Monday, October 18, 2010

Dispatch: Many Moments

Last week, I had 11 screenings over 8 days in and around Johannesburg. 11 moments when I exchanged ideas about xenophobia and diversity, anger and humanity. 11 times when I listened to the hearts, minds and sometimes prejudices of my audiences– high school students, film festival goers, university students and professors.

I can’t say 11 screenings didn’t feel tiring, but it was also amazing. The diversity of the audiences kept things interesting. Some were smaller or quieter or more frustrating than others, but they all held something valuable. I thought I would share a few moments with you that stick out in my mind.

My second of a 4-screening marathon one Monday was at an education class at Wits University. This one had been organized last minute, so I was surprised to find a lecture hall filled with 100 students. I arrived just as the credits were rolling. For about an hour, we energetically talked about xenophobia, about diversity and divisions in South African society, about economics and poverty. But the first speaker was a White Namibian girl (and here race is important, as we tend to assume that all xenophobia happens to Black Africans). She told about her experience at a local hospital in Soweto during her Occupational Therapy residence. Before her first day, a friend told her not to drive her car there, as it has Namibian license plates. Then someone else suggested she not tell anyone that she is Namibian, “Just pretend you are South African,” the friend said. But as inevitably happens, people found out. One day, she was working with a patient when a nurse came in, “I don’t want you working with my patient. You are from Namibia, you came here and stole a job and a university spot from South Africans.” She left her placement, and since she is in this class, I assume at some point transitioned into teaching. As she told this story, she began to cry.

Another boy, in what I felt was true success, said, “I remember those attacks. I was in Matric. We studied, we partied, but we didn’t do anything.” He added, “There was a police station down the street from my house that housed refugees. I could have gone there and brought blankets or food. But we did nothing.” One of our hopes in showing the film is that people recognize what they did or did not do, so they can think about the meaning of bystander as they go forward in life.

The discussion was not without rancor or anger, or stereotypes, generalizations, and words like “us,” “them”, “like monkeys” and “silver spoon.” But it was discussion, people agreed, they disagreed, they argued, they shared and I left feeling energized.

At another screening, organized by the U.S. Embassy in Mamelodi, a township just outside Pretoria, 55 high school students watched the film intensely. They were the first group that did not laugh loudly and uncomfortably at the sight of adults looting. They were slow to talk after, but soon we were asking each other questions. I left the session excited by what had occurred in the room, but what I remember most are the surprising, the painful moments. One girl, in a flat, earnest way, asked, “They smell and they are usually really dark, but how do I tell if someone is Zimbabwean?” It was her tone that really struck me. In her mind, there was nothing wrong about anything that she said. And that, for me, spoke to the rest of her world, and what she hears from adults and friends in her community. How do you answer a question like that? I value people’s ideas, I value this girl’s bravery in raising her hand and speaking, and I didn’t want to shut her down, to make her quiet next time. So I had a two-fold approach – the funny and the personal.. Then I told her that I was Jewish, that my family had died in the Holocaust, and that some of the things she mentioned were similar, reminded me of reasons the Germans gave for their “solution.”

Then before I finished, I asked her if she knew anyone in her school or community that ever smelled. It was the same strategy I used at a privileged school in Cape Town when I White boy said that Black people were lazy. “Raise your hand if you have friends or classmates who are lazy.” But you can’t know what gets through to people.

My friend Scott, who has worked in South Africa for years, suggested that I ask kids whether or not they see me as a foreigner. The girl who raised her hand said, “No, we call White people tourists. White people contribute to the country, they go to the cinema and the zoo. I’ve never seen a Zimbabwean at the cinema or the zoo.”

I share these not as negative perceptions, but as challenging ones. They are comments and questions that force me to dig deeper for answers than the regular, “What was it like to make the film?” or “How did you choose the students in the film?” Sometimes they make me sadder or more frustrated or leave me with a bit less hope.


I arrived back in Cape Town exhausted and promptly grabbed a cab home. It should have been an easy trip, only about 20 minutes around the mountain to my home. But it was not to be easy. It was a ride that with the driver’s words, “And that’s why Black people snap.”

It started when I told him about my job and my film and he asked me why I thought the xenophobia attacks happened. I was gentle in my assessment, careful, because he had already said something very racist about a Muslim community we drove by. He disagreed with my explanation and began to lecture me. “You have to understand, Black people think differently than White and Colored people,” he started. “Let me tell you why Black people snap,” he added, before telling me a story.

