Duration: 75 minutes
Writer/Directors: Reetta Aalto, Alli Haapasalo, Anna Paavilainen, Kirsikka Saari, Miia Tervo, Elli Toivoniemi, Jenni Toivoniemi
By Caz Armstrong
This review contains references to rape and assault
“Force of Habit” is an impeccably well-crafted collection of shorts on the theme of harassment and power dynamics, this is not an easy watch but it is an absolutely essential one.
A collection of seven shorts by Finnish female directors were intercut together. While these shorts have different directors and different stories they are so well compiled that we never feel any disconnection. In fact they are so similar in tone and content that they could be taking place on the same day and all the stories could easily collide.
Each short is about a different aspect of harassment and the personal and structural power imbalances that affect mainly female victims. We see the effects of a random broad-daylight groping and the wedge it drives between a couple trying to enjoy a holiday. We sit with a teenager through increasingly scary harassment on public transport, aided by nobody, and scream in frustration with her afterwards. We sit through a horrific court case that leads nowhere and rehearse a rape scene amongst an utterly indifferent theatre group.
All of the scripts are outstandingly well-written. Weighty themes rest on the shoulders of the smallest of words spoken at just the right time. Or on the absence of any words at all because after all silence, whether strategically chosen or imposed, is a huge part of the continued harassment and abuse of women.
But “Force of Habit” goes even further and shows us exactly why silence is sometimes the safest option, not just physically but in relation to job security, reputation, long term relationships or educational attainment. We’re shown some of the many different reasons behind victims’ decisions to keep quiet.
It also explores the aftermath of abuse and how it affects people’s lives in myriad ways. This makes “Force of Habit” far more responsible than hundreds of Hollywood films that use assault of women as a casual plot point to further the male protagonist’s actions with zero thought to the victim.
Society’s acceptance of abuse as a simple fact of life is also perfectly portrayed. How many times in our own lives have we brushed such things aside, but when it’s played out in front of you it can’t be ignored. And then it becomes enraging.
How can you not be incensed when you see a woman casually crocheting while a brutal rape is re-enacted in front of her and discussed by the men in the room as though it’s nothing but theory and pretend. Or when a husband tells his wife ‘at least you weren’t raped’ when she has just been assaulted in front of him. Assault and abuse is so engrained that speaking up is more unusual and more disruptive than just accepting it and getting on with your day.
One brief but especially eye-opening moment pulls together all these threads of on behalf of the collective. While discussing instances of harassment one woman says she’s never experienced anything like that “… except for the usual ones.”
Like a game of ‘put a finger down if you…’ she goes on to list being flashed as both an adult and a child, being groped (“well, if that counts”), catcalled, propositioned, and followed on the street.
And at that point anyone watching who feels like they have been lucky to escape harassment or assault now has to re-examine this position. Let it sink in that these are the “usual”. Probably every woman you know has been the victim of something shown in this film but if only the top of the iceberg counts then the titanic still sinks.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a perfect grace note ending to a film. It builds on all the assaults and victim blaming we’ve witnessed for the last 70 minutes and turns it on its head. The omniscient viewer watches the scene with the hypervigilance of someone steeped in a lifetime of harassment and navigating hostile power structures. It makes us mutter to ourselves ‘see, you were overreacting’ and then spend the whole credits looking at ourselves in the mirror.
The middle class white Finnish perspective doesn’t add the layers of race, poverty, sexuality, disability or any other aspects of marginalisation required to make this a universal piece. However, what it does address it does incredibly well. It is an incredibly important film for people of all genders to watch, examine, and really listen to. The expertly distilled script, the cohesive structure, and the manipulation of the audience can’t fail to leave a deep impact.