Poster designed by YC Liu
Screening with Director Li Wei 李维 Q & A
As China took a leap forward economically, what happened to the rural population that was being left behind, physically and financially? Who was to educate the rural children? Li Wei’s The Enclaveserves as an intimate and nuanced lens through which one can see this world of the left-behind, their loss, grief, failure, numbness, and above all, the unfairness of their world.
The Enclave was included in the Asian Vision Competition of Taiwan International Documentary Festival in 2016, and won the Independent Spirit Award of the Beijing Independent Film Festival in 2015.
The event is free and open to the public.
Time: 4:30pm, May 3, 2017
Location: 100 Jones Hall, Princeton University
Organizer: Q. Lei
Sponsored by Princeton EAS Program and Department, Princeton Humanities Council
In the history of American higher education, the Ivy League has gradually departed from the athletic conference that gave the group its name and became the synonym for the most prestigious universities in America. If a student manages to enter an Ivy League school today, it means that he or she has climbed to the top of the ivory tower, which guarantees a smoother pathway to vocational and financial success post graduation. The main problem of American Higher Education today, however, lies not only in institution gatekeeping itself, but also in the fact that these meritocratic walls consolidate the social stratification in the American society. The education system in this way loses its purpose of educating the next generation in the sense of opening doors for them. In fact, the Ivy wall ensures that the doors close for students of low-socioeconomic status before they enter society.
The term “Ivy League” was used as early as 1933 to name the collegiate athletic conference that consisted of sports teams from eight private universities in Northeastern America. It became an official term upon the formation of NCAA Division I athletic conference in 1954. The eight institutions are: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University. They now become the embodiments of prestige and social elitism in the education system in the United States.
The troubled history of the Ivy League went further back than the establishment of the term in 1933 and 1954. Seven out of the eight Ivy League institutions were founded during the colonial period. Historian Craig Steven Wilder discusses in his book, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, how slave trading directly shaped and funded the Ivy League universities at their early stages. Wilder shows that “profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts.” He also traces the practice of generous donations in exchange for the enrollment of sons back to this period. Today this practice in its most overt form is not deemed lawful anymore. Yet, it still continues to exist in the form of “legacy”: the privileged families foster a tradition of sending their children to their alma mater, and the elite universities acknowledge this tradition by giving “legacy” students priorities. It is also not a secret that a lot of America’s universities and colleges depend their existence on donations from their wealthy alumni.
As Wilder sees it, from the beginning, the Ivy wall was built to protect the wealth of the American landowners. It is a useful segregation in the sense that it allows the accumulation of resources, which otherwise would have been scattered. If a student, regardless of his or her socioeconomic background, gets accepted to an Ivy League school today, it would almost guarantee his or her economic stability after graduation just because of the personnel and material resources he or she is able to access, not to mention the prestige of the Ivy League seal of approval. This is why many lower-class students still exert themselves in climbing the education ladder despite the awareness of their inherited disadvantage in the competition, and this mindset is oftentimes encouraged by parents.
Sociologist Ann L. Mullen (University of Toronto), the author of Degrees of Inequality, argues that there are many factors that contribute to the patterns of inequality within the American education system, including social background, race, ethnicity, gender, and perhaps most shockingly, the choice of students from different socioeconomic statuses. Her studies show that differences in academic ability, which is what some might expect to be the most decisive factor in admission into high-ranked colleges, is not among the reasons why the majority of low-socioeconomic status students are denied entrance into the Ivy League. According to Mullen, the Ivy wall functions in a way that “facilitates the reproduction of class privilege and contributes to the dynamic whereby a system charged with ensuring equality of opportunity may in fact promote the reproduction of inequality.”*
The Ivy-divide, or the Ivy wall, is hence both useful and divisive for the very same reason: it separates the privileged from the underprivileged so that wealth and wealth creation opportunities remain concentrated within a small group in the society. By preventing underprivileged qualified students from climbing over the Ivy wall, America’s highly differentiated system of higher education loses its function of being a space of experiment and choice for students, and above all, a space for encountering differences. The stratification of students within the ivory tower in many ways reflects the stratification of the American society.
