Danish Film: In A Better World

In A Better World, photo courtesy of imdb.com

In A Better World, photo courtesy of imdb.com

The film, “In A Better World” won Best Foreign Film at the 2011 Golden Globes and the 83rd Academy Awards.  The Danish movie, directed by Susanne Bier, was featured on NPR where Ms. Bier was interviewed.  Since I learned about it, I have been searching for where I could view the film.  This afternoon, I finally found it on cable.

In the beginning, the film appears to be about two families. In one family, a 12-year old boy named Elias and his younger brother Morten, are facing the impending divorce of their parents who are both doctors. There was mention of marital infidelity on the part of the father.  His Swedish father, Anton, travels regularly from Denmark to Sudan to work in a refugee camp. The other boy is Christian, who recently lost his mother to cancer. He and his father have moved from London and he is new at Elias’ school.  Their grief still pervades their lives and Christian blames his father for his mother’s death.

As the story unfolds, we see the layers of stories that are intertwined.  But we are also presented with different versions of injustice. Elias is bullied in school. Christian stands up for him, not in a constructive way.  Anton faces unbelievable acts of inhumanity in the refugee camp, where he has to treat women who have been abused and even mutilated, for some warlord’s amusement.  There are further incidences where the boys and Anton encounter other manners of bullying, injustice, truly atrocious behavior, while others look on or look away.  We the audience seem to be constantly asked, “What is fair?  Or just?”

As parents, we always preach tolerance and forgiveness. We tell our children to walk away from conflict if peaceful negotiation is not possible.  The movie shows us real life situations where our beliefs are tested. We are reminded that in many of our day-to-day dealings, life is not fair.

The actors chosen to play the various characters are well-cast and acted superbly.  The graceful cinematography and music all contribute to the telling of this powerful story.  I hope you can find it where you are and have time to watch it. I highly recommend it.

*It is interesting to note that the Danish title for the movie is “Haevnen,” which means “The Revenge.”


P.S.  Back in 2011, I had posed a challenge to some young-uns in my family: my daughter, nephews and nieces. I used the account of the warlord in the story who finally showed up at the refugee camp with his armed militia one day, needing medical attention.  I asked them, if they were the attending physician (Anton), what would they do, knowing that this man has been responsible for the rape, mutilation, and murder of many Sudanese men, women and children. (By the way, this part of the story is true. It did happen in Sudan, according to Ms. Bier’s interview with NPR.)  Here are some of their responses.  See what you think:

Refugee Camp Scene from In A Better World, photo credit flikkenni.blogspot.com

Refugee Camp Scene from In A Better World, photo credit flikkenni.blogspot.com

JMW, age 16, Vancouver (Unedited) wrote:  There are multiple ways I would go, first, is he wanted by the cops? If so I would try to the best of my ability to heal him to full health so when he is taken away, he has to live with what he has done and get punished. Death is a way too easy way of getting out of situations like these. Another option is if there are no cops planning on arresting him I would heal him to full health then immediately give him to the people and let them decide what to do with them, it’s not in my place to do or harm him in any way, he hasn’t done anything to harm me, he just increased my workload. If he harmed me or someone I loved, then that would be a different reaction. No matter what you still have to do your job even if its someone you hate or dislike.

JLC, age 21 Manila (Unedited) wroteI would still treat the warlord the best I can. It is not up to me to judge whether he lives or die. For me, every patient should be treated equally.

MPAR, age 23, San Francisco (Unedited) wroteThis poses an interesting dilemma. My initial reaction would be to let the warlord die despite a physician’s moral obligation to help those in need. But upon further reflection,  I start asking myself a few questions:

Do I have the right to be the judge and executioner here? This is Africa, after all.

Will I be able to live with myself if I let him die?

Does this man have any redeeming qualities or achievements? 

If I let him live, what are the chances of his becoming aware of my dilemma and my generosity, therefore reconstructing his moral compass & philosophical world-view? 

What did I eat for lunch?

Will I be able to live with myself if he continues his rule of terror after he recovers? 

