Perhaps no few seconds of video — plus the ethical debate that shot up around them — encapsulates 2017 better than the mid-interview shot of American white supremacist Richard Spencer getting punched in the face by a furious protester: a base act of moral retribution that, in a glum year for left-wing politics, many a dispirited liberal has secretly repeat-watched on YouTube as a kind of stress-ball for the eyes. Even such cold comfort is in short supply, however, in “Golden Dawn Girls,” Norwegian docmaker Håvard Bustnes’s troubling, grimly compelling study of the rapid rise of neo-Nazism in contemporary Greece, in which any sense of comeuppance is held strictly in limbo.
With white nationalist politics depressingly ascendant in Europe and America alike, Bustnes’s unabashedly subjective, sometimes despairingly comic doc is sure to strike a chord with festival programmers, distributors and audiences following its IDFA world premiere, despite a few ragged technical edges; the presence of Nick Broomfield as executive producer is a further selling point. Specifically, “Golden Dawn Girls” (if you find yourself humming “Thank You For Being a Friend” going in, the film will stop you short soon enough) concentrates on the growingly powerful far-right party Golden Dawn, which disturbingly managed a third-place finish in Greece’s 2015 legislative election — despite the setback of the party’s top brass, including leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos, being in prison at the time, charged with collusion in the murder of a prominent anti-fascist rapper. (The still-ongoing trial is the film’s morbid cliffhanger.)
In their place, the party’s leading women, most notably Michaloliakos’s 26-year-old daughter Ourania, drove the campaign, and it’s their gauche but fiercely determined publicity strategy that gives Bustnes’s film its spine — and indeed enables its very existence, as they grant the filmmaker surprisingly generous access in the naive belief that a flattering portrait of Golden Dawn will emerge from the collaboration. Not that Bustnes feeds this delusion: His style of conversational but confrontational questioning and undisguised judgment seemingly takes a leaf from Britain’s Louis Theroux. Indeed, the film opens with a shrewd bit of intellectual cornering, as Bustnes asks Ourania to explain the difference between nationalism and Nazism. Piqued, she opts out: “That requires me to explain myself… I don’t care about that.”
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He gets a more literal answer from Dafni, the formerly left-leaning mother of Panagiotis, one of the party’s most violent firebrands: “Nazism is for Germany, nationalism has to do with Greece.” It’s little wonder they’re talking around the connection: Golden Dawn’s party symbol resembles a deconstructed swastika in red, black and white, while Panagiotis has a “Sieg Heil” tattoo on his arm. (“He liked the font,” we’re told, as their denial and deflection creeps into outright absurdism.) Panagiotis’s complacent wife Eugenia completes the film’s core female trio: Less politically engaged or concerned with history than the others, she only asks that “we don’t take a Valium every time we think of the past.” The three women’s distinct, contrasting personalities carry “Golden Dawn Girls” at an intriguing microcosmic level, to the point that the film identifies the party’s menfolk as little as possible.
That ploy makes for a slightly disorganized first act — it takes the film longer than it should to establish a simple sense of the party’s 37-year history — but gains in clarity and insight as it goes along, particularly as Ourania, a psychology student who can go from observant to frustratingly obtuse at the flick of a switch, emerges as its amoral center. Rhetorical conversation with her goes further than it does with the curt, strictly dogmatic Eugenia or Dafni, who denounces democracy as “a beautiful lie” and spouts opinions on the legitimacy of the media that line up ever so closely with the “fake news” spiel promoted by Donald Trump.
Yet if Bustnes appears to see in Ourania the faintest potential for honest self-realization, or at least a candid admission of the party’s overtly fascist agenda, she’s not out to comply. (Not in her interviews, at least: many of the most revealing statements in “Golden Dawn Girls” are dropped when the women don’t realize they’re on camera, as when Ourania wistfully imagines a Greece where all voters for the country’s two leading parties could be deported.) “Life is full of choices,” she shrugs as she continually shrinks away from questions demanding her personal stance on Nazi ideology, while one hastily corrected Freudian slip speaks volumes: “Isn’t it my right not to understand — not to answer — something?”
Against all this coy obfuscation, editor Anders Teigen cannily inserts shocking archival footage of Golden Dawn’s exploits that nails the party’s neo-Nazi colors far more firmly to the mast, whether it’s a march where members yell slogans like “F— the Jews” or TV talk-show footage where Panagiotis hits a dissenting female panelist in the face. Such selections often make Bustnes’s point better than his slightly flat, on-the-nose voiceover, which resorts too often to bland generalities in place of incisive commentary: “What happened to Greece?” he asks at the outset, before making rather less than you’d expect of the country’s severe financial crisis, which has surely proved a vital enabling factor for Golden Dawn. Still, this is needling, righteously upsetting political filmmaking: In the mood of the moment, you can’t blame Bustnes for occasionally letting his exasperation in ahead of his analysis.