Students of color studying at an Ivy League school today would have a not so different experience than entering the job market in that they would have to survive within a predominantly white environment. A large part of the struggle pertains to identity politics. Racial inequality is insinuated into the classroom when students of color faces lower expectations than their fellow white students, or a syllabus of American literature includes no black writers, or when a philosophy department offers mostly Ancient Greek, Roman and Continental philosophy.
In this sense, the Ivy wall divides within and without. It not only makes it difficult for underprivileged students to enter the elite tier, but also reproduces social stratification within the elite tier itself. Patterns of stratification in higher education in America thus demand scrutiny of not just the admission policies, but much more.
Here are more readings on the subject of inequality in the American higher education system:
Daniel Golden, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges –and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.
Don Hossler, Jack Schmit, and Nick Vesper, Going to College: How Social, Economic, and Educational Factors Influence the Decisions Students Make.
Ann L. Mullen, Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class and Gender in American Higher Education.
Horace A. Porter, The Making of a Black Scholar: from Georgia to the Ivy League.
Jacques Steinberg, The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.
Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, The Unchosen Me: Race, Gender, and Identity among Black Women in College.
Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.
Published in BLYNKT Issue 1 "Family"
In the spring of 2015, journalist and filmmaker Matthew Cassel began an extraordinary journey with 31-year-old Syrian father, Aboud Shalhoub. He spent a year documenting Aboud’s trip from Istanbul to the Netherlands, his long journey to reunite with his wife and two children after they were separated by the war in Damascus. Matthew believes that the portrait of refugees by the mainstream media is missing real human stories, He hopes that his documentary The Journey to Europe will give viewers an insight into what the refugee crisis means on an individual and personal level.
Refugees, migration and wars in the Middle East are among the most discussed issues in the last two years. Matthew’s documentary stands out as one of the few, if not the only, accounts of the refugee crisis that focuses not only on numbers but features real human stories. How many families were separated by the wars like Aboud’s? How many are now in ill-equipped boats or walking across the continents only to be reunited? Once landed, how can they be integrated into a new community? There are so many questions that need to be asked and answered in order to gain insight into the refugee crisis. The Journey to Europe is a journalist’s attempt to understand what is really going on in Europe and in the Middle East by asking sincere questions and not being afraid of where these questions lead him.
Commissioned by Field of Vision and published in English by The New Yorker in May 2016, The Journey to Europe is around 80 minutes in total, split into six parts. The entire documentary can be found on The New Yorker website:
BLYNKT spoke to the filmmaker about his own journey in the making of it.
QL: How did you meet Aboud?
MC: I met him through Syrian friends. At the beginning I had no intention of following or filming him. Aboud and his friends came to me because they thought I could help them with my United Nations contacts, so that when they made the trip from Turkey to Greece, someone in the UN knew that they were making this trip. They thought it would prevent them from being detained and sent back by the Greek border guards to Turkey, which actually ended up happening.
They came to me, an American journalist with the hope that I could help them. That’s how I met Aboud. It was actually Easter Weekend, 2015. In Greece on Easter everything shuts down. So when I was making these phone calls friends of mine, who work in the NGOs and the United Nations, said, “ok, but it is Thursday afternoon, we are going to leave for the next five days for the Easter holidays, so no one is going to be in the office.” I told Aboud and his friends that maybe it is a bad time to go, because no one works on the Easter weekend in Greece. But they were so impatient. When Aboud made the decision to go to Europe to be with his family, he just wanted to get to that place as soon as possible, because every minute he waited, every day he waited, it was one more minute, one more day away from his family. I understand that impatience. They ended up trying to go anyway.
QL: How did you start making the documentary?
