Extremism & soul-searching at DOK Leipzig


Among the highlights of DOK Leipzig this year is the documentary Exit. The award-nominated film forces us to look at extremism as a phenomenon stemming from the experiences of fellow human beings, rather than of monsters. Its director and narrator, Karen Winther, makes us feel uncomfortable from early on, as she explores how she joined a violent far-right group in Norway as a teenager.

"Exit" director Karen Winther. (Photo © DOK Leipzig)
“Exit” director Karen Winther. (Photo © DOK Leipzig)

Like many of us, Winther had been bullied in school, rejected by her peers. In her case, though, the desire for numbing her pain and for self-harm devolved into the urge to hurt others. She tried to join a far-left group, but didn’t feel welcome. So she moved into right-wing extremism, getting a rush from the forbidden status of Nazi propaganda, and from beating people up.

Deep inside, Winther was searching for meaning in life and a sense of belonging (as screwed up as that may sound). And as she came of age, she realized she couldn’t get it from her far-right group membership. She connected with a researcher to understand what was happening to her, reached out to friends across the ideological spectrum, and gradually weaned herself off her addiction to extremism. Finally, she’d found people who cared enough to help her.

How much are we to blame for isolating people who look, act or think differently from us? How much are we responsible for their radicalization?

A former German extremism adherent is now an outcast himself, having to move out with his kid due to neighbors' hostility. (Photo © DOK Leipzig)
A former German extremism adherent in “Exit” is now an outcast himself, having to move out with his kid due to neighbors’ hostility. (Film still © DOK Leipzig)

And what keeps us from turning violent ourselves?

It is true that not everyone who is bullied or goes through some sort of trauma becomes radicalized. But with the ones who do, the lack of a support system seems to be a crucial factor. If we are to be honest with ourselves, none of us are immune to prejudice – either as victims or perpetrators. Those of us on the left also look down on and exclude others, even if on a political and ideological rather than ethnic basis.

During the course of Exit, Winther tracks recovering extremists from different sides of the ideological spectrum, while trying to understand her own journey and process her own lingering guilt. She shows that extremism does not have a particular face, psychological profile or political conviction, but that its contours are similar everywhere she goes. This is part of her continued effort to find her “tribe,” after years of hiding her past from herself and others.

The director of "Exit" and other former far right-wing women found each other and bonded. (Film still © DOK Leipzig)
The director of “Exit” and other former far right-wing women found each other and bonded. (Film still © DOK Leipzig)

Winther travels overseas and finally finds acceptance among former American right-wing extremists, who’d gone down that path after having been raped as young women. They make her feel she’s not alone or a monster – although their violent actions cannot be justified, they have been able to feel remorse and to change, and feel like they deserve a second chance. Largely because others believed they did.

One of the American women speaks of how she was befriended, and thus “disarmed,” by immigrants in prison she still keeps in touch with. Similarly, a formerly highly violent German far-right leader from a depressed region – who’d once beaten a pregnant woman almost to death – was saved from harm in prison by a Turkish guy, and finally came to humanize and appreciate the erstwhile “enemy.”

All the documentary subjects are quite candid about their sordid past, including Winther.

In Denmark, she cries in the car while exchanging stories of violence (speaking the same language) with a former militant left-winger from Copenhagen. She also talks to a former extremist with a migrant background who had grown up in Paris, and had become radicalized after watching, on TV, atrocities against Muslims in the former Yugoslavia.

Like a former young German far-right icon also featured in Exit, the Frenchman had changed his mind after people who cared about him showed disgust towards his violent actions. In the case of the German, it had been a filmmaker he’d come to respect during an earlier documentary shot about him; in the Frenchman’s case, his family and friends had turned away from him, taking their love with them.

I was surprised at how close to home Exit hit for me emotionally, although I do not have a violent past, and do not (at least not yet) count violent extremists among people I know from my home country. The filmmaker does not address extremism “Made in Brazil,” but she certainly could have. If I have one major criticism to offer this movie, it’s that she did not travel to non-Western countries to see what’s up.

Right about now would have been a good time to further alert the international community, documentary style, to the political violence growing in Brazil, as extremist politicians rise to power. I would’ve been interested to hear about reactionaries in Brazil who had an epiphany in the other direction (I don’t know any of those either).

Which is to say I am scared, though honestly, I cannot say I’m floored.

The idea of extremism did not register as I grew up in Brazil.

I had to leave to realize it’s a powder keg.

