Opinion: Do series such as Young Wallander feed the Malmö myth?

Far-right international media touts Malmö as a dangerous, crime-ridden city and because of this, TV shows like Young Wallander have to tread carefully, writes freelance journalist Saga Ringmar.

Opinion: Do series such as Young Wallander feed the Malmö myth?
Adam Pålsson as Swedish author Henning Mankell's fictional detective Kurt Wallander. Photo: Netflix

Warning: spoilers

In the Netflix series Young Wallander, released this autumn, we follow the young detective (played by Adam Pålsson) solving crime in a bleak Malmö. This Malmö is full of criminal activity, anti-immigration riots and nightclubs where half-naked people writhe around in cages. However, in a world where far-right media touts Malmö as a criminal hub with immigration gone awry, a series like Young Wallander must tread carefully.

In far-right media, Malmö is used as a cautionary news headline to show the dangerous impact of immigration. Fox News alleged that Malmö is the “rape-capital of Europe” dotted with supposed “no-go zones”, areas so dangerous that police dare not enter. So writing Young Wallander, a show about crime and immigration in Malmö, is a precarious task where writers have to be careful not to pander to alt-right ideas.

Of course, a lot of the Malmö myths can be easily rebuked. Malmö – as the rest of Sweden – can attribute its high rape cases to legislation which counts cases according to each incident rather than each perpetrator and where the judicial definition of “rape” in Sweden covers more situations than the rigid definitions elsewhere. Apropos “no-go zones”, as The Local has reported, Malmö's police have explained that they do indeed cover all areas of Malmö. Interestingly, statistics on Malmö's crime rate can be easily manipulated online to tell whatever story suits you.

However, the Young Wallander series flirts with these far-right tropes. Wallander is in pursuit of a refugee who has killed a white Swedish teenager in an anti-Swedish hate crime. This story sounds like something straight out of Breitbart and makes for an uncomfortable first three episodes.

Halfway through the series (…and here comes the spoiler!) we realise that the refugee was coerced and the true culprit is not a foreigner at all. However, since the show spends half its time playing with the trope of a refugee as the begetter of Malmö's crime, the stereotype is ultimately challenged but the true nature of Malmö's criminal activity is never fully developed.

What are the underlying factors that contribute to the crime and low-income in Malmö's vulnerable areas? This is not explored properly. With a show that sees the world through the gaze of a white Swede, we can only see so far. Discrimination, socio-economic inequality and segregation are some of the biggest causes of crime in the city. However, these ideas are never fully fleshed out in the series. All we know is that we thought the refugee was guilty while he was actually being coerced. End of story.

The show is quick to use Malmö, and especially the Rosengård area, to create a dark atmosphere with rampant crime and shadowy figures in hoodies, which feeds into a hyperbolic narrative.

What is it actually like to live in Rosengård? Although far-right, fake news outlets like Infowars and Breitbart describe Rosengård as an area where “ethnic Swedes dare not tread”, the reality is far more complex. Manne Qvillberg who has lived in Rosengård's student housing, describes it as a place where, sure, gang violence stirs between gang members and drunk guys are sometimes too loud at night, but also a place with families and student life. He explains, “…there certainly is this media boogeyman about Rosengård… that you shouldn't live there, there is just a bunch of crime and you have to wear a [bulletproof] vest or something…that definitely isn't true…That is not to say it doesn't have problems, but I think those problems are highly exaggerated”.

Sema Ekinci is 30 and has lived in Rosengård her entire life, first in the high-rise apartment buildings and now beside them. She explains that even though there are areas of Malmö with far more drug dealing or shootings, Rosengård gets lumped together with these areas.

Sema says that in the Young Wallander show, “it's like they are trying to create a picture of a ghetto and children in a ghetto that maybe exists in other parts of Europe, but doesn't actually exist here”. Manne says a similar thing, “I feel like the person who wrote [Young Wallander] already had an idea of how they wanted to depict the place”.

