By: Philippa Simmonds and Hajer Hadi
“The most eye opening thing for me is the fact that we know and play the roles so well because we are exposed to them everyday.” Nadeen Aiche
EOGH kicked off 2020 with an event on January 15th that challenged our understanding of global health and introduced us to unfamiliar methodologies. Film-maker Laura Na presented her documentary and masters thesis project, With Our Eyes, then delivered a thought-provoking workshop alongside three of the film’s participants: Nadeen Aiche, Manilla Ghafuri and Younas Trap-Oubelaid. Laura’s background in visual anthropology and journalism provided fresh perspectives on the practice of research, while the lived experiences of the film’s participants helped to shine a light on our own subconscious prejudices.
With Our Eyes is a collaborative project between Laura and five young Muslim participants, who experiment with roleplay and re-enactment to portray their experiences growing up in Denmark. Exploring everyday encounters with racism and prejudice, the group gives the audience an insight into how it feels to be the subject of public debate, while under constant pressure to assimilate into Danish society. Juxtaposing Danish newsreel footage with the participants’ day-to-day experiences gives viewers a sense of the “paradigm shift” in Danish society, as the state’s approach to migrants has changed from integration to hostility in the past few years. For foreigners that don’t speak Danish or watch Danish TV, some of the subtitled footage is shocking. Speaking directly to camera, former Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen states that non-Western migrants refuse to assimilate into Danish culture and therefore must be subject to harsher laws and even have their homes torn down so they can be “redistributed”. He is referring to the so-called “ghetto laws”, which subject people living in particular areas to harsher sentences for crimes and make it obligatory for them to send their children to state childcare to learn “Danish values” from the age of 1.
Within this context, the film uses ethnofiction methodology, drawing inspiration from Theatre of the Oppressed techniques. Participants act-out real and fictionalised scenes from their lives; playing the different roles with ease. We can all remember seeing white actors play people of colour, but seeing people of colour playing white Danes is an unfamiliar experience that disrupts our expectations. Younas elicits laughs from the audience in his stereotypical portrayal of a right-wing Danish politician on a talk show- of course named “Søren Sørensen”. In another memorable scene, we see Manilla on her way to Distortion Festival being pestered by an acquaintance from her community about what she’s wearing. When she can’t get rid of him, an older white Dane steps in to “protect” her. Manilla declines the help- concerned that he will think that all Afghan men behave like this, and feeling a sense of duty to defend her acquaintance. The Danish guy is offended- “I was only trying to help”.
This scene was pertinent during the workshop, as we discussed what we have in common as global health students. It seems fair to say that most of us are motivated by a desire to ‘help’. Yet, we are all familiar with ways the global health establishment fails to include researchers from LMICs, or how specific projects have actively caused harm. Laura highlighted how the desire to help may come from a good place, but ultimately the impact of our resulting actions is more important than the intent. She discussed her own reflexivity regarding this project, and her concerns about whether focusing on young Muslims might not be helpful, as it could simply be another flavour of media scrutiny. However, the collaborative approach aimed to give the five participants the agency to direct how they would be portrayed, and instead turn the scrutiny outward to Danish society.
Speaking to the audience after the screening, Younas explained how it felt to portray racist characters:
“Although it was strange and weird at first to play the villain; over time I began to see it as a new way of communicating how exactly we experience these people. The fact that it often came naturally and easily through improvisation is a statement itself of how we have been exposed to this kind of behavior throughout our lives.”
As well as discussing our personal experiences with race, the workshop allowed us to critically reflect on life in Copenhagen. For many of us who are foreigners, our understanding of Denmark on arrival didn’t go beyond its reputation as a progressive, socialist country. Studying here has given us a greater insight into the problems that don’t always reach international audiences: from migrant detention camps to the recent burka ban. As our studies mostly require us to “look out” at the world, this was a rare opportunity to collectively turn our gaze back on the country we currently call home.
This event was kindly supported by the School of Global Health at the University of Copenhagen.