MC: It was a very organic process. It’s wonderful. Sometimes when I do journalism, I feel really bad afterwards, especially when it is not my project, because with my projects, I have control. I have done producing, translating, shooting, all kinds of positions for different news outlets. You talk to someone for an hour, and you see it end up being made into literally a five-second sound bite. I feel so bad that I make this person give us so much, and in the end we use five seconds of that.
The process of making this documentary was much more organic in the sense that it all just happened, and I wasn’t trying to get that sound bite. I was trying to explore who this person was, why he was doing this trip, what he had to go through in order to get where he wanted to go. When I finished the project, I had absolutely no negative feelings about the experience. Thankfully, it is a positive story in many ways. But I don’t feel bad about my own involvement as a journalist.
During the past year working on this story, I do find myself hating this industry more and more. I have a lot of respect for my colleagues, but there are some serious problems in the way we conduct journalism. It is an important tool to inform people, but we sometimes take the tool for granted. It is often about getting the story out there quickly and not necessarily telling it as truthfully as we should be.
I tried to pitch Aboud’s story to different media I was working for at the time. One in particular, the editor there told me straight up, “I am tired of refugee stories. Find something else.” This was in April or May, 2015. It was still ahead of the big wave, the 1.2 million that would end up traveling through Greece to Europe later in the year. There was still little coverage of the refugee crisis. But my boss told me that he wasn’t interested in it. I just thought, “Aboud is such a nice guy. He reminds me so much of myself in so many ways.” So I decided that I would follow him and see where it goes. And that’s what ended up happening. He didn’t know what was going to happen to him from one day to the next. And I had no idea what kind of project I would end up producing. Maybe I’d do a five-minute video, maybe a twenty-minute video. I had no idea that it was going to be a six-part series of about an hour and twenty minutes in total. I just took it one day at a time, and that, again, was an organic process - just seeing where the story developed and following this person as he went through this pretty extraordinary journey.
QL: What is journalism to you?
MC: In today’s journalism, the editors decide beforehand what the story is, rather than let the story tell itself. It is backward, right? I am doing this assignment now here in Athens for example, they want very specific things, so they tell me to go get it. I feel a little bit bad in the way I am doing it, but at the end of the day I will be giving space for the refugees to talk about their predicaments, their lives, etc., and that’s important as well. To be honest, I am a bit torn about it because it is not a real way of doing journalism. The real way of doing journalism would be: “hey, why don’t you go see what the story is and come back and tell us about that. Then let’s build a report based on that.” No, that’s not the way journalism functions now, which is why I am increasingly frustrated with the industry. We are exploiting people. I did this trip with Aboud and all these other refugees and migrants over the course of a year. I have a different passport and all kinds of privileges that they don’t. But at the end of the day too, they are making this journey for a better life. I am making this journey because I care about this story, but I am also getting paid for it. It is a very strange feeling. I am part of an industry that profits from people’s suffering. I struggle with that but I also want to be able to keep doing this work, because I think it is important to tell people stories. And I need to be able to make a few bucks, otherwise I won’t be able to keep doing journalism.
QL: What is your relationship with the people in your film?
MC: When I first met Aboud, you can see him at the beginning, he had this big beard. He intimidated me. I thought, this guy looked like he came straight out of the battlefield from Syria. But then I spent a couple of days with him and I realized that he is one of the nicest, gentlest people I have ever met. He is so patient. He never raises his voice. We are roughly the same age. I have lived in his region for many years, I know the culture, we would have been friends under any other circumstances. Aboud and I could really connect and that definitely made a difference. It is also one of the reasons why I have chosen the Eastern Mediterranean region to do a lot of the work that I do. I like being able to fly beneath the radar, I learnt Arabic so I can sort of blend in and I have dark hair like most people in the area. I can operate without drawing too much attention to myself, which I think is really important for a journalist. On the journey, for example, when we were crossing these countries, I blended in with the group of refugees. When police saw us, they just assumed that I was also a refugee.
