Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar are the Emmy-award winning filmmakers of Made in L.A. (MadeinLA.com), a feature documentary that tells the story of three immigrant women’s transformation as they fight for their rights in Los Angeles garment factories. Praised by The New York Times as “an excellent documentary… about basic human dignity,” the film won numerous awards including an Emmy. Made in L.A. screened internationally at 100 film festivals and was the subject of an innovative community engagement campaign that led to more than 600 community and faith-based screenings that reached 30,000 people directly, in addition to the nearly two million people who viewed it on television.
Both professors had prestigious careers prior to Made in L.A. and they are currently directing and producing The Silence of Others, a cinematic portrait of the first attempt in history to prosecute crimes of the Franco era in Spain, which has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Sundance, ITVS and the Catapult Film Fund. They are also teaching a new course at NYU Madrid. Here they share their thoughts on teaching and filmmaking.
I understand you are teaching a new course at NYU Madrid. Can you tell us a bit about the course and why it’s exciting?
The course, which is called “Madrid Stories”, uses the process of making short documentary films to immerse students in researching, exploring and engaging with Madrid. We study Madrid as a city, we study documentary as a form, and we study documentary filmmaking skills. Students then apply what they are learning as they venture out into Madrid, in teams of two, to make their own short documentary films and, in the process, uncover new people, stories and places, and strive to represent Madrid in ways that may counterpose mainstream images.
This semester we’re running a short version of the course as a pilot. Students are creating short “City Symphony” films, a filmic subgenre that originated in the early days of cinema and that aims to capture the rhythm, dynamism and texture of a city or a neighborhood. In the Spring, we will run the full course, “Madrid Stories,” and students will make longer films that explore the city through stories of unique people and places.
It’s important to point out that this is not just a film production course. Students must investigate their subjects, write a well-researched proposal, and reflect upon and analyze their films and their experiences in a final paper. There are cultural readings about Madrid, as well as readings and discussions to help students develop their own creative voices and to explore issues of authorship, representation and construction in documentary film. It’s thus an opportunity to think critically about Madrid and about the creative process itself.
Even in the early days of this pilot, it’s thrilling to see the students so passionate about their subjects, and so deeply engaged with them by way of the filmmaking process. The “workshop” environment in the classroom is electric, and it’s exciting to see students sharing ideas and footage with their peers, and providing really valuable feedback on each other’s work.
In a month, this semester’s students will complete their films and we’ll have a festive screening where they will present their films to the NYU Madrid community and beyond, and each do a Q & A. Sharing your work with an audience for the first time can be nerve-wracking but also magical, and there’s already much excitement in the air!
NYU Madrid students Elizabeth Cortez and Olivia Valdez filming a scene with Professor Almudena Carracedo.
What are the academic backgrounds of your students?
The course has no prerequisites, and thus we are able to welcome a diverse group of students, which this semester includes students from Business, Communications, Political Science, Film, Television, Theater and individualized majors.
It’s easy to understand why Film, Television and Theater students would be attracted to the course. But the interest is so much wider, and, across disciplines, there seems to be a hunger for both practical and rhetorical multimedia storytelling skills. Business and marketing students, for example, increasingly need multimedia skills; communications are increasingly multiplatform. “Madrid Stories” offers an opportunity to develop these skills, and to nurture one’s artistic and creative voice in the process of doing research and fieldwork.
Finally, of course all of the students in Madrid are studying Spanish. “Madrid Stories” provides a special opportunity to go out into the city and practice using the language, while also enabling students to team up to accommodate varying levels of language skills.
As Emmy-award winning documentary filmmakers yourselves, what drew you to teaching and how does it inform your own work?
Teaching and mentoring have always been part of our filmmaking practice. Teaching filmmaking is exciting because you can really see when students start to “get it” and begin to express their own creative ideas through the form. Of course mastering the technical aspects is important, but it’s seeing new voices and points of view come through in the work that really excites us.
And there’s no question that teaching and mentoring helps us grow too. It forces us to distill, articulate and interrogate our own artistic process. And it forces us to consider and support diverse artistic voices, some of which may run counter to our own instincts. Finally, the “workshop” environment in the classroom every week is really immersive and dynamic, and it keeps us fresh, in a way that just going to our own studio every day couldn’t.
How do you think participating in your course deepens or alters the students’ understanding of Madrid?
When you move to a new place for a semester, it can be hard to go out and discover everything that that new place has to offer, especially the more subtle, interesting things that lie below the surface. “Madrid Stories” forces and empowers students to go out into the city to explore and to research, develop and produce their own documentary projects. It’s an active experience, and you can’t help but experience and engage with the city.
By making their projects really specific – for example, portraying a day in the life of one extraordinary, alternative, community-built plaza – students come to know exceptional places, they meet new people, and they become experts on a particular part of Madrid. Through those experiences, they deepen their understanding of the entire city. Ideally, it’s a process of researching, exploring, looking, and listening very carefully. Beyond their subjects and the filmmaking, we hope that they learn about themselves too, because their own artistic voices are also inherently part of their works.
In addition to the projects themselves, we also offer optional outings to documentary screenings in Madrid, and, in the Spring, we’re hoping to offer some exciting opportunities in partnership with other film-related cultural institutions in Madrid. Our hope is that the course will be a gateway to a very special experience in Madrid.
