Sunday, February 2, 2014

Climate criminals? The politics of The Bridge

[Warning: Contains spoilers!]

For my husband and I, this Saturday night meant one thing and one thing only: the series finale of The Bridge (or, to give it its full title, Scandi Crime Drama The Bridge). I thought it was great telly – but, at the risk of sounding totally po-faced and tedious, the whole thing was slightly marred for me by the show’s depiction of environmental protest.

It bothered me from the very first episodes, when they started investigating activists after a cell of ‘eco-terrorists’ apparently released plague bacteria to make a point about people dying from preventable diseases in the developing world (technically not actually an environmental issue, but we’ll let that slide for now). It especially irked me when they brought the Copenhagen climate summit into things, revealing that one of the suspects had been arrested there for assaulting a police officer, and trawling through police footage of protests to identify another. 

My husband, ever the voice of reason, pointed out that in The Bridge things are rarely what they seem, and that I should probably wait and see what happened next before passing judgement. And, sure enough, by about episode six the whole thing began to look like corporate conspiracy dressed up as eco-terrorism, which I was sort of on board with (though it didn’t really change the depiction of the activists themselves, except that they were dupes for some other guy with an agenda of his own). But then, in the final episode, they had to spoil it by revealing that the mastermind behind the big denouement was actually an eco-terrorist after all.

Yes, yes, I get that this is fiction, I get that they are not really suggesting that there are crazy virus-wielding hippies around every corner. But, given that environmental protesters are far more likely to be on the receiving end of police brutality than the other way around, and given that this fact is (certainly in the UK – I guess I can’t speak for Sweden and Denmark) generally not understood because of persistent media misrepresentation, I do think there are issues of responsible film making at stake when dealing with this subject.

A bit of context here. Ahead of the Copenhagen summit, Denmark passed special laws giving the police draconian new powers of arrest and detention which were condemned by Amnesty International. Suspected troublemakers could be pre-emptively detained for up to 12 hours in purpose-built cages, and disobeying police orders could get you 40 days in prison. At the summit itself, hundreds of non-violent protesters – including several people I knew – were tear gassed, water cannoned and held in appalling conditions. And all of this raised barely a murmur in the UK, because – with the honourable exception of the Guardian, which has a fantastic record on policing of protest – news reports generally portrayed the protesters as violent extremists

 So yes, when a TV programme runs an outlandish plotline about eco-terrorism, when it links the suspects to the Copenhagen protests, when it casts them as the aggressors and the police as the victims in that context, when it implicitly endorses the routine surveillance of protesters, and when it makes no effort to explore the ethical implications of any of this, I think that is political. More than anything, it’s really frustrating to see a programme I love depicting real-life activism as a sort of gateway drug to the kind of atrocity no environmentalist I know would even begin to countenance. There is a really big difference between storming a summit and murdering the ministers inside.

Maybe I’m taking all this too seriously. Maybe it's naive to expect my crime dramas to take a critical perspective on the police. Or maybe the writers thought hard about all this and decided that it wasn’t narratively possible to do anything more nuanced. Like the sad person I am, I tried to find out by asking on a live web chat with the creator last night. But it got drowned in a tidal wave of questions like ‘If Saga and Martin were biscuits, what biscuits would they be?’ and ‘I failed to pay attention to a minor plot point in episode 2, please can you explain it to me?’, so I guess I’ll never know. In the absence of further information, I will continue to feel righteously peeved. Let’s face it, that is basically my default state of mind anyway.

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