When I got out of the car, I was really upset, and not just by his toxic words. I had just spent 8 days talking to people about sterotypes and difference, about race and divisions in society. And more importantly here, about taking a stand. Taking a stand in situations large and small, for people who are different to you, for friends and strangers, in your community, your school, or even if you hear someone at school or home saying something you find racist or discriminatory or lacking in compassion. And here I was, being silent.

The next day, I ran a workshop for 35 9th grade students in a scholarship program called Students for a Better Future, run by my friend Susan. In the course of the workshop, we talked about discrimination and we talked about opportunities to stand up. One girl asked me what I did during the xenophobia attacks in 2008. She didn’t realize that with this question, which I have been asked before, she was putting me in my place. “Nothing,” I said to her. “I was simply a bystander. I watched it on TV like many of you.” And in the course of our discussion, I told them about my taxi driver. Not details, just that he had said racist things and I had said nothing.

I regret my silence. I think it was partly because I was stunned. I haven’t encountered that kind of virulent open racism here in a long time. And partly because I was in his cab, alone. Just me and him. What would he have said if I had argued with him, if I had stood up the way I ask others to? If you had been in the backseat of that cab, what would you have done?


Upcoming Screenings of Where Do I Stand? in the U.S.

Tuesday November 9, 8:00 pm, Avalon Theatre, 5612 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC

Sunday November 14, 8:00 pm, Madiba Restaurant, 195 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn, NY*

Tuesday November 16, 6:00 pm, Columbia University, New York, NY*

Thursday November 18, 6:00 pm, Laney College, Oakland, CA*

Friday November 19, San Francisco, CA*

*Details to Follow

Molly Blank
Independent Documentary Filmmaker
Cell: (011 27) 76 288 0279
Office: (011 27) 21 448 9642
Fax: (011 27) 21 447-2027

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." - Nelson Mandela

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dispatch: What Do I Say?

When you put work out into the world, there are some things you can control and others that you cannot. Some things that you want to control and others that you want to just let happen. I have been thinking a lot lately about what I try to control and what role I can play as things just happen.

In June & July when there was talk of a resurgence of xenophobic attacks, I had several screenings with young people, some of which I have already written about. I have been thinking lately not of what they said, but of my responses. There was often debate in the room, there was guilt, there was sadness, inevitably while some welcomed foreigners, others expressed animosity, shared the rhetoric about them stealing jobs and houses, were angry at their presence in South Africa.

With talk of anti-foreigner sentiment rising outside of the auditoriums where we spoke, I found myself not pushing and challenging these young people’s perspectives of foreigners, but rather just pushing them to think about humanity. My goal became simple and certainly much smaller and more limited than my true goals. Yes, I want these young viewers to accept, if not embrace, foreigners in their communities and their country. And I really want them to think about how to stand up, how to take action, on whatever level is appropriate, in these situations and in others like them. But that moment, in that auditorium, in that 30 minutes or hour I had with them, I just wanted them to walk away, to not join in.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about this lately. Was I compromising? Was I just realistic about what could be accomplished in that moment? Had I not been there, had someone else been facilitating, where would that discussion have gone?

I had a different kind of experience at a diverse, well-resourced school a few weeks ago. That conversation and my role in it challenged me more. Some students expressed views about Black South Africans that were troubling, discriminatory and racist – one boy said that “locals” are lazy and don’t want to work at all in life. Another said that his South African gardener came to work drunk and didn’t do any work while their Malawian gardener works very hard and often for free. I was bothered not just by the stereotypes and racism the boy invoked, but also by his sense of authority and entitlement over an adult employee of his parents.

What also struck me was some students' lack of understanding about who was in the room. There seemed to be no awareness of the fact that other students were Black South Africans or perhaps even non-South Africans and of how they might feel. Often we talk about "the other" but don't think of our friends or classmates within that group. I imagine that when one student said that Black South Africans were lazy, he wouldn't imagine the Black classmate sitting next to him as a member of that group.

There were certainly students who disagreed with their classmates. Some brought up arguments and challenged their peers. Others just shook their heads. There were also other great points made and questions asked – although I don’t remember them. Sometimes it’s the negative that sticks with us, I guess.

When I enter these dialogues, no matter my opinion, I never want a student, or any audience member, to feel that they cannot express their honest opinion. I don’t want to tell them they are wrong. So I stood in front of this group and struggled about how to respond.

I ended up starting with something about not judging people as a group and avoiding stereotypes. I tried to challenge some of them. When one said that Black South Africans are lazy, I asked for a show of hands if any of them know classmates who are ever lazy. When one boy referred to Black South Africans as “locals” I asked him if he was South African. When he said yes, I asked if that meant he is local. He said yes. But I don’t really know if any of that sinks in.

