Pie Face Girls: Angry, Attentive, and Anti-HB2

We started off discussing Monsanto on slightly damp benches. Dani’s disdain for the company’s careless disruption of the natural flow of things quickly shifted into the group’s deep appreciation for the deliciousness of ugly fruit, specifically blood oranges from earlier in the summertime. “GMO OMG.”, she recommended, “It’s on Netflix.”.

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Pie Face Girls at Tactile Workshop for The Hopscotch Oasis. Dani on guitar, Tiffany on bass, Klay on drums.

I ran into the Raleigh-based band at The Hopscotch Oasis, a day party for the festival hosted by Tactile Workshop. Perfectly comfortable, super sweaty, and thoroughly entertaining on the half-pipe stage, they let us know right off the bat, “we are an angry band.”  Throughout the show they chatted openly with us about the festival, giving context to songs about catcalling, birth control, and white male privilege via Tinder. They also paid homage to the anti-HB2 banner displayed by Grayson and Tina Haver Currin and verbally harangued Gov. Pat McCrory. Everyone seemed to feel at home tucked away in the lush little backyard of Tactile Workshop, talking about real, impolite, human things. It was refreshing. North Carolina’s citizens, reputation, and economy remain marred by HB2, the discriminatory, anti-LGBT legislation passed with shady swiftness earlier this year. In the state’s capital, Hopscotch was a 3-day, 3-night invitation to explore music venues and vibes that felt worlds away from the North Carolina state legislature and wary of standing in its bigotry-tinged shadow.

Hey, Pat, happy Hopscotch. #hopscotch16

A photo posted by Grayson Currin (@currincy) on

 

At the Hopscotch Oasis that Saturday, Klay put it precisely – “Hopscotch is evil because they make you choose.” Hailing from Durham, I have spent a sporadic, limited time in Raleigh, and rarely spent it frolicking and Hopscotch was a great chance to bop around the city and its venues. I imagine it was that much harder to choose from this year’s impressive lineup while listed on it, to play three shows throughout the weekend. Pie Face Girls pulled through it, though. The band wistfully recalled Big Freedia and Erykah Badu, noting that in addition to favorites and legends like those, Hopscotch curates a strong, eclectic range of genres. Festival-goers could check out any artist for a solid show, and “it might push you outside of the zone that you anticipated,” Klay pointed out. Keep in mind, 40% of the 120-band Hopscotch lineup is local. Pie Face Girls made a point to shout out the experimental noise of Patrick Gallagher out of Carrboro, NC and all the artists they played with throughout the weekend, including Durham’s JooseLord Magnus at The Hopscotch Oasis. I missed JooseLord’s performance, but observed the mutual enthusiasm they had for a future collaboration following the show and immediately wanted to get to learn more about them both.

So, Pie Face Girls met me in Raleigh for an interview and as we discussed the challenges of navigating the vast Twitter community and the process of building ideas into action, we landed on a conversation about how the band are growing into themselves. Tiffany described this past year as the one where she realized that they could truly spread their reach and stand on their own, though “in the beginning, it was fun and games.” Now, they are looking to sustain themselves with what they love, acknowledging that it takes time.

Their straightforward statements, like those in “Fuck You, I’m Pretty” and the mantra, “Dick is Dead” really resonate with people – at The Hopscotch Oasis, it was like one big conversation. At the same time, Dani pointed out, entrepreneurship and marketing demand their own skills and are necessary for growth. Seeking that growth can feel farcical after years of creating and performing solely for the love of it. Surely, they do not want to sell out, but I’d assume that would be difficult for the members of Pie Face Girls – authenticity is part of their essence. Defiant honesty and self-knowledge course through their sound; their presence is a cool, collected indignation that reminds you, “if you’re not angry, then you’re not paying attention.

They are definitely paying attention.

The group posted up at Ruby Deluxe’s NC Pride Dance Party in Raleigh to register voters a few days after we talked, and has played alongside NC Music Love Army to raise money for efforts against HB2. The Love Army performs in protest, and “in support of sane governance for North Carolina”. Proceeds from these shows go to community and advocacy organizations Equality NC, LGBT Center of Raleigh and Now or Never NC.  Pie Face Girls recently played the Official Afterparty following Come Out and Show Them: A Benefit to Take Back Our State. The proceeds from that festival went to Common Cause NC, Democracy North Carolina, Southerners on New Ground and Come Out and Show Them’s efforts to keep activist artists’ shows in the state in order to redirect the funds for the work of repealing HB2.

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Tiffany, Dani, and Klay at Ruby Deluxe, handing out sexual health resources and getting people registered to vote.

Another way you’ll find Pie Face Girls in the mix could be a collective or record label for musicians in marginalized communities to come together – queer artists, trans and cis female artists and artists of color. North Carolina does not offer that in music production yet and the corrupt politics of this state only reinforce the need for such a space. As the idea grows, they are seeking collaborators that want to make a similar impact. Klay and Tiffany joked about whether they were included in the plans, and without missing a beat, Dani confirmed. At one point, she looked at them, then to me and said, “your fam is your support system.” They were quick to thank multiple bands, community members, and artist-activists for encouraging them from the beginning and as they’ve grown thus far, shouting out the staple Raleigh venue, Kings.

