Finding the courage to dream

Interviews with Thomas Walter, Pablo Mal Éléve and Sobo Swobodnik – stars and director of the film “Against the Tide”


“Against the Tide” is a film by Sobo Swobodnik about his relative – activist and singer Thomas Walter (TW). Thomas was on the run for over 20 years, after being accused of bombing a deportation jail. His colleagues Bernd Heidbreder and Peter Krauth were also accused and fled.

In 2017, they emerged in Venezuela claiming political asylum. More recently Thomas has been writing songs with anti-racist rapper Pablo Mal Éléve. Read a full review here.

Phil Butland spoke with Sobo,Thomas and Pablo about the film and their political motivation.

What finally convinced you to come back into the open?

TW: In 2014, Bernd was arrested in Venezuela. After it was clear that he couldn’t be extradited to Germany and might be able to receive asylum in Venezuela, there was no more reason for Peter and me to carry on hiding. We registered at the Venezuelan commission for refugees, and applied for recognition as victims of political persecution. The process is still going on.

Sobo, you had no contact with Thomas for decades. How did you find each other again? How was that for you?

SS: All the time I didn’t know Thomas personally. Nevertheless I knew his history, the history of persecution since he went uunderground in 1995, and from a very personal, family connection. Thomas is the uncle of my daughter. When he suddenly re-emerged in 2017 and contacted my family, this was the first time that we had spoken.

It quickly became clear that his story is so exciting and interesting, that it should be told for the cinema as a documentary. It took quite a few months for us to chat on skype and mail and to find out what a film like this could look like. When the concept felt nearly ready, I visited Thomas for the filming in Venezuela.

Thomas, you left Germany in 1995. How has German politics changed since then?

TW: I can see a signicantly stronger consensus in society. The left has largely come to terms with the status quo. There is more tinkering with the excesses of capitalism and the police state, than with considering alternatives. In the early 1990s it wasn’t like that – a basic critical view of the State and capitalism was much more common.

The international Left had great expectations in the government of Hugo Chávez and his successors. You seem to have become disappointed. Do you see hope in Latin America?

TW: Sure. It wasn’t just that the different progressive governments led to more authoritarianism like in Venezuela, where twenty years of “Revolution” has unfortunately led to a general step back in civil society. There was also a general strengthening of the self-confidence of the poor elsewhere, the understanding that they had a right to take part in managing society, and were prepared to be active for this.

The emancipatory processes were in many case also part of a “nation building”. I don’t think that it will be as simple in the future as before, when small oligarchies put themselves at the head of the Latin American countries, and the people let them rule relatively unchecked.

You have quite different musical backgrounds. How did you find each other? Why do you think that your cooperation has worked so well?

PME: Thomas contacted me by mail and asked whether we wanted to make a song together. I was keen on the content of the project, without knowing what sort of music Thomas makes. I don’t think that either of us thought that a full EP would come out of it.

But, after our first skype call I knew that the chemistry between us both was there and that we had a super understanding of each other. Then it was clear that we would also find each other musically.

TW: Us coming together at all was by chance. But the fact that it worked despite our different musical tastes is down to our political ideas. And we share a certain philosophical viewpoint.

We both believe that we are part of something larger, that it’s not just about us as individuals who have populated this planet for a while. But that we should all make our little contribution for humanity, for conserving our habitat and creating a society worth living for. Hence the motto “Générations sans Frontières”.

Thomas has said that in parts of the Left, music and sport are seen as a bourgeois distraction from the real struggle. What do you think about this?

TW: I’m not sure that that’s really true. What I said was that this was the feeling in my old little left-radical bubble. But that is a very personal tunnel vision. Even then there were other scenes and subcultures among us. I couldn’t judge whether this is still the case today.

PME: for me personally, music and sport were always an important part of my life and my resistance. For me, it’s no distraction – quite the opposite: it gives me the power to carry on fighting.

Pablo, when you were younger you had some problems with the German police. What do you think about the current campaign “Defund the Police”?

PME: I think the campaign is good. I want a society where we don’t need any police, where we can solve problems and conflicts differently.

Regardless of my own negative experiences with the cops, I know that their structure is racist, that they abuse their power much too often, and that usually they are not prosecuted for their acts. This means that I think it’s a good approach to invest elsewhere. Not in tooling up the cops but in social work, psychologists etc.

Thomas, you have an ambivalent relationship with political violence. Can you explain a little?

TW: In principle, I want a society free of violence. But if the State or other political actors use violence to impede the free development of people, I feel that violence in reaction is legitimate. I feel that in Germany at the moment, there are terrible double standards, even in the left. Non-violence is celebrated – but elsewhere there are people profiting from the use of violence where it serves their own interest.

For example, when the Kurdish fighters in Syria were driving back the Islamic State using massive violence, that was no problem for the “pacifist” Germans. Then they were celebrated as “freedom fighters”. But when the same Kurds fought against their extermination by the Turkish state, they were called “terrorists”.

Sobo, why should people see your film?

SS: For a start, because the film is pretty entertaining; and it highlights a subject which is relevant to me for people living together, and which is currently often marginalized – Solidarity. The film is a beacon of solidarity. And friendship.

The film also reflects on the possibilities and methods of articulating protest and resisting. Both protagonists are upstanding, straightforward and very individual personalities who don’t bend and stand for a clear political position (which is more of an exception nowadays). That is: they are against injustice, inequality, racism, the extreme right and for diversity, equality and solidarity.

In times in which also the middle of society is increasingly drifting to the right; when more refugee shelters are attacked; and exclusion and discrimination are setting the agenda; when it’s difficult to see the difference between executive power and the extreme right mob, and the gulf between poor and rich is diverging even more – we need people like Thomas and Pablo, who stand for a different narrative. A narrative which is based on changes for the good.

What are the most important challenges for the German and international left today?

TW: To show alternatives to a lifestyle that ruins the planet and turns people into alienated consumers. To consider models from which a better, sustainable society of solidarity could emerge. To have the courage to dream.

“Against the Tide” will be shown on Wednesday night, 4 November, followed by a Q&A with Thomas and Pablo. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, we cannot show the film in Moviemento as planned, but the film and Q&A will be livestreamed. Buy your ticket here.