The Importance Of An Independent Mind

Speech delivered on 28th February 2014 – Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.

This speech was delivered by both Heidi Lindvall and Guy Gunaratne at the event: The Legacy Of Malcolm X after a screening of CODOC’s feature documentary ‘Forgive Me Mother’ about child soldiers in Northern Uganda.

 

Transcript:

We’d like to thank you all, the TMA, JHR and Concordia University for the opportunity to screen Forgive Me Mother here today.

We’ve always felt that the privilege in telling stories like this truly lies in having an audience take part in the conversations that follow them. We look forward to those conversations but first we’d like to reflect on the deep impression making this film had on us.

It is such an honour to be able to tease apart the emotions we had while making Forgive Me Mother and speak about the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation tonight.

There are stories, out there in the world, which are so intimate, so powerful that they end up changing the storytellers themselves. These stories are dark, usually, bound in difficult circumstance, they demand of those behind the camera to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves and certain paradigms that previously, these filmmakers held to be absolute.

In fact for Heidi and I it was only while making this documentary we came to realise that these are the stories, the ones that leave a mark, that are the stories worth struggling with and worth telling.

We travelled to Northern Uganda in 2010, at the time Heidi was completing a Masters degree in Human Rights at City University in London.

As anyone who has gone through a similar path would attest, during a Human Rights degree you are surrounded by bright young people who have the noblest of intentions. Well back then, we were those young people. We travelled to Northern Uganda with what we believed to be the forthright idea of raising the ‘voices of the voiceless.’ We believed that through documentary and journalism we would be able to capture the thoughts and feelings ofUgandans on the ground, to get a snapshot of a country that had been ravaged by war.

To tell a story like this involves a great deal of research and preparation. Northern Uganda is an immersive subject and we spent months researching and analysing the current state of the situation.

Now, we like to make films about big, broad subjects. And from the very outset, we wanted to make this film to be about one big theme: international justice. Mostly because this was the story we were familiar with in relation toUganda: Joseph Kony the leader of the Lords Resistance Army, or the LRA was abducting children and forcing them to become child soldiers. Over 30,000 children were believed to have been abducted and Joseph Kony and five of his top commanders had been indicted by the international criminal court, the ICC, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

And everyone, we thought wanted him to be caught and brought to justice. Experience however, has a habit of shattering expectations.

There was one expectation, or assumption that we had, that lots of people fall into believing. It is that our act, of travelling out to these places, to document and capture stories was in itself, inherently a worthy pursuit. And that raising the voices of the voiceless was a noble aim. And it is. But as it turned out we had forgotten one thing: Them. The voices on the ground were not voiceless after all. These people were vibrant and strong with brightly independent minds. They had opinions about us and our cameras, opinions about how they were being perceived. They were critical about the ICC, a foreign institution in their own country, and eager to push the value of their own local ideas of tolerance and homegrown justice systems.

To this day – it reminded me of the strength of those like Malcolm X whose focus on promoting the self-worth of black communities in America. Inner strength. He would ask his fellowship to not blindly, passively fall into the role that the established order had made for them. To assert their own opinion, that they were as esteemed, as valid as their opposition. So as it was with these Ugandans; Lily Adong, Patricia, Oscar, Norbert Mao. These people were not going to offer us tears and a sob story. No-one was going to tell these people what they’re story was going to be. They would tell it themselves.

The assumptions we had about what these so-called ‘voiceless’ Northern Ugandans wanted were being quashed. Every angle we had thought of, every character stereotype, every trope was dismantled the more and more we listened.

Soon, things began to get uncomfortable. Even the very notion of justice, as you have seen in the documentary, can have many interpretations. In some cases, courts were seen as a foreign imposition. The challenge for them was  predicated on who it was that was calling for justice and why? Because, in fact, there was plenty on the ground that were not calling for anything of the kind – in fact they were pushing for things like forgiveness, and an amnesty as an alternative. This was forgiveness even for the likes of Joseph Kony.

These opinions shook us. Kicked us about a bit. These views didn’t quite fit in to the neat, narrative we arrived with. Instead we were confronted by many different narratives. Stories that had been around for years and in Uganda were as established as notions of court justice.

You see the problem wasn’t that they were voiceless it was because we were not listening. This in the end was why the answers to our questions were never neat and always complex. Uganda had more nuance, more rich layers of storytelling, more life than we had expected.

This is in fact one of the foremost challenges in journalism and documentaries about subject matter like this. How do we set aside our own assumptions and try to focus on the truth as it was on the ground. Our own cultural biases will always colour our judgments in some way. 