I had to ask, then, about the label on their ReverbNation profile from earlier on, “Do it your damn self”. It’s an empowering message, and at this point, it seems they are building on that spirit. that led them to record everything on their own in order to get their messages out into the world, then kept them performing and bettering themselves, but now with an explicit appreciation for collaboration. They are consciously taking themselves more seriously than ever and embracing the process.

Pie Face Girls take the impact of the craft beyond themselves as well, working with Girls Rock NC to guide young musicians as they lift their voices and build community through music. Dani helps to facilitate Teen Axn League, a team of female and trans youth, working year-round in conjunction with Girls Rock NC, to create safer spaces for teens in North Carolina, through organizing an overnight feminism and music summer camp every year.

When I asked about what is next to come, Dani stated, “as long as I can be an activist, I’m happy. As long as I can fight for the shit that matters in this world…because there’s a lot of shit to fight in this world.” Pie Face Girls’ raw yet inviting nature and open participation in activism come at a welcome time, when women’s rights and LGBTQ rights are threatened intensely at the state level, particularly in North Carolina. It is also a time when local policy implications are largely lost amongst the presidential election melee. Musical forces out there spending quality time with young people making their way, and encouraging the groups who fight hateful legislation and advocate for their communities and the voice of the people shouldn’t be taken for granted. Participation matters, especially in local and state politics, and at the community level.

“At the end of the day it’s about intention,” they stated in agreement – and I think that’s true for all of us. The volunteering we do, the creative statements we make, and the collaborations we are a part of demand we pay attention to the why of it all. Pie Face Girls are setting out to “reach as many people as we can… and get to the point where other people will load our gear,” Tiffany clarified with a laugh. They are working on tours through the South and the Northeast, and the logistics of an album set to come out in 2017. Experiencing the passion and talent they put into the music, and the way their engaging personalities drew people in after the show at The Hopscotch Oasis, Pie Face Girls are well on their way with some real, quality statements. Stay tuned.

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Follow Pie Face Girls on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

 

 

Upcoming Shows

October 14-15  Manifest Music Festival, downtown Chapel Hill

October 22  Jon Lindsay album release party, Kings Raleigh

October 27  Local Band Local Beer, Pour House Raleigh

November 19  Kosher Hut Raleigh

November 25  Smashfest, Scrap Exchange Durham

Messages from a movement: Charlotte, NC rises up together

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On this hot, sunny Saturday in September, the people of the Queen City and beyond marched together in protest to denounce and heal from the killings of Keith Lamont Scott and Justin Carr, to resist the presence of the National Guard throughout the city, and to exercise freedom of speech and assembly in statements against systematic violence and institutionalized racism.

Charlotte, like Ferguson and Baltimore, was declared to be in a “state of emergency”, in response to looting, violence, and property damage perpetrated by a few on the first night of demonstrations. Since then, the messages of this movement were again obstructed by the sensational media focus on “rioters”, and complicated by the conflicting accounts of these two cases. Instead of engaging with the community’s calls for transparency, accountability, and other demands of the people of Charlotte, it was decided to militarize the city by bringing in the National Guard.

Media narratives tend to place property above people, confusing various forms of resistance to state-sanctioned violence with criminality. Reverend William Barber III is a leader in North Carolina’s efforts to preserve civil rights and improve quality of life, who states:

“This is what democracy looks like. We cannot let politicians use the protests as an excuse to back reactionary “law and order” measures. Instead, we must march and vote together for policies that will lift up the whole and ensure the justice that makes true peace possible.” – Why We Are Protesting in Charlotte

Channeling my own intentions in joining the people in peaceful protest, formed by the sense of unity that I’ve experienced at vigils and community discussions, amongst people in solidarity with the movement for black lives, justice, and institutional reform, I went to Charlotte to document what we really have to say (or write, in this case).

It is said that this is a movement, not a moment. So, here’s a bit of what democracy looked like that day.

 

Speaking truth to power

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Accountability

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Solidarity and allyship

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Resistance

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Looking out for our fellow citizens

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The sign on his left reads, “United States Congress must pass a law that all police officers in every state in America must have, once a year, ongoing education and training required under federal law in order to serve with a weapon in public.”

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Visit Charlotte Uprising for more information on their demands, partner organizations, and ways to get involved.

Overcoming Fear of Feeling the Bern

Some people will read my account of attending three Bernie Sanders events and think I have a long way to go before I’m able to call myself “politically involved”. I agree, but I wanted to share my experience with taking the first steps toward active involvement. Before embarking on this journey, I was incredibly nervous about showing up to volunteer at campaign events because of the classic millennial fear of awkwardness. I thought there’d be no way I would be able to hold my own in political conversations with the type of people who’d be volunteering for Bernie Sanders on a Saturday. I imagined a bunch of over-achievers around the same age as me spouting off fact-checked tidbits about income inequality and making me feel l was an outcast among activists.

