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.

The Legacy Of Malcolm X

Malcolm and Me

I’d like to begin by thanking JHR and the TMA for inviting me to speak today about the Legacy of Malcolm X. It is truly an honour not only to speak here in the company of you all but also to speak about a man who I can honestly say is one of the most influential in my life. Those of you who know me know that I tell stories for a living. Primarily stories about human rights and society.

And as a filmmaker and writer I have often found the words of Malcolm X as a sort of strange solace and as education is the theme today, I thought I might speak about what Malcolm X has taught me and for that, we’ll begin at the beginning.

I was 14, in my high school history class when I first heard the story of this man, Malcolm X. I remember the first picture I saw of him, his face was stern, defiant and unbowed against the backdrop of history.

That is the image that ingrained itself on my mind. It’s still the same image that resurfaces when someone mentions his name. That day, that image that I remember.

There were few stories that would quieten a usually rowdy, apathetic Year 8 History class at my school in North London. But on that day, the day we learnt about Malcolm – silence.

We all watched as our History teacher Mr Wood would play videotapes of some of his speeches. I heard his voice for the first time, intercut with grainy news reel footage, images of riots and streets ablaze in America. Those images made quite an impression on me aged 14.

The 60s: Just picture what I saw that day. Images: One wash basin for whites, another for coloureds, police dogs and protest and stock images of black men and women, leather jackets and leather gloves. Panthers. And the names; Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, King. Ali. It’s difficult to disconnect these names with the times they lived in isn’t it?

Suddenly, at the age of 14, History became less about facts, dates and dead monarchs but more of people and action, and courage and strength. I use the same word now as I did then to describe what I felt in that classroom but use that word in it’s true form today: It was awesome, truly. He was awesome.

I believe that every young man in that class, myself included, at an age where testosterone, anger, pride and some peculiar will to ambition, listened to the story of Malcolm X and placed our faces on his. Such was the nature of his story.

That is what I think of when I think of the legacy of Malcolm X. His story. A story that inspires awe and breeds a fire in the gut. He was a torch – extinguished before his time.

The Many Malcolms

Now I want to speak about this idea of Malcolm X and his story for a minute. Those images, our collective images of that time, are powerful things charged with influence. They can mould the story of a man and his place in history so viscerally that we sometimes are guilty of neglecting the parts that hold less focus. Today I’d like to talk about the chapters of Malcolm’s story that many people dismiss as parentheses.

And I’ll tell you why.

Here is a battered dog-eared old copy of Malcolm X’s autobiography. It usually sits in my library at home but I wanted to bring it along to illustrate a point. If anyone knows the story behind the writing of this book you’d know that at the time of it’s writing he was one of the most recognisable faces in the world and he was determined that his story would be told on his terms.

Malcolm X and the books writer Alex Haley would actually fight about the interpretation of the events in his life and the book itself reads as almost a psychological tale of inner struggle of a man trying to pick apart his own reflection by describing it. He was organising his life into a story arc: Beginning on the streets of Harlem, where he turned to street-hustling, that period would be followed by his years in jail, his conversion to Islam would come next and it was then that he became one of the most influential political figures of his time.

As his story is told and re-told today it has become a story of many Malcolm’s. As with most public personalities we tend to choose which of his contradictory incarnations we prefer to remember. Malcolm Little the homeboy, the hoodlum, the young Malcolm the hustler who called himself Red, Malcolm the thief, the prisoner, Malcolm the Muslim, Minister Malcolm X, Malcolm the follower, the devotee, Malcolm Anti-white Demagogue and finally Malcolm the martyr.

I ask all of you which of these Malcolm’s comes closest to your interpretation of him?

We define our heroes by their stories and when I was young, it was the Minister Malcolm X that attracted me most. His words were so charged with passion and a sense of himself. I guess as a young man trying to define myself, an image of a man with such purpose was inspiring. And his words, his were speeches that enflamed with every word, shocked the status quo, thundered the air. How could anyone at that age, not be enraptured?

This was Malcolm at his most fierce but also his most divisive. He made a great impact on me. The Malcolm of that period of his life was all I needed at that point in my life. I became more and more politically active and engaged in discussion, about the important issues and debates of the day.

But the something happened. I got older and – the older I became, and the more and more I read, the less and less I agreed with that particular incarnation of Malcolm X. The man of that period, as Minister Malcolm X of the Nation Of Islam said some incredibly incendiary things, some would say even dangerous. He was so bound by The Nation that I felt less and less enamoured with his ideas as he would in fact become as he grew out of being a follower and become a true leader, unbound by doctrine in later life.