NYU Madrid students Paulina Orozco and Paloma Rabinov filming a scene in front of the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid’s Retiro Park.
I understand that you are in Spain working on a project that explores the first attempt to prosecute crimes of the Franco era in Spain. Can you tell us about that work?
Our film is called “The Silence of Others” and, for two and half years, we have been following a team of human rights lawyers and former victims – now plaintiffs – who have filed the first lawsuit in history to prosecute crimes of Spain’s Franco dictatorship. The case brings together victims of cases of stolen children, re-education camps, torture and extrajudicial killings from throughout Franco’s 40-year dictatorship. The case is known as the “Argentine Lawsuit” because it has been filed in Argentina where a Judge has taken it on using the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows courts to investigate crimes against humanity abroad if the country where they occurred refuses to do so.
After years of preparation, what started as a small, potentially quixotic effort has now yielded the first-ever arrest warrants for Franco-era officials, including most recently, two cabinet ministers. The case has also brought this nearly forgotten struggle to the front page of The New York Times.
But while the film is structured around the court case, our approach is deeply human and personal, and we are focusing on the stories of the plaintiffs, to understand what they experienced under the dictatorship, and to follow them on their journey in the lawsuit. Just like our previous film, “Made in L.A.” (www.MadeinLA.com), it is quite an intense, lengthy process. There are thematic parallels to our previous film too, as both deal with intense personal journeys of breaking silence and overcoming invisibility.
What do you look for in developing projects and how do you convey what will make a film work to your students?
We really want to see projects that work in two ways. First, the story, plot, characters and cinematic potential all have to be there. We want to be surprised, intrigued and awakened. But we also want to see films that have layers and subtext, and thus we are constantly asking what a film is trying to say, why a story is important, and how a very specific story, with all of its beautiful details, can convey something bigger or universal.
Vision and passion are infectious, and we’re also always watching to see what each student will bring to their story that is special. In short, we ask: why are you the right person to tell this story? Beyond that, of course we want to be sure that each project is based on a solid foundation of research and that students have spent time developing and becoming passionate about their projects.
What sorts of questions are you encouraging them to ask about Madrid?
We really encourage students to look at Madrid, and to consider its history, its architecture, its people, its neighborhoods, and its place in the Spanish imaginary. We hope that they will come to see Madrid with a documentarian’s gaze and challenge assumptions embedded in mainstream representations of Madrid and Spain. How do certain neighborhoods or streets represent how Spain itself is changing? What demographic trends are taking place in Spain right now and how might one represent them? What little, off-the-beaten path stories might help unlock Madrid’s past? What stories point the way towards its future? What aspects of Madrid do even Madrileños overlook? And how does our position as outsiders impact our choices in representing Madrid?
Is there anything else you would like to add?
We just want to express our special thanks to NYU Madrid former Director, James Fernandez, who spearheaded the development of this course, to current NYU Director Robert Lubar, and to everyone at NYU Madrid, NYU’s Office of Global Programs, the Department of Journalism, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and the College of Arts and Science, all of which have supported the vision for this course and have invested in brand-new equipment and all of the resources needed to make this a reality. We join them in the excitement of seeing the films that our students will create each semester!
NYU Prague Site Director Jiří Pehe spent six years as a senior political advisor to the late Czech president Václav Havel, a position that allowed him unique access to the inner circle of the renowned former dissident, playwright and political leader. Pehe, born in Czechoslovakia in 1955, fled his country in 1981 – escaping the communist bloc in the trunk of a car. He made a new life for himself in America, worked for Radio Free Europe in Munich, and finally moved back to Prague in 1995.
Jiří: I was born in a town in Western Bohemia called Rokycany, into the family of a military officer. My father ran into problems after the 1968 Soviet invasion, and with him the whole family. So I grew up changing schools quite often, because my father was always being transferred from one place to another – up until 1968 because he’d been promoted or deployed somewhere, after 1968 as a matter of punishment because he’d opposed the invasion”
Rob: So you were a Czech ‘army brat’, to use the American term.
Jiří: Yeah, I was to some extent, but in the context that people in the U.S. don’t really know. That is that even the fortunes of a military officer could be changed by ’68, depending on how they saw their army mission; whether they saw it as mainly serving communism or mainly as serving their country. And I think that was the line that many officers in 1968 had to draw.
Rob: Was your father expelled from the army, or did he stay until he retired?
Jiří: My father stayed in the army, but he could no longer be promoted. So he was shifted around to various jobs, such as a facility in Moravia which repaired tanks and so on. He really wasn’t allowed to remain in any commanding position.
Rob: Was he in the Party?
Jiří: Before 68, yes. Yes.
Rob: And then he renounced it? Or he was expelled?
Jiří: I don’t exactly know what happened. To this day he doesn’t like to talk about it. I guess it’s one of those traumatic experiences that if you don’t want to upset your old parents, you don’t go into.
Rob: What did your father’s opposition to the invasion mean for you, as a boy in his early teens?
