THE BLOG
11/17/2010 04:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Moral Dilemmas, Youth & the Role of Education

I have a new favorite film about education. This one is NOT about school but rather about the moral dilemmas we all face, in this case a matter of life and death.

Where Do I Stand? captures the reactions of seven young people living in South Africa during the xenophobia attacks of 2008 in which 62 foreigners were murdered and about 100,000 driven out of their homes.


Only one of the seven, Peter, is not South African. The 17-year-old moved to South Africa from Rwanda at age two. Still, that's enough to mark him as undesirable, a target. Peter describes how neighbors looted his home while they were away, and how he then saw his bed and mattress in a neighbor's home, while another neighbor's young daughter was soon wearing his cousin's favorite pink dress and shoes.

Two young people in the film participated in the rioting and looting. One young woman, also 17, describes the joy she felt, the singing and dancing as they pillaged stores and homes. The filmmaker, Molly Blank, artfully juxtaposes the scenes and the contrasting emotions--fear and joy, pain and happiness--in chilling fashion. It's impossible not to ask yourself the film's central question: What would I do? Where would I stand?

The interviews are compelling, even brilliant, as the young people reveal their innermost selves. One young woman who looks to be of mixed race talks about how the attacks forced her to confront her own image of herself. She used to believe, she tells us, that she would have the courage to stand up for what is right. But, she admits, she fell short. Forced to look in the mirror, she learned that she was not the person she thought she was.

Where Do I Stand? does not simplify the issues, acknowledging that the attacks were about money and jobs; an influx of foreigners who were willing to work for less were taking much-needed jobs from native South Africans, and that resentment boiled over.

It's not a 'school movie' as such. In fact, the only mention of school is less than flattering. Two young white girls describe how they went to their private school's principal with plans for a fund-raising event to raise money for the displaced foreigners and were turned away. She said, in effect, that's not our business. "Don't get involved" was also the message another young white South African boy received when he went door-to-door to collect old clothing.

Some parents step up, however. One family shields their gardener, hiding him in their back yard for weeks. And the mother of the girl who participated in the looting throws away the food her daughter had stolen, lecturing her on the meaning of democracy in the new nation.

A good film is like an onion, slowly unpeeling to reveal its nuances, and Molly Blank has done this well. We share the journey of understanding with her characters.

And you will not easily forget the haunting last words and images, what follows the enlightened and self-aware comments from the South African youth, white and black. The last words belong to Peter, the not-quite-South African who was born in Rwanda. I won't give that away, because I want you to experience them, words and images.

This is a must-see film, especially for young people because they're more likely to be open to self-examination, and because they are more likely to change the future.

(Full disclosure: I have known Molly's parents, Martin and Helen, professionally for many years. I met Molly a few years ago at a screening of her first film, about how the deck is stacked in South African schools against Black students.)

I asked Molly Blank a few questions via email the other day. Below are her answers.

How long did you work on the film?
I worked on the film for almost 2 years -- from September 2008 - April 2010. We started brainstorming and fundraising for the film in September 2008. I began pre-production research at that time but began interviewing young people in February 2009. Shooting started in May 2009, and the film was finished in April of this year.

Where has it been shown?
The film premiered in April 2010 in Hamburg and Cologne, Germany as part of a festival called "Filmfest South Africa." Its premiere in Cape Town was in June 2010. Since finishing the film, I have had at least 15 public and community screenings in South Africa, some in the communities where the kids in the film are from.

How about here in the U.S.?
One public screening in Washington, 2 in New York, and 3 in the Bay Area, at schools and colleges, so far.

Where did you find those wonderful young people? How many did you actually interview to get your seven?
I interviewed about 200 young people to find these 7. In some cases, I interviewed students of the teachers who are in the Shikaya Facing the Past program. Because the violence in the province started in Dunoon, I wanted to include someone from there, and so I went to talk to a few classes at the high school. Sometimes I interviewed whole classes, sometimes I interviewed kids one-on-one or in small groups. I also had community members help arrange for me to meet young people. For example, two guys in Masiphumelele would call me regularly and say, "Meet me at the library tomorrow, I have some kids for you." Then I would go and interview them.