Before the first event I participated in, I was terrified. As I walked towards a voter registration event in New York City, on 112th street and Broadway at Columbia University—right outside Tom’s Diner from Seinfeld—I almost turned back multiple times. I was alone, after asking numerous friends to come with me and finding that even my fellow Bernie supporters were too nervous, busy, or both, to accompany me. It was about a month and a half before the New York primary, volunteers approached people on the street to ask if they were registered to vote. The idea is simple enough, but the thought of approaching strangers in the middle of the street added an extra layer to the fears I had about the dynamics between the other volunteers.

I walked to a table decked out in Bernie signs and saw a few older volunteers handing out forms and clip boards. There was not one person my age in sight, certainly a disappointment (why weren’t 20-somethings coming out to these events) though the reasons revealed themselves. Oddly, I also found comfort because these older volunteers seemed enthusiastic about guiding me through the process. My fears were eased as I realized that a sort of passing of the torch was taking place among the main organizer, a man named Steve Max, and some of the other volunteers.

Next to conquer was the hurdle of taking my clipboard and voter registration form, situating myself outside of the New York Public Library, and asking passers by if they were registered to vote. Volunteers with their clipboards were scattered up and down the block, so at least I had some cushion as pedestrians passed by and were approached by my fellow Bernie supporters. Eventually I started to recite a refrain of, “Hi, are you registered to vote?” Almost everybody responded, “Yes.” Or a polite (and somewhat timid) “No, thank you.”

Eventually I got some more engaged responses, like “Woo-hoo! Feel the Bern!” Or, “Sorry, I’m voting for Hilary.” I fell into a rhythm with the people passing by and it became painless, because of the very thing that makes New York City so great—you’ll never see these people again.

Back at the table, I talked to Steve Max about his involvement in the Bernie campaign and found out that he was a lifelong activist, which fascinated me. I was so focused on my notion of campaigning and getting involved as scary and overwhelming, so it was refreshing to hear the point of view of someone for whom this seemed to be second nature.

“You probably won’t believe this, but I can remember campaigning for Franklin Roosevelt at the age of four,” he told me. “We’ve done everything. We started in September just signing up volunteers to build up the list. We built that up to about 425 people. We’re trying to keep it local. You know, in the same neighborhood all the time. Then we went to petitioning. We were the highest group except for one upstate in terms of getting the greatest number of petitions.”

He pretty much sticks to organizing events around the Upper West Side, which I think is great because it builds a sense of community, everything an idealistic Bernie supporter dreams of. By the time I left voter registration that day, I frankly felt great about myself and the world, although that didn’t totally stop me from nervously anticipating the next event, a primary results viewing party in the East Village.

This one was more passive, just a bunch of people at a restaurant watching the results of the Arizona primary and the caucuses in Idaho and Utah, but it was clear that there was a sense of community among those in attendance. Many of them told me they came to events regularly, and pointed me in the direction of the organizer Jessica Stokey.

Unlike Max, Stokey was new to political organizing, but wanted to get involved because of her fierce support for Bernie. “I just knew I wanted to volunteer,” she said. “I actually even signed the petition for him asking him to run. So I was following him from the beginning and trying to get involved and trying to volunteer before they even had a sign up to volunteer. Then the first thing that they were having people do was to organize events. And I’m actually kind of good at that, so I was like, ‘Perfect.’ It was sort of a no-brainer for me.”

The watch party event had a much more diverse range of people in attendance, and Stokey told me she thinks many volunteers are, in fact, getting involved for the first time. I shared with her my own nervousness about volunteering and my pleasant surprise at how rewarding and nice it was. “In terms of the experience overall, I actually want to write how working on the Bernie Sander’s campaign has made me a better person,” she told me. “It’s enriched me in ways I never expected. I wasn’t looking for personal growth. I was looking to support Bernie. It has literally changed my life.”

It might sound over the top, but I totally got what she was saying. These community-organized, grassroots volunteering events make you feel like you are really part of something. The people you meet all share a common view, based in appreciating that we are all different. It reminds you of all of the other humans around you on this earth and the fact that we all have a unique story. “My heart is open, my mind is open and I’ve been meeting the most incredible people and we are forming these friendships and alliances in ways that I think I was living in more of my own little bubble. My whole life has opened up,” said Stokey.

The third event I went to, which I am confident will not be my last, was canvassing. Although by this point I felt like I had legs to stand on, I was probably most nervous about this because all I knew was that canvassing entailed knocking on people’s doors, which seems like one step more awkward than approaching people on the street. That day, I learned that volunteers only knock on the doors of registered democrats, ask if they will be voting in the New York primary, and ask if they have decided who they will be voting for. If they have decided who they will vote for, but do not volunteer which candidate, the volunteer can delicately ask if they are leaning towards one candidate or the other. The answers to these questions are then recorded on a form.

Since starting this journey, I’ve had people say positive things to me. Friends seem to look at it as admirable or revolutionary. That would be great, even flattering, except for the fact that they are rarely able or willing to join in. Now, maybe deep down they’re all a bunch of Trump supporters and don’t want to tell me—but somehow I doubt that’s it. I think they share my initial feelings of anxiety toward awkwardness. A fear that political activism is for someone else, some other group that doesn’t include them. For a generation that has infinite knowledge in the palm of our hands, We seem to use the excuse that we “don’t know enough to get involved” quite often, but I found getting physically involved the best way to learn. Meeting individuals from different walks of life who shared my basic beliefs and thought process was emotional, validating and inspiring. When I first set out to get involved, I probably would have told you my job would be done by the time the primary rolled around, but now I realize that being a concerned citizen never ends. I’ll be voting on April 19, but there is so much more to devote my time and attention to – I’ll have to go beyond that. I hope others are willing to take those scary first steps as well.

