On 9/11, I was visiting what tops my list of the world's most beautiful places: the old Venetian trading city of Nafplio on the Peloponesus. When I entered the bus-stop café, the young man behind the counter excitedly pointed to the TV high on the wall that showed endless loops of planes crashing into the World Trade Towers.
Knowing we'd entered very grim times, my focus returned to countering war propaganda and anti-Muslim prejudice. In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and during the countless wars since, I've been protesting!
With GET THE FIRE! widely broadcast, I started research for a fourth documentary, beginning with what I thought was the antithesis of young Mormon missionaries. For The Rasta Diaspora, I listened to lots of great music and explored a totally other lifestyle, and even experimented with dreadlocks (too much work!). I discovered similarities between the two communities – but no gripping story.
Then an East German friend told me about Jugendweihe, the GDR's popular ritual initiation into adulthood. Because I regard Mormon missions as a rite of passage, that subject made sense as a sequel. I discovered that Jugendweihe began in the Socialist Party of the 1890s, and found a community in West Germany that was using Jugendweihe to help mold good young citizens. Unfortunately, while I was learning about their novel approach to Jugendweihe, a documentary with the typically belittling Wessie view was broadcast. My unique take on the subject could not override television's rule that once a subject has been "done" it won't be considered for another 10 years.
Subsequently, I became very excited by a performance of Korean pansori, a kind of "opera for one voice" an ethnomusicologist friend had told me about years before. Korean audience members in Berlin said the young female performer Lee Ja-Ram had an original, almost feminist, message. Besides her novelty, I welcomed pansori's link to my own background in solo performance. But TV – the surest way to fund a documentary film – was not interested. An article from 2015 describes how, four years after I'd experienced Lee Ja-Ram, the "pansori prodigy" had started a band, received an acting award and staged her own adaptations of Brecht.
In the course of researching pansori and studying Korean ("language is culture"), I learned of the thousands of Korean women who, between 1966 and 1976, were recruited to fill West Germany's critical lack of nurses. Once enough German nurses had been trained, the "laughing angels" were told to go home. Their energetic protest – "What was sold as development aid to Korea was actually development aid for Germany!" – allowed many nurses to remain in the country and develop other careers. The themes of immigration, cultural shock/adjustment, empowerment, self-organization and self-realization – as well as the extraordinarily rich Korean culture – fascinated me. But along the way, I met a young German woman of Korean background who told me of her fervent wish to make a film on that very subject and I left it to her.
The wars on Gaza and Lebanon in 2006 convinced me to address the Israel-Palestine conflict that Moroccan villagers had confronted me about. I was concerned to show that many Jewish people worldwide – with many different ways of being Jewish – are working for a just peace. I made contact with five inspiring activists: two Dutch sisters (and Holocaust survivors) working in Amsterdam and Israel; a Moroccan teacher in Paris; a young American activist of Czech background whose family had emigrated to the US in the 1850s; and an Australian special-ed teacher of Polish background. I was deeply disappointed to not find development funding for my ambitious project.
One of those activists urged me to focus on Palestinians. With funding support, I visited fair trade projects through the West Bank for FAIR TRADE – PALESTINE? The title is a oxymoron: Lacking control over imports and exports and plagued by illegal settlers poisoning their livestock and springs, chopping down or stealing olive trees, trade in Palestine is not fair. Yet Palestinians persevere: I met with numerous fair trade and women's empowerment associations. Some, like Canaan Fair Trade Association are well established with international partners, while others like the Women's Seed Bank in Beit Kahel are active locally. My wonderful experience was greatly enhanced by the young Palestinians who assisted me. After decades of supporting the cause on human rights grounds, it was a great joy to meet so many creative and productive Palestinians in Palestine.
Since arriving in Berlin, I'd sought to learn about its many different communities. A number of new acquaintances shared the ancestral homeland of Dersim in Eastern Anatolia, which has been attacked and occupied for decades. The city and region once known as the "Silver Gate" no longer appears on any Turkish map: In their place is Tunceli, which is sometimes translated as the "Iron Fist". Most of Dersim's population was deported or fled west and to Europe, where more now live than in their homeland.
Along the way, I heard about the Turkish activist and sociologist, Pınar Selek, who has been hounded by charges of involvement in a terrorist attack (a ridiculous charge, according to many observers) and acquitted four times and also sentenced to death in absentia. After reading her book on militarization and violence, I investigated the Turkish minorities who count among her main concerns and learned a great deal about contemporary Turkey. I also studied Turkish. Surprisingly, however, a documentary with Pınar was broadcast: So much for mine! I had no film but had learned a great deal.
My encounter with a 23-year-old woman from Romania who was selling the homeless peoples' paper outside a discount supermarket began five years of my supportive engagement with Gabi and her four children, particularly regarding health, education and culture.
Meeting Gabi inspired me to learn about Roma and what I've come to understand is the greatest domestic European human rights issue. We must end the denial of basic human and social rights and persecution of Europe's largest transnational minority. I've studied Romanes and Romanian in Berlin and Romania, where I also traveled extensively, and attended conferences, festivals and protests. Wherever I go – Turkey, Italy, Spain, Brazil, New York – I seek to meet activists and learn about local conditions. Many progressive Roma associations are based in Berlin, which boasts the first art gallery dedicated to Roma and Sinti artists. However, Berlin has its own long anti-Roma history, and people from all social classes remain deeply prejudiced.