One such example is the notion of forgiveness. Now forgiveness, the word itself, the concept as it is understood by our own paradigm is seen as an emotional reaction. Forgiveness can be seen as a naive sensibility, sometimes as an immature and inadequate response to dealing with conflict. It’s important to note the psychological aspect of that word in comparison with heavier, bulkier words like justice and the courts. What is it about forgiveness that is seen as so inadequate? Why is it not considered a viable alternative to court justice in the Northern Ugandan context? Especially when it is the very victims of this war that are pushing for it.

Is it because court justice is infinitely better, tried, trusted and more advanced? Is it because it is the system that feels more familiar to us and therefore we take for granted that it is the best way to deal with conflict. Or is it because the people that offer forgiveness as a viable solution can sometimes be perceived to be powerless, different to us.

What was apparent however, while we sat, spoke and discussed this with the people on the ground was that forgiveness was seen as anything but inadequate; the people of Northern Uganda that I had the privilege to listen to, were not powerless. They were strong minded and determined to rebuild their lives. The strength one must gather from within oneself to commit to forgive is not an attribute of the powerless. The circumstances from which these people chose to forgive were infinitely worse than anything I could imagine going through myself. That was real strength.

In the world we live in today, our stories reflect both the divisions that make us separate and the perspectives that bind us. So what is equally important to keep in mind is how we consume, how we watch and listen to such stories. We’ve been conditioned to think that watching a movie, however difficult is a passive experience. It isn’t.

All of you in the audience have hopefully heard opinions that you might have agreed with and others that you disagreed with. But how many of you were confronted with an opinion, found that you disagreed with it, and then moved on believing that that was the end of the journey. How many of you stopped at that uncomfortable moment, and made the effort to try at least to understand it.

Most of the time, we choose what we are comfortable with. It’s easier. I’ve been guilty of it myself. But the problem with that is that sooner or later these opposing perspectives become drowned out and dismissed. We call those ideas illegitimate and naive. The arguments become less civil and just become shallow contests. This arrogance comes out of the fear of confrontation. The fear of understanding. The fear of listening.

We cannot afford to remain that passive – not in a world of 7 billion voices.

The lessons we learned in Northern Uganda came from listening to those voices. At some point while conducting our interviews, I remember thinking that the crimes these young men and women were forced to commit were unspeakable. But what stuck me was that they did choose to speak to us, no matter how hard it was. The people we spoke to, sat in front of us and had gotten to know, had killed people. They had taken life. A singular action. For these people, the thought of suppressing that shame and those scarred memories instead of understanding them – that would have been the unspeakable thing. They chose instead to forgive themselves first and seek understanding from those they harmed.

Forgiveness therefore, lies inside and not out. We submit that this calls for an independence of mind that holds a lesson for each one of us.

Now, you probably noticed that Forgive Me Mother had an open ending. We didn’t offer you a nice, neat choice where you pick side A or side B. This is a reflection of what we found in Northern Uganda – there are no easy answers. Instead there is only the challenge to form your own opinion. And that, much like forgiveness, lies inside each of you not out.

Malcolm saw the importance in ensuring the sanctity of his own mind before he sought the right to influence others.  As filmmakers, we strive then, not always successfully, to challenge ourselves first before challenging others.

This also extends to each of you in the audience. Forming your own conclusion upon what you just saw in this documentary is not easy. Nor should it be. There is no opinion out there that can neatly offer you an answer. No movie you get to watch will ever be a substitute for the struggle and satisfaction of finding your own opinion. Nothing outside of yourself can truly penetrate and offer that kind of insight.

You can blame Malcolm for that, if you like. For him, that inner struggle is the price of civility. It is the same as establishing your self-worth, to be self-reliant and self-directed.  That is true for filmmakers as it is for a member of an audience. It is that inner sense of individual agency that is at the heart of what Malcolm described as the intelligent search for truth: to critically think for yourself.

What I learn from him, is that no matter how deeply engrained ones roots are on a particular side,  listening, resolving to respect the other opinion even if the other holds a violent disposition against you – is worth it – not only for the common good but for the individual good, for your own good. Malcolm was a man that in the end believed resolutely in the right to assert one self and to realise ones own potential.

So finally it is a simple principle: to respect another opinion is to respect one’s own. There are so many equally legitimate opinions out there about prevalent issues that the single most important thing anyone could do is to remain an independent mind. Only equipped with a thoughtful, respectful open mind can anyone truly offer something of value.

This I hope is what we have achieved with this film.