Jiří: It meant some problems getting into high school, and later on university. I wanted to study philosophy, but that wasn’t really possible with my political profile. So in the end I got into law school at Prague’s Charles University. There I managed to start parallel studies at the Philosophy Faculty, and the advantage of that was that you could choose your courses. So you could bypass Marxist-Leninism, Scientific Communism and all that crap. I mainly focused on the Greek philosophers, medieval philosophy, and then German philosophers of the 19th century.
Rob: So you graduated when?
Jiří: I graduated in 1978. But then I had to go for a year into the Czechoslovak Army.
Rob: Of course, as all men then did.
Jiří: Yes, it was mandatory. I was actually assigned to a tank unit. And that was a terrible experience. I really didn’t like it. In the end I managed to get a transfer to a unit that was responsible for refuelling the tanks. So I was actually in charge of a small gas station for most of my army duty.
Rob: So you didn’t like being cooped up in the tanks themselves.
Jiří: Not really, no. I’m slightly claustrophobic, so I really didn’t enjoy the exercises where we had to drive the tank underwater. Sometimes the tank got stuck, and it would take them a few hours to pull us out. It was torture for me. I was glad to get a transfer somewhere else.
Rob: Tell me about your political consciousness at that point. Did you already feel in opposition to the regime?
Jiří: I have to say it was a gradual process. But it was greatly helped by the events of ’68. You could divide it into several stages; before ’68, when we lived in this sweet oblivion. As kids we believed the system was basically good. And of course we were told in school that the Soviet Union was our friend. I think our parents really tried very hard not to contradict this very much. After ’68, things changed very quickly. We were all exposed to this shock, and at the age of 13 I suddenly saw what the regime was all about. But my real eye-opening wasn’t until the first years of university in Prague, when I started reading dissident and samizdat publications at my uncle’s apartment – he was a journalist. It was like visiting a different world, a different era, much freer and intellectually much more advanced than the era we were forced to live in.
Rob: Were you aware at that point of Václav Havel and the dissidents grouped around him?
Jiří: Well all of us listened to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. So we followed what Havel and the others were saying. Of course we were all aware of what they did in 1977, when they signed the Charter 77 human rights declaration. And actually many of us in the student community had to resolve a dilemma – if I sign this at the age of 22, I will be thrown out of university immediately. I will be forced to do menial jobs, maybe for the rest of my life. I will probably also harm all the members of my family, who will be persecuted. The second option was to go along with the regime. And the third was to try to leave. Leaving was highly risky. Everyone knew you had to plan it carefully. But I chose the third option. I decided that as soon as I finished university I would use the first opportunity to leave. And I did so in 1981.
Rob: How did you manage it?
Jiří: My first wife and I managed to get on a trip to Yugoslavia. It was a communist country, but one with a more liberal regime. If you went with an organised tour group, and got all the stamps, you could go. So we got on this holiday to Crikvenica, a coastal town in today’s Croatia. It wasn’t easy to get out of Yugoslavia. We first tried to do it by getting a bus from Koper [now in Slovenia] – across the border to Trieste in Italy. The problem was that the Czechoslovak authorities had put a stamp in our passports saying that this passport was only valid to enter Yugoslavia. So each time we tried to cross the Yugoslav-Italian border they turned us back. After three or days we went back to Crikvenica, where the Czechoslovak tour guide told us that we’d been reported to the authorities in Prague. As soon as we heard that, we started asking German and Austrian tourists to take us across the border.
Rob: In the trunk of their car you mean?
Jiří: Yes. Of course most of them were afraid. In the end we met two Austrian students who had a Citroën 2CV. And they basically loaded us into the trunk.
Rob: The trunk of a Citroën 2CV? That’s not a big car.
Jiří: Yes. Two adults in the trunk of a Citroën 2CV. It was one of the most terrible experiences of my life. The trunk was small for one person, let alone two. They drove us to the border crossing, stopped in a field, crammed us into the trunk, and went across the border. We had to wait at the Italian border for about 40 minutes, and the fumes went into the trunk. Also we couldn’t move. We thought we would suffocate. But then the car suddenly started moving, then stopped again, and the trunk opened. We fell out into the dust; we had no blood circulation left in our legs. And I still remember these two students – it was a he and she, she was eight months’ pregnant – dancing around us and screaming ‘Freiheit!’ (Freedom!). And that was my first impression of the West.
Rob: What was going through your mind at that point?
Jiří: Well of course that we were free, that’d we’d managed to do it, but at the same time we knew that’d we’d basically lost our families. Because it was impossible to go back, and we didn’t know whether we would ever see our parents again.
There followed several weeks in prison, then an Italian refugee camp, then emigration to the U.S., where Jiří Pehe and his wife were granted asylum as political refugees. His first job was as a night receptionist at the Hotel Algonquin in New York, where he read voraciously and improved his English. After that he studied international relations at Columbia University, worked for Freedom House and finally joined Radio Free Europe, as an analyst at the broadcaster’s then headquarters in Munich, in 1988. It was thanks to RFE that Jiří was to set foot on his native soil once again, a few days after the start of the Velvet Revolution in November 1989. The head of RFE’s Czechoslovak Section Pavel Pecháček – the first journalist to report live from the demonstrations on Wenceslas Square – had been expelled, and RFE were looking for someone to replace him.
