Interview with Filmmaker Mo Asumang

Mo Asumang
Illustration by Maggie Meshnick.

Mo Asumang is an acclaimed Afro-German filmmaker, TV presenter, and actress.  She has recently gained international attention for her new documentary The ARYANS, a personal journey into the madness of racism, in which she talks to German neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and everyday people about questions of race, identity, and belonging.  Ms. Asumang has been presenting her film through the United States and stopped at Brown University on September 29, 2014.  Bluestockings editors Kristy Choi and Maru Pabon had the honor of sitting down with Ms. Asumang to talk about her incredible film and life.


Bluestockings: What was your childhood like?  What was it like to grow up in Germany with a white German mother and a black Ghanaian father?


Mo Asumang: Well actually the first thing that happened when I was a 2 years old my mother and my grandmother who lived in a nice old building in Kassel [Germany], they had to leave the house, they were thrown out of the house because of my father and my color.  So that was one of the first things related to racism.  I mean I don’t remember of course because I was too small, but since my mother has been telling me about this, I had a little bit of a strange feeling of guilt that I schlepped through my life.  I thought, hm, they throw your family out, they throw them out because of “me”, and “Who am I?”.  So that was an early question in my life “Who am I that these things happen to me?”  And how can I do something so that these things don’t happen again.  My mother was an accountant and she one day met my father in the Tram, in the Strassebahn.  And then they fell in love.  He was there as a student.  He came from Ghana.  My great uncle supported him and gave him money for his studies in Germany so that he could bring back knowledge to Ghana.  And my great uncle was a financial minister in the Ashanti region in Ghana.  But when he found out that my father is with a white woman, he said, “Okay, son, you have to come to England, leave that woman, or I don’t give you money for studying anymore.”  You see that it–


BS: It goes both ways.


MA:  Exactly.  It goes both ways.  Both sides’ experience are excluded.  My mother told me that my great-aunt said when she heard that my mother was with a black man, “Who do you think you are?  Do you think you’re going to be the Queen of Africa?” But that great-aunt had three daughters who were very open-minded and were so nice and my mother loved them very much.  Unfortunately because of me there was new disturbance and tension among them.  So actually my mother had to suffer quite a bit.

And also, my mother and I found out only about one year before I made The ARYANS that my grandmother was part of the Nazi SS.  I chose that as the scene that starts the film.  Basically I think everyone in Germany has some sort of relationship to that history but you wouldn’t imagine that a black woman like me has relatives that were part of the SS.


BS:  What has it been like living and working as a prominent woman of color in mainstream media nowadays?  And how did you come to be in a place where you felt that you wanted to educate people on issues such as race?


MA:  First question, I have always tried to do my work very well.  And I have always tried to put in my programming–that’s what I did I hosted TV programs–honesty and open-mindedness.  Even if I talk about topics that are, say, erotic, it’s not like looking through a peep hole and watching something that is forbidden.  Instead, I try to show people’s lifestyle. Second question: and the whole thing with educating people about the German “dark side” is because I actually got a murder threat by Neo-Nazis.  This group was singing “This bullet is for you Mo Asumang…” The band was called White Aryan Rebels.


BS:  When was that?


MA:  It was 2002 or 2003.  I was a well-known person and they chose to target me because I was one of the people of color. In the song, another target was a Jew and another a homosexual. I didn’t want this song to stay a negative part in my life.  I didn’t want to just hide in my life.  I want to live and be open and laugh and enjoy life.  Therefore I had to find a new idea to deal with this murder threat and soon worked on my films.


BS:  So we were wondering if you could talk about Germans or Europeans in general think about race, citizenship, and identity?


MA:  Well when I was born in Germany in 1963. My mother was German, my father from Ghana. Still I got a Ghanaian passport in Germany, even though I had never been in Ghana before. So when we wanted to go skiing in Austria I had to get a Visa.  It was always very complicated.  If I wanted to go to England to visit my father, I had to get a Visa.


BS:  So you didn’t count as German?


