MAP’s Matthew Horton in conversation with Tomáš Rafa, January 2016
When we last talked with you in 2012, your work was focused on the Visegrád countries, how has the socio-political climate changed in that region since then?
In general, the Visegrád countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) are more nationalized. There’s an exponential increase of nationalism and far-right groups, which want to enter into the official political sphere in elections. We can see big changes in Poland after the recent elections. The government is outwardly nationalist and one can also hear new waves of nationalism in the speeches of Slovak and Czech politicians.
In Slovakia, there has been an increase in the construction of walls that separate Roma settlements from other parts of a village or town. (The first segregation wall was built in 2009 in Michalovce in Eastern Slovakia. After the first wall, 14 walls other walls were built.) These walls are unfortunately legal, because the municipalities claim that the walls are constructed for the safety of children, as they’re near roads running along the sides of Roma settlements. They are official and it’s impossible to destroy them.
There was an attempt to dismantle one of these walls in the city of Košice last year. A group of activists from Germany, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic destroyed a part of the wall on a Saturday night. It was rebuilt the next day on Sunday, a non-workday. It’s incredible, because in Slovakia, if you want something in the public space repaired, you typically have to wait months.
Before 2015, there wasn’t such a thing as a barbed-wire fence to keep out refugees. Since the refugee crisis in 2014, these walls have become legitimized in the eyes of many Slovaks. They consider these walls as a normal solution for solving problems with minorities and different cultures.
I hope my videos can start discussions about this, but right now, this division is totally accepted. It’s like it’s normal architecture.
In addition to people’s fears about the refugee crisis, do you see the rise of nationalism as a reaction to the increase of globalization? It’s now easier than ever to travel, to talk with someone from a different culture and exchange ideas, could nationalism be a backlash against that openness, a “we want to keep our values and our ideology” sense?
It could be a reaction to globalization. But it’s also about the foreign influence in Eastern Europe. We were isolated for 40 years before the Revolutions of 1989, which led to the end of communism. Since 1989 the region has been exposed to new ideas about freedom and capitalism. There’s a tension between the competing ideas and times that politicians are exploiting.
In the recent Polish election, the right-wing Law and Justice party attained the first outright majority since communism. How did nationalist sentiment play a role in winning the election?
The media creates a narrative that we should all be scared and politicians used this tension as a primary topic in their campaigns. In Poland, there was a rally of Muslims against racism, but there was a rally of ultra-nationalists against them. After the elections, people started hate speech and committing violence against the Roma people as well. There are no refugees in Poland so the only way to find a public enemy was to focus on the Roma people. Walls around the country were covered with anti-Roma graffiti. Before the election, there wasn’t a problem with Roma people in Poland as they are totally integrated.
It’s a difficult time in Poland and we are just at the beginning. It’s hard to see news and media in Poland because it’s always against refugees and everywhere is anti-refugee. If some Politician would like to support refugees, they immediately have to answer to angry constituents.
What do you hope people who view your films will take away from them? Is there an educational aspect to your film making, especially for people who are unaware of increased nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe?
We have public screenings organized by NGOs around the region and it’s always good to see people discuss topics such as these after the screening. Before the screening, they are not able to describe, “What is patriotism? What is nationalism? What is racism?” But after the screenings, it’s easier for them, because they see this nationalism, this xenophobia in front of them. With the films I post online, there are thousands of comments. And while many are negative, there is always a discussion between the different audiences online. It is valuable to see people even exploring different viewpoints and ideas.
At times, you film angry, violent groups in tense, and what seem to be dangerous situations. Do you ever feel unsafe or take any safety precautions? Is safety just an illusion anyway?
In the beginning, I used a camcorder with a zoom lens, which allowed me to be on the boundaries of the crowds. But then I decided to enter the crowd, to record the dialogues of those within the crowd. It started with a small step further inside towards the center, but which each protest, it was another step and eventually I was in the core. I had to answer strange questions, like why I was filming them, so my answer will sometimes be something like, “I’m a foreign tourist.” Their hostility towards me would immediately change and they appreciated my good will to record them, saying how they would like for Slovakia to see how it is in Warsaw. “Please show the truth” they would say. In thirty seconds, the atmosphere went from hostile to acceptance.
When I was filming the Polish hooligans, I had to say that was I was from Poland. If I had told them I was a Slovak, they could have killed me. These holligans like to meet at the police station and fight refugees and the police. They set fires to cars and go so far as to greet each other with a Zeig Heil!
You've said that the media is "used by various groups and nationalist organizations to promote hatred and separatist agendas". What role does the media play? Do other online platforms, like social media, play a role?
The nationalists use the media as a very effective platform for propaganda. They produce low-budget videos and photos that seem more realistic than professional productions and they trick people into believing that it is real footage of events. They share this propaganda on their blogs, Facebook, and other online platforms to promote their far-right ideas. The “official” media is against extremists, but there are alternate media sources, like pro-Russian media, which supports far-right ideas and Putin’s agenda, while opposing organizations like NATO and the UN.
