Nate Hood on EXIT (2018) DOC NYC 2018
Three days ago, an antisemite entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and murdered eleven people, screaming “All Jews must died” as he slaughtered the cowering congregation. The killing has been named the deadliest attack against the Jewish community in American history, and tragically it doesn’t seem to be an aberration. Due to inflammatory presidential rhetoric and the proliferation of social media, hate groups have exploded in both strength and popularity. Perhaps at no point since the Civil Rights Movements has racial extremism been so prevalent in our society. All of which begs the question: what drives human beings into hate groups?
Karen Winther explores possible answers in her new documentary Exit. But more importantly, it asks a second question: what can be done when someone tries to leave? Winther has experience on both sides of the equation. As a disillusioned teenager, she joined a Norwegian hate group. She recalls how at first it felt “like a drug”—the movies, the music, and the camaraderie joined together to make her feel like she had a purpose and family. But after two years she realized this “life” was killing her, both physically and psychologically. Under threat of lethal retaliation, she fled and started a new life.
It’s this escape that dominates the first part of Exit, after which she interviews several other prominent ex-hate group members, including Ingo Hasselbach, one of the founders and key figures of West Germany’s neo-Nazi movement. Though interesting, these segments smack too much of the traditional talking heads documentary. But there’s an incredible sequence near the end where Winther meets with two American women who’ve fled the same kind of extremists that indoctrinated the Pittsburgh killer. As the three discuss their explicit experiences as women in hate groups, they come to an astonishing discovery: they’d all been sexually assaulted before joining their respective communities. In that moment we see three women who’d already been through the hell of escaping hate plunge deep into a shared trauma they thought they’d abandoned long ago. We see them start to heal. These are the moments documentaries are meant for. But it doesn’t last—it soon veers right back into talking heads territory. If the film had just focused on these women helping each other recover, it’d be a masterpiece.
But as is, the otherwise underwhelming Exit is still a vital tool for our tumultuous times.