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Art can change our thinking. Film in particular brings together an amalgamation of art forms as an influential mass medium that can indeed effect change. Issue-based cinema helps move the needle of public awareness on key topics, and this is a guiding consideration in the European Film Festival curation of the very best and latest in cinema from Europe, showcasing the craft of filmmaking, but also providing opportunities for exploration of issues and ideas.

This week the Daily Maverick in partnership with the European Film Festival will host a webinar titled Uncivil War, Migration Escalation & Global Anxiety: Examining new film releases Goodbye Julia and The Old Oak  featuring Mohamed Kordofani, director of Goodbye Julia (opening film at the European Film Festival at The Zone, Rosebank) and migration expert Prof Pragna Rugananan, Vice Dean Research in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg, in conversation with DM’s Tevya Turok Shapiro.  The conscientising Ken Loach film The Old Oak, which also screens at the fest, will also be a point of reference. 

REGISTER HERE for the Webinar

Two important films: one which speaks to the director’s own experience of the internal conflict within a country between its own citizens, and the other the internal conflict within a country between citizens of different countries – same coin, different sides. 

Speaking about Sudan, Goodbye Julia director Mohamed Kordofani highlights a fundamental conflict-sparking dimension: ‘The racism that was practiced for many decades from most Northern Arabs, government and people, was a major reason for the southerners choosing to secede. This was most evident when the results revealed a whopping 99% of Southerners wanted to separate. It is not possible for an entire people to choose secession for any other reason’.  He adds that ‘Writing this film was part of a continuous effort to get rid of that inherited racism, motivated by a sense of guilt and a desire for reconciliation and a call for it, even if it seems late’. 

Internal conflict is one of the most significant contributors to people seeking refuge elsewhere.   In the case of Sudan, over 4.1 million people have been internally displaced by the current war while more than 1.1 million others have already fled the country as refugees.   In Ukraine there are nearly 5.1 million internally displaced people in Ukraine (as of May 2023), with more than 6.2 million refugees from Ukraine recorded globally (as of July 2023).  

Conflict and war are primary causes of displacement and migration, but not the only ones; the numbers displaced due to climate change impacts and (un)natural disasters is increasing exponentially. Taken together, some estimates say that there were more than 100 million displaced people across the world in 2022, nearly 10 million of whom were hosted in southern Africa (UNHCR).  Those figures should ring some alarm bells!

Under-development is the root cause of so-called ‘economic migration’.  Recent reports of 6,000 people entering Mexico daily, enroute to trying their luck at the US border, are an indication of the desperation in South America, some fleeing persecution and conflict but most just seeking to escape deprivation and poverty.  There is absolutely nothing new about going in search of opportunities for a better life, it has been happening since time immemorial, and as mobility increases, multicultural societies are more commonplace than ever. 

The question could be asked: Do developed countries carry any responsibility for underdevelopment and decay in other nations, through a combination of colonial legacies, political and economic manipulation, inequitable trade relationships, sanctions, and market pressures?   And how can developing countries be effectively supported in their growth paths – because, quite simply, if a nation is thriving the migrant numbers will certainly be slashed.  Do they have to go, cap in hand, to sign exacting terms and conditions with the IMF or World Bank? Or to China? 

In South Africa, there is a long and often dark history of migrants coming from all parts of the country, and beyond, to work in the mines.  To get a feel for it, take a moment to listen to Hugh Masekela’s poignant Stimela.  Although official refugees in South Africa totalled 66,596 in 2022, which is miniscule compared to over 1,400,000 in Uganda, South Africa of course remains attractive to work-seekers from African countries where conditions are way worse than in SA.  But because South Africa has so many social and developmental challenges of its own, tensions are easily inflamed.  The escalation of xenophobia in South Africa is a dangerous portent of how things can quickly get out of hand (are already out of hand!). With unemployment high, country morale low, and many general services in decline, flash points can become tipping points. The targeting of citizens of neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia etc is especially sad – these countries readily provided refuge and support to those fleeing a vicious apartheid system and now innocent work-seekers from those countries are met with vicious responses.  

Migration is spiking dramatically everywhere; politics, policies and policing cannot keep up. Are border controls getting harder or easier?   Is the One-World One-Voice vision in Remy Ongala’s catchy song No more Borders just a remote and fading hope?  The African Union Passport is set to exempt bearers from having to obtain any visas for all 55 states in Africa but its planned 2020 rollout has since been delayed. Aimed at removing restrictions on Africans ability to travel, work and live within their own continent, it is well-intentioned but unlikely to stem the flow of displaced peoples and job-seekers.  

Kordofani’s observation about racism pertains in SA.  Racism exists around the world but it’s a famous household brand here in SA.  Racism remains a dominating divide in SA, structurally and emotionally built into the social fabric of this country, and with such an alarming gap between rich and poor running along racial lines, it easily feeds bitterness, outrage and revolt.

Despite the numerous differences between SA and the UK there is nevertheless something deeply resonant in the film The Old Oak, the 14th collaboration between director Ken Loach and his scriptwriter colleague Paul Laverty, who came to film as a lawyer with a background in human rights. Now 87 years of age, and as uncompromising as ever, Loach is always motivated by social concerns that receive mostly superficial attention from other filmmakers. This film depicts the disillusioned, life-weary townsfolk in a downtrodden ex-mining village who struggle to hold onto their dignity as  systems deteriorate around them.  Tensions intensify when Syrian refugees take up residence in the village. Loach and Laverty are able to convey authentic realities with empathy, the rough but relatable grievances of the local villagers, and the challenges and uncertainties of Syrian families trying to start new lives after being ripped out of war-zones.  Is there a way to build bridges between people of very different cultures, and different life experiences?   Is there a place here for kindness and tolerance?

This is a discussion not to be buried in numbers, we are fellow human beings after all.  As Kordofani says of his own motivations in making Goodbye Julia :  ‘My duty as an artist made it imperative for me to document history from a societal angle rather than political narratives, in which the picture alone is not complete.’ 

How do we make it personal?  How do we reconcile the instinct to protect our own on one hand with our innate and empathetic need to reach out and help on the other.  Will films like these sensitise us to these realities, or is it all just a blur of background tv noise as we eat our dinners?  And is the kindness and tolerance hinted at in The Old Oak possible, and can it be turned into compassionate action? 

Join us for what promises to be a robust and candid discussion, Tuesday, 10 October 2023 from 12:00 – 13:00. Register here

Author: PETER RORVIK:  Co-Director of the European Film Festival  SA


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