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