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