Monday, March 24, 2008

Dispatch: Welcome to Fort Hare

Well it’s the end of Easter Monday – at least on this side of the world. My Easter yesterday was sunny and quiet. I bought a card from a man on the street in front of my video store. When I asked where he was from he said, “Rhodesia.” “Not Zimbabwe?” I replied. Most of the men who sell crafts in the intersection near my flat and this row of stores are all from Zimbabwe, but this was the first one who said Rhodesia – and he couldn’t have been any older than me, so clearly grew up in Zimbabwe. His answer to my question, No, Rhodesia. He continued, explaining that this Zimbabwe has too many elections and too many disappointments.

For those of you who don’t have a 12-page insert in your newspaper about the upcoming elections, March 29 is election day in Zimbabwe, and a question looms, will this be a referendum on Robert Mugabe, will one of his opponents be able to win, or will things continue to be the same. To be, according to this man, a disappointment.

This is not the real moment that I wanted to share with you in this dispatch, just one of many small moments that seem to continuously define my time here.

Rather, it is a visit to the University of Fort Hare that I made two weeks ago that had quite an impact on me. Fort Hare is historic – it is the oldest historically Black university in Southern Africa. It has produced such leaders as Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, and even Robert Mugabe.

I was invited by Scott Chiverton, a fellow American who is here on a State Department fellowship working in the education faculty at the university, to screen the film. The first screening was at the East London campus. This campus actually used to belong to Rhodes University, based in Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape, and is therefore more diverse than its counterpart, the original campus two hours away in Alice.

The audience was third and fourth year students and several faculty members – Black, Colored, White. I have learned that no screening is the same. Whatever questions I anticipate, there are always unexpected moments – moments of surprise, moments of anger, moments when I realize how wonderful it is to create something and have people respond. The racial dynamics when we walked in to set up were stark – a reminder of my Afro American Studies class in high school – White students on one side, Black on the other. We moved seats around, into the middle of the room like a theatre, but still most Black students remained at tables around the periphery. During the film, there was laughter, there was visible discomfort, there were audible sighs, there was, at times, complete silence from the audience, and when the title card came up that Noluyanda had had a baby, there was a loud, “WHAT?”

In this first of three screenings, it was a brave White student named Kim who lingers in my mind as well as the silence of many others. I saw Kim’s hand up before her tears began and she explained how privileged her childhood and life has been, how she couldn’t believe that people lived and learned this way and couldn’t believe how much she didn’t know, doesn’t know, and how much she took for granted in her own life. Surrounded by fellow White students as well Xhosa students, most of whom grew up in rural areas or townships and probably attended similarly struggling schools as Oscar Mpetha, she bravely acknowledged her advantages, her opportunities, as well as her ignorance of the lives of so many others. I would be remiss not to explain that the Xhosa students in the room didn’t say anything. Not one of them spoke –- to comment, to question, to argue. Later, a few told Scott they felt self-conscious of their English so they didn’t talk. He was not surprised at the dynamic.

The next morning we took the two-hour drive to Alice. To get to Alice, you drive through the rolling former homeland of the Ciskei – long stretches of grasses, mountains in the distance, the occasional animal, everyone from young men to older mama’s hitchhiking to work, school and town. It is beautiful. About half way between East London and Alice is King William’s Town, the home of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko and where he is buried. I was last here when I took Sipho to see Biko’s grave on our way back from filming in Noluyanda’s home village in December 2005.

The University of Fort Hare is beautiful—many old buildings, trees, a much older campus than UWC where I teach. I got a tour from an enthusiastic man who heads the international office. He told me the stories of Freedom Square, pointed out the former dormitories of Mandela and Sobukwe and spoke of the division between the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress. The University holds all of the ANC archives as well as the archives of several important people including Mandela and Govan Mbeki. There on a shelf were Mandela’s photo albums (not that I opened them!) and in front of me on a table was Mbeki’s guitar case, collaged with pieces from magazines, along with a few songs, written on napkins from his time on Robben Island. The amount of history in those rooms is profound and only emphasizes to me the power of the history of that university and this country.

We had a good crowd at the screening. There was more laughter and more engagement, more talking during the movie, than I have ever heard, but in a new and different way. Many see their lives and the lives of those they will teach on the screen. Some come from very rural Eastern Cape, they may know Ngcobo where we filmed and they may not have ever seen a city like Cape Town. As they learned of Sipho’s death there was an audible, “Jesus Christ,” from a girl who’s eyes looked like they were popping out of her head.