I established personal relationships with these people, and of course, it is a fine line. I was definitely friends with Aboud and other people in the group. But at the same time, I had to remind them (that I am a journalist), because I didn’t want to trick them into thinking, I am just their friend. Of course I am their friend, but I also had my own motivations for being with them, I am a journalist making a film about them. And they should know that, because I don’t want them to open up to me as friend and me taking advantage of that by possibly documenting something that they gave to me as friend, not as a journalist. It is a delicate balance.
And I want to make sure that anyone I film is aware that I am filming them, and whatever they are doing in front of the camera will be captured on the camera. At least, when the camera is rolling, they should know that they are not just talking to me, they are also talking to a lot of strangers. I think it is important that they know their actions could be made public later.
QL: What is the message that you hope to convey to the public via your documentary?
MC: There is not one specific message that I want to convey. The refugee crisis has been an issue we have all seen on all of the front pages of the newspapers, TV, and networks over the past year, non-stop. As someone who has spent time with these people, I felt that what was missing was real, human stories.
As someone who has spent time in these parts of the world it is clear to me that the front-page stories about refugees lack depth and do not humanize them. I know that back in America, or back in England, people are not getting an accurate picture. What’s missing from the picture is the pure humanity that we all have, regardless of where we are from. When we see coverage of the Middle East, or coverage of the refugees, it is (only) about the conflict. It is very superficial. For me, it is important to document the things I have witnessed. Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese, they are the same as any of us. They have a different culture, a different language, but at the end of the day, they are just people like the rest of us. They have just been placed in some pretty extraordinary circumstances, and that’s what makes them a little different.
I find it important to show the kind of basic humanity, the little things, the jokes that people make, the way they get tired, the way they laugh, the way they miss their family, all of that. Once you start capturing that on camera, you allow for viewers to empathize and understand who these people are. That’s what I want to capture. That’s the message, if you will. You know, the complexity of these people. They have stories, real stories, complex stories, deep stories that need to be told. Unfortunately they are not being told enough, at least not in a very accurate way. I want to tell their stories, and people can take whatever message they want to from that. Regardless of where you come from politically or geographically, if you want to formulate an opinion on another place, you need to understand the people in that place. That’s why I think it is important to use feature filmmaking or feature journalism to get a little deeper and capture who these people really are.
QL: What kind of change do you want to inspire with your documentary?
MC: We have some serious issues in the world right now. Racism and xenophobia in Western Europe and North America are very frightening, especially for someone like me, who grew up with plenty of stories about racism and xenophobia in Europe in the twentieth century. I see so many similarities in that period I grew up learning about to what’s happening now. Just take out the word Muslim or Islam and replace it with Jew or Judaism, and ask yourself if that would be something ok for you to say. Of course not. But people are saying this kind of islamophobic and racist stuff day in and day out. It’s being published by mainstream media. It’s being said by mainstream politicians. I think we are at a crucial moment right now. By humanizing refugees, I very much want to directly confront those racist trends which are emerging right now in Europe and in the United States. I don’t want this to be seen just as a document of these people’s lives for people to sit and say, “oh, ok.” I very much hope that this spurs people into actions of some kind. I am not suggesting a new movement necessarily, but I hope to encourage people to get active. If we live in a democratic society, it depends on everyone being active. I hope that people will become active on some level and fight the kind of right-wing racism that is becoming so prevalent in our societies today.
QL: You left religion out of your documentary. Was that intentional?
MC: I very intentionally left out religion from the documentary, because, first of all there was a mix of religions in the group I traveled with, and that, to me represents Syria. People aren’t leaving Syria because they are Christian or Sunni. They are leaving Syria because there is a war that affects everybody. And second of all, the sectarianism, these inter-religious conflicts, is not something ancient in the region - it’s something new. I don’t think it was necessary to highlight that in this story and also, I don’t want people to say, “oh he or she is like that because of his or her religion.”