I have often wondered what would have become of my understanding of Malcolm and my own political views if I hadn’t read beyond that point. Had I stopped at Malcolm at his most dogmatic. But then I remember coming to a passage in his book where he almost as an aside wrote this:

 “People are always speculating, why I am as I am? To understand that of any person, his whole life from birth must be reviewed. All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that has ever happened to me is an ingredient.”

Suffice to say I read on having understood that Malcolm the “angry man on the soapbox” was only an ingredient of what he would later become.

Now it does, I know, feel strange talking this way, of a story, and a legacy of a real flesh and blood man that walked the earth. But such is the weird fascination we have over our icons that we allow ourselves to define them and be defined by our alignment with them.

But the thing I learnt was that Malcolm X was someone who was constantly learning, examining and re-examining his own views, thinking critically about how he saw the world around him. It made me wonder why we don’t do the same when we discuss his life and his legacy. Why is it when we think of Malcolm we always gravitate toward that one image.

This was a man for whom education meant keeping an open mind. That it was necessary for the intelligent search for truth, as he called it. He was dedicated to intense study of himself as well as the world he lived in.

A man like this is destined never to stay the same.

Malcolm The Moderate

I ask today to try to re-examine Malcolm’s Story and thus reassert his legacy for our times. For I believe there is a far more provocative, powerful incarnation of Malcolm X that most people have barely gotten to know. It’s the Malcolm of his final chapters. No longer the familiar personality of his Nation days – the Malcolm of his final chapters was, yes, a moderate.

The man whose insatiable curiosity had him leave the United States, broadening his horizons still further when in 1964 he made his Hajj, his pilgrimage to Mecca. The Malcolm whose experience in the holy land had changed him.

As always we go to his own words. In a public letter sent from Mecca, Malcolm X writes about this life changing experience. In his words you can hear almost the sense of relief he feels having seen a form of brotherhood that encompasses whites and blacks, something he thought never possible.

He writes:

 “Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white.’ I have never before seen a more sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colours together.

You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on pilgrimage what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to ‘re-arrange’ much of my thought patterns and  toss aside some of my previous conclusions. Despite my firm convictions I have always been a man who tries to face facts and to accept the reality of a life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it.”

He signed the letter not as Malcolm but as El Hajj Malik El Shabbazz. Yet another transformation.

Education is the constant re-arrangement of conviction, this is what Malcolm’s story teaches us. An openness of mind that allows you to transforms yourself, again and again, forces you to shake loose the rigidity of thought. You get the sense that this is the Malcolm X that he himself wanted to be defined by, that this was what those ingredients of past experiences had lead him toward – that moment in Mecca where he saw the truth staring up from in front of him: that the struggle he had dedicated his life to, the struggle of civil rights was actually a struggle for human rights.

That is the final lesson he left us with, a lesson that many of our political figures today could do well to heed: it’s the difference between principle and absolutism.

There are those who through some indefinable quality can grasp the narratives of their own time, brilliant minds that can command their will to a purpose. That is what Malcolm shows us is possible, with his story, not just a period of his story, his entire story.

The tragedy though is that we were robbed of the Malcolm he would become. A figure in the centre ground that called for those on both sides of the racial divide to come together to forge a stronger union. We will never know what that figure of Malcolm could have gone on to achieve.

Which brings me to my final point. There are many out there who believe that those who do not prescribe to a fixed political designation, who don’t fall on the left or right of the spectrum but inhabit instead what is derisively termed the grey area in between, lack  somehow the same sense of urgency needed for action. They claim that the voices of the centre ground are forever condemned to be drowned out by the passion of those on the extremes. As if passion in politics are exclusive to the fringes.

Where are the firebrand leaders of the centre ground, they ask. Well, how I wish Malcolm would have lived long enough to represent that figure.

For me, Malcolm X is a teacher. A needle on a compass. His story has taught me many things but the most important lesson is this: People are not fixed products of their circumstance. They can change, evolve, transform into better representations of themselves and so can our politics. By casting ignorance aside and forging ahead with education. By being open to struggling with ourselves sometimes, with constant re-evaluation and critical thinking.

I finish with a quote in Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast Of The Goat that encompasses this most human truth in words better than my own:

“Nothing that a man has been, is, or will be, is something he has been, is, or will be forever.”

As many of you here, I’m sure are still trying to figure yourselves out, are at the beginning of your own stories, chapter 1, first paragraph. You’ll choose to prescribe to figures out there who you think have the ability to inspire the best in you. Good teachers, mentors. Or indeed public figures like Malcolm who have the ability to influence the way we see the world.

Great lives leave an imprint and what, I think, finally Malcolm’s story has taught us is to always, always, finish the book.