A South American river. A man sits with his back to us at the bow of a canoe. Cut to: the director Sobo Swobodnik in a plane. He narrates: “Thomas Walter, my daughter’s uncle has been on the run for almost 25 years. Since then, Germany has a warrant out for his arrest.” Swobodnik is reading a newspaper with the headline “Once a terrorist, always a terrorist?”
The narration goes on to explain that Thomas has been accused of being a member of a radical left-wing terrorist organisation and of planning to bomb a deportation jail. In 2017 he suddenly emerged in Venezuela, and applied for asylum. He made contact with his family for the first time in 22 years. In 2019, taking just a camera and a tourist visa Swobodnik boarded a plane to Venezuela.
As the camera pans through the Venezuelan countryside, we hear Thomas singing: “Don’t ask my name. I don’t know who I am”. We first meet him watching archive news reports of the alleged bombing which he’s never seen before. He is astounded by the inaccuracies: “they even got my eye colour wrong. They could’ve just looked at my passport.” As a tax payer, he is appalled at the waste of resources.
Thomas’s co-accused – Bernd Heidbreder and Peter Krauth – live nearby. They have maintained contact throughout their time of exile. None of them regrets fleeing Germany. They say that they have some political differences, but would always support each other. It is good that they don’t live on top of each other, but also that they are in close proximity.
Rafael Uzcategui, the Venezuelan activist who helped the three apply for refugee status is interviewed. He describes them as activists who denounce war. You can’t call advocates for peace – “terrorists”. Indeed, the act they are accused of – bombing a detention centre which represents war – was itself an act of peace.
Thomas explains what flight has meant for him – leaving his partner and all his friends was heart-rending. In one of his songs he sings “I still have a suitcase in Berlin”. But flight also meant a permanent state of self-censorship, and feeling unable to speak out as his identity might be revealed. Even going to sleep carried with it the fear of being woken and dragged from his bed in the middle of the night. He has learned to live with this fear.
And on the other hand, he was able to experience a sort of solidarity that most people only read about in books. People who didn’t know him were prepared to protect him. Thomas’ survival depended on local activists. He explains: “the people who set it up can be your best friends. The people who help you have to be total strangers.”
This is not just Thomas’ story. We are also presented with a critical view of modern Venezuela. In the middle of an interview, the power fails and the light goes out. A local farmer explains how people are dying from hunger, saying they need a new president before there can be change. No-one votes for the Chávistas any more, he says. But he is still a supporter of Hugo Chávez, putting the blame on his successor, Maduro.
Thomas is also a Chávez fan, explaining how Chávez successfully transferred wealth to the poor. After the unsuccessful putsch in 2003, Chávism became hegemonic. But, he argues, the party tried to channel everything and ruined it all. Politics in Venezuela has turned into waiting for the government to benevolently hand out favours, and is no longer about a world view. But you can’t have socialism if it doesn’t come from below, from the people.
Since Thomas emerged from hiding, he’s been working with Pablo Mal Éléve, the singer of the Berlin band Irie Révoltés, exchanging song ideas by skype. Thomas’ songs reflect his experiences of exile and are full of both hope and despair. Pablo’s seem angrier – slamming Frontex and the corpses left behind by Fortress Europe. We see footage of Pablo performing at the Unteilbar demo for refugees wearing a life jacket.
Pablo is finally able to visit his collaborator. They are delighted at being able to see each other live for the first time. They discuss how they can use a recording studio during the many power outages. Through their work together they realise that although they practise quite different musical styles, there is much more common ground than they’d thought. There is some basis for bringing the different musical and political generations together.
They discuss their respective musical backgrounds. Thomas comes from the autonomous scene. That saw music as something a little bourgeois, that kept you away from the fight. Pablo, on the other hand, has experience of fans who say that his music gives them strength and inspires them to get involved. Yet both say that music is the way in which they express resistance.
Pablo relates his political experiences. Once you’ve been arrested once at a demo, he says, the next time they’ll charge you with something bigger – obstructing police or assault. This has nothing to do with what you’ve actually done. Facing 4 weeks in a juvenile home, Pablo fled to Thailand before his mother and brother convinced him to return. Now he runs an all-gender sport group which is challenging prejudices by bringing people together.
Pablo and Thomas also discuss recent developments in German politics. Thomas reads the German press every day, but Pablo is the first person to ask Thomas, not about how he’s changed but how Germany has changed. He thinks that the German Republic has evolved – the Left is less impressed by violence and now tries to solve conflicts peacefully.
On the other hand, in Germany at least, discussion has become more polarised. The questions “Are you with us or against us? Are you German or Taliban?” accompany every discussion. With this background state violence is instítutionalised. Thomas rejects unnecessary violence, he comes from the peace movement, but also asks: “How come they’re allowed to use violence but I’m not, even though my cause is noble and theirs is reprehensible?”
‘Against the Tide’ covers a range of issues, but the subject that keeps coming up is that of flight. Of Thomas’s and Pablo’s flight from German “justice”, of the flight of refugees without papers. But it also has a message of hope and solidarity, of building a better future, on creating a society which isn’t based on repression and putting the strongest at the top.
As such, this is a film about the downfall of Chavism in Venezuela, but it’s about much more than that. It’s about creating a better world wherever we are and of building international solidarity through politics, through sport, and through music.
Music from the film:
Gegen den Strom / Against the Tide is now out on DVD. Among the bonus material is the recording of the Q&A that we organised in Moviemento.
Order the film here