Stories from Europe
Teaching Racism, which looks at discrimination against Roma in the Czech Republic, is one of nine videos currently comprising the Global Reporting Centre’s Strangers at Home project. (photo from strangers.globalreportingcentre.org)
Shayna Plaut has long been concerned with the plight of minorities in Europe. Her doctoral thesis focused on the Roma, and she has gone back and forth to Central and Eastern Europe to advocate for migrants, refugees and minorities since 2001. She speaks Romani fluently and, during her phone interview with the Independent, words from the Romani and other languages came out of her mouth with ease, pronounced perfectly. Plaut is clearly someone who deeply respects the details and uniqueness of different cultures.
In January 2014, Plaut began work as research and project manager on Strangers at Home, a Global Reporting Centre initiative featuring short films by a range of talented people in Europe – filmmakers, writers, cartoonists, musicians, scholars, as well as average citizens. The film project was aired at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in April 2016, and had its Canadian debut at Simon Fraser University Harbor Centre in September. It will screen at the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library on Nov. 19 during Media Democracy Days.
Most of the films are from the perspective of minorities – Jews, Roma, Muslims – but some are from the perspective of nativists who are acting out of fear of the increased presence of migrants and refugees. As the project website says, “Extremist voices are gaining political power, inspiring white Europeans to take to the streets to ‘claim back’ their place in Europe. As a result, millions of people in Europe are feeling like strangers at home.”
The nine videos, which can be viewed online, are rich and varied. Hate Poetry features Germans with “foreign sounding last names” reading hate mail, Queen of the Gypsies discusses how life has improved for Roma in Macedonia, Fascist Logic details the fear of immigrants felt by an Italian national, Teaching Racism looks at the discrimination against Roma in the schools of Czech Republic, Exceptionally Greek looks at the struggles of migrants in Greece, Hatschi Bratschi features a racist children’s book that continues to be a bestseller in Austria and Defending Russia presents the perspective of a paramilitary warrior in training to protect what he considers traditional Russian values.
Two videos deal specifically with Jews in Europe: Chasing Ghosts, by a non-Jewish cartoonist, examines the antisemitism present in Serbia despite the virtual absence of Jews, and Breaking the Silence looks at what the filmmaker sees as a conspiracy of silence about rampant antisemitism in Malmo, Sweden.
“We asked them, ‘What do you want people in North America to know about what’s happening in your country?” explained Plaut. “News coverage here can be sensationalistic, or overly simplistic. We wanted to hear from the people themselves, their stories. The way to do this is not to send another American journalist but rather to solicit the stories from the storytellers themselves.”
In Plaut’s view, the media jumps too quickly to simplistic narratives like “it’s 1938 again,” or lumps different countries with different problems together too quickly.
“Take Greece, for example,” she said. “The media is often quick to associate the rise of the right-wing with austerity, but we found Greek xenophobia to have more to do with deep cultural ideas about fears of impurity. When countries are portrayed in caricatures, that’s how they are engaged with. If diagnosis is incorrect, then the solution will be incorrect.”
Of the pieces that present the perspectives of nationalists themselves, Plaut said she was torn over whether to pay nationalists to present their views, but decided that, ultimately, it is important to hear their stories and understand where they are coming from as human beings as well.
“We can’t just write people off and say they are crazy,” she said. “People need to hear and understand that story, too. We can’t just shut off stories we don’t like.”
While the Strangers at Home project currently consists of nine pieces 60 to 90 seconds long, Plaut would like to see it expanded into 10-to-15-minute films comprising a feature-length documentary to go on the festival circuit, as well as being used online as an educational tool. Fundraising efforts are underway. For more information and to watch the videos, visit strangers.globalreportingcentre.org.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.