A short film: The Classroom as an analogy of a fearful society
The Classroom (2018)
Direction, story & animation: Samaré Gozal
Editor: Matus Vizar
Production: Ramz Media
Countries: Czech Republic, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden
When I first had the idea of making The Classroom, it was really a way to process the political upheaval that had started to take place across Europe. It was clear that the far-right was steadily gaining ground and challenging the cohesion that Europe, in the ruinous aftermath of the Second World War, had been trying to achieve for decades. The short film is inspired by a single event that took place on a November afternoon in a classroom in a European capital city where ca. twenty students were discussing the refugee crisis of 2015. As they fed off each other´s fears, their aggression towards asylum seekers intensified and soon trumped reason and the rule of law. It was during this one hour that I felt I was unexpectedly faced with the shadow-self of a group which had a different set of social norms than myself. The pattern that quickly took shape in that room seemed to be one where the male students led the more aggressive and enraged part of the debate, often inciting violence as a means of protecting the borders of their nation. The female students mostly came with supporting statements and encouraged the debate with inflammatory remarks. They however rarely expressed the fury that was ever so present among the male students.
Right after class, I wrote down as much as I could remember from what had been said and soon after I wrote a script. It was not hard to do because every minute of that hour was more or less stuck in my mind. However I found myself later crossing out the most violent statements such as ‘let's build a wall and shoot trespassing refugees’, curiously enough uttered by a second generation Ukrainian-Czech student, or ‘they're animals’ exclaimed by an aloof eighteen-year-old in a matter-of-fact way. I am today not entirely sure why I cut those specific sentences out of the final script. I think perhaps it was an act of hope? To at least contain their rage, even if it was ultimately just on paper.
I soon drew up a few of the characters and tried to capture the expressions on their faces which alternated between apathy and rage. With every drawing I made with a simple pen and paper, it became increasingly clear that one way or another what happened that day happened in a European micro-society. Like a doll-house with little chairs and tables in a much larger house in a neighbourhood consisting of a myriad of houses that ultimately make up a section of a society.
I remember pointing out that this small Eastern European country where we were having this conversation was not a destination country and most often avoided by refugees but I quickly realized that that was not the point. It was the very thought of people from far far away seeking asylum which seemed problematic to all of the students. Although, to my knowledge, none of them had ever knowingly spent time with a refugee, been faced with the perils of war, social turmoil or perhaps even really understood the geopolitical realities that decide the destiny of millions, they nevertheless seemed certain that the country was under threat and needed protecting. Perhaps it was this unflinching certainty in their abstract desire to preserve their ideas of statehood that made me want to keep drawing.
The thought behind the The Classroom is not to name and shame any one country or any one people. It is set in the Czech Republic because the discussion that inspired it took place there. The thoughts expressed in the short film can no doubt be found in many parts of Europe and it is up to the viewer to take what they will from this piece.
‘What happened that day happened in a European micro-society. Like a doll-house with little chairs and tables in a much larger house in a neighbourhood consisting of a myriad of houses that ultimately make up a section of a society.’ All pictures featured in this article are stills from The Classroom.
When the refugee crisis first hit Europe a few years back, the continent had not seen such an influx of people irregularly entering the EU and crossing its borders and so was unprepared and struggled to find sustainable solutions. Although years have passed since the crisis in 2015, most would argue that Europe is still unclear about its response. In many of the entry-point countries such as Greece and Italy, the situation for those fleeing their countries, in the hope of a brighter future in Europe, remains dire.
The Czech Republic is one of the nations in Europe that from the get-go took a negative stance towards refugees. The country was therefore reluctant to participate in the EU quota scheme that was put in place to ensure a more even distribution of people amongst EU member states. Ideas of refugees being a security threat and culturally disadvantageous to the nation are a few of the reasons often given to explain the country's position.
Although I had always known that many of the Eastern European countries, which had had relatively limited exposure to the rest of the world due to decades of communist rule, were wary of immigration and foreigners, I never fully understood the extent of it before the refugee wave of 2015. There seemed to be a jumble of fear and rage towards an unfamiliar enemy, sprinkled with unclear ideas of terrorism and racial profiling. This concoction was further exacerbated by anti-EU sentiments and a reluctance to adhere to certain EU frameworks.
To learn more, I recently sat down with Lukas Wimmer, Director of the Center for Integration of Foreigners (CIC) in Prague, to talk about the public's attitudes towards refugees as well as the official policies that are currently in place. Here, Wimmer highlights and tries to explain some of the underlying factors that may be at the heart of the fears the characters in The Classroom express.
CIC provides social services and social counselling to different migrant populations in the country. In addition to providing Czech language courses for migrants and foreigners as well as coordinating volunteer activities, they offer training for teachers and public officials.
Question: What is the official position of the Czech Republic on refugees?
Answer: The official policy is not welcoming towards refugees and this corresponds with public opinion as well as statements given by Czech politicians. We are at the end of the spectrum in Europe in many ways. Many are willing to help but they are nevertheless in the minority.
