Migrating Globally, Fighting Back Locally

Photo Credit: Teach DREAM NYC
[Ed. note: this post is part of an editorial discussion on “Media and the City in Light of Trump, Brexit, and the Global Far Right.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Two weeks ago, I explored how cinema contributed to a more nuanced map of the intersection between urbanism and migration—a map that would extend beyond traditional metropolitan centers—and wondered how cinema can contribute even a little bit to a “warmth of welcome.” Since then, the President of the United States has issued two executive orders that directly affect the issue: one threatening to withhold federal funding from “sanctuary jurisdictions” invested in providing such warmth to migrants, and a second, making a considerably bigger global splash, stranding legal migrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries all over the world, now barred from entering the country despite their legal status. While there has been uproar about how green card holders are affected, news about how the executive orders affect visa holders is just beginning to break a week after the ban. Lawful migrants have become much more vulnerable.

Both orders percolate across different federal, state, and local jurisdictions. At the time of this writing, Washington, New York, Virginia, Massachusetts, and now also Minnesota have sued over the travel ban. Meanwhile, the City of San Francisco has sued over the retaliation against sanctuary cities. In light of recent events, Ithaca, the small city in upstate New York where I live, voted in the evening of February 1, 2017, to add more specific language about noninvolvement policies to its Municipal Code, language that was developed under the guidance of the New York State Attorney General. I do not think it is naïve to say that much of the struggle happens locally, as long as we remain aware of how such struggles are connected laterally to other localities, and vertically to federal and global levels.

I say this both because of the acute sense of insufficiency that many of us experience, and because of the relative focus on mainstream representations by my colleagues in this exchange’s first round. I understand that at this point a “humanist tradition…[may seem] insufficient…as a means of combatting the threat,” as Brendan Kredell puts it, but I also want to re-emphasize it. And I understand the desire and need to articulate an ideological critique of mainstream media, as Caitlin Bruce and Mark Shiel do, but I also want to do something else. It strikes me that nothing should come at the cost of the “local,” by which I mean not only geographic localities, but also individual contributions, “small” films, or “small” media actions. As Cathy Daniels, who cooks for Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost, a band providing the soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter movement, recently mentioned to me, in a revolution everybody has a place. And as Erica Stein says, a “city produces…people as an image of resistance that can be enunciated and amplified by mass media.” Likewise, small acts can add up over space and over time: they don’t always do, but we should work at that. So let us also insist on a different kind of temporality—after all, the current emergency connected to fast executive actions on the federal level has been building for quite some time—and persist, creating one media action, one image, after another.

In a time of visual clichés, counter-images may be particularly important, and part of the intellectual’s role is to make counter-images more visible, and to educate people about them. When the President trades in an image of the “inner city” that at best ignores urban history and at worst serves to fire up an audience already failed by the country’s educational system, we need to be ready with other images of racialized cities and suburbs (see also Stan Corkin’s first post); I am curious about the film version of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah that is apparently in the works. When we diagnose a dearth of social realist films (see Johann Andersson’s first post), we should do our best to make existing films, such as Ramin Bahrani’s, better known, and encourage our students to make them. When our students’ knowledge of the French banlieue is limited to what they know from La Haine (1995), we should make them watch other films, such as Karim Dridi’s Bye-Bye (1995), Abdellatif Kechiche’s Games of Love and Chance (2003), or Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014), which are conscious interventions into the genre.

Still from Catherine Sciamma’s Girlhood, (2014)

True, it will be insufficient. But as Jon Stewart recently put it, only half jokingly, “no one action will be adequate; all actions will be necessary.” As we worry about these images’ capacity to “filter through into the culture,” as Andersson says, or about “making small-budget films about marginalized narratives for the consumption of the few,” as Kredell avers, getting rid of such counter-images would be self-defeating. Let us not forget that making visible “marginalized narratives” is one of the achievements of the last few decades, an achievement that needs our care and cultivation.

Such education does not only happen on the level of representation, but can be nestled into the very fabric of a city. For instance, in Marseille, France’s second largest city, the only cinema currently classified as an “art” cinema is located in a struggling working-class neighborhood on the city’s periphery. The Alhambra’s programming is complicated, not least because it is the only cultural institution in the neighborhood, and includes social programming for neighborhood residents, many of whom are descendants of migrants, as well as partnerships with local schools. There is no direct causal effect between institutions like that and politics—in fact the Alhambra does not support political events—but let us value and support such cultural institutions that mediate and negotiate the effects of global policies, which have directly affected, even victimized, its neighborhood residents. In the wake of Brexit and the Trump presidency, we are apprehensively watching the approaching French election this spring, and while such small media institutions will not influence it directly, they do provide important groundwork for the long-term defeat of fascist tendencies. If only there was a larger network of such institutions.

In the end, asserting the importance of local engagements—political, cultural, cinematic—in itself will not be enough, but it constitutes an important tactic. Especially today, the effects of national and global policies are very much being fought locally. At stake is the ability to build alliances across space and to imagine a different future, which is certainly not new in the Western imagination, from Immanuel Kant’s conception of the “productive imagination” in The Critique of Pure Reason to Raymond Williams’s idea of art’s “subjunctive” possibility. At at time when the President of the United States classifies humans as “aliens” as a way of denying them rights, we should not relinquish the complex power of humanism.

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