SOS Racismo is a nongovernmental organization that advocates the fight against racism and promotes a society that respects the equality of rights of everyone. To promote awareness of this matter, they have carried out the 4th edition of MICAR (Mostra Internacional de Cinema Anti Racista) in Porto this month. The event took place from the 13th to the 14th of October at Teatro Municipal do Porto and more than 30 films were exhibited for free. These included short and full-length films, documentaries and animation films within the subject matters of racism, immigration, xenophobia, discrimination, and ethnic minorities.
The purpose of this article is to introduce a few of the films to you and debate some of the issues central to these films.
One of the main documentaries displayed was 13th (2016), an American documentary by director Ava DuVernay that shows how racism led the USA to have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The documentary opens with the following statement of former President Barack Obama: “The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners.” The question is, then, how they reached this point.
After the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment Bill was passed to ban any kind of slavery throughout the country:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
However, the economy of the country started to fall very rapidly, since slavery was one of the main profits, and the government figured out that they could take advantage of the 13th Amendment to arrest African American for extremely minor crimes and use criminalization as a mean of rebuilding the economy of the country. This way, African Americans were forced to work for the state under convict leasing, and this is a problem that persists nowadays. ‘Super predators’, as they started to be called, were overrepresented in the news as criminals, to such a point where black people started to fear themselves. As a matter of fact, as pointed out in the documentary, the Bureau of Justice reported that one in three young, black males is expected to go to prison during his lifetime, in contrast to one in seventeen white males. In consequence, the USA reached the peak of mass incarceration of people of colour by the late 20th century, and as Kevin Gannon asserts, “ this is the product of a centuries-long historical process”. This way, it does not come as a surprise that in such an advanced era more and more people are joining protests against racism and police violence in the USA.
An even more serious issue that has been silenced for years is the migrant crisis. With Mediterranea (2016), Jonas Carpignano addresses the problems African immigrants encounter when they arrive to the Mediterranean coast (the city of Rosarno in Italy, in this case) looking for the ‘European dream’. The film is based on the life of Koudous Seihon, who stars in the film as himself. The first part of the film focuses on his journey from Burkina Faso to Italy via Algeria and Libya. This part of the film is very short and it does not do justice to the life-threatening journey that African migrants try to do daily. After days and months crossing deserts on foot, many of them engage in the dangerous affair of travelling to Europe with a small, barely seaworthy, illegal boat (only 10% of African migrants choose this type of journey), which in order to embark they have to pay the vast amount of about 2000€ . More often than not, the boat shipwrecks and many people end up drowning (as many of them do not know how to swim). Shockingly, approximately 3771 immigrants died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015 and at least 3800 in 2016, as reported by the UN.
Nevertheless, the nightmare continues when they arrive and find out that Europe is not as they imagined. African immigrants find themselves in humiliating, poor life conditions, getting the worst jobs one could ever have and having to adapt to a new society that marginalizes them, not to mention the language barrier that they have to surpass. In the film, we can see how Koudous and his companions have to live in shacks when they arrive due to the difficulty of finding proper housing without legal papers. Moreover, the working conditions are very poor, having to work day and night, if they find it. There are less jobs everyday and, if you have ever visited big cities in Spain or Italy, you may find African people selling things illegally in the street. However, sometimes what they sell is not enough to survive. For instance, those who sell illegal, dvd films have to survive with 5€ per day, 10€ if they are lucky.
Mediterranea also represents very well how many people try to help them in any way they can, but also how many others humiliate and use xenophobic terms against them. As shown, Koudous and his companions started a protest after finding out that two black men were murdered and seeing in the news that the police of Rosouno evicted immigrants from the city centre simply because the local residents did not want them in the neighbourhood. The outcome resulted in locals throwing things at them, such as stones, and in the riot police fighting them and using violence. Throughout the film one can also see how the police further deals with illegal immigrants by violently asking for their legal papers and even stealing their money.
On a different subject, Die Welle (The Wave) is a German film from 2008 produced by Dennis Gansel, based on a true story that happened in 1967 in a high school in California. The film shows how easy it is to manipulate information, especially for teenagers who are in the search of new ideologies.
In a high school in Germany, a teacher, Rainer Wenger, comes up with the idea of carrying out an experiment in his class to show his students how an autocratic and totalitarian government works, to which they respond with the belief that another dictatorship could not happen again in Germany after what it has gone through already. The experiment started with a few harmless ideas, such as promoting discipline and a sense of community, which derived into a real movement: the wave, where the students agreed to use uniforms and even came up with a symbol to represent it. After a few days, the movement gets stronger and the students are spreading it not only in the corridors of the school, but also in the streets of the city. On the fourth day, they come up with a salute and those students who do not use it or wear the proper uniform are excluded and are no longer allowed to enter the school. The movement starts to develop violence against those who do not follow it, and one of the students even offers himself to be the bodyguard of Rainer, the leader of the movement. At this point, Rainer realizes that the experiment has gotten out of control and tries to stop it.
The film deals with the problem of manipulation of young minds to establish a certain kind of ideology and a totalitarian system, which is achieved by eradicating individual differences and giving them the illusion that they have a voice, along with a sense of community and unity. We live in a society defined by individuality and teenagers have the need to feel superior and something to identify themselves with, making it very easy to induce ideas in their minds and manipulate them. Die Welle only shows a small part of how dangerous the proper manipulation of information can be and how our world and societies can be turned into the unexpected: autocracy.