Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Privilege, Innocence, and "Petro-Guilt" in Maria Sodahl's Limbo

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Privilege, Innocence, and "Petro-Guilt" in Maria Sodahl's Limbo

Article excerpt

Maria Sodahl's Limbo (2010) opens with an evocative sequence that is emblematic of the film's complex thematic structure. In a medium shot, three men are seen from behind, seated on a tropical beach sharing a joint as they look out across the water at an oil platform. Dexter, a black Trinidadian of African descent, is flanked by Jo, a white Norwegian, and Daniel, a white Australian. Dexter comments sardonically: "You guys have a bad influence on me, you know." The camera cuts to a close-up of Jo as he takes a hit, chuckles, and says: "Yes, we do" (Limbo 2010). The sequence sends mixed signals. On the one hand, the three men are depicted as equals bonding over illicit recreational drug use. It is well known that marijuana is deeply embedded in a number of Caribbean cultures, so the fact that it is the Caribbean Dexter who claims to feel corrupted rather than the white Westerners creates a humorous irony. Yet, on the other hand, the presence of the oil platform looming on the horizon and marring the idyllic setting creates a sense of foreboding, and the placement of Jo and Daniel on either side of Dexter ever so slightly suggests some kind of coercion; the two white men lean casually toward the black man, who sits uncomfortably upright between them. In what follows, I will trace the questions of privilege, innocence, and guilt in relation to ethnic and economic inequalities in the "Global South" that this scene and indeed the rest of Limbo raises.

The film depicts the consequences of transnational corporate life for a group of people on the island of Trinidad. The film's point of view lies mostly with one character, Norwegian housewife Sonia Wang Moe, who brings her two young children, Nina and Herman, to Trinidad to be reunited with her husband, Jo Moe, a Norwegian engineer stationed there while working for an American oil drilling company, the fictional Alpha Oil. The film depicts a complex constellation of cross-cultural relationships: Sonia and Jo's two children must integrate at a strict Catholic school; Jo has taken a Trinidadian lover during his months alone; Sonia must adjust to having servants; Sonia is befriended by another expatriate wife, Charlotte from Sweden; Jo and Charlotte's Australian husband Daniel struggle to relate both to their Trinidadian co-worker Dexter and to Doyle, the American who runs the company; and the viewer is also presented with glimpses of inter-Trinidadian ethnic tensions. The film's action takes place in 1973, when communication and information across national borders was less immediately accessible than it is now. The decision to set the film back 40 or so years in time allows Sodahl to create a believable sense of newness and naivete in the intercultural encounters that take place among her ensemble of characters.

The film's title resonates on a number of thematic levels. On the most concrete level, viewers are presented with a sequence in which Sonia and her two children do the limbo, a dance that has its origins in the Caribbean, in their tropical garden. The dance ends when Sonia falls on her back giggling just as Jo arrives home after work; as they laugh about Sonia's fall, Jo sends the children off and starts a discussion with her about her decision to remove their children from Catholic school without consulting with him. Thus the delicate balance of the dance becomes a metaphor for the constant cultural negotiations that the film depicts. Within Catholicism specifically, "limbo" denotes a belief (not sanctioned by the Vatican) in a realm inhabited by the souls of the unbaptized. More generally, "limbo" refers to an indeterminate state or period of time, a time of waiting for resolution, or even a state of neglect (Tulloch 1997, s.v. "limbo"). This is a state of being often associated with the expatriate experience, and it certainly reflects the emotions of Sonia and Charlotte as "trailing spouses," beholden to the whims of their husbands' employer. Geopolitically speaking, "limbo" also seems to refer in the film to the situation of the recently decolonialized developing nation; Trinidad and Tobago is an independent nation-state according to international law, yet, in practice, it is to a large extent economically dependent upon transnational corporations and to a certain degree powerless to resist the efforts of these corporations to divert resources and revenues back to its formal colonial powers. …

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