Filmmakers as the spies of our present and future

“I refuse your version of humanity and I will continue to struggle against it”, is one of the lines from “The Forgiven”, a British movie directed by Roland Joffé which came out last year . The story focuses on Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa which was established as one of the restorative justice and national healing mechanisms after the end of apartheid. The role of Archbishop Desmond Tutu is played by Forest Whitaker (who does a great acting job as always) and the other main character is Piet Blomfeld, a fictional former security operative played by Eric Bana (also job well done).

Desmond Tutu was the chairperson of TRC and the movie portrays his personal struggles with faith, forgiveness and mercy when facing the ‘in-your-face’ evil committed and now publicly admitted. There are some very intense and emotional scenes in high-security prison where Tutu visits Blomfeld and the two worldviews collide. Blomfeld tries to shock and win with violence, hatred and his version of life. Tutu responds with words: “Brutality is the aberration, not love. Think on that!”

I have a special interest in movies about reconciliation, especially ethnic or racial but usually these stories are not the big box office successes and often you have to be very intentional to find them. When asked about “The Forgiven”, the Australian actor Eric Bana said in an interview: “If you find films like [The Forgiven], it’s a no-brainer. That’s what most actors want to be doing. But they’re getting harder to find, they’re getting harder to fund, and they’re getting harder to get some air to promote.”  True and sad , isn’t it?

There are two more recent films  – “The Journey” and “The Insult” – which I can recommend on this topic. The first I have seen and the other not yet. “The Journey” focuses on Northern Ireland conflict and St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006. Directed by Nick Hamm, it is a political drama based on true events with a fictional version how two sworn political enemies meet and start working together. Ian Paisley, a loyalist and Protestant minister, and Martin McGuinness, a republican and former Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader share a car ride and are forced to simply start talking to each other.

As in any reconciliation and peace process, the first and hardest step are the questions of truth. Whose truth is correct? Which version of historical events is the right one? Which perspective is the most just? There is an immediate clash when ‘enemies’ start talking about ‘facts’. “The Journey” creates a fictional situation but it is not difficult to imagine the ‘real’ meeting between people who could not be more opposite in their views.

In real life Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness did talk for the first time in 2006 and few months later they were working together in the new Northern Ireland government where the power is shared between the unionists/loyalists and the republicans. McGuinness said to the international press, “Up until the 26 March this year, Ian Paisley and I never had a conversation about anything—not even about the weather—and now we have worked very closely together over the last seven months and there’s been no angry words between us…. This shows we are set for a new course.”

And “The Insult” (L’insulte) is the story about a minor incident between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee which turns into an explosive trial that ends up dividing the two communities. It is on my list to see. If you have seen it, tell me what you think!

Someone said that “any human crisis is a creative situation” and it seems it gives creative energy to the artists, including the filmmakers. They see and feel the social processes and often lead the way in starting difficult conversations which others do not dare. Latvian sociologist Dagmāra Beitnere Le Galla said that “artists are the spies of future while historians look at the past”.

What is the version of humanity we choose? These films make us think…

Facebook and the conundrum of hate speech

“As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media”, said Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

“I can’t live with or without you”, I considered such title but decided it would be too much. Facebook is a thing, not a person. Simply a social media platform and, most of the time, a useful one for certain interaction with friends, colleagues and work.

As we know, it easily connects people and just as easily breaks them apart. I usually ‘flee’ from the latest controversy, debate, back-and-forth comments because I 1) don’t think as fast as other respondents 2) think too much what words to choose and to use because words are important 3) would rather join face to face conversation 4) want to engage with friends and people I know because only they will value my opinion 5) don’t think I can actually change someone’s mind with few short comments 6) don’t want to get in ‘cross fire’ if the conversation is aggressive 7) and don’t want to spend time creating more and more ‘hot air’. If there is anything this world has more than enough, it is “hot air”.

But unfortunately and tragically this virtual ‘hot air’ can become real, violent and simply evil fire. Last week again there were two instances where Facebook as a community platform had to acknowledge it has been used effectively in stirring hate and prejudice. Facebook removed the pages of the anti-Islamic group ‘Britain First’ and its leaders because of repeated violations of FB community standards. I would say not just FB but most of the British society’s standards. I know friends in the UK who are working very hard to foster relationships and bring healing to hurting communities and they have criticized ‘Britain First’ for long time.

The other story was even more painful and more personal since it involved Myanmar/Burma. When I started ‘peaceroads’ blog three years ago, it was inspired by many years of working with refugees from Myanmar and living on Thailand – Myanmar border. And now U.N. human rights experts investigating abuses and violence against the Rohingya Muslim people in Myanmar say that Facebook has played a major role in spreading the hate messages and inciting the violence. I cannot read Burmese but I do know one racial slur which Facebook had already banned in 2017.