Jiří: I actually had to go to the Czechoslovak embassy in Bonn, and when I got there, the staff of the embassy including the ambassador were lined up outside waiting for me. They told me how they’d been listening to Radio Free Europe for such a long time and how they were so happy to be able to give me a visa! That was the moment I really understood that the revolution had won. Because if all of these former spies and agents were lined up to welcome someone like me, it was clear they knew the game was up. So I went to Prague.
Rob: How did you travel?
Jiří: I took a plane, from Bonn. I remember my first impressions were very unpleasant. When I arrived at the airport, it was still this communist-style airport, with dour officials and so on. And then I saw Prague, and of course when you spend a lot of time away from your home, with the idea you will never come back, you tend to idealise the place. And what I saw after all those years living in the West, in New York and Munich, was basically a decrepit, unfriendly city, with a lot of smog and pollution. Of course it was also very joyful; I was able to see my parents, I was able to go to a lot of places where history was taking place, and meeting people who were making history.
Rob: That must have been an incredible time.
Jiří: I’ll tell you just one anecdote to document how history was happening. I remember that on the 10th of December 1989, I went to the apartment of the dissident Petr Uhl. Civic Forum had just managed to negotiate a compromise with the Communist regime, and it was the day that a government of national reconciliation – in which half of the seats were taken by Communists and half by dissidents – was named. As I got to his apartment, the phone rang. For many years under communism, Uhl had been employed as a coal stoker in a boiler room, with his friend and fellow dissident Jiri Dienstbier. And the guy on the phone was one of their colleagues – he was a stoker, not a dissident. And I could hear this guy saying to Uhl – so what’s going on? Are you and Dienstbier coming to work tonight? And Uhl said – well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but Dienstbier has just been named the Minister of Foreign Affairs. There was this long silence, and then the guy said – So is he coming to work or not? So Uhl said – Well yeah, he’s coming for one more shift – he’s not going to leave you in a bind – but tomorrow he’s going on an official visit to Germany.
In 1995 Radio Free Europe moved to Prague. Two years later, Jiří became chief political advisor to President Václav Havel. It was a position which has to a degree defined him. Today he’s regarded – rightly or wrongly – as one of the guardians of Havel’s legacy, and in the polarised Czech society that is certainly not an unequivocally positive label. A respected political commentator, he has many ideological enemies, chief among them Havel’s nemesis and successor Václav Klaus. The Czech transition from communism to democracy certainly hasn’t been smooth, but as Jiří says, it is still very much a work in progress.
Jiří :Ralf Dahrendorf said in his famous speech on transition in 1990 that it will take us about five years to establish a system of political democracy. It’ll take about 10 years to establish a sort-of functioning market economy. It’ll take fifteen years to establish the rule of law. But it’ll take about 60 years – two generations – to create a real, fully-fledged democracy with a functioning civil society. And we really didn’t know what this meant, what he was talking about – if we have all of these institutions and mechanisms in place, we have democracy, no? What he meant is that democracy has two faces. One is institutional and procedural, and one is cultural. It’s a long process. It’s a generational process. In the Old Testament, Moses takes the Jews out of Egypt, and then they spend two generations in the desert. That’s not a coincidence. It’s to signify that it takes two generations to transform a nation of slaves into a self-respecting nation that can find its homeland.
Rob Cameron is the BBC’s Prague correspondent and a former NYU Prague professor, currently working with students on a new podcast program that started in the fall semester. You can hear the latest edition, on the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, here: https://soundcloud.com/nyupraguecast/velvet-anniversary
PHOTO CREDITS: Laura Zablit
PHOTO CREDIT: Josh Yoo
What is your school affiliation and what year are you? What is your major?
I am an undergrad junior at the College of Arts and Science, double majoring in History and Journalism.
What inspired you to study in Washington, DC?
NYU currently has 13 global academic centers and campuses, so it is definitely worth grabbing an opportunity to study away. As an international student, Washington, D.C. is the perfect choice for me, because I can experience a different city while staying in America. New York and D.C. are two important cities in their own ways. As a journalism major, it is especially nice to explore different environments: New York is more like an economic and cultural hub, whereas D.C. is place for politicians and policy-makers. The two are also very close to each other, so I travel between them frequently.
How has your experience been thus far?
D.C. may be the most vibrant place many people will ever live in their entire life, but I come from Hong Kong and study at NYU, so D.C. in comparison is really calm and quiet to me. During the weekdays it is quite nice actually, but once it gets dark and during the weekends, it becomes a ghost town. A semester away from the super-busy urban life is great, and D.C. indeed has a lot to offer. My favorite class here is Investigating Journalism; my professor, Dan Vergano, really takes advantage of our being in Washington. In the context of All the President’s Men — one of the course’s required readings — he has taken us to the headquarters of the Washington Post, the White House, and right outside of the Watergate complex, where the political scandal of Richard Nixon all began. Seeing these places enables us to get more out of the class than we otherwise would have if we were taking the class back in New York.
Where are you interning and how have you found the internship experience?
I intern at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History where I work for the Division and Home and Community Life. I found the internship with assistance from NYU D.C. I study 20th century Chicago, with a research focus on popular music history and intellectual history. I think the work at the museum matches perfectly with my two majors: I can apply my knowledge in History as well as my passion in Journalism to make complex ideas accessible to the general public. I am enjoying it a lot so far.