I found Peter through word of mouth. His mother, Aurelia, is very involved in the refugee community, and someone suggested that she might know of a young person I could talk to -- my contact never mentioned she had a son. I was originally looking for a young person from Zimbabwe or Congo because a large number of refugees in South Africa are from there. She said she would look for me and then mentioned her son. After talking with Peter for 45 minutes, I knew he was the one.
Finding Vuyani was interesting. I filmed him speaking at the vigil but didn't meet him then. I included that footage in my rough cut and, as I was going through it, realized that I had to find him and make him a central character.

What's been the reaction of the seven students to the film?
Before the premiere in Cape Town, 6 of the 7 students got together to watch the film. It was a very powerful moment for several reasons, in part because they were meeting kids who they might never have met otherwise. Divisions in South African society are still strong, and it was the first time that Yamkela had met with young people from the suburbs and similarly the first time Carey spent time with kids from townships.

All the students are very proud of the film, although Peter found it very painful to watch and was very quiet. I know he cried on the way home from the premiere. When we spoke after as a group, Vuyani and Sibusiso apologized to Peter for what happened and told him he was very brave. I think the film was also a mirror for many of them. Some of the kids were very self-critical when they watched themselves. Carey told me that she couldn't believe how naive and ignorant she is -- I told her that the fact that she was looking outside herself, examining and questioning her world, was not naive or ignorant and exactly the opposite.
At the film's premiere, all the students participated in a Q&A. They spoke about their involvement in the film and in the attacks, but what was so striking was how they engaged with each other. Sibusiso said if there were attacks again, he would call Peter and tell him to come to his house to be safe. They live over an hour apart. Yamkela spoke about how young people can educate adults about the wrongs of xenophobia and as she talked she referred to Rebecca and Carey as if they were all old friends. For me that was a beautiful moment of connection that would not have happened otherwise.

Has 'Where Do I Stand?' been shown in Festivals?
Short answer, yes. Terra di Tutti Festival, October 2010, Bologna Italy; Tri-Continental Film Festival, October 2010, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town; Reel Independent Film Festival, October 2010, Washington, DC (Where it won Best Documentary); To Be Screened: Africa International Film Festival, December 2010, Port Harcourt Nigeria

How is "Where Do I Stand?" being distributed?
Our distribution plan has several levels. I partnered on the film with an NGO called Shikaya, which is leading our outreach to teachers and schools in South Africa. In January, we will begin our outreach campaign with teachers in Shikaya's 'Facing the Past' program.. These teachers will then bring the film into their classrooms, using a study guide we are developing. We are also identifying organizations that can help us expand the reach of the film, particularly ones that work with youth or on issues including xenophobia, race relations, and community conflict. In addition, we are going abroad, organizing screenings with faith-based institutions, community groups, universities and holding public screenings as well as single workshops for teachers.
We will distribute the film ourselves in South Africa and are in talks with the South African Broadcasting Company (SABC) to air the film. I am still looking for a distributor in the U.S. and international. In the meantime, I am beginning to reach out to schools and universities to inform them of the film.

What are your hopes for the film? (It would be wonderful material for schools everywhere, and I cannot wait to give it to my wife for her school.)
We really see this film being used in schools and are developing a study guide to help facilitate it's use. I think that in and out of South Africa the film can push young people to consider numerous perspectives and experiences across race and class, and through this it ultimately offers young people the opportunity to explore personal choices that they make in moments such as this xenophobia crisis, but also as they confront racism, sexism and issues of difference and think about how to stand up for what they believe in.

I also think the film is a vehicle to influence adults, both to get adults to consider their own behavior in these situations and also how their words, choices and actions influence the young people around them.
We can't determine how an individual will respond to the film, but if someone watches the film and begins to think about these ideas and issues, then we have planted a seed for change, and that's a start.

How much did it cost to make?
Approximately $120,000.

What's happened since you completed the film?
There were rumors towards the end of the World Cup that there would be renewed attacks against foreigners. Peter's mother was so afraid that she sent Peter out of the township for a couple weeks to live with friends in a neighboring community. When Peter came to town to meet me for an interview at a radio station, his mother sent him with his best friend as well as a friend of hers to make sure he was okay. Although the situation was not a repeat of 2008, there were several incidents of attacks against foreigners, including the killing of some Somali shop owners. Happily, there were also moments where South Africans rallied around the foreigners in their communities and protected them.

Where Do I Stand? [Official website]

---

John Merrow's new book, Below C Level, is now available on Amazon.
He blogs regularly at Taking Note, where this post originally appeared.