Voices of Dissent
By Beverly Andrews
How do you challenge the increasingly right-wing, authoritarian governments which are now appearing throughout Europe and currently in America? This is a question artists and political activists are asking themselves all over the world. At London’s Made in Italy Film Festival, Human Rights Watch Film Festival and the Women of the World festival on the Southbank this very same question was answered by documentary filmmakers, social commentators and dramatists determined to make their voices heard.
London’s Human Rights Watch film festival premiered the documentary “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”. The film looks at the current fight by the citizens of Hong Kong to retain their political autonomy and how this fight has over the last seven years been led primarily by teenagers. One in particular is Joshua Wong and its Wong’s political activism the film charts, an activism which began at the tender age of thirteen. The film shows how China’ s clumsy imposition of a “National Education” curriculum, a pro-China programme which was intended to be rolled out in all Hong Kong schools, triggered a student revolt, the scale of which has never been witnessed before on the tiny island. While most adults in Hong Kong were resigned to China’s encroaching reach Joshua, along with a small group of friends, decided to fight back. Joshua and his friends founded the Scholarism movement and together decided to occupy Hong Kong’s Civic Square. The film charts how their protest is initially met by indifference by the authorities, but that all changed once one of Joshua’s interviews went viral and over a 120,000 people took to the streets. As a result the government withdrew the “National Education” curriculum. Joshua’s activism continued as he joined forces with Benny Tai and they began to mount protests for the right of Hong Kong’s citizens to be able to elect their own officials. This is something China agrees to in principle, but only from an approved slate of candidates. The documentary shows how Joshua’s fellow Scholarism members continued to fight over the years, winning some battles and losing others but never giving up. Their courageous fight has led the group to launch their own political party and put forward their first candidate, Nathan Law, who to the group’s astonishment actually won a seat in the country’s recent elections, a victory which China is currently contesting. It was a very moving moment at the screening when Joshua and his fellow activists were introduced to the London audience. They are now in their early twenties but have given up their childhoods to campaign for political freedom
The Made in Italy film season at London’s French Institute featured another extraordinary film this time addressing our current refugee crisis. The film Vangelo, the work of actor/director Pippo Delbono, is an astonishing and unusual comment on a crisis which is currently engulfing Europe. Told in the form of a recreation of the gospels, the film is a compelling portrait of not only the lives of the men who arrive after hazardous journeys, but is also a penetrating examination of the indifference many encounter once they arrive, despite their desperate need. The film is set at a migrant centre, in which many of the refugees are living in a kind of limbo whilst they wait to find out if their applications for asylum have been granted or whether they are fated to have to return to their native countries. At the Q and A after the screening Delbono spoke about his inspiration for making the film; “My mother always wanted me to make something about the gospels but I felt I could not since I do not believe in it. But something spoke to me after visiting these men and getting to know them. I felt I didn’t want to tell their individual stories (with the exception of one since it was very poetic when we spoke of it, under the moonlight) but I wanted instead to use the story of the gospel to tell their stories in a different way.” By employing this technique, the film is less a story of the men and much more a study of where we have arrived in western society. A point at which the sight of millions fleeing for their lives no longer becomes the catalyst for us to feel any degree of empathy let alone lift a finger to try to help. With the recent attack on a teenage asylum seeker in Britain by up to thirty people, leaving the teenager with a fractured skull and a blood clot on his brain, many feel we are now entering a dangerous phase where people are able to victimize a segment of society based solely on the fact that they come from a country currently in crisis, a crisis in some cases caused by decisions made in the west. Pippo states “I am a Buddhist, not one who sits under a tree but a member of the Soka Gakkai, a form of Buddhism that strives to take action to help change the society in which we live.” Vangelo succeeds in making us question our indifference and he reminds us of the fact that the figures of the disciples, if reincarnated in our world today, would probably be these very same refugees who are risking death to arrive on our shores. And history will no doubt judge us in the future on our response.
London’s Southbank hosted for the seventh year running the “Women of the World festival” created by the Southbank’s current artistic director Jude Kelly, with the aim of giving women from different racial and economic backgrounds a forum through which they could discuss their common struggles as women and as feminists in a the world today, a world which is becoming increasingly hostile to the rights of women. The two keynote speakers of the event were Angela Davies and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Angela Davies was the first to speak during the evening session and arrived on stage to a standing ovation. She went on to speak about the need to remain optimistic in the face of worrying political changes. She pointed out that maybe this backlash was the needed catalyst for us all to re-engage with the political struggle, but she then went on to say that in The States at the moment the level of activism there has left her feeling very optimistic about the country. She went on to comment on what she calls intersectionality, which is defined as the point at which many of these issues all meet. She pointed out that most of the violence we are currently experiencing has a great deal to do with our criminal justice system. This system is in desperate need of reform since we often incarcerate individuals for minor crimes in violent institutions and then release them back into the world even more damaged than before. Many of these individuals go on to perpetrate the cycle of violence. She went on to state that if we want to change the levels of violence in society perhaps what we have to do is change our response to it. In closing the evening Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie picked up on the theme of how do we change society, but she felt that what is fundamental is simply changing how we are in our homes, and primarily the roles of women in the home. She pointed out that it is hard for a man to respect a woman in the boardroom if he doesn’t respect her in his home. The home is after all a microcosm of society. “I think it’s almost more important to bring up our sons as feminists than our daughters. They need it even more.”
What all these artists and political activists show us is that it is not an option to give in to fear and general apathy. And that the best response to our current times is simply to find a way to make our voices heard in whatever way we can since silence is no longer an option.
FΩRMidea London, 12th April 2017.