Review of Chemo and Albert’s Winter by filmmakers Pawel Lozinsk and Andreas Koefoed

Chemo by Pawel Lozinsk

“Am afraid of chemotherapy, even more than cancer!” says one of the cancer patients in Polish filmmaker Pawel Lozinsk’s film Chemo.  Two films in DOX BOX 2011’s film selection, Chemo and Albert’s Winter, revolve around the same theme: cancer. However each looks at it from a different perspective. In Chemo, Lozinsk takes us in a tour in the chemotherapy ward of an oncology clinic. Yet, we never get to see the place itself. Instead, his camera zooms in on the patients as they chat about chemotherapy with the ease of a couple who are discussing the rising prices in a souk. “When you get cancer, you must love it like an unwanted child,” a patient tells her roommate. Together, they joke about cancer, complain to each other and sometimes break into tears.

At some point Lozinsk’s excessive use of close ups becomes suffocating. The window shots that he takes every now and then only serve to further emphasize the sense of being trapped.  He only uses a wide shot when patients leave the ward at the end of the film. Ah… what a relief!

Albert's Winter

In Albert’s Winter, on the other hand, Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed observes cancer through the eyes of eight year-old Albert whose mother is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. The beautifully shot film is relaxed and tender. The filmmaker takes a step back and observes Albert just like the little kid is observing his mother’s illness. Koefoed beautifully reflects the child’s inner sense of insecurity, sadness and struggle to accept his mother’s illness through the snow scenes. A deeply touching film.

This review was published in Point of View, DOX BOX documentary film festival’s gazette.

Trying to Fit in (Muslims in Denmark)

In 1971, Syrian writer Fahmy al-Majid moved to Denmark. Today, he is a published author, with several books and articles about Islam and Muslim integration in Denmark.

He now lives in a comfortable home in Copenhagen with his Danish wife. Inside, the décor is a mix of Bedouin tent carpets and IKEA-style Western furniture. On the walls hang a mixture of religious symbols, ranging from an adorned crescent to a smiling Buddha. Majid said he emphasises a variety of religions because he wanted his children to learn tolerance at an early age and be familiar with both their parents’ cultures.

“I’m Muslim and my wife is Christian,” Majid said. “All my children speak Arabic and are familiar with their origins. Religion and nationality have never been an issue in this house.”

Turn of events
Majid said he regrets that the same is not true throughout Denmark since the September 11 attacks on the US. After the event, Majid said he collected news reports on attacks on Muslims in Denmark and counted more than 70 incidents. When compared to the population of Denmark, this is a higher percentage than the attacks against Muslims in the US, he said.

Muslims in Denmark comprise about 4 percent of the country. The number of Syrians among them – or in the country’s Christian and other communities – totals 4,000 according to Christina Markus Lassen, Danish ambassador to Syria. Most arrived in the 1970s, in hope of better living conditions, and in the early 1980s and 1990s, seeking political asylum, Bilal Asaad, financial manager of the Scandinavian Waqf (an Islamic trust), said.
According to Naser Khader, a Syrian-Palestinian member of the Danish parliament, assaults on his community were exascerbated because it is small and insular.

“There are only 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, which has a population of 5m. Some Danes have never seen a Muslim,” Khader, who was the first Danish of Arab descent to join the parliament, explained. “They only see Muslims in the news. They see Muslim terrorists taking hostages and this causes Islamophobia.”

Latifa, a 26-year-old woman who wears the hijab and studied economics at university said she faced seclusion in both social and employment settings.

“Danes are open with you as long as you are not a practicing Muslim,” she said. “But if you are religious, as I am, then you feel excluded.”

A meeting held following September 11 by Hizb al-Tahrir (The Liberation Party) – an Islamic political organization that seeks to unite all Muslims in a caliphate whose Denmark branch was legally established in the Middle of the 1990s– to announce its support for Osama bin Laden only further strengthened the image of Muslims as terrorist. The group is considered radical and fringe and most Muslims take pains to distance themselves from it.

Propaganda against Islam
Majid said the Danish media helps to perpetuate misinformation and prejudice against the country’s Muslims. He said the press blames Muslim immigrants for economic problems and disproportionately covers extremist Islamic groups such as Hizb al-Tahrir, which openly supports Osama bin Laden.

Danish journalist and writer Kare Bluitgen disputed this claim, saying that the media distinguish between Muslim extremists and ordinary people.