In the many interviews I did before filming started on Where Do I Stand? I encountered many young people with racist and xenophobic beliefs. At those moments though, I was a filmmaker, a journalist, in the room simply to listen, not to debate or educate.

But in these screenings, I am there to educate and to encourage debate. At the same time, I am not a teacher or rather I am not the teacher. As a visitor to a school or a youth program or a community, how far should I go in challenging and pushing youth? How far can I go to try and change opinion? I could ask these same questions about an audience of adults as well, and I don’t have that answer either, but with young people the lines are even blurrier, I am perhaps more careful. What would the principal have wanted me to do at that moment, as I stood there, listening to prejudice falling out of the mouths of 15 year olds?

I like to think that if I had been a teacher in that room, I would have spoken up, shown a visitor how we handle these moments in my school or classroom. What I wanted right then was a bit of guidance. What I wanted was for one of the teachers in the room to raise a hand. But no one did.

As I stood there, at the end, searching for the right balance of words, what I wanted to do was ask, “Where did you get that idea? Do you understand what you’re saying is prejudice? Do you hear your parents’ say that? Do you understand why what you are saying is wrong wrong wrong?” I wanted to get on my soapbox and rant about the wrong, racist, prejudice, untruths I heard. Lucky for me, two final hands popped up and instead of struggling for words, I let these kids respond and was relieved when they talked about difference and stereotypes and rejected what their classmates had to say. It was probably more powerful than whatever I might have said, simply because it came from their peers.

Then, after the screening, when I was finally in the quiet of my car, I did let out my rant, for only my ears to hear.

And here are just a couple notes about upcoming opportunities to see my films:

I am planning a trip the U.S. in before the end of the year and will screen Where Do I Stand? in Washington, DC and New York and possibly elsewhere. The film is also now for sale at

Testing Hope will be broadcast on RMPBS, Colorado Public Television, on September 19th at 12:00 p.m. Please tell your friends in the area. For 2 weeks, starting the 19th, you will also be able to watch the film on the RMPBS website

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dispatch: When They Stop Laughing

I am trying to understand the laughter. What in these disturbing images can be funny? Or if they aren’t funny, then why do they laugh?

I had three screenings of Where Do I Stand? in the last two weeks with over 250 high school students. They all participate in Winter Schools with a group called Ikamva Youth. Different pieces of these screenings moved me, made me happy or optimistic, made me sad, frustrated and deeply concerned, but it is the laughter that I cannot answer for. Is it laughter out of discomfort? Do any of them see themselves in the people looting in the night and dragging a refrigerator down the street?

I always ask. My precursor is to say that as a filmmaker I am curious why people respond they way they do, so I am wondering why they laugh. It’s okay to laugh, I say. The first answer is usually, “It’s the old woman.” The old woman, the woman who we call a “Mama” is holding a box of looted goods and dancing with a big smile on her face. Can I blame them for laughing at this confusing image? It inevitably leads to a discussion about adults, about role models, about what to do and how you feel when you see a grown up doing something you know is wrong. Some students said that in their culture, Xhosa culture, children have to defer to adults and it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to criticize or confront adults on this behavior.

Other things that cause laughter – scenes of looting, a girl saying she thought xenophobia was a disease and that at the time, she enjoyed participating in the looting, familiarity -- a church, a street they know, someone washing his face.

What I do embrace is their responses, be it laughter or oohs and aahs or silence, they are making noise, they are engaged. And as far as I am concerned that is my purpose here.

The discussion after the first screening was like pulling teeth. There were 96 students, many from the high school I profiled in Testing Hope. A few spoke, but I left frustrated. At the end one girl shared a poem she wrote during the discussion – I have included it at the end of this dispatch.

The second screening was in Masiphumelele, the township where Peter, the Rwandan refugee in my film, lives. I started by asking, “What is xenophobia?” One boy replied, “It’s putting someone back where they belong.” “Where they belong?” I asked. “Where they come from,” he replied. Another broke up the words, “phobia is fear,” he said, “and xeno means stranger, so it is fear of strangers.” Here there was the same laughter, but I also noticed a row of boys on the side who watched quiet and wide-eyed, surprised at the noise coming from their peers.

Many kids here connected to Peter and the discussion started with a reflection on their guilt and embarrassment. A sadness that Peter is afraid to walk down the streets of their community. If you run into him on the street, I said, just be nice. When we talked about laughter, the woman who led the group, a White South African, told them that when they were laughing, she was crying. Some students spoke angrily about foreigners being in their community, and the same quiet boy who analyzed the word xenophobia, told them that their fears, their judgments, were wrong.