I understand that you are from Hong Kong. How has it felt to observe the political upheaval in your home from the political heart of the United States? I also understand you have organized a solidarity movement, can you tell us about that?
This year, many core democratic values that Hong Kongers pride themselves on have been threatened. When I applied to study in D.C. back in February, not much had happened. Beginning with the assault on Kevin Lau — the former chief editor of Ming Pao, a pro-democratic newspaper in Hong Kong — so much has gone on. The ongoing occupy movement was sparked by Beijing’s decision on August 31, which states that candidates wishing to stand for the Chief Executive election of 2017 must first gain approval from half of the nominating committee, comprised mostly of tycoons and social elites in favor of the government. This process will allow China to screen out any opposition, and hence, is undemocratic.
Had I known about these things happening now, I would definitely have applied to the D.C. program in another semester; but of course, none of these were predictable. There is more going on in New York related to Hong Kong as it has a much larger Chinese community. They invited me to speak at a press conference on September 1 immediately following Beijing’s announcement, and I literally booked my bus ticket to New York just hours before the trip, with no time to think or plan. It was a pretty crazy experience. Since then, I have been involved in co-organizing several protests both in D.C. and New York. Through social media, we also formed a strong network of overseas Hong Kongers from all across the world in solidarity with the protests back home. We decided that on October 1 — China’s National Day — we would each lead a rally and over 50 cities ended up joining.
Here in D.C., our protest was originally going to be held outside of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office. We applied for a permit last minute to gather right outside of the White House, and it was approved! It was even more significant on that day because the Obama Administration just issued a statement earlier in response to the online petition that had received 100,000 signatures, urging America to “support Hong Kong democracy and prevent a second Tiananmen Massacre.” The White House’s response clearly conveyed that message.
I played the guitar and led the protesters to sing several Cantonese theme songs of the Umbrella Revolution outside of the White House. Organizing this has been one of the most interesting things I have ever done; the experience with, for example, communicating and negotiating with the police department, is unique and invaluable. Washington, D.C. itself is the product of a winning war for freedom and democracy, while the White House is its heart. So when a similar struggle for freedom and democracy is has broken out in my hometown, this protest was significant in the sense that we were able to be there and spread our message.
PHOTO CREDIT: Josh Yoo
What has happened since the rally?
Later that night, I got a call from a representative of the Wei Jingsheng Foundation, founded and named after the famous activist, who fought for democracy in China during the 1970s and was imprisoned for 18 years. I was informed about a Congressional event taking place the next day, which they wanted to add Hong Kong to the agenda because of the ongoing events. Our group of students, most of us who just met each other, decided to go. Among others in Congress, we met and addressed Hong Kong’s situation to Representative Frank Wolf, who has been a long-term advocate for human rights in China.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your time in DC?
I spoke at Newsday, a BBC news show, back in mid-September when the class boycotts first broke out in Hong Kong. I am a Journalism major so I am familiar with the newsroom and with interviewing people, but being interviewed felt completely different. I was experiencing news production at a truly international level: I spoke at the Washington, D.C. bureau, the anchor who asked me questions was in Singapore, and the control room was in London. After the show, they told me that I just spoke in front of a couple million people, who, from every corner around the world, watched it live from the BBC World News channel. It is still unimaginable even now when I think back.
I have to admit it is difficult at times to keep up with my academic work while simultaneously having to do so many other things, especially with everything going on back home. I sincerely thank some of my professors who are very helpful and understanding of what I am going through. I admire Americans, because they are born with free speech and a democratic system — something they can rightfully take for granted — which the people before them have fought hard for. Unfortunately, many often fail to notice that this is not the case in other parts of the world. As I would argue, something akin to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or more recently, to Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement, is being staged in my hometown now: people are standing up to say, “This is enough”; people are standing up to show that they no longer wish to live their life confined by an unjust.
I try to do whatever I can overseas to support them, because I consider Hong Kong home. When I return there one day after I graduate, I wish to return to a land free from oppression. At the end of the day, I am confident that what I am doing is correct, because I genuinely care about my hometown and my country.
I came to Washington, D.C. since I have a strong interest in politics and that I believe freedom and democracy are universal values. Martin Luther King is one of the people I respect the most. He dedicated his life to leading massive civil disobedience movements to fight for what he believed was correct. I visited the Lincoln Memorial a while ago and stood in the exact spot where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech urging an end to racism 51 years ago. Today, civil disobedience is the model that Hong Kong protesters have adopted in their fight for universal suffrage and a clean government. This is not an easy path, but just like every Hong Konger out there in the streets, I will do anything I can, so later generations can live in a freer and brighter future.
PHOTO CREDIT: Josh Yoo
HackShanghai is a 24-hour programming marathon for the top college hackers in China. It will be held at NYU Shanghai on 15 – 16 November. Students work in teams to build a tech product within the time limit, competing for ¥100,000+ in prizes. Tech companies and startups will also be recruiting at the event.