I take another look around the tent and survey the warlord’s body guards. I look at these teenagers standing around me with their Chinese-made AK-47’s and think about how brainwashed they might be; I look into their eyes to see if they’re secretly hoping this bloody mess finally dies so they may be free. 

If I let him die of his wounds, there will be others to fill the vacuum: probably worse.

Then I snap back to reality. I realize, I’ve finished cleaning the wound, amputated the leg, and I’m stitching the stump shut. The nurses are starting to clean the space for the next patient. I look up at my wife across the table as she prepares the bandages; she sighs, and tries to smile back at me.

It’s not my call, it’s not my war, I rationalize. I’m here to treat patients, not to decide who lives and who dies, regardless of what they’ve done or who they are.

RATY, age 15, Manila (unedited) wroteWhat the warlord did to his followers was wrong, but I believe that everybody deserves a second chance. As a physician, I am obligated to follow the Hippocratic Oath. It states that: “I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick. I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure. I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.” No matter what a person has done, we should all remember that he is still a human being and he deserves a second chance just as much as any other person. I’d treat him immediately to prevent gangrene. I have a conscience and I can’t just leave him to die. Hopefully, this experience would open his eyes and help him change his ways.

LAOL, age 21,San Francisco (unedited) wrote:  The main argument against helping this patient relies on:

A)    The consequentialist argument: The cost of aiding an individual who commits harm (and thereby enabling him to continue to do so) far outweighs the benefits.

B)    Another consequentialist argument: The potential benefit of abstaining from aid – allowing harm to this harmful dictator and thus saving many lives that would otherwise be endangered by his actions.

The main argument for helping this patient relies on:

A)    One’s duty as a doctor and thus the integrity of the profession and personal credibility as a practicing physician.

B)    The consequentialist argument of cost versus benefit of eliminating this individual. 

Discussion:  As pointed out above, the benefit of removing this individual from power (by refusing to treat him) would potentially remove the threat of harm caused to the greater population. However, this is not certain, as the warlord’s wrongdoings are often greater than the individual himself. Poverty, war, and atrocities committed such as the ones this particular dictator has committed are caused by the greater political and social system. Time and time again, warlords have been eliminated, only to be succeeded by a similarly corrupt individual. (Take, for example, the current situation in Egypt.) Therefore, the potential benefits do not outweigh the costs mentioned above.

The Hippocratic oath states that a doctor must practice medicine ethically and “do no harm.” Theoretically, it is ingrained in the profession itself to help everyone no matter what circumstance.  Of course, what happens in practice often differs from the objective dogma. In this case, we would be encountering an issue of slippery slope if we allow the doctor to abstain from care. We now have a problem where the doctor can “play god” in choosing who to treat based on his or her own ethical judgment. This is problematic because now the entire profession can lose its integrity.

We must also consider the cost to the doctor him or herself. This is not a life-threatening situation (in general, a leg injury is not life-threatening in a way that a bullet to a vital organ is), and so the doctor would lose credibility and possibly even endanger his or her own life by abstaining from treating this patient. As mentioned above, the benefit would not even outweigh this cost.  As an added cost, this would prevent all the possible good the doctor could continue doing for other individuals.

Conclusion:  If I were the physician in this situation, my recommendation based on evidence presented above would be to proceed with treatment of the warlord. 


This entry was posted in Academy Awards, Best Foreign Film, Foreign Film, forgiveness, Golden Globe Award, In A Better World Movie, Justice, revenge, tolerance and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Danish Film: In A Better World

  1. Thanks for letting me camp out in your blog for a little while today. I had a great time and tried to leave my campsite as good as when I arrived. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks!


  2. smart kids. they thought it through.


  3. “We are reminded that in many of our day-to-day dealings, life is not fair.” This is one movie not to be missed. Sometimes watching movies like this make us appreciate what we have or make us realized what we missed and thus needed to correct. Great review.


  4. Lucid Gypsy says:

    Wow this is a brilliant post. I love the way you used the film to make the young people think about this huge issue. I would also treat him but then if he continued in the same way I would spend the rest of my life feeling guilty about the people he harmed.


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