In the last screening, of about 100 students, it was more difficult to get things started, but once we did, it was difficult to stop. Here, while there was discussion about right and wrong and about guilt, there was also a lot of conversation about foreigners in South Africa. A few people asked, how with so much poverty in their community, they could welcome foreigners and share jobs with them. Another said that Obama and the U.S. and France and other countries have laws about foreigners and immigration, why not South Africa? “What if I went into a hospital and there were no beds because they were all taken by foreigners,” he asked. Then he challenged me, “What would you do if you were President Obama? How would you deal with foreigners and illegal immigration?” Many rejected the violence of attacks, but confirmed an anti-foreigner sentiment, a desire for them to be gone.

There were voices of dissent in the room. “But the foreigners are creative,” said one older boy. “They don’t take our jobs, they create their own jobs, work with their hands, we shouldn’t be jealous.” And another who asked, “Where is our humanity?” “We have been though so much as South Africans, as Black South Africans suffered under apartheid,” he said. “And then we turn on people and do this, where is our humanity?” I latched on to this sentiment and returned to it again and again.

When I lead these discussions, I want kids to participate, I want them to speak and feel free to say anything and not feel judged by me. I don’t want to tell them that their views are wrong or problematic or racist, but I do want to try and change their minds, teach them, pull them into my sphere of thinking. At this moment, in an hour of discussion, and through my film, I may not be able to get them to embrace foreigners in their midst, but if there are going to be attacks again, I can push them to not participate, to talk to friends about what they’ve seen in the film, to choose right – to remember their humanity.

There is talk of a resurgence of attacks starting on July 12, the day after the World Cup ends. I asked every group if they had heard people talking about attacks. They all said yes. One girl said the previous night in her neighborhood a Somali shop was broken into and looted. Another heard someone say that when the foreign tourists leave, all the other foreigners should go with them. Another boy overheard adults on his taxi talking about looting shops and pushing foreigners out. Newspapers have begun to write about the growing possibility of attacks. Some write that government and NGOs are trying to prepare. Others tell stories of foreigners who have been warned by their South African neighbors to leave on July 12. Whatever people are saying, it’s there, the energy is there, the hatred is there, the fear is there and the possibility of more attacks is very real.

All our discussions ended with this question -- if it happens again, where will you be?

We have another screening in Dunoon on Monday. These screenings can’t prevent, but I hope the film can get people thinking. Maybe they leave with a smidgen of doubt in their minds, maybe they question their own prejudices, maybe they’re inspired and tell their neighbors and friends what they saw in the film, maybe they even try to change someone else’s mind. And hopefully, if attacks do happen again, they will remember their humanity.

What’s The Point?

(Written by Zandile Zoya, age 17 from Samora Machel township, after watching Where Do I Stand? )

Because you don’t understand my language

Because you can’t hear what I’m saying

Is destroying my house the only solution?

What is the point of hating me

Because of who I am

What is the point of criticizing me

Because we are both Blacks

What’s the point of neglecting me

Because of my culture

What’s the point of chasing me away

We are all Africans

caring about each other should be our first priority

We are all Blacks

Loving each other and our safety should be our concern

What’s the point of hating each other

Because we are all Africans

Friday, May 28, 2010

The First of 2010

The first dispatch of 2010 and it’s almost June. Some of you know my year started off a bit hectic with an extended stay in the U.S., a long search for an apartment in Cape Town, and a busy time finishing up the film, which ended with a premiere in Hamburg, Germany in the end of April.

So the new documentary is done. It's called Where Do I Stand? I can’t really believe it, almost 2 years of work finished in one afternoon in a post-production studio with a great guy named Andy over a cheese & tomato sandwich. But that’s how these big things often happen, in small moments.

And then I got on a plane to Germany. I don’t think one can prepare oneself for confronting difficult history, but I was hit particularly hard. I was working more than 12-hour days and then all of a sudden I was on a plane. When I remember the trip now, what stays with me more than the three screenings I had were the challenges of being in Germany, the personal history that I was faced with, the memorials to the Holocaust and the incredible vibrancy of the Jewish community. My grandparents – Mark, Sadie, Betty & Henry – were very present.

So whether to write about the screenings or the history first, I wasn’t sure.