You’ve spoken about how objectivity is important to your films. While you’ve removed the filter of a narrator telling the viewer how to feel or what to believe, you still have to choose what to shoot and how to edit. What steps do you take to keep your work objective within the subjective constraints of filming and editing?
In general, I try to not comment on my videos. I leave it without commentary so that it’s about the progress of the event from the beginning to end. Of course, I have to provide some level of background information at the beginning and the end because it is important to understanding the context in which the events are happening. I think it’s valuable to explore the group from the outside as well as the inside. It’s impossible to objectively show these events without filming it from both sides. I have to move my camera into the center as well as outside.
What do you think is the future of nationalism in the region, specifically in your home country of Slovakia? What can you see happening the immediate future?
Slovakia is not on the path to Europe from the Turkish border, thus we don’t have many refugees, yet the prime minister and his populist party changed the constitution because of the refugee crisis. Now, the secret police have extra powers to check your emails, your bank account. They can ban your blog or arrest you under suspicions that you could be connected to terrorists. They can hold you for 5 days without charges. I can imagine how activists, NGOs, and others could be targeted. It’s very similar to Russia. They also announced that government will employ 2500 police officers. The scale of this in a small county like Slovakia is enormous. This is not a budget for education, for the health system, but apparently they found money for the “safety” of citizens from the refugees.
The changes were implemented without any protest. It’s quiet in Slovakia.
From a conversation with Oto Hudec April 2012
(translated from Slovak by Oto Hudec)
Oto Hudec (OH): What motivated you to work with the theme of new nationalism and the issues surrounding the Roma people in Slovakia?
Tomáš Rafa (TR): My first impulse was the realization of a performance in public space with Roma youth in Michalovce, Slovkia. The site was next to an infamous “Sport wall” at Sobranecka cesta that had been put up to divide a new housing estate and the existing Roma neighborhood. Video was created that addressed the audience across the borders of Slovakia and informed them about the situation. It inspired a public discussion and that was for me, a moment when I observed with satisfaction how it is possible to communicate with a broad public in the open space of media.
In the next step I tried actions that had a common denominator. Slovenská pospolitosť (Slovak congregation – ultra nationalist party) organized meeting in Turzovka. This is how the idea of building an archive was created. The logical outcome was to share the results on Youtube channel newnationalism.eu and the website of the project www.newnationalism.eu
OH: Have you personally experienced nationalism in Slovakia?
TR: At the beginning of public presentation of video from the project when you ask this question to the audience, as you are asking me now, few of them will react with a positive answer. After the video presentation the audience begins to react in the moment. They want to talk about the impulses that we all experience and marginalize in everyday life (outside of the media) around the specific themes of building or destroying national, race and sexual stereotypes.
OH: What were the reactions of the people you were filming?
TR: The reactions are always natural. They enter the public space and are counting on the presence of media. The most interesting part is for me really, is the participation of the viewer in the public discussion. It changes from the passive approach towards the position of active participant. An activation of social activism of this type is a great result of the project.
OH: Have you managed some positive change with the project? Has the audience who has seen your work reacted more peacefully towards minorities?
TR: In discussions that followed video presentation, I registered all spectrum of reactions. One positive reaction came from a group of 15 – 17 years old students who, after viewing the video, wished to actively participate in social activism, which was a very positive discovery. Unfortunately, it is shocking that even though they have the initiative and interest, they don’t know whom and how to address.
OH: How do you see in general the relation of Slovaks towards minorities?
TR: It is a very specific theme that is hard to describe in words. My opinion will be my personal interpretation and in some ways influencing. I am for objectivity. This is the reason why I chose video as an instrument of expression. The archive is open to everybody. The viewer is forming his opinions alone.
OH: Do you plan to continue with this project or will you start new projects with similar content?
TR: Primarily, I have been working in the Visegrad region (Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary). In 2011. material came from Switzerland and in 2012, from the USA. The project has become global and we can thus see our local problems in global context. At the moment it is my priority to continue this project.
OH: Tell me more about the wall in Michalovce. How it was created? How did both sides react and what is the current situation in the place?
TR: The wall in Michalovce received the specific adjective, “sport” in the development phase of the project. It's purpose was to divides the housing estate from Roma village Angin mlyn. My reaction to the situation was a football match with Roma kids next to this wall in year 2009. In 2011, we realized the gluing of special mural on this wall. It was created based on the communication with the city government of Michalovce.The reactions to this public interventions were interesting. All the participating parties were satisfied: the city government, the inhabitants of block of flats and the habitants of Roma village were pleasantly surprised with the colorfulness of the glued graphics. Unfortunately, the weather destroyed the work. My plan is to paint the same mural on the wall with weather resistant color to keep it there as long as possible.