HackShanghai is independently student-run by a group of students from NYU Shanghai. For more details, visit their website: http://www.hackshanghai.com
NYU Buenos Aires Tango and Mass Culture Professor and Princeton Phd, Edgardo Dieleke, was nominated for “Premios Sur” Best Documentary Award for his feature-length film La forma exacta de las islas (The exact shape of the islands). The Argentine Academy of Cinematography Arts and Sciences, presided by Oscar winner José Campanella, will grant its “Premio Sur” Awards on December 2014.
Professor Dieleke’s documentary tells the story of Julieta Vitullo’s trips to the Malvinas/Falklands islands. Initially travelling to complete her PhD thesis on how the islands were represented in Argentine literature and cinema, she meets two Argentine war veterans who return to the islands after 25 years. Julieta changes her trip plans to film and experience the islands with them.
La forma exacta de las islas brings a new perspective to the Malvinas/Falklands conflict, putting aside the war between England and Argentina in 1982, to explore the human side of the subject. The documentary shows emotional consequences, post-conflict sentiments and beautiful landscapes.
As part of a tour to England and Spain to show the documentary at universities, Professor Dieleke was invited to do a preview at NYU London in February 2014. His film was also selected to be presented and discussed at IMS, a Brazilian Non-Profit Cultural Institution, by film curator José Carlos Avellar.
NYU Berlin Assistant Director for Academics and historian Roland Pietsch reflects on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and how it is being observed at NYU Berlin:
“Incredible! Just incredible!” was the common exclamation of Berliners East and West when the wall fell over night in November 1989. They used the German word “Wahnsinn”, literally translated as “madness” or “crazy”, but meaning something like incredibly amazing. What was “incredible” and “crazy” back then has now become everyday life. This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the most symbolic event of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. In some parts of Berlin it has become difficult to identify where the wall once stood. It is perhaps no coincidence that as part of the official celebrations marking the 25th anniversary the authorities opted for a light installation that recreates the wall and then lifts it into the sky, to remind Berliners of what a harsh division through their city this was.
As part of NYU Berlin’s Global Orientations course – a class taught at each of NYU’s global sites, which introduces students to the past and present of the city that will be their home for a semester – NYUB’s professors take the newly arrived students in small groups on their own Berlin Wall walk, mixing the general history with their personal experiences. The wall separated Berlin into East and West from 1961 to 1989, and it turned West Berlin into an island within East Germany. It was the most visible manifestation of the “Iron Curtain” that divided Cold War Europe, allowing visa-restricted traffic from West to East yet hardly any movement at all from the East, with border guards even shooting at people who tried to cross into the West.
I shared my group walk with Dr. Elke Brüns, who teaches an Introduction to German Literature to those NYU Berlin students who have advanced knowledge in the German language. Elke Brüns has published widely on post-Wall literature in East and West Germany. She and I are neighbours and hence decided to merge our groups, aiming to give the students two Western perspectives, with Elke as someone who moved to West Berlin as a student and me who was born here. Walking along the former border where we live, in the West Berlin districts of Neukölln and Kreuzberg, means walking along the water: first the canal and then the river Spree (the wall stood on the opposite shore). Nowadays it is part of my running routine to jog along the Western side of the canal, and then switch over at the bridge near the river and run back home on the former East’s side. I do this without thinking how easily I change sides where not too long ago an impenetrable border stood, or that I actually run along a cleared path that used to be called the “death strip”. Actually, today it already appears unimaginable that this wall once stood here, not only to our NYU students, but also to any Berliner born after 1989 and if I’m honest even to myself – a wall that provides such sad tales as the one we tell the students at the spot at the river where we have our lunch break: In May 1975, the boy Cetin Mert, on the day of his fifth birthday, was playing here with a ball, on the West Berlin side. Cetin’s parents had emigrated from Turkey and settled like so many Turkish families in the West Berlin borough of Kreuzberg, a district that due to its many borders with the East had been considered undesirable in West Berlin. At one point, Cetin’s ball rolled down the steep river bank into the water. When he tried to fish it out of the water with a stick, Cetin fell into the river himself. The river Spree at this point was East German territory. West Berlin emergency services arrived within minutes, but with the water being watched by armed border guards likely to shoot, neither they nor any onlookers dared to dive into the river to search for the boy. Frantic negotiations at the border crossing at the nearby Oberbaum Bridge lead to nothing, and so it took forty minutes until an East German border patrol boat finally arrived, only for its divers to recover Cetin’s dead body. The five-year old had drowned only a few meters from the shoreline.
Cetin was not the only boy: four other West Berlin children drowned at the same spot under similar circumstances, each tragedy being followed by a debate in how far the political situation had prevented a timely rescue. While the West branded the cases as evidence of the barbarity of the East, the East insisted that they had been mere accidents and that the West was blocking any agreement on how to deal with such emergencies. Indeed the West feared that East Germany would use such a treaty to press for an official recognition of the legality of the border. Cetin’s death finally forced both parties to sign such an agreement for emergencies in border waters, allowing rescue from the West. The West also put up a fence at the river, so that no more children could fall in. The border became more established. In the same year, 1975, the East began to renew the wall by installing its latest model of the concrete barrier, the one that we commonly associate with the wall and that is today scattered as souvenirs around the globe.
Other dramatic scenes had played out near the site of our walk’s lunch break. In 1962, at the lock, where the canal hits the river, a group of thirteen men and women, one with a baby, trying to flee East Germany, hijacked an East Berlin leisure boat, rammed it into the canal lock and jumped onto the West Berlin shore while dodging the bullets of the East German border guards.
