Home, Heritage and Belonging

Elina MarmerHAW HamburgGermany

In April last year, Simon Wellman and Darren Wood, members of our project team from the Culture Coventry Trust (UK), visited Hamburg to teach young people participating in CHIEF how to produce quality short films using a Smartphone. Between 2019 and early 2020 the team visited all partner countries with the same mission, India being the last in January 2020. Two months later, Simon Wellman contracted the Corona virus and died on 30th of March from complications of the illness.

With my article, I want to remember Simon and his contribution to our work by enabling young people to express themselves, reach out and touch others through the art of video filming.

The aim of the media workshops was to provide young people with skills training to better communicate their cultural knowledge and practices offering them an opportunity to present what they consider their cultural heritage. Since the workshop last April, two Smartphone videos have been produced in Hamburg, while two more still need some technical finishing. Each video was shot by an individual BA student; all female, aged 22-24 and based in Hamburg, who are in one way or other involved in CHIEF project. It is these first two videos made in this context in Hamburg that I want to write about.

I received the films this spring and was initially stricken by the fact that they both chose the same motive. One of the films had a voice over but if you turned it off, you would see quite similar scenery picturing our city. In fact, the films could both feature in a tourist board promotion for Hamburg. One film called One day in Hamburg [1] even begins and ends at Hamburg airport. The videos were shot during different seasons and weather conditions, but both managed to capture sunny skies, making the city appear bright and colorful. Both videos have scenes depicting water – the Alster lake, the Elbe river and the many channels, bridges, ships and seagulls in blue skies. Both also contain scenes of the hipster part of town, the gentrified Sternschanze, with the autonomous cultural centre the Rote Flora (squatted since 1989 [2]) shot from the same angle in both films. Some other places pictured in the videos differ slightly, revealing the authors’ preferences, but these differences do not seem to be substantial to me: It is the famous Hamburg port in one of the videos and the main rail station in the other, the City Hall being approached from different angles etc., as well as different music selected.

Knowing that the task was to make a film as a means of addressing one’s cultural heritage, it is curious how such similar representations of Hamburg were what both filmmakers came up with. Both made their films independently and did not discuss ideas among each other before the plots had been conceived. In both works, “culture” is approached as a place and space, urbanity, water, green spaces, bright colors, historical buildings; what they have in common is this special feeling of familiarity with one’s surrounding. A kind of harmony and satisfaction gained from this familiarity defines the filmmakers’ understanding of culture according to my fist impression of their work.

Top:Water, sky, ships and seagulls in “One day in Hamburg” (Left) and “Home. An individual journey” (right)

Bottom: The autonomous cultural centre The Rote Flora in “One day in Hamburg” (left) and “Home. An individual journey” (right)

“One Day in Hamburg” is described by the filmmaker as featuring

“typical sight seeing spots […] [and] those I personally like to visit […] explored together with friends, who have never been to Hamburg before. I grew up here […] Hamburg is my hometown and I feel very connected to the city. What I love here most of all, is that every kind of diversity can be found everywhere”.

The second video, Home. An individual journey, additionally features the filmmaker herself, visiting and obviously enjoying some of the places and scenes. Here she is sitting on a bench in the park writing, or at the port watching ships pass by, or at the entrance of the Rote Flora, full of colorful graffiti, posters and stickers announcing events, concerts and demonstrations. Once you turn on her voice, you will hear a similar appreciation of the city and its diversity, expressed in a more poetic way:

“[…] I grew up here in the Hanseatic City of Hamburg. Hamburg’s culture […] is lively and colorful […] radiant, flashy as well as bright and calming. I can recharge here. Breath in and out […] Hamburg is diverse, vivid and so much more. Hamburg, my home.”

“Hamburg is my home” is the identical message of both films up to that point. But here is where the similarity ends. The protagonist of “Home. An individual journey” continues:

“But although Hamburg’s culture speaks to my heart, that is not what people see. Look at me, I have brown skin. And that is what people define as different. Foreign and not part of the entity”.

Wait a minute, what just happened here?

Two young Hamburg women feeling very similar about their cultural heritage to the point that they shot very similar films to visually express it are radically differently affected by the racial societal order assigning the privilege of unquestioned belonging. While the filmmaker of “One day in Hamburg”, who is white, takes her belonging to Hamburg for granted because she is taken for granted, the Black filmmaker of “Home. An individual journey” is often questioned, denied belonging, required to justify herself. The filmmaker who is white can afford to remain invisible in her video, which for me symbolizes the normalized “invisibility” of whiteness in public spaces. For the Black filmmaker, there is a need to appropriate the places that should substantially already be hers (just as everyone else’s).

Comparing the two short films demonstrate once again how racism divides those being very similar, how structural discrimination affects every possible level of our lives at any time, how white privilege and racist discrimination are interwoven.

But “Home. An individual journey” is much more than evidence of a struggle for acceptance. To quote Grada Kilomba

“the margin should not only be seen as a peripheral space, as a space of loss and deprivation, but rather as a space of resistance and possibility. […] It is here that oppressive boundaries set by ’race’, gender, sexuality and class domination are questioned, challenged and deconstructed. […] In this sense, the margin is a location that nourishes our capacity to resist oppression, to transform, and to imagine alternative new worlds and new discourses [3]”.

The making of “Home. An individual journey” is an act of resistance, where the filmmaker takes a decisive stance against racism and exclusion; and beyond, she poetically develops her own concept of culture and belonging as a an experience of growth, liberation and transformation:

“The freedom to shape one’s life as one chooses to.

In an environment that lets you do so.

That is what home and culture mean to me.”

This short review of two videos produced in the context of the CHIEF project reveals that cultural exclusionist discourses are very powerful in Germany. It also demonstrates that structural racism is not about morals and intentions. In agreement with our previous findings from empirical studies in Hamburg schools, NGOs, German heritage sites, families and informal youth groups there is a lack of awareness about these issues in formal and non-formal educational settings. The video clips serve as an evidence of the country’s status quo, its state of cultural inclusion/exclusion. They are very valuable documents, which could also offer educational material for approaching cultural educational needs. “Home. An individual journey” is a video poetry, a piece of art of resistance.

It is so sad that Simon Wellman did not live to watch these short films. However, knowing that his teaching and his work live on through these and many other videos created by young people around the world, offers us a great comfort.

[1] As a side note: Some scenes of that video have been re-shot during the first partial lockdown in early April this year, as can be immediately identified by the absence of people and traffic…

[2] “We are the ‘UFO in the neighbourhood.’ […] The City won’t get rid of us because we are a part of what life is.” The Rote Flora collective in 2001 (Naegler, Laura, 2012. Gentrification and Resistance: Cultural Criminology, Control, and the Commodification of Urban Protest in Hamburg. Lit Verlag.)

[3] Kilomba, Grada (2010) Plantation Memories. Episodes of Everyday Racism. Unrast: p.37