I found Berlin such an interesting and beautiful city, so vibrant, with so much history and sadness. I stayed at with my friend Anja and her parents in former East Berlin and was very aware of their deep and difficult post-war history as well. It was at Wansee Villa, a beautiful house with a lush garden on a lake just outside of Berlin where everything hit me. Wansee Villa is the place where Hitler and his cronies met in 1942 to decide the final solution. The event that took place there is in stark contrast to the beauty around.

It is now a museum with an incredibly detailed, and at times relentless, exhibit. I saw anti-Semitic posters and signs from the early Weimar Republic and read very painful, blunt quotes from Nazi leadership about their steadfast mission, like none I had seen or read before. But it was two other things that challenged my heart most. The first was two pictures of a massacre that took place in Czestochowa, Poland. My grandpa Mark (my mom’s father) was from Czestochowa. We never met -- it’s interesting how through stories and pictures we can become so connected to places and people. But when I saw that pile of people in the photograph, I felt instinctively that someone there was my family. A cousin or a cousin of a cousin maybe, or perhaps just a neighbor. But Family.

In the next room was a quote -- I wish now I had written it down but I know if it were in my journal I would reread it with too much sadness. It was just a blunt statement from an SS high up about getting rid of the Jews – surely not a unique statement then. What struck me was not the feeling of hatred but the sentiment of simply not caring – how disposable we were to him. A reminder not of the death toll or the disappearance of vibrant communities, but of how easy it was for these people to make it happen, to kill. And I stood there, alone in a quiet room, and I cried.

Three days later, I took the train to Hamburg and that night was the premiere of Where Do I Stand? as part of filmfest South Africa. There were about 140 people and watching the film in a dark theatre with quality sound and an audience, felt incredible. A professor from Cape Town who now teaches in Hamburg joined me in the Q&A and said he appreciated how the film told the story with objectivity and no agenda and how it illuminated how young people were really asking lots of questions about their own lives and South Africa. One guy in his twenties started his question by saying he was a real left liberal, but added that even he got goose bumps while watching the film. I just paused and took that one in – probably my favorite comment of the night. People asked what the government is or is not doing about xenophobia, how I developed relationships with the students, and one noted how the young perpetrators seemed confused as they grappled with what they did, what they saw and their thoughts now. One girl just said she cried.

I also got negative feedback -- why did I include three middle class kids who say the same thing (I, of course, don’t think they are or they do), where was the black middle class person and where was background about apartheid and South African history, didn’t I think that the well-off kids just helped foreigners because they wanted to help their parents keep their cheap labor. No to the last one, I don’t think these young people are that aware of those dynamics. I think that the violence and the victims were in front of them and that compelled action.

I had the next day to myself so I went down to the harbor. Hamburg was a major port city and thousands of people, including my Papa Henry, emigrated from here to the U.S. and other countries. Henry, unlike most people, was a stow-away and didn’t pay for a ticket. The captain of the ship caught him captain and when they arrived in New York, his uncle met the ship and had to pay the fare. It’s a story I heard a lot as a kid. At the harbor, I asked a tour operator where to find the boat to the emigration museum. He pointed me in the right direction then I turned away and for some reason turned back and smiled at him and said simply, “My grandfather.” He replied, “I hope you see him, in your memories.”

The final piece of my journey was Friday, a screening of Testing Hope for 400 high school students and an evening screening in Cologne where people made connections between the film and attacks against Turkish immigrants in Germany. My time in Cologne was very special. The screening went well and I stayed at the home of Karl and Krista who ran the Film Initiativ. Karl gave me an incredible tour of Cologne the next day and a very honest expression of what happened to the Jews here. He said in the sixties, it was their fight to get his parents and teachers to acknowledge what happened during the Holocaust. People who say they didn’t see were just lying – there were factories in town and a deportation camp just across the river – now a fair trade centre. We visited memorials around the city, to those who he admired and those who were more complicated to celebrate -- a statue of a famous musician and dancer who also danced for Hitler, a square where Hitler used to make speeches that is right next to Cologne’s beautiful and massive cathedral, the brass squares, which I had seen in Berlin, out into the sidewalk, listing the names of people who lived in the building there, when they were deported and where they died. Cologne was so special in part because I was just able to talk so honestly with my generous and kind hosts about the thoughts and feelings swirling in my head and heart.

Thanks for going on this journey with me. I have a feeling that another journey, of sharing this film, is just beginning. But there is one person who shared this and many journeys with me, who is no longer here to read my dispatches, ask me when I am moving back from “Africa,” or tell me her stories. My grandmother. My sister Liza helped me write the film’s dedication:

To Sadie Ruth Kaminski

who understood young people

and listened carefully to them.

1912 - 2010