Yet as Elke and I walk along the water that once divided the city, instead of shuddering in horror at these stories, we quickly fall into happy memories, painting an almost idyllic picture of life by the wall in West Berlin. While photos of West Berlin in history books and television documentaries usually feature a lot of concrete and grey colours, our memories appear green and fun, an urban life with all its excitements but less of the hectic pace of normal big cities. In terms of space, West Berlin almost equalled the combined size of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx together, but it only had a third of the population.
The contrast between our happy memories and the deaths at the Wall are difficult to explain to the NYU students. Elke also has to tell them why it was not a contradiction that she moved to a walled-in city for the freedom it offered, as did so many other young people from West Germany. West Berlin to them was an escape from the perceived boredom and provinciality of their West German home towns. Here they experimented with new forms of living and working together, living in large flat shares or even squatted houses – both possible thanks to West Berlin’s population drain and government keeping rents low to counter the abandonment of the city. All of her friends, Elke remembers, were active in artistic, political or social projects. And nightlife changed into day-life seamlessly, with no curfew interrupting it. This actually continued in post-Wall Berlin, as East Berlin brought with it many more abandoned buildings and spaces along with lax regulation by the authorities. It does not sound like a walled-in prison, does it? Elke rhetorically asks the students. She never regretted moving to West Berlin.
I on the other hand had no choice: I was born in West Berlin. I have lived my entire youth surrounded by the wall. My generation did not know anything else. Yet we hardly ever noticed the wall in our everyday lives. West Berlin was our world. Though Westerners were allowed to enter the East by paying for a visa, few of us were interested in what went on behind the wall, in supposedly dull grey Socialism. To most young West Berliners born during the time of the wall, the East was primarily something they had to get through on their way to their holiday destinations (to do that, they had to stick to certain motorways and trains, or airplanes, to avoid having to pay for a visa). Maybe we were sometimes even a bit proud of the wall: it made us feel special, the world’s attention was on us, fuelling the illusion that we were living in an international metropolis when in reality West Berlin felt in many ways more like an oversized village. For once you left the centres of alternative culture that Elke Brüns nostalgically described to the students, West Berlin was as provincial as any German town Elke and her friends had left behind.
In our eyes, the wall was the Easterners’ own doing. It was their wall, and it was they who were trapped behind it, not us in free West Berlin. We were undoubtedly children of the Cold War, on both sides. Clearly defined physical border lines had opened up gaps in the city, buildings that once stood on the front line had made space for the empty “death strip”. East and West Berlin had literally moved out of sight of each other. It looked as if the “Iron Curtain” had succeeded in estranging East and West Germans, at least those that were not bound by family ties. We rarely questioned the wall until a few months before it fell. Politically we were more occupied with campaigns against the South African Apartheid regime or the deepening of the (Western) European Union than with the wall in front of us dividing Germany. That only changed in 1989 when thousands of East Germans openly questioned the “Iron Curtain”: then interest and solidarity were reawakened.
My own knowledge of the East had been slightly better than that of others my age, since my mother had left East Germany (and her parents) shortly before the wall was built. Hence we spent about four holidays a year visiting my grandparents, aunties and cousins at the Baltic Sea; when the price of the daily visa increased, the holidays became shorter but even more special occasions. Today we joke that family relations were never again as close and harmonious as they were during the time of the division. My cousins, incidentally, fled East Germany via Czechoslovakia in October 1989. By the time they arrived at our doorstep, half of East Germany had already been to West Berlin entirely legally. For the wall had fallen on November 9th. It was the combination of an almost casual comment by a government official at a press conference, a decision-making vacuum in the East German leadership, and an excited rapid response by masses of people and the Western media that turned the intended loosening of travel restrictions for East Germans into the complete opening of the wall overnight, creating a party-atmosphere that delivered a symbolic final blow to the Communist regime. It did not come as the complete surprise as it is sometimes portrayed, however, as the loosening of travel restrictions had been discussed by the East German authorities in the days leading up to that joy- and tearful night on November 9th. Albeit they had planned something more controlled like a visa-restricted travel allowance of a limited number of days per year per person. The fact that other Communist countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia had already created holes in the “Iron Curtain”, and East Germans were fleeing in masses via these countries, while those remaining in East Germany took to the streets in peaceful protests against the government, had left them in need of some response.
I show our students a photo of myself from a history book, taken the next morning after the opening, with me standing in the crowds on top of the wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate (the only strip where the wall had a flat top): I am looking down at my camera, slightly concerned; just at that moment my film must have finished. I am embarrassed to admit that I had deliberately taken only one film with me, not wanting to take too many photos. Analogue photo days were expensive, and I had already spent a lot of pocket money on films during my long summer holiday. So today I am left with 36 photos from the day the Berlin Wall fell, and 180 photos from my summer railway trip through (Western) Europe. But maybe that is indeed the relative importance of historic events to personal lives expressed in numbers. Life goes on, at least on the surface, and perhaps my concerned face in the history book’s photo was also me thinking it was time to go home, for there was an exam in school the following Monday and we had skipped the last class before it. Something similar brought Elke to write her professorial thesis on West and East German literature after the fall of the wall: As a young student she had always imagined how exciting the times of the French Revolution and similar turbulent periods in history must have been for contemporaries. Then the wall fell – and life in West Berlin appeared to simply continue as it did before. But of course it only appeared that way, for today West Berlin is as much consigned to the past as East Germany – a past that we are trying to trace with the students, standing at spots were we once enjoyed the sunshine lying in the grass, very near the wall yet hardly noticing it then – with the result that today again and again we share an unsure look when the students ask us “So was this the spot where the wall stood, or was it over there?”