MA:  No.  Not at that time.  Because back then you got the nationality of your father.  It was the idea of a “bloodline.”  Although there was my mother, who had German blood, but that was taken out and did not count.


BS:  Your film touches on this question of belonging that people of color often have to wrestle with.  Clearly having a Ghanaian passport and growing up in Germany–that had to affect your sense of belonging in Germany.


MA:  Yes, indeed. I remember once my grandmother and I went to Berlin.  We wanted to go to East Berlin and there was still the wall.  And I had to go on the bus with foreigners.  And my grandmother was in the German bus.  But in the bus with foreigners there were only 3 people and I was 9 or 10 years old.  That was an…adventure for me.  Of course I always felt not very German.  I couldn’t really say ‘I am German’ only until I finished my first film Roots Germania, in which I searched for my identity.  Before then I couldn’t say “I am German,” it wasn’t possible for me.  The picture of Germans in the world are still very much related to the Nazi time.  All of these pictures: white, tall, blonde, whatever, or do you remember people of color in Germany beside the soccer players, hm? All these white pictures are still there in the world. This happens also because we don’t talk so much about a positive side of Germany history: about migration. And that there was and still is migration, always and in every decade of German history!

When the world talks about Germany and migrants in German, we start the debate with the immigration of Italians in the 60s, then Turkish people in the 70s.  And no one talks about migration before…and after.  And through that there is this feeling that there are only “white Germans”, which is not true.  And different people bring different struggles and this creates a “new Germany”.  This is happening everyday.  But we don’t talk about it.  And the Germans tend to want Germany to be this very white Germany.  What amazed me, during the Soccer World Cup of 2010, there was this emphasis on “Oh wow, we have so many colors!” Everybody was talking about German soccer players as being so colorful and wonderful and “multi-culti”.  And then this German guy Thilo Sarrazin wrote this really racist book Germany is Abolishing Itself that criticized migrants and came out right after the World Cup. 1.5 million copies were sold in 2011. And you would think that the celebration of difference in the World Cup would stick.  But it did not stick.  And something dark from deep down came up again.


BS:  What is your relationship to the German language?  Was it something that you question your sense of identity?German is your native language.  But language is so tied to German identity and nationalism.


MA:  Well, for example, when I worked as a taxi driver during my time as a student, a lot of people told me “Oh, your German is so wonderful!”  After a while, I told them fake stories.  “My father is Chinese, my mother is Polish, and I was raised in Israel.”  I was so fed up!  I had to humor myself.  And there was always also that question, “Where do you come from?” It was there all the time. And I would say of course, “I’m from Kassel!” But they just want to hear, “Where are the roots?  Where is my father from? Where is the color from?”


BS:  And do you think being a black woman made your experience unique in anyway?  How was that gender component important to you–or not?


MA:  Hm.  In a way, maybe it was easier to be a black woman than a black man on location., because black men are more a threat to the neo-nazis. My movie “The Aryans,” I couldn’t do it as a black man.  It would be much too dangerous


BS: How was that on the film set?


MA: We actually had to film with camerawomen.  When I had cameramen we had so many problems when talking to the racists.  People would target them and kick them in the face and pour alcohol over them.  So the co-producers Hanfgarn and Ufer and me decided that we had to work with camerawomen.


BS: What are other groups or platforms that are contributing to the discussion in Europe on race?


MA:  There are platforms, of course.  There is the Initiative Schwarze-Deutsche. We have German-Turkish platforms and from all kinds of nationalities.  I used to be with Initiative Schwarze-Deutsche.

BS:  So talking more about the film, specifically, what were some of your influences?  One of the major elements of the film is that the viewer is in your shoes.  We get to see your thinking process.  It is very personal.  You are on screen.  Can you talk about these creatives choices?


