“If you’re always treated like something you’re not, you end up believing it.” It is the most quiet moment that brings some poignancy to the otherwise high-octane but shallow Shorta, the debut feature of Danish director duo Anders Ølholm and Frederik Louis Hviid. Despite its timely setting and subject matter, the film can’t escape familiarity and cliché, and even that setting and subject matter aren’t entirely original. Shorta (Arabic for ‘police’) will undoubtedly get compared a lot to another debut, Ladj Ly’s Oscar-nominated Les Misérables, and in that comparison it will suffer. Both films deal with police brutality towards minorities in big-city ghettos, but where Ly’s film at least tries to escape the obvious genre trappings of a police thriller, Shorta is firmly entrenched in them.
When young Muslim Talib Ben Hassi is so violently arrested that he ends up in hospital, tensions rise in Svalegården, a deprived (fictitious) district of an unnamed Danish city. Two cops, the tough-but-good Jens (Simon Sears) and the tough-but-bad Mike (Jacob Lohmann), patrol Svalegården the next day. Mike’s racism is palpable, but he is also a highly respected officer within the force, so Jens keeps his disgust about his colleague to himself. After an unnecessary and uncalled-for show of force towards Arab teen Amos (Tarek Zayat), the latter gets himself arrested for throwing his milkshake at the patrol car. The two officers are about to bring Amos in when news breaks that Ben Hassi has died. As all hell breaks loose around them, Jens and Mike desperately try to get out with their arrestee in tow.
There is no denying that Ølholm and Hviid know how to direct an action thriller. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about writing one. Watching Shorta one can’t escape the feeling that we have seen this all before. Characters are of one dimension, and attempts to add a second one follow tried-and-trusted character beats. Mike’s racist worldview is shaken when he becomes dependent on members of a community he hates. Jens has to confront his fears while trying to get Amos to safety. Eventually both will learn life lessons. Nothing we have not seen before, as the film follows a predictable trajectory. Which leaves us with shootouts and tension-building scenes in dark corners. That is nothing new either, but at least the two directors are more at ease in this department. The predictability prevents the tension from rising to pressure-cooker level, but the action is well choreographed and nicely shot, and both actors deliver strong physical performances.
This can’t overcome the film’s lack of nuance and shallow approach to a subject that deserves a better examination of issues lying at the heart of the tension in housing projects like Svalegården. Shorta reduces these issues to a simple good-or-bad narrative, its attempts to instill some humanity into the racist half of its protagonist duo notwithstanding. What remains is a genre flick that treads a familiar path where many have gone before. Compared to other films in the genre Shorta simply, and for lack of a better pun, comes up short.