rødsten)

Little has been openly talked about the downsides of people’s constant allocations in the contemporary global world where the unlimited movement (for those privileged enough) through countries and continents is widely proclaimed. Actually, migration often may be the reason for severe anxiety and mental issues fostered by a feeling of misplacement as confirmed by a variety of psychological studies – moving to a new country and starting from scratch could be equally exciting as frightening, thrilling, and immensely stressful. Especially when a Black person from the hot South moves to a white country in the cold North, meanwhile being burdened by family troubles back home. Even without considering the economic challenges, the cultural and climatic shock might turn out to be too overwhelming to deal with.

The cognitive dissonance provoked by such a groundbreaking shift is a central topic in Carl Georg Rødsten’s ‘Waalac’ (meaning “anxiety” in Somali) which won the Norwegian competition at the Grimstad Short Film Festival. What differentiates it from the majority of migration-themed films is the filmmaker’s decision to deepen the investigation on the character towards his unstable inner world, instead of depicting the outer obstacles he is supposed to overcome. Nor is he a victim of hostile surroundings, neither the context he plunges in is borne accountable for his troubles. Rather than witnessing his unavoidable clashes with the new reality and following peripeties which are anyway inferred by an underlying narrative, the viewer is exposed to “events” happening solely in the protagonist’s imagination — an approach suggesting the development of a subjective universe in which the author lets his fantasy flow. Genre wise, all this is a good basis for building up a psychological horror out of panic attack manifestations, a chance that Rødsten does not miss as it helps him deliver a visually monstrous spectacle, a fearful journey through a disrupted mind. As if to argue with Sartre’s emblematic “Hell is other people” (1) by proving that hell could actually grow autonomously within ourselves.

Yusuf is just moving to Norway into a spacious room with flowered wallpaper, welcomed by a smiley local host who gladly offers to help him with the registration bureaucracy. Once having closed the door of his new home behind and before even unpacking, he rushes to switch on the laptop in order to talk to his sister back home and share his first impressions. The connection is good enough, so he could see her worried face and hear that their mother fell ill, however it turns out too weak for maintaining the talk. Her ephemeral and trembling screen image disappears together with the details around the sickness. Uncertainty hangs over Yusuf’s head as he suddenly finds himself alone miles away from the human beings he really cares about, betrayed by technology and locked in his disquieted imagination which must be generating horrifying scenarios – one can assume in what direction his thoughts are going but they are not expressed out loud. Instead, supernatural elements interfere in order to suggest that his brain has already blurred the frontier between fantasy and reality. Unexpectedly, a painting by an unknown sender has been delivered, picturing an interior door on the background of the same wallpaper he has in the room. Once hanged on the wall, the mysteriousness and hidden meanings of that metaphorical entrance/exit to the unknown will start chasing Yusuf, and its perspective equalized with the spectator’s gaze as well. The symbol of the door, which might be seen as a gate to the uncertainty of the new life waiting for him out there, could also be a trigger for his curiosity to push him to discover what lies beyond. Whatever meaning Rødsten had in mind, it definitely plays the role of a checkpoint through which nightmares, memories, and shattered fragments of reality start interacting and poking the protagonist in a disturbing mode.

The gradual process of losing one’s mind is terrifying, devastating, and fascinating at the same time (Maria Estela Paiso’s ‘It’s Raining Frogs Outisde’ also proves that point), is what Rødsten seems to imply by playing with various techniques in order to recreate Yusuf’s highly anxious and chaotically speeding stream of consciousness: mirror reflections for transmitting the paranoia that he’s being observed and haunted by someone’s threatening presence (a pale-faced male figure pops up a couple of times, reminiscent of David Lynch’s Mystery Man in ‘Lost Highway’) and fast and nervous editing that embodies the frequencies in which Yusuf’s sleep-deprived mind and deeply shaken inner self operates. The catchy element of ‘Waalac’ is precisely that organic engagement of the viewer with the character’s mental and physical trajectory; a crafted dynamic that makes the audience shiver in rhythm with the camera’s convulsive movements.

Carl Georg Rødsten is half Burmese and half Norwegian, born and raised in Norway. With a background in psychology, developing his personality at the crossroad between two cultures, as he describes himself, he developed the ability to view the world through a different lens than most. Indeed, in ‘Waalac’, he achieves an unusual interpretation of emotions such as the sense of isolation and disconnection from the outside world while being away from everything familiar. By reflecting on those subjects from an unexpected point of view, Rødsten is portraying the pathological aspect of “liquid modernity” (2) and its impact on the human condition.

(1) A famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play 'No Exit' (1944)
(2) A term used by Zygmunt Bauman in his book 'Liquid Modernity' (1999), in which he examines how in the globalization era we have moved away from a heavy and solid, hardware-focused modernity to a light and liquid, software-based modernity. He argues that this transformation has brought profound change to all aspects of the human condition.