I also asked the people in the film, I left the decision up to them, I asked them directly, “Are you practicing? Is that something I should highlight or not?” People chose that it was not something that necessarily needed to be highlighted. And at the end of the day, the thing they identified most as is Syrian.
QL: So in your documentary what you want to highlight is family instead of religion?
MC: The documentary is a story about a family that has been torn apart by conflicts and the difficult journey that a father and a mother have to make in order to reunite, to make the family whole again. I think it is really important to break it down to the simplest level, especially with how much coverage we’ve had of the refugee stories in the past year. Like Aboud said in the film, he didn’t even want to go to Europe. As Americans, or as Europeans, we think everyone wants to come to our countries. But I am American; I chose to live in the Middle East for twelve years. I love it over there. The pace of life, the culture, the warmth, we don’t have that in Western Europe or in America. There’s something extremely nice and hard to describe about these places. It is a really nice place to live. I would never have left, if I didn’t have to. I am not a refugee, but I wish I could continue staying there. I would have continued to live there if I felt that it was still a safe and sustainable place for a journalist to live, but it’s becoming difficult for me for the same reasons that people had to flee their homes. I think it is important to show that these aren’t people who are coming to Europe because they want “the amazing things that we have.” They are coming because we have security and safety. They want the possibility to live away from conflicts.
QL: How do you think we should deal with the refugee crisis today?
MC: The conversation now surrounding the refugee crisis is not based on facts. One side says this, the other side says that. And everyone just ignores the evidence. So I think in order to have a real conversation, I think that European states need clear policies now, especially in the past few months since they closed their borders. In the so-called “democratic states,” there needs to be a conversation that the entire population should become engaged in. In order to do that people need to be better informed. My job as a journalist is just to provide some information, and to provide a document of people like Aboud and others, so that people can better understand the situation. Then they can and actively take part in the discussion about how to deal with this issue, whether it be how to welcome refugees, and how to help integrate them into the new societies, or more importantly, how to put an end to the conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. How do we prevent people from killing so they have no other choice but to leave their homes? Like I said, most people wouldn’t make that decision if they had another option. But with all the racism and polarization, we are very far away from having those real concrete conversations that we should be having.
More information on Matthew and his work can be found on his website: www.justimage.org
BLYNKT hosted a screening of The Journey to Europe at Princeton University in October 2016, where Matthew presented and discussed his documentary. It was followed by a panel discussion on the refugee crisis.
A more in-depth conversation with Matthew about the process of making this documentary and his views on the refugee crisis will be available on the BLYNKT podcast now.
In “Masculin Féminin” Paul, played by the French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud, speaks only rebellious words, wanders in the city like a vagabond, expresses his sexual desires and revolutionary passions with full belief. They are the substance of his youthful existence. If sexual desire is still identifiable to young people today, revolutionary passion definitely got left behind in the 60s.
The film was made in 1966, two years before 1968—the culmination of revolutionary passions all over the world. And afterward, a total domination of pop culture until today. Madeleine, Paul’s counterpart in the film and the object of his infatuation, speaks amicable words about nothing, indulges herself in a pop star dream, and drinks Coca-Cola. She is the perfect embodiment of pop culture, the culture that despises ideals, so it talks about nothing, sings about nothing, and drinks sugar water. It is the culture of nothings. As Madeleine brushes her voluptuous hair and applies powder on her cheeks over and over again in an almost obsessive manner, she becomes the true representative of the most up-to-date form of femininity: femininity in the age of pop culture, a peculiar mixture of glamour and depthless-ness.
And yet, Paul and Madeleine, the two ends of the spectrum, are somehow attracted to each other. As Godard puts it himself, “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” find themselves falling into a love affair. The film never gives a reason why Paul falls for Madeleine, nor why Madeleine ambivalently reciprocates. Godard plays with the contingency of the attraction.