There were several questions about my comfort level in Nyanga – about race, language, privilege, and, of course, danger. Nyanga in what I feel is such an unfair label, won the prize of being the murder capital of South Africa in the last crime survey. Moving on, one professor spoke passionately of how they need to create not just good teachers, but social activists as well. One student asked why I didn’t tell the story of a White school and a Black school. I explained that I wanted to keep my focus small, to truly tell the story of a few students, of one school, rather than a larger comparison. He seemed satisfied, but I appreciated the question, particularly coming from this space.

The final screening was back in East London for first year students. The power of this discussion was unexpected. In this mixed class, the Xhosa students spoke out. All stood up when they spoke, just like many of my students did. One talked about how the film was a challenge to all of them to be good teachers and commit to all aspects of their students lives. Another, a 37 year old mother of five, first asked forgiveness for her English, then turned to the White students and asked them not to be afraid to go into the townships, to meet the people, to teach in the townships like I had. I used the moment as an opport5unity to emphasize that no matter who they end up teaching, they have the obligation and the power to tell them and show them about the lives of all South Africans. One woman said, “But we are not free. Apartheid is still here.” Her classmate responded, “But we are here. We are all in this room together. We have opportunity.” Here I took the opportunity to be honest about the failings of my own country, to talk about the persistent segregation in U.S. schools over fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education and how as much as we want things to move forward quickly, as much as we see some of the same injustices which plagued the country during apartheid, and the legacy of that terrible system persists, that change itself takes time.

Gives us some much needed laughs, one Xhosa guy got up to speak and first said, “In my culture, we usually don’t let women cut the ice, but because of the caliber of this conversation, its okay.” And then again there was a young White woman, the daughter of a single mother, tears in her eyes, talking about how her mom struggled but about how sheltered she was. Then she gave a caveat, “don’t think I am racist,” but, she continued, some people use apartheid as a reason not to work hard for themselves and I think it is important for people to not see themselves as victims.

There is always difficult feedback too. One professor sent me an email praising pieces of the film but finding in it a sub-text of blaming apartheid for everything and the subjects, my students, identifying as victims. He feared that an African audience would leave pitying themselves, that I am perpetuating a sense of victimhood. I was surprised, for these people are certainly not victims and do not see themselves that way. But we all look with our own eyes, approach things with our own pasts and experiences that color how we see the world. So it makes me sad and disappointed that he perceives the film in that way and I certainly hope that I am not encouraging a self-perception of victimhood, and I was upset to see the email. But I move forward, knowing my intentions, knowing the story, knowing that it is not perfect, but hoping to continue sparking the kind of dialogues I was able to engage in at the University of Fort Hare and to continue to be surprised.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Testing Hope Plug

For those of you in D.C., please tell your friends that Testing Hope will be screened on March 15 at 1:30 pm in the D.C. International Film Festival. Go to for more information. If you have friends in Madison or Miami, details on those festivals to come.

Dispatch: Prior Knowledge

Prior knowledge. Have you ever been having a conversation with someone and you start to talk about something – an issue, a person, an idea – and realize the person you are talking to doesn’t know what you are talking about – they have little familiarity with the topic or one might say, minimal prior knowledge.

I think I first learned of the term “prior knowledge”, as it relates to teaching, when I was in Houston for my Teach for America training. But sometimes as a teacher you assume, especially when teaching adults, that people know certain things, have experienced certain things.

I’ve been thinking about prior knowledge for a few weeks ago, since my first day as a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape. My course -- Comparative Education A, Film and Pedagogy. I started off by asking my students to answer a simple questionnaire – where and what do you teach, what are your goals and concerns about the course, and a start to every film class, what is your favorite movie? We went around the room of about 20 teachers and each person shared one answer. The first teacher to share – my oldest and proving to be my most challenging student – felt the need to read the answers to ALL her questions. When she got to her favorite movie, she said Generations. Anyone who has ever lived in South Africa knows about Generations. It is one of the most popular soapies (soap operas) in the country. Every night at 8 pm, thousands tune in to see the dramatic goings on of characters like Queen, Sibusiso and Jack. Generations is, as you may have gathered, a television show. It is not a movie. I took a deep breath, but instead of correcting my student, probably more than 20 years my senior, I moved to the next student. As we went around, amidst Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies and one teacher who admits to being a sucker for teacher films like Dead Poets Society and Freedom Writers, at least five more people named a television show as their favorite films -- Generations, another soapie Rhythm Nation, and the popular American sitcom King of Queens. There I had it, a room full of adults, some of whom did not know the difference between a television show and a movie.

