(Release Info London schedule; March 11th, 2018, Curzon Bloomsbury, 11:00)
Christian (Claes Bang) is the respected curator of a contemporary art museum, a divorced but devoted father of two who drives an electric car and supports good causes. His next show is 'The Square', an installation which invites passersby to altruism, reminding them of their role as responsible fellow human beings. But sometimes, it's difficult to live up to your own ideals. Christian's foolish response to the theft of his phone drags him into shameful situations. Meanwhile, the museum's PR agency has created an unexpected campaign for 'The Square. The response is overblown and sends Christian, as well as the museum, into an existential crisis.
Christian has a lot of different sides to him. He's both idealistic in his words and cynical in his deeds, both powerful and weak, and so on. He's a divorced father of two working in the cultural field, and committed to the existential and social questions raised by 'The Square'. He's convinced that 'The Square', is a ground-breaking idea and truly wants art to bring people new thoughts, but at the same time he's a social chameleon who knows how to play his high-status part at the institution and to navigate the expectations of the sponsors, the visitors and the artists. Christian, faces questions we all face, of taking responsibility, trusting and being trustworthy, behaving morally at an individual level. And when he encounters a dilemma, his individual actions conflict with the moral principles he stands for. Christian will appear as a walking contradiction, just as many of us are. At the end of the film, we must evaluate if he learned his lesson. "The Square" calls for a naturalistic and intimate style of acting. The loving relationship between Christian and his cheerleading daughters forms the emotional core of the film and shows, through concrete images, the idea of a quest for utopia.
Indeed, the girls are united in a very efficient collective effort where every one of the individuals performing together plays an equally important part in the achievement. It's also a visual demonstration of the importance of trust to see a 10-year-old girl dive into a salto, trusting that the others will catch her. The cheerleader's focus and joy illustrates the best part of American society, a team player effect resulting from every American's distrust of the State. Christian's journey articulates the two socratic sources of justice; the social contract and the individual ethics. Justice is obeying laws in exchange for others obeying them as well, but more than that, justice is also the state of a well-regulated soul. So the just man will also necessarily be the happy man. This old and seductive idea that doing the right thing, that justice, can buy happiness is not outdated. Researchers in social psychology have observed increased trust in others amongst volunteers with a high degree of social and political interaction, and refer to the phenomenon as the helper's high. Maybe people will laugh at Christian's clumsy and humorously embarrassing actions, and at some other jokes in the film, but maybe also share the idea of justice underlying his journey.
In 2008, the first gated community opened in Sweden, a gated residential area that only authorized owners could access, an extreme example of how privileged social groups shut themselves off from their surroundings. It's also one of the many signs of European societies getting more and more individualistic as government debt grows, social benefits shrink, and the gap between rich and poor widened continuously over three decades. Even in Sweden, once the most egalitarian society in the world, rising unemployment and the fear of a decline in status have led individuals to mistrust one another and to mistrust society. A prevailing feeling of political powerlessness has undermined our trust in the State and pushed us to withdraw into ourselves. But is this how we want our societies to develop? The inhibition of our helping behavior when other people are present is known by social psychologists as 'bystander apathy'. Experiments show that the probability of help is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders, because of the diffusion of responsibility that prevails in larger groups although there's also evidence that group cohesiveness can balance out collective indifference.
In the 50s, Western society must have had a sense of shared responsibility. This reminds us that at that time, other adults were seen as trustworthy members of a community that could help a child if he ran into trouble, while today's social climate does not seem to strengthen group cohesiveness, nor our trust in society; we now tend to see other adults as a threat to our children. The film's title "The Square" is taken from the name of our project that was first exhibited in the fall of 2014 at 'The Vandalorum Museum'. The exhibition exemplifying the ideal of consensus that should govern society as a whole for the greater good became a permanent installation on the city of Värnamo's central square. If someone is standing in Värnamo's led-light version of 'Square', it's one's duty to act and react if one needs help. 'The Square' is a place of humanitarian values, drawing on the ethics of reciprocity that appears in nearly every religion as well as in 'The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights'. They're endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Most people chose trust people, but then had cold feet when later asked to leave their phones and wallets on the floor of the exhibition. This contradiction illustrates how difficult it to act according to one's principles.
"The Square" exaggerates the worst tendencies that one can observe in our day and age, such as the way the media ignores their own responsibility when they reproduce the very problems they are reporting. You can draw parallels to extreme parties, in the US, France or elsewhere, which through provocative, polarizing debate, grabbed the attention of the general public. In Sweden, such a party captured the position as the third largest political party. Tragic irony has turned social media into the best promotion tool around for terror organizations. Everybody knows, but no one has learnt, from the media hysteria leading Europeans to join 'ISIS', or inspiring the killings in Copenhagen a few weeks after Charlie Hebdo was attacked. Some years ago, press ethics would have prevented a newspaper or broadcaster from showing shocking, dubious or manipulated images. But as expenses and jobs were cut and journalists were overwhelmed, media has turned to increasingly sensational images. Now as long as a picture has explosive content, it doesn't matter what the content is. The example of the picture of the drowned boy Aylan is alarming. A single picture suddenly changed the opinion about asylum seekers in many newspapers in Europe and around the world. It showed how strong an impact a good image can have if it's provocative or touching enough to break through the never-ending flood of information and images we're confronted with.
The Square" faces the weakness in human nature; when attempting to do the right thing, the hardest part is not to agree on common values, but to actually act according to them. The rise of extreme poverty and the increase in the homeless population in first-world cities presents us with such a dilemma every day. The film is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations. It's an elegant movie, with visual and rhetorical devices to provoke and entertain viewers. Thematically the film moves between topics such as responsibility and trust, rich and poor, power and powerlessness. The growing beliefs in the individual and the declining beliefs in the community. The distrust of the state, in media and in art. "The Square" tries to address this urgent question in a light-hearted, absurdist manner. At the same time the film provides us with exceptional access to the world; there are so many things we haven't actually done ourselves, but we've experienced them in our minds through films. Films can for instance enhance a critical way of thinking about the conventions and what we take for granted.