Despite the country’s ethnic diversity and global reputation for tolerance, I had no black friends in my upper middle class school. Racist and classist jokes were common at gatherings. Outcasts were usually dark-skinned and viewed from the windows of our cars, poor people were relegated to our kitchens, suburbs and shanty towns (favelas). “Gay” was a dirty word, unless the person happened to be an artist (celebrities were “allowed” to be black and homosexual, or occasionally transgender).

The main concern of women in our circle seemed to be not getting fat, old and undesirable for potential husbands, who were likely to cheat on them anyway. Besides representing what they grew up in, perhaps it was a distraction from being compelled to come to their senses and fight the deeply ingrained status quo. So they prayed to the gods of capitalism and plastic surgery, performed superstitious rituals (simpatias), and made sure to watch religious TV hour in between soap operas, sensationalist crime shows, half-naked parades, and Christmas specials.

Rape was something that supposedly only happened in dark street alleys. Domestic violence was chalked up to hot tempers. A young woman’s virginity was highly prized; an older woman’s was pitied.

Meanwhile, mutual resentment between political and social factions gradually grew. They increasingly saw each other as enemies, demonizing and attacking each other (similarly to the US and Germany). Growing corruption scandals, violence and the (government-subsidized) entrance of the poor and immigrants into the local job market, and into more moneyed quarters, led to a revolution against the Workers’ Party (PT) – accused of being communist, although it is at most center-left. (Also like in the US, socialism doesn’t fly in Brazil.)

The whole process was concerted among politicians, the media, and hecklers and influencers spreading misinformation and dangerously ignorant assumptions. (Sound familiar?) Some Brazilians blaming the black and poor for society’s ills were the same vying to attend elite parties thrown by drug lords, refusing to see how their own choices are part of the systemic problem.

I should’ve known that it was only a matter of time before Brazilian voters would go for a Trump-like presidential candidate, likely to be elected on 28 October.

It just took a bit longer than in the Western world for the far-right trend to hit, as it also happens with major economic crises – they tend to follow a boom period in Brazil, arriving there later than in the West, and even heralding a change in political regime. It was amid a recession also that the right-wing dictatorship rose (1964), and then fell (1985), in South America’s biggest country.

Another long dark period likely awaits Brazil now, alarming even to publications like The Economist and Foreign Policy. A majority in Brazil seems not to understand that extremist populism tends to operate under quite similar themes, on either tip of the political spectrum. The country’s days as a respected “BRIC” seem so long ago.

I wonder what would’ve happened to me had I not moved away from Brazil at age 13, studying it with mostly external eyes, and varied experiences abroad, since then. Many people in the Brazilian upper middle class are alienated and lack analytical and self-critical skills, but many of their problems are real, and ones I do not have to deal with myself.

Had I stayed in that social context – amid overpriced basic services, corrupt cops and officials, chronic unemployment issues, horrible traffic, supremely screwed up loved ones, a dark obsession with self-image, and the fear of being robbed or killed, instilled or from experience – couldn’t I also have been blinded against being a decent human being? Couldn’t I also have resorted to “black and white,” simplistic explanations to our society’s ills, and to blaming “the other” – if that helped me sleep at night, and if my social networks convinced me I should?

Hats off to the resistance, courageously fighting hatred in Brazil. I wish I could say for sure I would’ve joined their activism as a Brazilian resident, even if it meant being ostracized by those closest to me.

After all, as the film Exit tries to show, we are all basically cut from the same fabric. We all ache to be accepted, to belong. What differs, often, are the hands we are dealt in life, and how we happen to be equipped to face, interpret and re-externalize them. And to channel our pain and our power for the greater good.

>> Exit <<

DOK Leipzig 2018

International Program
Norway, Germany, Sweden | 2018 | Documentary Film | 76 min. | Danish, English, French, German, Norwegian | English subtitles | German Premiere


Hauptbahnhof Osthalle (FREE ENTRY)
30/10/2018 / 19:30

Cinémathèque Leipzig (TICKETS)
31/10/2018 / 17:30 / 8.50 EUR / #392 in program

CineStar 4 (TICKETS)
02/11/2018 / 13:15 / 6 EUR / #512 in program

Cover shot: Director & narrator Karen Winther in her “Exit” documentary. (Film still © DOK Leipzig)

A Global Studies doctoral degree holder and former newspaper reporter, avid eater, pseudo-philosopher and poet, occasion-propelled singer, semi-professional socializer, movie addict, Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, with special attention to social issues.

You got it. (Postcard designed by Patrick Bauer for Leipzig Glocal Job Fair)
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