NYU Prague students worked around the clock as reporters for the recent Forum 2000 Conference, Democracy and its Discontents a Quarter of a Century after the Iron Curtain and Tiananmen Square. This annual event was founded by Vaclav Havel to bring together world leaders, activists, artists and dissidents.
NYU Prague students – along with students from other local universities – reported the spontaneous and sometimes controversial remarks of panelists such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of Russia’s leading businessman and longest-serving political prisoners. “My job was to summarize in two paragraphs what was discussed in the panels; I had to make sure that I conveyed the basic sense of what everyone said and figure out the narrative of the panel,” said NYU student reporter Alex Braverman, who covered 5 panels in two days. These reports were then posted on the website and became part of the official archive of Forum 2000. “It was a whirlwind – the most intense two days of my life.”
Before each panel started student reporters introduced themselves to the panel moderators, who included former US and Czech ambassadors, the director of Amnesty International and other international nonprofits, Czech governmental ministers, and former presidents.
“I am a history major, it was very cool to see people you usually only see on a screen. In the debates, much more original thoughts came out than when you see public speakers giving scripted speeches.” said Alex Braverman. “On one panel about Egypt, there was a representative of the Egyptian government. His comments sparked an intense argument with the other panelists from the West – I don’t think anyone expected it to get so passionate.”
The entire process of reporting on the 66 panels at this huge conference was coordinated by intern and NYU Prague student Lillian Marx. “It was intense week,” said Lillian, who also was in charge of editing all of the material that came to her. “The Forum 2000 full-time professional staff is young and dependent on volunteer interns- I couldn’t believe the responsibility that I was given.”
In addition to Lillian and her staff of student reporters, other students could attend events, which were free and open to the public. Russian language professor Tatiana Stihelova took students to a presentation by keynote speaker Mikhail Khodorkovsky so they could hear the language and see world-famous figures in person. Yena Oh, one of her students, studies US politics. “I came in to the conference with little knowledge about the politics of Russia. My eyes were opened to so many different perspectives. Especially because we’re so close to Russia here, events there seem even more relevant.”
Alex Braverman also was struck by how her perspective broadened at the conference. “I had no idea how repressive the governments of Belarus and Azerbaijan were Ales Bialiatski [a human rights activist in Belarus and Nobel Peace Prize nominee] was at the Forum; he was just out of prison. Before this conference, I hadn’t thought about political prisoners as such an issue. It is so potent when you see them in front of you and realize what issues people in different countries struggle against.”
Tammy Tan was another NYU Prague student reporter. “The fact that we were able to participate and hear from world leaders and disruptive figures was simply amazing. Whilst many of the speakers came from around the world, the majority of them were from Europe and the Middle East and that allowed speakers to take from their cultural background and inject their own perspectives. For example, during the Middle Eastern panel, I wasn’t surprised to see the growing discontent amongst the panelists with regards to the US and their questionable foreign policies. I feel that if the conference were to be held in NYC, it would definitely be more high profile and the issues would be addressed from an American standpoint.“
Several students noted how optimistic many people on the panels and in the audiences were when it came to concepts of democracy. “It seems like the further removed you are from the fight for democracy, the more skeptical you are about it,” noted Alex. “For us, democracy is a given. But here, they are only one generation removed from democracy. If you had had the conference in NYC, there would have been much more cynicism. The experience at Forum made me so grateful to live in a country that’s guaranteed to stay democratic, and it made me question why we’re so cynical about democracy.”
Vaclav Havel created the Forum to promote dialogue; this dialogue continues, and our students took a very active role in the 2014 conference. “I felt extremely humbled to hear first-hand from these key figures about how they have affected change,“ said Tammy Tan. “The most valuable aspect of the Forum 2000 experience was seeing people from all walks of life join together for one night to discuss, contemplate, and provoke further dialogue about issues that may not be actively prominent in the news, but are nevertheless being constantly endured by communities around the world.“
One of the Forum 2000 events took place at NYU Prague, which hosted a panel exploring religion in Europe and its effect on identity. The panel, which included the 2014 Templeton Prize laureate Tomas Halik, can be heard at online at https://soundcloud.com/nyuprague/nyu-pragueforum-2000-panel-discussion-european-identity-and-religion.
On November 6, NYU Washington DC will host a program focused on the US midterm elections and their implications. The John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress and NYU Global Programs are sponsoring a dynamic panel of American political analysts, media experts, campaign insiders, and scholars discussing the 2014 midterm elections. With 35 Senate seats on the line, and all 435 House seats up for grabs, the panel will consider the results of the Congressional elections – analyzing campaign strategies, game-changing events and what lies ahead for the American people for the 2016 presidential election.