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Film review: Swedish-built Somalian bandy team shows how sport can challenge and shift prejudice

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Image: Nice People (2015)

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A good story allows you to walk a mile in another's shoes, feel the stretch of their lives, visit their humanity.

The motto of the city of Borlänge in Sweden is "Nice Folk!" Like "Friendly Manitoba," it is a declaration of intent as well as a proclamation.

Nice Folk (2015) is also the name of a new documentary by directors Karin af Klintberg and Anders Helgeson (it also translates to "Nice People"). It looks at a coming together of Somalian immigrants in that community and the local man who wants to break down the barriers between them and white citizens through sport.

The sport in question, almost a character in the movie in its own right, is bandy.

Bandy is the European cousin of Canada's national sport, first played in England in 1875. It is spectacularly unlike hockey.

The sticks are curvier than hockey sticks, players use a ball, the nets are huuuuge, and the goalie stands in front of it without a stick. Mercifully, no heavy metal is performed between plays. Like soccer, the game is played in two halves of 45 minutes, not three periods.

And Swede Patrik Andersson wants to train a group of 17 Somali-Swedish players and take them to the bandy world championships taking place in Siberia only months later. He wants to build a national team in under a year.

The young men he recruits to play all have stories of exile, of estrangement, and of deep courage.

Andersson describes his hometown as a place "he's planning on changing." The film cuts to locals spouting racist sentiment and it gives an idea what the organizers and the athletes are up against. Some won't even acknowledge the existence of individual Somalians next door to them and admit it freely, let alone challenge their own ignorance about the youngsters. The age-old nastiness gets played out through stereotyping and outright hatred.

The filmmakers were extremely fortunate in the people who were part team story -- they are unforgettable characters.

Andersson has a spectacularly comic ego, a man who dyes his grey hair blonde on camera and washes his car to relax. He has the thick skin of a wheeler-dealer who focuses on his endgame at the expense of the route there.

He believes that while politicians talk about camaraderie, if people in his town can't talk to each other they're doomed. He's the ideas guy who also deals with sponsorship and financing.

The team's coach is five-time world bandy champion Per Fosshaug, who describes the assignment as the most challenging he has ever taken on -- none of the players has ever skated, let alone played the game. He greets a room of hopeful players and asks them why they are there.

"Now we are here and it is our responsibility to carry on this noble project," Fosshaug tells them, and everyone buys into this approach.

But what a thing to say to a group of young men who have lost everything. It assumes a deep personal meaning for them. The Somalians themselves are overwhelmed at being able to represent their war-wracked nation in a sport -- any sport.

The two strongest people in the story, from my perspective, is team sponsor Billy Tang and team captain Ahmed Bari.

Tang, a restaurateur in Borlänge, is an immigrant from Hong Kong. A tough, abrasive character, he is a fierce supporter of his business interests and the team, and speaks about pride in being an immigrant and in fighting through the struggles presented to them all. He's a great bolster of morale and takes no shit, especially from the slippery Andersson.

Bari is an extraordinary human being, period. At turns hopeful and humble, he talks about the personal pride he has in being part of the team. It runs deep, and later we see how deep he is as a person when he makes a difficult decision that changes his connection with his comrades.

There are lessons here for small town Canada. For big city Canada, too. Following a federal election when "Old Stock" racists were given legitimacy to speak out anonymously in the comment sections of online articles about refugees and non-whites, and were emboldened to rip hijabs from the heads of Muslim women, we should ask ourselves about how we step away from such a horrible existence.

The filmmakers understood that while the Somalian bandy team was a white Swede's solution to the problems created by those unwilling to accept the newcomers, the players themselves took the opportunity and used it to improve their own lives, build connections, and celebrate the pride they have in their heritage and each other. 

It's the best thing about teamwork. The only way we progress is together. It took a team to build this team. 

Nice People opened Feb 5 in Toronto, at the Bloor Hot Docs Theatre. Openings in other Canadian cities to be announced soon.

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