Q: Where are the refugees that seek asylum in the Czech Republic primarily from?
A: People who come here usually apply for different types of visas and they don't necessarily apply for asylum because the Czech Republic is very strict and the success rate is very low. So those who apply really must have no other chance. Seeking asylum would be their last way of trying to stay here. Applicants who are accepted for international protection are usually from Iraq, Syria, China and Russia but they are given a temporary protection for two years which means that there is a hope that during these two years the situation will have improved in their country of origin so that they can return.
The biggest group of migrants is from Ukraine. Ukraine is not officially considered to be a warzone so it is easier to get employment cards or other types of visas than to apply for refugee status.
Q: What are the fears of the public when it comes to refugees? What are the stereotypes?
A: There is a clear difference between people from Prague and other bigger cities and those who live in more rural areas. In urban areas the level of education is higher, people have more options to travel and have in general more liberal opinions. However, people with existential fears and concerns such as not having well-paying jobs that would sustain them may feel they have enough problems of their own. The feeling many may have is: How can you expect us to help refugees when our own needs are not met? It is not just a question of differences between urban and rural areas but also a question of age. Younger people are more open than the older ones. Older people are usually more conservative and more easily fearful of phenomena that are unknown to them. Their power and number is growing in this society.
You can also see that many of the political parties, whether on the right or mainstream, take an anti-refugee stance, an anti-EU stance and they often oppose the work that non-governmental organisations do.
The stereotype of refugees is that they are dark-skinned, Muslim and generally different from Czechs and therefore at odds with our culture. The notion that refugees might be terrorists is also something many are afraid of. The media presents this perceived threat as coming from the Mediterranean and Germany. So refugees are often seen as a security threat rather than people we should help.
Q: What are some of the challenges that non-governmental organisations such as yours face?
A: Before every election politicians start to use anti-migration rhetorics and we face more pressure from the public during those periods. We get ugly emails and phone calls, for example, but once the elections are over, the pressure lessens. I see a connection between political rhetoric against non-governmental organisations and migrants and the negative effect that it has on us. There are also other organisations in this country that work with migrants which have a much harder time than us when it comes to this.
Q. How have refugees been portrayed in the Czech media in recent years?
A: The main representation of a refugee is that of a dark-skinned man coming on a boat or a man at the borders or in a camp. That is the general idea of refugees but I wouldn't say that the media portrayal is negative per se. The media is often about controversy and shock. The goal is not objective information but to shock people. The news is always about what is wrong in the world which makes refugees seem like a negative thing more than people who are in trouble. Their backgrounds, the countries that they are running from, are not presented.
When I talk to people about homelessness, for example, I see that they have very simplistic ideas about it. But those who work with the issue know the context and can see the depth of the problem on a different level than the public. It is much more complicated than the stereotype which does not allow for depth. The same applies to the existing perception of refugees. The media wants simplicity and perhaps they don't have the will to look at the issue more deeply.
When I was a social worker my knowledge about Islam and Muslims was much less than it is now, very simplified and stereotypical too. Just by working directly with more and more people I've now got more experience and recognise that most of the people, no matter where they are from, no matter which language they speak, no matter what their belief is, are trying to solve similar issues in their lives, that they have similar needs and look for ways to fulfil those needs and are trying to live a happy life.
Q: How have refugees been portrayed in Czech politics in recent years?
A: When Czech politicians talk about migration they often confuse the issue with refugee issues. There are 600,000 official migrants in this country, most of them labour migrants. Politicians talk about this country as being anti-migration but the number of migrants is increasing. Mostly from Ukraine. This is, of course, confusing to the public.
Most of the political rhetoric is about how politicians are protecting the Czech population and the Czech public is listening and thinking about the issue of refugees in this context. Especially before every election, the issue of refugees is highlighted. The politicians make themselves out to be saviours by creating fear about the refugees who are coming to Italy and Greece. Another issue that is often in focus is the threat of Islam.
Q: What are some of the initiatives that your organisation CIC takes to discourage misinformation and stereotypes about refugees and migrants?
A: Well, we don’t at present have any initiatives or campaigns that address misinformation but in the past, we had some campaigns about stereotypes and tried to influence the Czech public opinion. But our main goal is to provide services for people in need. I know that in this context that may seem limited. In Czech we say krátkozraký…
Q: Do you mean 'short-sighted'?
A: Yes, perhaps it can be seen as 'short-sighted' but I feel that when we try to raise more awareness, we are targeted by the public. When I look at our people (employees), they are just trying to do their jobs and I would rather they had the peace of mind to do their work than to be harassed by the public. It is important to point out that the development of services in other regions is a struggle that takes a lot of energy and we don't need to add more which would burden the organisation beyond our capacities. It would split our focus in too many directions.
Samaré Gozal is a Swedish documentary filmmaker and writer. Samaré is the co-founder of Ramz Media, based in Norway, and has worked internationally for years. She is currently living in Prague. You can follow the work of Ramz Media on Facebook: @ramzmedia.