Fortunately I have not had to ‘censor’ any of my FB friends for hateful comments but many of us have expressed loads of stereotypes, fear of different groups and called for certain ‘exclusion’. There have been a few situations where I wrote my friends (in a personal message) and tried to explain why I thought their comments were not helpful, but harmful. And I have ‘unfollowed’ few people because their posts were too frequent and too zealous in their desire to prove their point. But I have never ‘unfriended’ anyone just because they have different opinion and views from mine. I don’t want to insulate myself with people who all think alike because that is exactly one of the big problems of our day. These group ‘bubbles’ we live in.

The people with ‘bad’ intentions do not hesitate to take advantage of social media while people ‘good’ intentions often wonder if it is worth it. It can also be very difficult and scary to express your opinion when you already know what possibly aggressive and angry reaction your posts will get. For example, if the Christians who are a religious minority in Myanmar were to stand up for the Muslims who are even smaller religious minority, they would be in a very difficult position. If the Karen or any other people who are an ethnic minority were to stand up for the Rohingya who are ethnic minority, they would be in a very difficult position.

In Myanmar, UK, Latvia, Russia, Nigeria, USA, (you name the country)… social media has been and will be used used to enforce prejudice, stereotypes and to incite discrimination against certain groups. Based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sex, social status, ideology and any other way we like to define the ‘other’.  As long as people (with growing robot enforcement) communicate, this issue of hate speech stays with us and we have to discern what contributes to it and what does not. And what to do about it.

My hope and desire is to use this blog as one of many tools to suck out some of this ‘hot air’ from our online interactions. What are your tools? Suggestions?

“This Little Light Of Mine” in Charlottesville and elsewhere

I pondered this post for days. I was in the USA when the tragedy in Charlottesville took place. While many are discussing the statements and views of the current president, Donald Trump, and other political leaders, I have tried to find the ‘ordinary’ voices. The local people from this university town; the voices of faith communities; the family of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed.

People are shocked about the extent of incivility and division. Many have experienced real fear. I know the emotion of fear. While never facing a large crowd of young men shouting Nazi slogans, I have experienced groups who try to intimidate and bully. The tactics are always the same. Physical intimidation, verbal abuse and determination to make you go home and never bother.

More recent experiences were in Latvia when couple of years ago I participated in a very small rally to show support and solidarity with those who help refugees. The gathered group was young, quite reserved and calm until these buff men showed up and attempted to intimidate the small crowd. I would certainly label them as ‘white supremacists’ who clearly expressed racist views. All dressed in black, they tried to provoke a physical reaction like shouting, pushing, shoving or punching. They did not get the reaction they desired.

Another time in Riga I went to a lecture addressing Islamophobia. Again the audience was mostly young, curious minds who wanted to learn, to ask questions, to discuss and to express their opinions in a civilized way. Right away I spotted a group who scattered among the audience – some sitting in a front row, talking loudly, interrupting the lecture and some sitting in the back to shout over the crowd. One of the guys in the back  shouting things about Muslims and terrorists and immigrants had a very thundering voice and I was almost scared to turn around to see his face. I felt like he would punch me if I dared to stare at him. He did not punch anyone but did throw around some chairs before leaving the room and called the lecturer “damned idiot who will go to hell”.

After the lecture I turned around to greet my friends – two young girls – who looked absolutely horrified. They were shocked to experience this kind of behavior. It is one thing to see it on You Tube, right? Quite another to experience in a real life. This may seem trivial and naive when there is so much actual violence and wars around the world. Still we, Westerners, have grown so accustomed to peace and civility that we are shocked when we see such an erosion or absence of it. I know my American friends feel the same way – they are shocked at the current level of public incivility and disrespect.

What if Charlottesville was my home? (or Berlin where a small neo-Nazi rally took place today?) Knowing that these out-of-town people will come and turn my city in a spectacle of bigotry and division. Stay away? Stay in my church and pray? Or go to the Emancipation Park and lock arms with the clergy, people of faith and all those singing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…

I recommend to watch the memorial service for Heather Heyer. Her father said with deep emotion: ” We need to stop all this stuff. We need to forgive each other. I think this is what the Lord would want us.”

Around the world we need to do many things and surely forgiveness is one of them. We are in a desperate need of humility, love in action, listening to each other, kindness and moral courage – in real life in real time. At the same time we need to have moral clarity about dangerous ideas. One friend posted on Facebook: “You don’t get to be both a Nazi and a proud American (added – or proud Latvian or proud German or proud Russian) We literally had a war about this.”

Rec Walk

Photos from personal archive