Your Vote Matters: A Call to Arms in South Carolina

INTERESNI KAZKI, posted by @recountmag on

 

 

 

In the loosely packed auditorium at the University of South Carolina, the crowd murmured anxiously as they waited for a glimpse of the headliner:  Dr. Cornel West, radical black activist, a demi-god to some. He, with other local prominent leaders hosted a town hall in support of Bernie Sanders’ higher education and labor reforms. Although Sen. Sanders himself was not present, the crowd littered with educators, young professionals, pastors, bartenders, and all else in between displayed a fervor usually reserved for the man himself. The town hall was co-organized by the South Carolina Labor for Bernie Committee and Higher Ed for Bernie, and was sponsored by the University of South Carolina Student Government.

Dr. West stressed the importance of dignity within Sanders’ campaign, mentioning at one point that, not party alliances, but honesty, dignity and integrity were the most important factors in measuring a candidate. He even went so far as to refer to Sanders as a “moral and spiritual laxative” for America. In these vivid descriptions, Dr. West exhibits his true belief in what Sen. Bernie Sanders has to offer, especially to communities of color and young people. Much of the rhetoric surrounding Bernie Sanders’ campaign for presidency dictates that he will not succeed, unless youth who support him and his commitment to higher education and labor reform, turn out to vote.

When the speech ended, the floor opened for questions from the audience when a man asked why it felt as though the fate of civilization rested on these elections. After taking a moment to let those words sink in for both the speakers and the audience, Dr. West answered in such a way that you or I would: he commiserated, then went on to point out that, for most people of color and those living under oppressive systems, it feels that way every election, rather, everyday.

As primary results from Iowa, New Hampshire, and soon Nevada roll in the youth vote is particularly crucial now. In Iowa, Sanders received 84% of the youth (17-29) vote, while Clinton left with only 14%, yet Clinton won by 0.3% of the overall vote, appealing to the middle age and older demographics. Although 0.3% is not wide of a margin, every vote makes a difference. As we saw in New Hampshire, Sanders won by percentage (59.9%) through more demographics than Clinton, save for the senior vote and those voters whose families make more than $200K/year. While the Sanders’ campaign still views Iowa and New Hampshire as victories, they are even more significant as representations of what can be accomplished by mobilization of the people and ideas for an America based on our dignity.

As I write on the cusp of primaries in my home state of South Carolina, I urge you, whoever you may be, whomever you may vote for, make sure you are registered, turnout, and make sure your vote is not wasted. Engage others through action; find a local campaign office and volunteer. Although civilization may not rest on this year’s elections, smaller fates do, and if you’re anything like me, you’re aware that yours is one of those smaller fates. I hope to one day join and flourish in this shrinking middle class. If I want that to happen, I must galvanize young voters like you, and myself.

Register to vote.

And for those who ask the question, “What’s the point of voting?” your frustration is beyond understood, but not tolerated- apathy never sparked a revolution. If you’re still not convinced, John Oliver recently did a segment on Voter ID laws that threaten our voting rights. Check it out below:

“Only we can tell our stories”: a review of “The Square” and “Winter on Fire”

When the Egyptian revolution occurred in 2011 and the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests followed in Ukraine, unless you were on the ground experiencing the catastrophic political turmoil, it was difficult to begin to comprehend the true sequence of events or how the people were responding to them.

Luckily, there is film, and people use film to make documentaries, to tell these stories. Sometimes, they are brave and take their cameras into war zones because they actually care about showing other people what is happening in their country. The filmmakers of  both“The Square” and “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” assumed that bravery to chronicle the events surrounding both revolutions.

The cultural differences between the two countries are stark, it’s true, but the common element within both of these films is that they show people of all ages taking refuge in a central gathering place, a square that already holds cultural and historic significance. They claim it as their own, camping there for months in spite of the barrage of militancy exercised against their calls for accountability and independence from the government.

In 2011, around the time that the Arab Spring was taking place, I was in Berlin conducting interviews with different people there and in Egypt for an anthropological research paper about Egypt opening its border with Gaza. One of them, Mohamed Shoukry, a real estate agent living in Alexandria at that time, offered incredible insight into the situation depicted in “The Square.”

“A lot of people are in the political sphere who never appeared before the revolution. Their intention is to root out the corruption in Egypt, but this will take some time,” Shoukry said. “Even though now we may have been able to cut off its head, it has strong roots.”

“The Square” starts off with a bang, a gripping sense of immediacy that spares nothing on the imagination of the violence waged against the protesters who called for President Hosni Mubarak and the military to be deposed. We are introduced one by one to the activists playing a central part in speaking out against the oppressive Mubarak regime, a spectrum including reserved British-Egyptian actor and activist Khalid Abdalla and a bright, young idealist named Ahmed Hassan.