MA:  Well to be on-screen is the most important part of the movie.  Because it shows how people really respond to each other, how racists–members of the Neo-Nazi group or the Ku Klux Klan–respond face to face with a black woman. Because normally when you talk within your group, when the Klan talks within their group, or maybe even when black Germans talk within their group about this topic, but never together.  So I thought, if I want to change something, I have to talk to the person.  It cannot be just that I read books or watch television programs about this topic.  No, I wanted to have a conversation.  And I do believe that Germany is like a big family and have all these different people with colors and religions.  And within a big family, you have to talk.  You cannot solve a problem and also not in the long-term without talking to each other.  In the family you do the same.  You have problems with your brother, what do you do?  It’s not that you never talk to him again.  You say we want to talk about the issues.  But it’s not like once you talk about it, it’s all fine.

Everyday is new.  Everyday is different.  The communication has to be new and has to happen every single day.  And of course there are huge barriers to this communication.  The violence.  These groups are violent.  And I realize that my conception of these people as so violent gets in the way of communication.  People’s fear is so strong and so it is difficult to reach the point of communication.  I had this fear too.  Fear stops communication.  Nobody can grow together and nothing can be developed.  And so I thought I had to stop this.  So in my first film Roots Germania I got the first chance to talk to a Neo-Nazi in the jail.  And it was a safer space for me to talk to this person.  And in The Aryans, I just thought, ok well I have met a Neo-Nazi now, I think I can go further.  Let’s just go talk to a lot of them.  And I developed throughout the movie different senses about how to find out about my opponents.  I watched the body language of these people.  What do they do?  Do they look into my eyes?  Do they turn around?  Do they run away?  They run away.  They don’t confront you.  So then I think: this person is running away, this person is not looking into my eyes.  And so what is he?  He’s scared.  And I ask myself: how do I feel now?  I’m not scared anymore.  They are afraid.  But you have to be in the situation.  It is not something you can produce outside of the scene and watching.  You need to be in it.

And for me, it’s interesting.  Because it has helped me reflect and grow.  It makes me wonder if I am prejudiced against these people.  Because sometimes you see these people and you don’t like these people.  And I wondered what prejudice really was. I found out that I really do not like the Neo-Nazi chiefs–the bosses.  Because those people are intelligent.  They know what they are doing.  They have money.  They sell the hate to other people.  That is really hard.  That makes me angry.


BS:  Why did you choose to focus on the “Aryans” and their history specifically?


MA: Well, the Aryan is the counterpart, or so I thought, of me as a black woman. Tall, blond and blue-eyed – I am none of that. There was this hate song that I was talking about and the group was called White Aryan Rebels, so all the time it was there, Aryan, and I never questioned it because it was so integrated and everybody thought that they knew about what it meant. But then I asked myself and asked other people, what do you know about Aryans? And they came up with the same picture as the Nazis gave us. So then I looked it up in the Internet and found it very easily : who are the Aryans. The Aryans come from Iran and from India. Then I went to [scientists?] and they told me, yes, the Germans are not Aryans and have never been. I also asked myself when or where have I seen old stone graves of Aryans,  have I seen something like that? But I’ve never questioned, that’s the biggest thing. Even me. I just took it as natural, and we really have to be aware that people like racists say a lot half-truths. We have to really look at all of it, for example the swastika that comes from Asia is 3,000 years old but it’s there and everybody thinks it’s totally German, but it’s not. It’s very important to question. I wanted to confront people with that, but not in the sense of lecturing and telling them “Ha ha ha, This is wrong.” I just let them tell their story.


BS: Did you feel like the people that you spoke to in America were also connected to this Aryan idea?


MA: Yes, of course. What the The Ku Klux Klan first did when they passed by was do the sign of ‘Heil Hitler’, and Hitler was the one who was writing in Mein Kampf about the Aryan concept,  about the “true” Aryans. So there’s definitely a relationship there. And then I found out that…shall we talk about how the Germans took this word? I think it’s important. I found out that there’s an old language connection between old Persia and ancient Germany. They are all under this cover, and I think it’s called Indo-Aryan or Indo-German language. The French Count Gobineau took it, the word Aryan, from the language connection and then the German race scientists took the word and put it on people and started splitting people up into categories. But then the next question: why was it so important to be Aryan? Because during old Achaemenid Empire, King Darius the First wrote down in stone that he was an Aryan, and this Empire was very great. It was almost comparable to Greece or Ancient Rome. And what did the Germans have? They had people working with fur in the woods.