Many modern theorists have shown to us that gender is socially constructed. We are left to ponder the meaning of the difference in a new light. What does gender difference mean now that gender itself has been deconstructed? In “Masculin Féminin,” Godard offers his view by portraying Paul with sex drive and revolutionary passions, Madeleine with glamour, ambivalence and simple-mindedness. One could say that in the 15 vignettes Godard holds each gender up in turn for criticism and at times even ridicule. But there is also a profound sense of sympathy toward both. Godard might be one of the very few filmmakers in the history of cinema who managed to strike a balance between criticism and sympathy, and make comments on the existent social issues through the media without falling into the trap of cynicism. His comment on gender via “Masculin Féminin” is that gender difference is cultural, but it is also real. There is still the gap, the wall, or the miscommunication, however one wants to call it, between the masculine and the feminine.
If femininity and masculinity change in time, masculinity as Godard described in the film, is perhaps long gone. The revolutionary culture in the 60s is dead. The symbolic ending of the film speaks to Godard’s pessimism toward the culture of his time. In this sense, Godard is not neutral in his account of “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” In fact, he has never been in his films. The death of “the children of Marx” followed by the nihilist denial of that death by “the children of Coca-Cola” pretty much sums up the tragedy of the decade. At the very end of the film, the police officer asks Madeleine if she knows what happened to Paul. She stares at him with wide eyes, disinterested, a bit confused, and says “Je ne sais pas.”
Published originally on the BLYNKT website.
Photograph by Stephen Jackson
When one encounters a story like Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” one cannot help but think to what extent our bond with our families which at times seems to be the most unconditional form of love in the world, is in fact conditioned by our physical being. “Metamorphosis” is essentially a story about the imprisonment of a human being within his animal physicality (isn’t it a universal truth?). It is a sad fact, but stories about sick family members, senior homes, among many sad family stories, tell us precisely that family is after all a worldly union. It comes with all the worldly constraints and conditions which challenge the unconditional love we feel within it. Especially when a family member is deprived of basic capacity of communication, due to illness or old age, it becomes difficult for the familial bond to endure.
We all want love to transcend. The difference of skin color, beauty and ugliness, old age, all those worldly things, to be overcome. But the brutal truth told by Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is that Gregor was expelled out of his family because of his physical deformity. As he became an unrelatable monstrous bug, the family bond he took for granted deteriorated. When Gregor, propelled by an urge to respond to his family’s inquiry about his bodily conditions, heard only an incomprehensible squeak coming out of his mouth, there was no transcendent love available to him or to his family.
“Metamorphosis” does not so much explain to us what family is than asks: does what we call family (and familial love) always already conjure up definitive categories of humanity? More specifically, does becoming a family require family members to first of all be human? As in Gregor’s case, his new bug body, something that primarily changed nothing of his subjectivity, seems to have expelled him completely from the context of family, as well as from all other social contexts. The moment of despair resulting from miscommunication was robbed by an existential chaos—Gregor was unable to even affirm his own human nature in front of his family. He could not exonerate himself from the condemnation from his very own family of being less than human.
Maybe we should rethink the whole idea that we were born into our families. Maybe there is nothing that we were born into, apart from our bodies, which grant us part of our humanity. The other part consists in our becoming relatable social beings, establishing relationships with other human beings, and finally, becoming a family or a community. Then when old age or sickness seizes us, it will do nothing more than putting the precious feelings we reared to the test. Maybe love will win. Maybe it won’t. Then it will take us back to the examination of what constitutes human.
Poster designed by YC Liu
Conference titled “Without Borders? Globalization and the Refugee Crisis” is part of the collective effort to address some of the important questions pertaining to human rights, the rights of mobility, and racial discrimination in the history of global integration and immigration.
Yingkit Chan (Princeton University)
Greisa Martinez & Rodrigo Huertas (United We Dream)
Sheryl Mendez (Freedom House)
Documentary "The Journey to Europe" by Matthew Cassel
Organizers: Q. Lei
Date: October 25, 2016
Sponsored by Princeton Council of the Humanities, Princeton East Asian Studies Department, and Verso Books