Rise Up (against neocolonial activism)!

A new documentary highlights important struggles abroad, but is reluctant to show similar fights in today’s Germany


The documentary “Rise Up” by Marco Heinig, Steffen Maurer, Luise Burchard and Luca Vogel was released in Berlin last week. The film is built upon inspiring stories, a compelling narrative and breath-taking images. What else is there to ask for? In times of a global pandemic, wars and ever increasing inequality we cannot but welcome such a work that, more so than books and academic discussions, has the potential to reach a wide audience and encourage us all to resist injustice. On top of this, I had the pleasure of being in the premiere in a somewhat epic scenography: in the gorgeous Freiluftkino in Friedrichshain and in the presence of a committed audience that remained despite the rain, sheltered only by their open umbrellas.

Having said that, as a critical scholar, I must say that there is, nevertheless, a core aspect of the film that is deserves to be pointed out. The goal of this essay is to open the discussion and highlight that, even within transformative initiatives, there is room for improvement.

An Afro-South African female activist shares her decades-long struggle against Apartheid and how she was all but satisfied by the end of the legal segregation system. Instead, she keeps on struggling for racial and gender equality in her country and abroad. A young Chilean feminist from the suburbs invites the public to feel and understand the struggle against the neoliberal government of Sebastian Piñera and the remnants of the last dictatorship. An Afro-American male activist opens the door to his long commitment to fighting police brutality in the core of the Imperium. A female East German socialist sheds light on her long fight against the DDR and how the goal was never to become part of capitalist West Germany but to achieve real socialism. Finally, a young white female activist shares her current activism in Rojava against state terror.

What is the message that the movie is transmitting with this choice? Is present day Germany too perfect to find a cause to fight for?

The problematic issue is as follows. On the one hand, the Latino activist in Chile, the female and Afro activist in South Africa, the Afro-American in the USA and the socialist activist in East Germany were/are all fighting against local injustices affecting their communities. In other words, the movie shows the struggles conducted by these “others” (Latino, socialists, Afro) and the social problems they face in their places of origin. On the other hand, when the documentary turns to the young white German activist (from current capitalist Germany), there is a striking difference from the other cases. She shares that she got to believe she should have been born in the active 1960s; i.e., that she was born in the wrong time and place as she could not find a community to fight with. She needed to discover the misery and human rights violations in Rojava to understand that she was born at the correct moment. In short, the creators chose a white, presumably middle-class, young, German who is the only one not fighting against local injustices.

What is the message that the movie is transmitting with this choice? Is present day Germany too perfect to find a cause to fight for? While all the other territories of “others” are full of injustices to be fought against, Germany offers no other possibility than travelling all the way to Rojava to find a reason to “rise up”? Would the film not be better off by pointing out the activism against gentrification and corporate power that leave countless people without the right to housing in Germany? Or those with a migration background, people of colour, and the many others affected and fighting against racism? Or those suffering from the empowerment of far-right extremism? What about those victims of police brutality as the 16-year old asylum seeker killed by police (body cameras suspiciously shut down) just last week? Unfortunately, the documentary only offers silent images of those conflicts but fails to put them at the forefront.

…the “bad” (imperialism, colonialism) and “good” (human rights, activism) tools of Northern intervention follow the same ethnocentric and stigmatizing mechanisms that… encompass harmful consequences for the so-called “others”.

This unfortunate choice ends up reproducing what Makau Mutua, a Kenyan-American critical scholar, characterizes as the saviour-savage-victim metaphor: the savages and victims are usually in the Third World, while the saviours are located in the North. In his article “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights”, he explains that “the human rights movement is marked by a damning metaphor. The grand narrative of human rights contains a subtext that depicts an epochal contest pitting savage, on the one hand, against victims and saviours, on the other”. This describes Northern countries as successful in terms of controlling their savages under the guidelines of international law (they are the “good” states), in opposition to the “evil” states, which express themselves through anti-democratic, or other authoritarian culture. In turn, the victim figure is so powerless that they need help from the North. That is how the saviour is represented by the “good” Northern countries, international non-governmental organizations, senior white academics and also good-heart activists that get involved in the situation to protect the victims from the savages. In short, within this metaphor, the North intervenes as a “saviour” in internal conflicts between “savages” and “victims” mostly located within or between global South nations. Savages, and victims “are generally non-white and non-Western, while the saviours are white.”

In his work, Mutua goes even further and traces a parallel between human rights and colonialism. He acknowledges that “colonialism was driven by ignoble motives while the human rights movement was inspired by the noblest of human ideals”. How­ever, he points out, despite these differences, “both streams of historical moment are part of a Western push to trans­form non-European peoples.” Additionally, Mutua argues that for the purpose of self-legitimization, both, colonialism, and human rights/international law have developed narratives of salvation and mankind. Colonialism has been associated with the “progressive” goals of civilization and development. In turn, human rights are framed within a narrative of equality and fraternity in which all nations are formally regarded as equal partners joined together to ensure global values. Thus, the “bad” (imperialism, colonialism) and “good” (human rights, activism) tools of Northern intervention follow the same ethnocentric and stigmatizing mechanisms that, as described by the SVS metaphor, encompass harmful consequences for the so-called “others”.

Does the documentary reaffirm this pervasive SVS metaphor? Unfortunately, I left the park feeling that, despite its good intentions, the film ends up endorsing that “savages” are perpetrating terrible injustices in Rojave, that the local population is the victim suffering them, and that the white young do-gooder German activist, who was not inspired enough by the injustices in her territory, is the saviour who travelled miles to save those out there.

Rise Up is currently showing in some German cinemas