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Ahmed Hassan in “The Square.” Photo credit: Netflix/Noujaim Films

 

The footage of Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim being chased by the military for documenting the event will render the audience shaken, and as the announcement of Mubarak’s concession is proclaimed, the fear and anxiety felt for the activists melts into joy. But wait…it’s not that far into the film now, right? Exactly. This is what makes “The Square” unpredictable and the emotional energy of its characters captivating.

The motif throughout the film is a vibrant mural depicting the success of the revolution in colors representative of the people’s joy toward Mubarak’s ousting. However, this is when the Shoukry’s insight helped place the revolution in greater perspective. The protesters optimistically  retreated from the square, in pursuit of something resembling a democracy and someone resembling a responsible leader. That optimism is challenged, however, when the military seizes control shortly after the resignation of Mubarak. He was going to stand trial for the murder of peaceful protestors in this time, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, his acquittal for this crime caused the protesters to return to “The Square”, and a new chapter in the film chronicles their growing despair.

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Protesters, including a man holding tear gas cannisters, chant slogans and wave national flags during a rally in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Nov. 25, 2011.

 

Magdy, another activist and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, brings an interesting dynamic to “The Square”, particularly when the Islamic group expands political leverage and influence after Mubarak abdicates office. The other activists, who are not particularly religious, are shown in the film as being on fair terms with Magdy. As The Brotherhood assumes growing power, however, and becomes increasingly brutal and militant toward the secular protesters, the relationship between Magdy and the other activists complicates.

The Armed Forces offer to supply The Brotherhood with weapons and political power within the government if they betrayed the revolutionaries. There are other sources, however, specifically one in the Washington Post, that claim The Brotherhood was portrayed inaccurately in the film and their image distorted falsely by the cosmopolitan activists in Tahrir Square.

“Politics is not the same as revolution. If you want to play politics, you have to compromise,” Abdalla says.

At the same time, he points out how The Brotherhood was the only strongly organized group amongst the crowd, and as the enthusiasm died down,  it became evident who the players were: The Brotherhood or the old regime, now fronted by the military.

“It was a war in the square, not a revolution,” declares one of the other activists.

In 2012, when Morsi is “democratically” elected president, the growing agony is chronicled in the mural with a big, blood red line painted over his face. People take to Tahrir Square once again, and the protest exhibits an alarming new energy in communicating their rejection of another violent and oppressive leader.

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Work by graffiti artist Abo Bakr on a street near Tahrir Square in Cairo as seen in Jehane Noujaim’s documentary, “The Square.” Credit: Courtesy of Noujaim Films

At one point in the documentary, he states, “Enough of this. All the politicians are failures.” Walking in the middle of a (surprisingly) empty street in Cairo, he makes a metaphor of himself, declaring “I’ve decided to walk in the middle of the street. The cars can do what they want.” He asserts, “I will stand my ground, enough walking cautiously on the side.”

In contrast to the optimism at the start of the film, it is this point when the growing tide of pessimism returns, with Abdalla stating that the rebels’ mistake was “in leaving the square before the power was in their hands.” The Brotherhood had been working alongside the military regime and took power, which enhanced Magdy’s visible anxiety about which side to invest allegiance in.

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Protests against American support towards the Egyptian military were not included in the scant media coverage  of the Tahrir Square uprisings. Credit: presstv.ir

When Morsi is ousted and sentenced to death, a sense of joy waves over the activists. Hassan, our charismatic guide, is revived from his dip into disillusionment at the news of the Muslim Brotherhood’s power play.

Hassan even calls up Magdy and speaks to him in a kind, jocular tone, showing that he did not want their relationship to be punctuated with the tension that had imploded between them when The Brotherhood had seized power.

The tone of the documentary, however, portends the uncertainty and volatile spirit of the events that have continuously been influencing the energy of the people. At the end, the film returns to Abdalla, whose serious, pensive demeanor stands out against Hassan’s fierce optimism.

“When you don’t have your rights, when you’re taken to the front, when you’ve been lied to, when you’re killed, things become pretty clear,” Abdalla conveys in a direct, sober manner.

Although, in the light of the context of Morsi’s ousting, this statement can be viewed as a victory, there is something about Abdalla that indicates he is not certain that Egypt will not continue to be politically volatile.

Red paint is shown dripping on the Converse of an artist working on the mural, a metaphor for how the young revolutionaries are influenced by secular culture and want to change the social and political mores of the country to align with ideals rejected as Western.

However, as returning to the mural throughout the film reminds us, there will be constant changes in the story of one of the greatest revolutions in the history of the world. With the Egyptian military in power, the story of whether or not the people remain as optimistic as they are portrayed at the end of the film remains fairly obscured at the moment.

 

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Anti-government protests in Kiev January 25, 2014. After two months of primarily peaceful anti-government protests in the city center, new laws meant to end the protest movement sparked violent clashes. Deadly violence erupted on both sides. © Maxim Dondyuk

 

“Winter on Fire” chronicled the November 2013-March 2014 protest that occurred in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev after then-President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement deal with the European Union, ultimately moving the country further into Russia’s circle of influence.

