Reviews Short Narrative

Korte Kuitspier [Short Calf Muscle] (2019) – 5 stars

Director: Victoria Warmerdam

Writer: Victoria Warmerdam

Cast: Henry van Loon, Sieger Sloot, Lucretia van der Vloot, Beppie Melissen

Running time: 13 mins

From an outside perspective, particularly one from a particular island which is currently doing its utmost to sink beneath a tide of far-right jingoism, the Netherlands can seem like a beacon of progressivism in Western Europe. Stay here long enough to scratch beneath the surface though, and the same themes prevalent in the rest of the crumbling neo-liberal order are alive and well – particularly in the world of comedy.

One of those is the resignation to racism being ‘just a little bit of fun.’ Zwarte Piet for example, is not an embarrassing act of black-face, which belittles certain ethnic groups while white people chuckle knowingly at a caricature that ultimately paints them as superior, but a “lekker traditie” for the kids. It’s just a bit of fun, only banter, and people with a closer understanding of Dutch culture would know it doesn’t have any wider implication than that…

It’s similar to the responses those criticising Italian football ultras for racially abusing Romelu Lukaku face – “of course we don’t genuinely want to cause him harm, we just want to throw him off his game by making reference to a long and harrowing history of violence against black people.” It is the same response those calling for the British Prime Minister to apologise for calling black people “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and gay men “bumboys” are met with. “Look, perhaps he could have chosen his words better, but everyone gets mocked – it just happens that some people are mocked on the basis of being persecuted by the state. Grow a sense of humour!”

The excuses come thick and fast for what is ultimately the most common form of bigotry – largely, I suspect, because it is the one most of us have consciously or otherwise partaken in. That is the brilliant thing about Victoria Warmerdam’s latest short film Korte Kuitspier. The film recently played at the Manifesto Film Festival in Amsterdam, so I was fortunate enough to see how this plays to an audience, and the film seemed to achieve everything it set out to do and more.

At the beginning of this self-styled ‘absurdist black comedy’, Anders is told flippantly by a physio that a short calf muscle is a common affliction for “your sort.” Shaking this off, our protagonist is repeatedly belittled by people, whose supposedly good-natured joshing eventually reveals that people believe he is a certain brand of mythical creature known for being short. The thing is, while I have often felt like a hobbit in the streets of the world’s tallest nation, Anders is maybe only an inch or two shorter than the average Dutch giant. At first then, his objection to the ribbing he receives from his colleagues seems more than a little vain.

As a result, we laugh along. We join readily with the people on-screen roasting Anders for his stature, and then also at his prissy and overly sensitive response. “He needs to get over himself,” we think to ourselves. However, the guffaws of the audience quickly diminish as Korte Kuitspier charges through its 13 minute run-time. By the end, Anders is sleeping rough and has faced the breakdown of multiple relationships, all of whom seemed unable to understand that he might object to being singled out for his perceived differences, even as a “joke.”

As an audience, we grow quiet for a moment, reflecting on our own conduct. We have partaken in this ritual. We have laughed along at a series of “jokes” which in some capacity helped us feel better about our own short-comings, but ultimately do seem to have a material bearing on how someone else is treated in society.

Now, it is important to say that in my time both reviewing films and running film festivals, I have seen many a short which has delivered a promising moment of social commentary before utterly capitulating for the sake of closure. An impressive series of summersaults ultimately counts for little if you break your leg when you fall back to earth. What I find most impressive about Warmerdam’s film is that it sticks the landing, so to speak.

Without giving too much away – because you should seek this film out at a festival near you, or failing that on Amazon Prime when it inevitably gets picked up there – the ending sees a very real act of institutional oppression take place, based on Anders’ supposed identity as a “radicalised” mythical creature. We see here that the alleged humour we have bought into is both born out of arbitrary societal inequalities, and that it also feeds back into it by informing us subconsciously that we are in a position of superiority.

At the same time, the audience breaks out into laughter once more – which may seem strange but I think is a sign that this film has achieved the ultimate last laugh on the matter. The oppression we see is now the absurdity. Whether Anders does or doesn’t identify as a “gnome” really doesn’t matter – he is the same as everyone else, and to treat him as somehow lesser is utterly ridiculous. The people who cannot see that should be the butt of the joke, who should be derided mercilessly. We should not respect the physical or social mechanisms enforcing that hierarchy anymore, and humour is an excellent first step on the road to dismantling it.

I’m a mean, bitter man, who enjoys telling people their babies are actually quite ugly. I do not like to hand out five-star reviews as a rule. However, looking at Korte Kuitspier as a whole, it becomes clear to us that we have been led full-circle, at the end of an educative process which has also given us a target genuinely worthy of mockery. It is for that reason I genuinely do not believe it is possible to make a better short comedy. That doesn’t mean I don’t want Victoria Warmerdam to try though, and I keenly look forward to what this bright young filmmaker comes up with next.

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