Filmmakers Against Racism

You are here, at the Berlinale 2009, as a founding member of the initiative FILMMAKERS AGAINST RACISM (FAR), which broaches the issue of xenophobia in South Africa. When - and how - did you begin working on the issue?

We started working on it pretty soon after the conflict started in South Africa in May last year. A number of things came together at that point. We noticed that, although there had been many xenophobic threats and attacks before, they had never appeared at such a large scale. We have observed xenophobia for many years in South Africa, but it had never been across the nation this way, it had never spread so quickly, and it had never created so much violence in such a short period of time. It was quite interesting to see, when it started in Alexandra Township (Johannesburg), how quickly it spread across the country. One incident was instigating the other—in some way, they were feeding off each other. We needed to do something about it. The first thing we did was we went up to where some of the immigrants had been camping out, for they had been forced to flee from their homes.  We interviewed them because we wanted to hear, in their own words, what they had experienced. We felt that the best way to make this public was to make a very short piece and put it up on

Was that the initial point of FILMMAKERS AGAINST RACISM?

A few more things came together. One of our colleagues, a filmmaker from Mozambique, wrote us an email asking, “Why aren’t you doing anything about this, how can you stand by waiting when there are attacks against my fellow countrymen in your country?”  That gave a spark to us and we started discussing, “What should we do about this?” We decided to create the coalition of FILMMAKERS AGAINST RACISM, to coordinate all efforts, to do something against xenophobia collectively, and to have a greater effect by working together. We planned to intervene as soon as we could.

It was announced, at the beginning of February, that South Africa is going to hold a general election in April. What role does xenophobia play in South African politics?

I think one of the problems is that there has not been a lot of political leadership around addressing xenophobia. Mbeki, when he was president, came up with the words, “There is no xenophobia in South Africa.” Whereas politicians have not acknowledged the problem of xenophobia, solely being silent, civil society groups were organized very quickly. It was a good to see that the citizens immediately reacted to the situations. It showed that civil society is something we can rely upon when the government is passive.

The fact that the government did not get involved in stemming the attacks in 2008 caused a big debate in the public. What do you think about that issue?

We were very disappointed. Politicians should be providing more initiatives around these deep social problems.  Especially, when you think about the history of South Africa—it comes out of a very violent racial history.  There should be no justification for not addressing the fact that other African people are being attacked in a violent way.  Instead, they should be given much more respect and they should be given the status that they deserve, either as immigrants or as refugees.

Africa has an unemployment rate slightly under 25%. Has South Africa shown too much tolerance, still pursuing its open-border-policy and perhaps, by doing so, economically burdening its own population too much?

South African people, during the whole apartheid struggle, were welcomed by some other countries throughout Africa. Thus, it is very important that South Africa goes back and says, “Look, you welcomed us during our struggles, we welcome you during your struggles.” We need to stick together because there are a lot of violent conflicts and economic hardships throughout Africa. These days South Africa is seen as a country that is developing faster than many other countries and so there is a pull for many people to come to South Africa. People, however, are also fleeing to South Africa for other reasons. For instance, numerous people fled the turmoil in Zimbabwe. Many people come to South Africa because the problems in their home countries could not be fixed thus far. It is a very complex issue because we have to include foreign policy into the bigger picture.

Should South Africa take more care about domestic politics within the neighbouring states of South Africa?

Indeed, the neighbouring states are part of the problem. South Africa, for instance, has too lately acknowledged that the crisis in Zimbabwe was affecting itself. Today we have 3 million people from Zimbabwe in South Africa. We see the problems in Zimbabwe, but we do not see what is happening in our own country as a consequence of them. The number of immigrants in South Africa and that of economic immigrants is growing so rapidly that South Africans, who are not getting employment, are being affected by it. When somebody else is taking the position that you might have had, then you start acting against that person.  The government in South Africa did not see this as something that could cause a conflict, but it very clearly was a situation that contributed to the eruption of violence.

According to your website, the project FILMMAKERS AGAINST RACISM supports compassion and solidarity with those who have attempted to find shelter in South Africa.  How can movies practically contribute to this aim?

On two levels: First of all, to allow people who have been victimized to have a voice, so that they can tell other people what they have experienced and what the situation was.  The second level is to give their voices to the South African public, so that the public could start thinking about it, asking itself the question: “Why did it start and what can we do about it?”  By making films, we thought that we could cross both of these situations—allowing people who have been victimized to say something and to bring it to the public afterwards.

Are you and your project eventually just neutral observers, or is there any feedback going from the movies back to the protagonists and to the people involved?  Where have you presented the movies thus far?  What kind of reactions did you get from those who are shown in the movies, finally having watched themselves acting in them?

Some of us came from the background of making films about apartheid. This was to let the world know what was happening in South Africa while attempting to put pressure on South Africa to change. Aside of other purposes, making films allows to document situations where you have injustice and human rights violations, etc. Today we can use the same strategy. Our films are there to create a debate about something that is happening in our society. There is a feedback, for the movies change our mind and, finally, our actions.

Some of the people shown in the movies sent the movies back to their home countries, to let them see and know what has happened. The movies were also shown in the countries around South Africa. Unfortunately, the attacks have not stopped yet. They continue in different parts of the country, but not in such a large way as last year.

The protagonists of the documentaries were very happy that those movies were made, but they also want other people to see the movies because they want to tell their story.

How did people here in Berlin receive the four movies produced by the initiative?

I think the movies have given them insight into what has happened in South Africa beyond the normal media coverage. Having seen the movies, some people were really affected by the situation in South Africa. This is what you can do through documentaries: you can get much deeper into a subject. You can also ask questions that are usually not asked by mainstream media. We also want people from other countries to start thinking about parallels within their own society. There is xenophobia worldwide, but how do we deal with it?

Interview by Johannes Kode, Heinrich Böll Foundation – The Green Political Foundation