The documentary, directed by Russian filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky, also places one in the middle of the action right away, showing how thousands of people who believed in Ukraine as a European nation took to Maidan (Independence) Square, a beautiful nexus in a capital symbolic of the ancient world (aligned by a medieval gate and an opulent cathedral) clashing with the modern, as fast food restaurants and hotels have popped up nearby.

It is once again the perfect place, as Tahrir was to Cairo, to symbolize the change that the people were waiting and looking for. After centuries of being tied to Russia under the Kievan Rus empire and beyond, they were hoping to become a modern, politically stable country.

The documentary is ultimately, I think, a bit more detached from the participants than “The Square” is. It feels more restrained and not so involved in their lives from the start, as you are not invited to know an integral set of activists. Here, the stories are magnified in-depth little-by-little as the film goes on.

That being said, the film, recorded by Ukrainian protesters, is a powerful testament to the joy and movement that was summoned forth when these events occurred and the people came together. Having travelled in Ukraine and other former Soviet countries, one of the most distinct characteristics of the people was their melancholy demeanour. Years of starvation, suppression, economic peril and corrupt governments leave the region besieged by continually grey skies and an underlying lack of hope. That suffering is and will continue to be prevalent radiates and looms outward amongst the thin, cobbled corridors of their broken cities.

The wonderful part of this film is that as the momentum gains, the people realize that this could be the opportunity they have waited and secretly hoped so long for and the hope begins to appear in their eyes. People of all ages gathered at Independence Square, a majority of them dressed mostly in black parkas but with a few colourful grandmas, speaking different languages. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, the non-religious: they were all there.

There was another group the film did not cover: those people who internalized nationalism the most. After speaking to a friend of mine who had insider knowledge of the Maidan protests, I learned that nearly all the fighters on the “front line” were members of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi and right-wing parties. The movie, he said, left this fact out: that while the crowd was mainly a composition of people fighting for universal equality, there were also seedier elements that existed. These groups are, in a way, to the Maidan what the Brotherhood was to Tahrir.

It was, at its core, a peaceful protest, a loud call of disagreement with the government for giving up their chance to break away from the fringe status they maintained between Europe and Russia. There is a saying in Europe that I heard frequently: Poland is 10 years (development-wise) behind Germany, and Ukraine is 10 years behind Poland. This agreement would finally have kick-started Ukraine’s course into the European trajectory.

With snow falling on Independence Square, the atmosphere grows explosive as some protesters begin behaving violently. One of the peaceful activists opines that the Ukrainian riot police force (known as the Berkut) has planted people within the crowd in order to bring forth a reason for them to attack.

The cellos and violins that frame the events appropriately capture the restless melancholy throughout the film. The snow falls harder on the ancient square. The sparrows linger on the bare tree branches. An impending sense of doom lurks throughout the crowd, and an ancient church bell that had not been rung since the Mongol Tartar invasion in the 1240s grips everyone in its timbre.

Sure enough, the Berkut storms onto the square, descending like a swarm of locusts. Armed with iron rods, they attack, beating people viciously on the ground. A woman is shown leaning back against the tree. The blood stains on her face against the white wool hat she is wearing stand out as a pronounced metaphor, a taint against the purity of her idealistic behavior.

“Who gave birth to you, a mother or a wolf?,” one of the protesters asks, referring to the relentless brutality displayed by the Berkut.

There is, however, a discrepancy between how much blame the film levies on Yanukovych as the sole perpetrator and other factions of persecution taking place that were not mentioned.

“They paint Yanukovych as this blood-sucking demon of pure evil, but they miss the people who actually orchestrated a lot of the violence, like the people directly in charge of the Berkut police,” says Anton Guz, a graduate student pursuing a degree in peacebuilding and conflict transformation at SIT Graduate Institute in Vermont.

As the film goes on and the winter moves further along, the steam continues rising up from the make-shift kitchens and fires that the protesters have started in order to keep what has now become somewhat of an island alive. The supplies that became the fuel for the Maidan island were not revealed in the film. Specifically, volunteer drivers were bringing in medical supplies to the fighters and taking people to the hospital, as the roads to Kiev were blocked. There was a mass outcry of support for the protesters in Maidan, one of which, called AutoMaidan, was based in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, a hub for nationalistic Ukrainian support.

Hrushevsko Street
Morning on Hrushevskoho street after the night of flaming tires and Molotov cocktails. Protesters again constructed barricades and prepared Molotov cocktails before a night battle between protesters and police, which already had become a usual thing. Kiev, January 25, 2014 © Maxim Dondyuk

The support and supplies brought in from various parts of the country fueled the ongoing struggle against the winter and the cold history that Ukraine did not want to continue to freeze itself into.

My favourite moments in the film, showing the peoples’ sense of humour and heart in the midst of a dim situation, were their responses to various bans placed on them by Yanukovych, one of which was ‘no helmets.’  They answered by putting on pots, pans, flippers, masks of all shapes and colours. It was quite unusual to see little babushkas roaming around this dystopian war zone with pots on their head, and the film juxtaposes this all-too-real-its-surreal element quite strongly throughout.