Both of them are right to think this way. The fact that most of the scenes are filmed in Lithuania and not Rosengård means that the writers could create Rosengård exactly as they imagined it, rather than how it actually is.

Rosengård. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

An often forgotten detail in the media is Rosengård's unique sense of community that other areas in Sweden lack. “Swedes generally aren't very social people,” Manne explains, “But when I moved in there I noticed immediately that there was a whole different sense of socialising than what I grew up with…. [You] talk to your neighbours, the people you see everyday, the people who work there, and it's just generally a more tight-knit community”.

Sema also compares her life in Rosengård to her short stints in the centre of town. “What makes Rosengård different from other areas is that it's very lively… there is always someone out on the street – parents, kids, families! Lots of people who meet outside…” she explains, “…I didn't notice the same sense of community in the centre of town that I feel in Rosengård”.

This sense of community is what makes Sema feel safer in Rosengård than anywhere else. Working the night-shift in Rosengård, Sema would frequently walk home in the middle of the night. She explains, “I know who lives there so I don't react if I see a group of guys in hoodies outside of an apartment building, I know who they are even if I have never met them. So there is nothing to be afraid of”.

An important part of Rosengård, Sema notes, are the kids. “Young people take up a lot of space in Rosengård” she says, “So that might mean that the evenings are rowdy…I don't mean that the parents aren't a part of their kids' lives, but just that they don't feel like they have to supervise their every move”. She adds that the many teenagers and children hanging out in Rosengård might appear strange to people from other areas. She can understand that maybe big groups of teenagers in hoodies may seem intimidating. Sema, a math teacher in middle school, is far from frightened. “They could practically be my students!” she remarks.

In contrast, the Young Wallander series depicts Rosengård as this bleak depressing place where there is no fun to be had and completely ignores the social aspect of the area – as do most media depictions.

'I love Herrgården,' reads this graffiti, referring to one of the most infamous areas of Rosengård. Photo: Andreas Hillergren/TT

In fact, Rosengård is a place where kids swing on swings, grandmas push their shopping carts and neighbours chat to each other on the street. Of course, criminal activity might bubble under the surface but the Netflix series is unable to show us this duality. Nuance is perhaps a lot to ask of a crime detective show. However, the entire point of Henning Mankell's original books is to show how quaint, Swedish neighbourhoods can have unpleasantries lurking behind the surface. Surely it is possible for a detective show about Malmö to exhibit similar dualities?

To the show's credit, a crucial element they get right in depicting the crime in Malmö is that the biggest victims are the vulnerable people themselves. Far-right sites try to tout criminal activity as something predominantly infringing upon white Swedish life. However the biggest victims are those who live in these vulnerable areas. After the protests in Rosengård this summer in response to the burning of Korans, pictures of bruised and bloody white Swedish women supposedly injured in the riots circulated in India. Turns out these were old pictures of separate incidents outside of Sweden. This type of fake news portrays crime in vulnerable areas as something inherently anti-Swedish.

In Young Wallander, however, the victims are vulnerable people or those intertwined in the world of crime. A teenage boy with a foreign mother is falsely accused of killing the Swedish teenager. The refugee who did kill him was coerced in fear of deportation. Even the Swedish teenager who is killed is involved in drug-selling. Real statistics show a similar thing. One study found that from 1990-2017 men from disadvantaged areas were overrepresented as both perpetrators and victims of lethal violence. Young men who join gangs tend to have a bad relationship with their family and school, and are looking for a sense of belonging.

What we actually need are young Malmö-dwellers with firsthand experience of Rosengård and other areas writing for Netflix. Hopefully then, when they depict criminal activity, they are able to portray it with all its complications. Without accurately portraying an area like Rosengård or the system of segregation and systemic racism that begets crime, we leave ourselves wide open to racist, fake news about Malmö as a crime-ridden hellhole.

Saga Ringmar is a freelance journalist and researcher for Kinapodden, Sveriges Radio's podcast about China. She is currently based in Malmö.

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OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place.