So this connection helped the Germans be on another level, and I think that’s why they tried to use it. Then I found these letters that, for example, an Ambassador from Iran wrote to the Nazis at that time saying that one of their students had been hit very badly during the war, and in the letter you see him saying, “But we are the Aryans.” So the Nazis knew, they were aware of that. Still, Germans had to prove they were of Aryan descent in order to get to certain positions. And if you couldn’t prove it, your connection to that word, you would be taken to the concentration camps and killed. So you see, this word is so powerful and it is shame that we haven’t been talking about it before. This was such a specific science so at that time no one said anything about it because there was so much fear. Nobody questioned. That’s why when I went to the Iranian embassy in Berlin and wrote about wanting to make this movie, the people in the embassy reacted strongly. So it took a long time, nine months, to get the visa and manage to go to Iran. As you can see in the movie, there’s a woman who’s an Aryan, she has a headscarf, and she says, “Me as an Aryan woman, I say we’re all the same mankind, we have to stay together.”


BS: It is very powerful to see someone identify as an Aryan and look like that. That is mind blowing because that’s not the Nazi image of an Aryan at all: a woman with dark hair and a headscarf.

Shifting gears a little bit, what is your relationship to the feminist movement? What are your thoughts on your film or yourself in relation to feminism?


MA: Hm, that is a good question. I think people are the same and we should have the same rights, and what I see is that we don’t have the same rights and of course we have to fight for them. I myself have to put power into that topic also because of being black. In the end, for me, I mix it all up and I have to fight anyway so I don’t really think about fighting for the specific rights of women because I’m so into the fight of getting my rights as a black person, a black woman. This fight was my first, and then comes the fight for being a woman. I don’t do things as a woman; I do them because I have a heart and I have a vision.


BS: But do you feel like people categorize your work as that of a woman? That people gender your work?


MA: Yes, maybe. I don’t know. One thing is very clear, and it’s that I wouldn’t have made this movie as a black man. As a black woman, it was easier because the neo-Nazis weren’t so afraid of me. It helped me. Also all the camera staff were women because the level of confrontation wasn’t so high. So sometimes it’s better to be a woman. You just have to find your niche. I have a very bad background, my childhood wasn’t so nice. I came into an orphanage when I was five weeks old and then went to different foster parents and then to my grandmother. You can say this is my childhood, it was awful and I hated it and I don’t want to talk about it, but now since I made this movie about identity and racism, all of this makes sense. That’s more important to me than fighting only as a woman, finding the things that harmed me and giving them sense. If they make sense, then you don’t suffer. Then you know why, and it gives me peace.


BS: So what’s next on your horizon? What’s your next project?


MA: At the moment, I’m writing down everything that happened while I was meeting racists. I’ve started to write a book, I actually started writing on the flight from Berlin to New York. Now I’m page four! So my US visit has started this book, but I don’t know when it will be finished.


BS: What are your thoughts on the US? You’ve shown your film in New York, Boston, and Providence now. What has your experience been like with American audiences? Do you get different kinds of questions and comments here?


MA: Yes, a lot of people ask about the difference between racists in Germany and in the United States. They don’t ask that as much in Germany. What I see is that connecting to this people, the racists, is never the question. They are always so astonished that I go and meet these people. But I think that’s the first thing you have to do in order to make change. Although I have to say, I cannot change the person, but I can change my actions. And that’s the most important thing.


BS: I think there’s so much separatism in the way Americans talk about race. So many conversations are segregated. It’s always a lot of people of color talking to people of color so I think your film is really powerful. I would never in my life think of going to talk to the very opponent that I think about abstractly.


MA: I just do it.  It doesn’t matter whether I know what they do or not. For me, the most important question is: do I want to give those people part of my energy? Do I want them to grow as people? If I can say yes to that question, then that is absolutely the right way. That is the most important thing. I don’t think we should be angry, I think we should show that we are better and not push them away like they push us away. So we have to try to be better and come together.


Photo courtesy of Kristy Choi. 


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