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

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