Guz was born in Ukraine and is quick to point out some aspects of the film that he found problematic, specifically Ukraine’s all-too-relevant relationship with Russia.

“I think that’s a nuance that’s dangerous to forget, since the master manipulators in this situation live in Moscow, not Kiev. But also, surely it’s important to actually name the culprits behind the violence, right?,” Guz said. “Where are they in the movie?”

The film shows the people walking over snow-covered pictures of Yanukovych as they enter a cathedral, where bodies of the dead are being carried. A slow, solemn heavy chant rises from the crowd paying final respects to friends and family members who have died.

In order to understand this scene and the context of the movie, it is important to keep in mind that Yanukovych was a tyrannical, greedy ruler, and one that was under orders from Russian president Vladimir Putin to not allow Ukraine to strengthen relations with Europe. However, he used his relationship with Putin as leverage, deceiving Putin into thinking that he had control of Ukraine and its affairs while subsequently working behind the scenes to strengthen relations with the EU.

The Yanukovych-Putin relationship is 150% a crucial element of the politics framing the backstory behind the revolts, as is the massive history of oppression and tyranny that Ukraine has endured at the feet of Russia. It is no question that anyone who is interested in global affairs and who wants to learn about the Maidan events in 2014 will walk away from the film with a greater understanding of what it means to be a country caught between two significant powers, but nevertheless, they would have benefited even further had more context been provided.

“The movie could have empowered people who saw it to go out and convince everyone that Ukrainians beat incredible odds, showed amazing bravery and resilience, and transformed their own society in the space of a few months,” Guz said. “The movie could have showed that while people are arguing whether the EU is worthwhile because of minor economic quibbles, people in Ukraine laid down their lives for the mere chance to join it. It could have enlightened people in western and central Europe to the crazy shit that threatens them and people like them only a few hours away from where they live.”

piano
Markiyan Matsekh plays the piano for riot police in Kiev, 7 December 2013. (c) Andrew Meakovsky, Oleg Matsekh and Marikiyan Matsekh

 

As a girl in the middle of the square plays a piano painted the colours of Ukrainian flag and snow continues to fall on the ashes of the Euromaidan, the documentary resides to ending the story on a tidy note. The ending summary does mention Yanukovych’s flight to Russia, the subsequent annexation of the Crimea by Putin and the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, but it doesn’t touch over the chaos and bickering that is continues to take place within the new Ukrainian government.

Both documentaries are raw and incredibly well-filmed. While “Winter on Fire” ultimately opts for a slightly cinematic feel with the way it is tidied up at the end, “The Square” leaves things just as raw and un-ended as at the beginning of the film. Both, however, serve as hallmarks of courage and bravery to share with the world how hard people around the world are fighting for their freedom.

 

Check out LensCulture for more photos of the Ukrainian revolution and Egyptian revolt.

Syrian refugees: a matter of fact and photograph

All photos and captions are from Magnus Wennman’s series Where the Children Sleep in which he documents the experience of Syrians seeking refuge across the Middle East and Europe. 

Check him out on Instagram.

Magnus Wennman/Aftonbladet/REX Shutterstock
Maram, 8, in Amman, Jordan
Eight-year-old Maram had just come home from school when the rocket hit her house. A piece of the roof landed right on top of her. Her mother took her to a field hospital, and from there she was airlifted across the border to Jordan. Head trauma caused a brain hemorrhage. For the first 11 days, Maram was in a coma. She is now conscious, but has a broken jaw and can’t speak.

 

In 1979 and 1980 alone, the United States allowed entry to over 300,000 Vietnamese refugees. Many saw this as the United States paying reparations for a bloody civil war we made far worse by arming and fighting with the faction whose ideology we agreed with while ignoring the geopolitical complexities of the situation. Sound familiar? Many of these refugees were not Christian, could not speak English, and have since successfully assimilated into the tapestry of the U. S. Obama’s current plan calls for the allowance of 65,000 Syrian immigrants over 2015 and 2016 – just over 20% the amount of Vietnamese offered refuge then. The population of the US in 1980 was 226.5 million. The most recent estimate of our population? 318.9 million. The differences here are staggering – yet we’re afraid these Syrians won’t assimilate? You can learn more about where refugees come from in this Pew Research Center study.

So let’s turn to how Muslim nations view the acts of Daesh (ISIS) and other extremists. Well, roughly 60% of all people polled strongly condemn ANY violence in the name of Islam. That number seems low, right? Especially since that takes into account that the phrasing of the question includes violence done in defense of the religion. Pretty shocking, don’t you think? Would 60% of Christians be willing to say “Even if I am under attack, I will not use violence to protect myself”? Heck, would 60% of anybody say that? Furthermore, when asked if they support suicide bombing or other acts of extremism, the percentage of condemnation jumps to over 85% in most cases. Finally, most Muslims view extremist groups like Hamas, Al Queda, etc. extremely unfavorably – the number is also around 60%. When interpreting these statistics, it is important to note that these groups, while having a militant wing, are also political parties in many countries that end up providing a lot of public services for the Muslim populace. But what about their view of ONLY militant groups, like Boko Haram? Only 2% of Muslims polled (hyperlink) have a favorable view of this organization. You can read more about the overwhelming condemnation of extremism preached by foreign Muslims here.
People would like to see these numbers closer to 100%. I get that. However, it is important to remember the complex socio-political pressures in these countries, just as in any country. We cannot overlook the ways these groups are entwined in some Muslim societies.

