Karen Winther premier of EXIT for CPH:DOX

An exit from extremism

As Norwegian filmmaker Karen Winther is set to premier her second film about her experiences in a Neo-Nazi extremist group, I caught a few words with her regarding the making the film.

Published: March 19, 2018Words: Karen Winther & J.Scott StrattonDirector: Karen WintherPremier: CPH:DOX

With the growing trend of global polarisation, fuelled by social media bubbles, fake news, alternative facts, and propaganda, it’s easy to fall into the trappings of good versus evil. It’s easy to resist and ostracise an opposing idealism when it is seen as a force, rather than a collection of people with differing thoughts, beliefs, and aspirations. This apathetic mentality is fuel for extremism. It’s harder to hate a person for having a diversity of opinion and beliefs than it is to hate them because they represent an “evil” opposed to your “good.”

We all have the capacity for love, hate, joy, and violence. It’s part of being human. But the world is easier to understand when it’s black and white – and it’s this dismantling of diversified human beliefs which makes extremist groups so dangerous. They remove the humanity from the opposing side, and they create this sense of family, community, and purpose around the act opposing that diversity.

Upon watching Karen Winther’s newest film ‘Exit’, it did not strike me as an academic look at Neo-Nazism, Fascism, Anti-fascism or any other extremist group – which was the initial impression that I got from the trailer. This film is quite clear in its intentions right from the beginning. It’s a form of personal reconciliation. It’s one woman’s exploration of her past – done through speaking and connecting with others that have shared her experiences.

Where this film excels, in my opinion, is in showing the humanity behind the extremism. The faults, the pain, the blind anger and how it’s easy to get involved with a group that simplifies those emotions into “us versus them.”

In speaking with other people that have “exited” these extremist groups, Winther successfully removes the power these groups have. They are not a “force,” but merely a collection of human beings with fears, beliefs, and experiences that have led them to an extreme nature. While their actions seem desperate and misguided, the emotions behind those actions are recognizable, and thus Winther creates a sense of empathy. Yet, I feel the most important factor in Winther’s film is in showing the human capacity for fault and redemption, and that no one is irredeemable.

In this day and age, where discourse is dying, and the media is constantly perpetuating a pitched battle between one side and another, I feel films like Winther’s ‘Exit’ are extremely important for gaining an understanding into the human nature of the people that get wrapped up in extremism. For only when we understand can we empathize, and empathy is the death of intolerance.

After so many years since you left the far-right, was there some particular event that sparked you to tell your story at this specific moment in time?

I met some former extremists at a conference organized by Exit Sweden and Fryshuset in 2012 and was fascinated by similarities in the stories they told about leaving the groups they were in. The terror attacks in Paris against Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan made me want to contribute to getting more knowledge about the deradicalization process out in public.

Looking back on the experience of making this film, do you feel that it helped you come to terms with your past?

Yes. While making this film, I was introduced to a community of formers run by an organization called Life After Hate. They have been very supportive and made me realize there are lots of people who have managed to leave violent extremists groups. We are not alone.

Tell me about the experience of meeting the other former-extremists and hearing their stories? What impact did this have on you?

I was surprised how much some of them are still struggling many years after they left, but it has also given me hope for the future. It is possible to change your life around and start over.

In 2011, you released a documentary called The Betrayal which also focused on the actions of your youth. Would you consider EXIT an extension of the topics you touched upon in The Betrayal?

With this film {Exit}, I wanted to explore the reasons behind leaving an extremist group. What kind of wake up call can make an extremist change? And what happens after, how do you live with yourself? My story is the least important in this film; I only included it for people to understand why I am making the film and to show that is an exploration of extremism on a personal level.

In EXIT, you touch upon the fact that as a teenager you moved from the anti-fascist group the Blitzers to the opposing Neo-nazi movement. Look back now, do you feel that your involvement in these groups was move about finding a place to “fit in” rather than what the movements stood for?

I was part of the radical leftwing movement before joining the far-right movement. The ideology was never important to me as a teenager. I was a 15-year-old misfit desperately looking for somewhere to belong.

Upon the release of EXIT, you will have two films that cast a negative light on fascist white power movement. Do you fear any backlash from those groups?

I think it´s very important that filmmakers explore the topics they want and share the stories they find interesting and important.

As a woman that has lived through the dark side of these extremist groups, what advice to a young person that might be tempted by the propaganda and promise of unity that these types of groups promote?

When I was a teenager, I very rarely listened to advice so I don´t know if anything I say will be helpful.

My advice would always be to ask yourself why you want to do something. If it´s just for the excitement, then choose something that won´t harm you or others and limit your choices in the future. Start playing roller derby instead, it´s much more fun and interesting – I promise.