I have to admit, it hadn’t even occurred to me that the first thing I should do is discuss the difference between a television show and a movie. Why would it? It is a classroom of adults, of teachers and of course in my world, everyone goes to the movies. I make and watch documentaries, my parents go the movies almost every week and if you ask my sister what its like to rent a movie with me, she’ll tell you difficult because I usually have seen everything she wants to see.

Once the whole class had shared, I pointed out that the television shows they mentioned were not movies. But I didn’t pursue a discussion about the differences between the two. We moved on to other activities and when I went over the homework assignment –watch your favorite film and analyze it based on the main elements of film we discussed as well as any piece or theme in the film that might carry over into your curriculum -- I emphasized that they must do a movie and not a television show. (I am grading them now, a few will have to redo their papers, and again I am learning about prior knowledge, writing levels and the skills of those educating the youth of South Africa.)

I went home feeling like class had only gone okay and mulled over what needed to change. As I read over their questionnaires, I thought more about who my students are, where they come from and their journeys to get to my class. They are all working on B. Eds, at night and on Saturdays. All but one of my students are Black or Coloured. All teach in township schools and many grew up and some live now in those same townships. While I don’t know their exact ages, it seems everyone is at least 30 or older. Some are teachers because it was one of a few professions they had access to. Many were trained at colleges were not always the highest. They are children of apartheid, they own the legacy of their country’s history and as their teacher, it is a history that I must consider as I work to help them understand and experience film and think about how to bring it to their students. I sit and write this in my favorite new café, where they make a brilliant coffee and I could find the same atmosphere in a café at home. But most days that I am here, Trish, the owner, and I get into a conversation about the latest news or something we read and it generally leads to a discussion about South Africa, often about race, about the legacy, the history. It is always present, always here.

I realized that in order to teach film in their classes, I needed to make my students watch movies, experience movies, know different genres, love movies -- maybe not as much as I do. One of the first things I did on my return to Cape Town was renew my membership at the video store. So it was there, when I was looking for a movie to screen in my second class that I had my epiphany -- how many of my students had ever been to a video store? My mom took me to a library when I was very little and I still love libraries, love bookstores, love touching books, smelling books, reading the synopsis on the back. In that same way, I love lingering in a video store. I needed my students to feel that.

So I started class two by handing out index cards and asking them when they last saw a movie in the theatre, on TV and rented one from a video store, if ever. Some answers are below:

When was the last time you went to a movie theatre? What did you see?
While a few said last week, several people said years back or a very long time ago. For one man it was 1982, another woman saw Message In A Bottle in 2000, and others said a year ago.

Have you ever been to a video store? What was the last movie you rented?
More people said yes than I expected, but it was usually a long time ago. Some may have never been to a mainstream store, but rented a movie at a small spaza shop in the township – perhaps pirated DVDs. One had been but didn’t rent. Another had been but mostly watches cable now. Movies ranged from Happy Feet to Sweet November to A Dry White Season.

As I collected the index cards, I noticed that someone a new student Walker Texas Ranger was the last movie he saw which prompted our necessary discussion about the difference between films and TV shows. Finally we were all on the same page – as we moved forward, raced to see who could list the most movies in 3 minutes – winner gets a candy bar – watched some of Mad Hot Ballroom and worked in groups to think of how to use it in the classroom, I saw the energy rise, I saw the class gel. And I was excited to give them homework:
Go to a video store. Spend at least a half an hour there. Identify ten films that you haven’t seen that you think you could use in your classroom. Then write a page response about what it is like to be in a video store.

Our third class is this Saturday afternoon and I am excited to see their homework and for our lesson. As we move forward, doing our first activity with video cameras (thanks Andres!) and writing lesson plans to test out in their classrooms in the next few weeks, I will keep in mind my prior knowledge and their prior knowledge, my life experiences and there’s. Not lower my expectations or make things easier, but just consider it as I teach and present. We are all products of our experiences, our pasts, but also where we are born – from who our parents are to our neighborhoods and our schools to our country. And for me, here in South Africa, more so than, I think, at home, the impact of country looms larger.

Much is happening here – Jacob Zuma announced today that if he becomes president he will think about making a referendum to reintroduce the death penalty and racism has been all over the news with a meeting of the Black Journalists Forum that excluded Whites and a video made by White students at University of the Free State in protest to the university’s racial integration of the residences. The video depicts four white male students taking Black workers in their residence through a mock hazing process – making them swallow a bottle of beer, run a race, play rugby and then kneel and eat meat, which had been urinated upon. At the end of the video, the students say in Afrikaans, “That is what we think of integration.”

No doubt there will be more to write about soon.