Filmmakers Against Racism (FAR)

It has been said more than once that we’re a nation that loves to sweep our drama under the carpet once we’ve gone through the fanfare and discussed it on as many media platforms as we have at our disposal. Previously, scholars like Mahmood Mamdani noted this in relation to the TRC. And so too, it has been with the xenophobic attacks we witnessed earlier this year. Like many people, I was horrified, saddened and angry in different turns. I recognised that it was important for South African residents of all kinds to scream that the violators did not speak for us, so we marched, opined, petitioned and volunteered. And now we have moved on.

But the camps remain in our midst and re-integrating displaced African migrants remains a challenge. Pretending that we can just move on to other matters does not guarantee us that there will be no further outbursts of negrophobic xenophobic violence because we don’t even have an explanation for how we got here.

Although I have read copious amounts, listened to various pronouncements, and attempted to make sense of this myself, I remain considerably underwhelmed by the ‘poverty and lack of service delivery’ argument. This remains so even as I agree with Elinor Sisulu that impoverishment is a denial of human rights and an affront to human dignity.

What strikes me is the large scale failure of the imagination when we use insufficient service delivery and poverty as ready explanations for everything that plagues us, from HIV/AIDS, to gender based violence and crime. It is not simply that we are making poor and marginal people the problem. The degradation of impoverishment amidst excess is only part of the explanation. I don’t know what the other part is, but pretending that class analysis is the be all and end all is not going to help us avoid further instances of violence. And so I remain a firm believer in asking exploring thorny questions, which is why watching the eight films by Filmmakers Against Racism (FAR) currently being shown at the Tri Continental Film Festival was so refreshing and difficult at the same time.

Together these films, put together by some of the country’s leading independent filmmakers, offered the most insightful perspective and critique on xenophobia we have seen since May. These filmmakers rallied around after a Mozambican film-maker cut all collegial and friendship ties with South Africans through an email. One of the recipients of this email, Xoliswa Sithole, replied by calling on fellow South Africa-based filmmakers, many of whom were included in the original email, to act in more ways than they had already, using their own resources and networks. One of the results of this rallying together can be seen in the films currently on show at the Film Festival.

In very different films, I watched how the victims of xenophobic attacks are humanised so that we see their lives affected by many of the same things we face daily as people all over the planet. They cease to be ‘faceless foreign nationals’. The brutalisation from the violence seeped into all the spaces in their lives: affecting how they love, go to school, form and lose friendships, think about safety, assert themselves as business people, animal lovers and musicians. But we also see the ugly ways in which South African are implicated in their violations as we witness government officials, politicians and ordinary citizens justify the xenophobia, refuse to offer assistance and treating ‘foreign nationals’ as difficult children who will not step in line. Watching civil servants whose salaries we pay for through our taxes, and politicians that we voted into power repeat their refusal to listen to what people in refugee camps say about what they need was sobering. They do this in our name, with or without our permission often in full view of cameras. It also makes us questions what happens to make neighbour turn against neighbour and partner against his beloved? What makes the familiar safe to violate in this way?

Watching these films made me wish that the public broadcaster would act in our interest and play these films into our homes in the same way that the repeat and recycle US American nonsense several times a week. These films should be part of the national conversation. They provoke us to think about other systems that enable xenophobia in our country everyday. Because they are works of the imagination, they are suggestive and not preachy. Stories have moved human beings to reflection, action and inspiration since time immemorial. Watching them, I thought about various ugly racist and xenophobic activities we are implicated in, even if we are not poor. The cellular phone adverts that recycle colonial stereotype to cast dark skinned Africans as brutal idiots were approved by various executives and aired on national television, and only pulled off when some clients would not keep quiet about the insult. The investment bank companies that make fun of African city names rely on a similar logic as the adverts. Then there are the middle class professionals who joke about ‘the Zim dollar’, code for Zimbabwean domestic workers as cunning criminals, and the many in academia who speak of ‘continental thought’, ‘continental philosophy’ meaning that which comes from the European continent, while boasting of their ignorance of African scholarship. Without an ounce of irony, these were among the people who volunteered, marched, opined and blamed the poor. As Nomboniso Gasa noted in May, not everybody needs to throw a match at a ‘foreigner’; some can effect similar harm from their air conditioned offices.

I still don’t have the answers, but for once, we need to stop making poor people the problem, even as we hold our government accountable for failing to improve people’s lives more consistently.

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Posted on 1 September 2008, in Black radio and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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