Exploring the eccentric and deadly serious world of the Viking cosplayer.
I’ve never really got the whole cosplay thing. I mean, I’m as partial to a hot girl in a skimpy sci-fi character outfit as the next man, but the whole dressing up world is rather lost on me – especially when people start to take it seriously. And let’s be honest here, some of them take it very seriously. Whether it’s civil war re-enactments or people who seem to really believe themselves to be Klingons, living by weird rules, strange codes of honour or simply being so intensely into their roles that they seem to have sucked any sense of fun out of it, it all feels a bit Knightriders to me. In an age where anyone can self-identify as anything that they want, then people who seem to believe that dressing up like Jack Sparrow makes them an actual pirate are probably less contentious and challenging than most – but it still seems rather silly and delusional once you stop seeing it as just a bit of fun.
So the documentary To Go Viking was unlikely to pull me in as a sympathetic observer of its characters unless it showed me something – anything – to make me understand what drives someone to believe themselves to be a Viking – a real Viking – and to want to lead that life. The film doesn’t really do that. There is no attempt to explore the mindset that allows you to describe yourself as a ‘real’ Viking with a straight face while sitting in a neat and tidy living room. There’s a certain intrigue in seeing how the mundanities of real-life intrude on a self-created persona. I’m suddenly recalling a British TV biker documentary where a rough ‘n’ scary Hell’s Angel was interviewed in the living room of his suburban semi – it’s a deliberate crushing of someone’s pomposity or delusions to expose the ordinariness of their day-to-day lives so ruthlessly (though of course, the Hell’s Angel probably was hard as fuck and the real deal). But this film doesn’t push this point. Admirably, it’s not trying to belittle or mock the people it follows. It’s not a critical study, but a sympathetic observation of what I guess in the end is a harmless obsession. But I would’ve liked to get some insight into why an American with no connection to the Viking world would not only think that dressing up and play fighting is good fun (which I’m sure it is) but to actually live their lives thinking that they are Vikings. When the filmmakers are not allowed to film a ‘sacred’ ceremony that takes place at night, you know that someone is taking this a bit too seriously.
Matt Poitras’ film follows the Texas Elag – a Viking group – as they travel to Europe to join fellow Jomsberg Viking re-enactors for what is a surprisingly large number of public events that culminate at the 17th International Slavs and Viking Festival in Poland – an event I’ll admit to being blissfully unaware of until I saw this film. Here, the battles are more full-blooded than the Americans are used to – plenty of people being whacked on the helmeted head with heavy, all-too-authentic swords and lots of macho aggression, controlled only by shirtless referees. Poitras makes the battles look pretty intense and dramatic, though I imagine if you were in the live audience for these things, it might well look more like a lot of fat blokes wrestling in mud. Along the way, much is made of the bonding experience of these events and the global Viking Brotherhood (there are, inevitably, few women involved in this world it seems, and most of those who we do see appear to be of the ‘long-suffering partner trying to make the best of it’ variety). I’m no expert on Vikings, I’ll confess, but my limited knowledge of them suggests that it wasn’t the most egalitarian and feminist of cultures, what with all that rape and pillage. No doubt I’ll be informed otherwise in the comments – because if we’ve learned one thing from previous articles on this thorny subject, it’s that Hell hath no fury like a Viking cosplayer scorned – but I suspect that Norse recreation is a primarily male pastime.
There are definitely people here who have pushed reality to one side and are taking it all very, very seriously. That’s fine, to a point – you probably want your Viking performers to strive for some sort of authenticity after all. But there’s a line between taking something seriously and refusing to accept reality, and that line is regularly crossed here. At one point, someone talks about making the choice to live as a warrior, but in reality, that’s clearly nonsense. These guys are not conquering nations or taking to the sea in longships, they are performing circus shows for goggle-eyed schoolchildren in the hope of making enough money to buy a van. And real Vikings probably didn’t live in in the suburbs or play in heavy metal bands. Obviously, I’m not saying that I want these guys to actually be going on berserker raids of neighbouring towns of a weekend, but the fact is that none of these guys are really living as warriors. I suspect most, if not all, have homes, jobs, families and bills to pay, and that’s cool – just don’t pretend that your weekend hobby is anything more than dressing up and enjoying a bit of rough and tumble. I wish the film had been able to explore those contrasts more.
My continual sense of bafflement at all this means that I probably didn’t enjoy Poitras’ film as much as I would have liked to – I felt too removed from the people involved initially, and didn’t really feel as though I knew any of them any better by the end of it – there is little character development and no one seems all that interesting, because we never get to explore any personal stories or history that might put their fascination into context. As a look at a world that I barely even knew existed, it’s an interesting and entertaining enough study of eccentricity and obsession, and if you have an interest in cosplay or LARPing, this might well speak to you in a way it never could to me. But – rather like the Viking cosplayers themselves, I suspect – it lacks depth and commitment, and if anything actually accidentally pricks the bubble of Viking theatrics for the outside viewer. After watching this, it all seems very silly. Except for the Polish blokes, obviously, who might make for a more interesting, if disturbing, documentary.