Silent Nights is a half hour short film from Denmark, telling the story of a relationship between a young Danish woman named Inger and an immigrant from Ghana named Kwame.
They meet at a homeless shelter where Inger volunteers and where Kwame is turned away because they are at their capacity. Soon enough they are involved in a romance.
Kwame, though, behaves rather poorly. He steals, he lies, he hides relevant information that Inger has a right to know.
The film goes out of its way to mitigate Kwame’s wrongdoing, showing how rough a life he has, how he has been mistreated, how and why he’s scared and desperate in certain respects, etc. He’s not some evil guy. That’s why I said “he lies, he steals” instead of “he turns out to be a liar and a thief,” as the latter implies that the sins are some kind of core part of his character, or his identity, instead of things he does infrequently and only under certain circumstances.
So we’re certainly encouraged to have empathy for him. How much to excuse his behavior—completely, mostly, somewhat, slightly, not at all—based on the mitigating factors is the question we’re faced with. Actually it’s especially the question Inger is faced with.
Multiple times in the film she finds out he has pulled something rotten, she confronts him with it, and he reacts with shame and apologies, and then she has to decide how to respond. She has to decide whether to take him back, or more broadly, even if they don’t continue as a couple, she has to decide whether to remain his friend and remain supportive of him.
More than once she’s angry and disappointed enough that she rejects him and insists she wants nothing more to do with him. But she still then has to decide whether to stick with that initial reaction after she calms down and has a chance to think things through.
I have mixed feelings about what she should do, and appropriately so since it’s a complex situation that reasonable people could disagree about. I feel like the film wants us to applaud her when she goes with her heart and allows herself to continue to love him and be on his side, and I’d say I’m more sympathetic to that position than not. There is something very powerful and very admirable about a love that is so unconditional, a love that is not withdrawn when the object of it turns out to be significantly flawed.
A smaller part of me comes down on the other side, and frankly I would guess the majority of people would. That is, I think most people would say that when someone does the things he does, she ought to kick him to the curb and be done with him. Whatever folks might claim to believe about unconditional love in the abstract, when it comes down to specific cases I think they would disdain someone as weak, as a sucker, if they stood by someone who had wronged them multiple times. I think they would insist that there must be consequences for wrongdoing, with one of those consequences being that anyone in your life with any self-respect and any sense will not keep giving you more and more chances.
I actually think gender is relevant here. There is a certain amount of cultural conditioning—more so in the past than present—influencing us toward accepting or even endorsing women putting up with a lot more than men. Their “silent suffering” has traditionally been less looked down upon than would be the same behavior from a man. Some of feminism indeed is a backlash against this, against the notion that there’s something appropriate about a woman passively suffering in a way that would be utterly inappropriate for a man. So I find I’m a little more self-conscious about calling for non-retaliation and unconditional love and such from a woman than a man, because of concern about feeding into such old stereotypes.
I’ve reflected on things like this a lot as part of my study of Gandhi and his philosophy. Unconditional love, nonviolence, non-retaliation when you are wronged, voluntarily accepting suffering, never giving up on someone, etc. can reflect strength or can reflect weakness.
It’s an indication of weakness when you act in these ways because you’re scared to do otherwise, or because it’s a habit based on having been abused in your past, or because you think so little of yourself that you don’t believe you deserve to stand up for yourself and demand to be treated better (perhaps because you’ve unconsciously bought into some ideology of inequality that says that as a member of the inferior group—a woman rather than a man, a black person rather than a white person, a slave rather than a master, a poor person rather than a rich person, etc.—you’re supposed to just take it).
But it can certainly manifest strength as well. That’s what is so inspirational about a figure like Gandhi. Loving can be harder than hating, giving someone another chance can be harder than condemning them, not striking back can be harder than striking back. Seen in this light, unconditional love is the highest of ideals, something you spend a lifetime trying to approach as best you can, because you know attaining it absolutely is beyond the capacity of imperfect beings. It’s not for pussies.
So when Inger doesn’t permanently cut off Kwame but continues to love him, is she a sucker, a glutton for punishment, an abused woman who is too damaged to recognize and reject the abuse? Or is she an unusually strong person who has chosen the much more difficult path of continuing to love someone even when they are least lovable?
It’s interesting that the film includes some material about her relationship with her mother. Her mother is even more flawed than Kwame—she’s an aging, semi-functional, bitter, drunk—yet in spite of at times clashing with her, Inger never abandons her, never stops helping her any way she can, never stops loving her.
So what this tells us is that it’s a pattern with her, that once she loves a person, she really tries to make that love as unconditional as she can. But the fact that it’s a pattern still doesn’t tell us if she’s a sucker or a saint.
Like I say, I think there are reasons to see it either way. As for me, I got caught up in the emotion of the film, as I think the filmmakers intended, and came away from it more on the side of thinking that insofar as Inger manifests unconditional love for a flawed person who many would say doesn’t deserve it, she is to be emulated. But I recognize that reasonable people—certain feminists and others—could react very differently.
I’ve been examining things almost entirely in terms of Inger, though, and I do want to say a little bit about Kwame’s side of this.
Again, the film bends over backwards to make us sympathetic toward Kwame, to explain why it is he does the bad things he does. But what stands out to me the most about him—the flaw if you will that stands out the most—is that even though he loves Inger or thinks he does, he never really reciprocates what she offers him.
That is, this relationship, from his side, doesn’t have the kind of honesty, trust, and willingness to be vulnerable that you would ideally like to see. He thinks he has to hide certain aspects of himself and his life. He doesn’t trust that her love will indeed prove to be unconditional. He doesn’t cop to anything until she catches him red-handed.
Now maybe that would change later, if the film were longer. Maybe it would change in part due to her being a kind of role model in how to open one’s heart and truly love someone. But for now at least, while there is some room for disagreement over whether Inger is unusually evolved morally and emotionally or is a weak person who has always allowed herself to be placed in the role of a martyr, as by her rather grotesque mother, I think it is much less debatable that Kwame is not very morally and emotionally evolved.
Silent Nights is a very good little film. Even if you don’t think so much about all these things and just experience it as an inspirational story about love, it is quite moving and effective.