Magnus Wennman/Aftonbladet/REX Shutterstock
Abdullah, 5, in Blegrade, Serbia
Abdullah has a blood disease. For the last two days he has been sleeping outside of the central station in Belgrade. He saw the killing of his sister in their home in Daraa. He is still in shock and has nightmares every night, says his mother. Abdullah is tired and is not healthy, but his mother does not have any money to buy medicine for him.

 

To further tease this apart, how often do Muslims commit acts of terrorism? Very, very rarely. In fact, less than 2% of all terrorist acts committed in the EU in the past five years have been committed by Muslims. Do you remember when two French police stations were attacked in a coordinated effort by men armed with assault weapons and ROCKET LAUNCHERS? That did happen, and in 2013 no less. at the hands of domestic terrorists, who carry out an overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks. Still, we disproportionately attribute terrorism to Muslim extremists.

 

If actions taken by Muslim extremists are so rare, how can we be constantly inundated with violence? Well, there’s presentation: the ever-breaking news cycle and sensational reporting has a lot to do with it. Violence in various forms is common in the United States and while we spend trillions of dollars on the “War on Terror”, we do surprisingly little against more statistically serious threats. In the 14 years since 9/11, roughly 7,000 American soldiers have died in the “War on Terror” and around 40 have been killed in acts of domestic terrorism committed by Muslim extremists. In that same timespan, well over 300,000 Americans have died due to gun violence. Various studies indicate that common-sense gun control legislation could potentially halve these trends. We have here a threat that takes over 4200% the amount of lives of the soldiers lost in Afghanistan and Iraq and over 7,500 times the amount of lives lost by victims of domestic terrorism perpetrated by Muslim extremists. And we’re doing nothing.

Magnus Wennman/Aftonbladet/REX Shutterstock
Abdul Karim, 17, in Athens, Greece
Abdul Karim Addo has no money left. He bought a ferry ticket to Athens with his last euros. Now he spends the night in Omonoia Square, where hundreds of refugees are arriving every day. Here smugglers are making big money arranging false passports as well as bus and plane tickets to people in flight — but Abdul Karin is not going anywhere. He is able to borrow a telephone and call home to his mother in Syria, but he is not able to tell her how bad things are. “She cries and is scared for my sake and I don’t want to worry her more,” he says. He unfolds his blanket in the middle of the square and curls up in the fetal position. “I dream of two things: to sleep in a bed again and to hug my younger sister.”

 

Some of you might say, “still, 40 lives is too much.” You’re right. So let’s refocus and look at the acts of domestic terrorism committed by refugees… except there aren’t any. Since 9/11, the US has admitted over 750,000 Middle Eastern refugees. None have committed any acts of domestic terrorism in the name of Islam.  In fact, only 2 were found to have any connection to any Muslim extremist groups. They were sending aid to Al Queda operatives in Iraq – not planning attacks here. In fact, applying for refugee status is just about the last thing a potential terrorist would do. Its a long process that places candidates under far more scrutiny than other methods of entering this country – both legally or illegally. If you want to stop the gaps in our immigration security, look to visas, asylum seekers, and the borders – but do not shut the door to the refugees who need our help the most.

We’ve established that terrorists disguising themselves as Syrian refugees and attempting to sneak into this country to commit acts of violence is statistically highly unlikely, historically inaccurate, and misrepresentative of the facts. There may still remain one big nagging question, however: the cost. This is the good news. Studies indicate that taking in refugees, while a short-term expense, actually provides a boon to economies. At the end of the day, host nations receive more population which means more demand and more workers. Syrians are actually the best-suited Middle Eastern refugees for assimilation into the US culture and economy. Prior to the civil war, a large majority of the populace was in a middle-class analogous to our own. These people went to college, got a job, worked 40 hours a week and came home to their families. Furthermore, the Syrian nation stood out as a secularly-governed country in a predominantly theocratic Middle East; all of these are notions that would point to smooth assimilation. Syrians are largely skilled, educated persons that would be valuable assets to our society and want nothing more than to have a chance to provide for their families, yet we turn them away?

Magnus Wennman/Aftonbladet/REX Shutterstock
Sham, 1, in Horgos, Serbia
In the very front, just alongside the border between Serbia and Hungary by the 4-meter-high iron gate, Sham is laying in his mother’s arms. Just a few decimeters behind them is the Europe they so desperately are trying to reach. Only one day before the last refugees were allowed through and taken by train to Austria. But Sham and his mother arrived too late, along with thousands of other refugees who now wait outside the closed Hungarian border.

 

A multitude of articles – see former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright‘s comments – videos, and posts going around lead to the same conclusion: We should not be closing our doors to refugees when we are beyond the capability to provide for even more than the 65,000 we have committed to taking in. In times like these, it’s natural to feel afraid; these numbers are not meant to dissolve that fear. I do hope what I have shown you helps you to be brave, do your research, and think rationally about this very, very complex topic.