“Most people say that’s ok. We know terrorists from Western Europe too. We used to have them, we have them. I don’t think the media is as bad as it’s common to say,” Bluitgen said. “You always find mistakes. I think in general they do a good job. You have to tell your audience that we are not talking about Muslims, we are talking about a very little minority inside the minority of Muslims in Denmark.”

According to Soren Espersen, a member of the right-wing Dansk Folkspartei and supporter of Denmark’s current conservative government, it is political Islam that he and his allies consider threatening, not all Muslims. But his party holds some of its own extreme views. It has called for a ban on all Arab satellite channels, which he claimed call for viewers to “hate the Western world”. It also voted to ban the niqab face veil in Denmark. Most extreme was his party’s proposal that Muslim immigrants be shown video footage of women’s bare breasts before allowing them into the country to make sure they are “moderate”.

Such prejudicial proposals have a deep effect on second-generation Muslim children, Asaad, the Waqf financial manager, said. “[Children] feel they are refused by the only society they know.”

To help the children better adapt, the organisation has created integration courses for 7- to 12-year-old children.

“Many Muslim immigrant children in Denmark feel torn and don’t know whether they are Danish, Syrian or Muslim,” He explained. “We are trying to help them work out that they are all three.”

Cartoon controversy
Any discussion about relations between Muslims and the wider Danish community must address the notorious cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005.

I interviewed Kare Bluitgen, whose failed search for an illustrator to draw the prophet for his children’s book The Koran and the Life of the Prophet Mohammad prompted the newspaper to publish the cartoons.

He said that Muslims in Denmark used peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of the images’ publication. The event also prompted debate and better understanding of Islam, he added.

“The majority of Muslims were very calm,” Bluitgen said. “They just said don’t buy that stupid paper.”

Likewise, he added, other than some rogue politicians and journalists, average Danes are not prejudiced towards the country’s Muslim community. “”In Copenhagen every third of the pupils is Muslim. My daughter has almost only Muslim friends today. Daily life is different from politics,” he said.

Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council also believes people’s approach to Muslims is changing. “Statistics  show that the number of Muslims who feel discriminated against is going down,” Kamm said. “It is a private matter if you have one or another religion. If you have this kind of clothes or another kind of clothes. Who cares?  I would say 75 percent of the Danes do not care.”

Further, the cartoon crisis helped increase employment from 47 percent to 70 percent among Danes of Muslim origin, Syrian-Danish MP Khader said.

“I know an employer who before the cartoons never hired Muslims. For him a Muslim equals trouble. But after the crisis he realised that Muslims here are democratic people who respect freedom,” Khader said. “After the cartoon crisis Danish people realized that there are different types of Muslims. Before the cartoon crisis they only knew one type, the extremist one.”

In Syria, however, the Danish and Norwegian embassies were burned down by angry protestors, and the governments of both countries condemned Syria for what they called “failing its international obligations” to stop the arsen. According to Espersen from the right-wing party, however, the Syrian government was “a great help” at the time of the crisis.

“The government in Syria was not engaged in the boycotting of Danish products as they were in Saudi Arabia, for example,” Espersen said. “They [the Syrians] realized this is something that the Danish government or the parliament can do nothing about. That was a very difficult task to explain to many governments in the Muslim world but never to Syria. They knew if our prime minister had said these cartoons are now forbidden he’d be finished.”

While Syria restored calm towards Denmark internally, Asaad from Waqf said that it should do more to change the view of Syria and Islam abroad.

“A country like Syria should direct its cultural office in the embassy to organise lectures to try to bring points-of-view closer to each other and explain why Muslims reacted this way,” Asaad said, referring to the burning of the embassies. “All Arab countries neglected their duty to change the stereotype of our countries as a big desert filled with terrorists. Denmark is the one that made a move to change its image and better understand Muslims.”

Today, Denmark and Syria collaborate mainly on environmental and humanitarian issues. Denmark provides important support for Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in Syria and the Danish Red Cross and Refugee Council are active throughout the country.

Though Majid said he feels second-generation immigrants from Muslim-majority countries such as Syria still face discrimination, he believes Denmark is his children’s home country.

“I’m Syrian and no matter how long I live in Denmark I’ll still be primarily Syrian and then Danish,” Majid said. “But my children were born in Denmark and they will always be Danish first and Syrian second.”

A shorter version of this article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Q&A: Christina Markus Lassen Danish Ambassador to Syria

Denmark’s representative in Damascus comments on improving relations between the two countries.

Christina Markus Lassen Danish Ambassador to Syria / photo by Carole Farah

Could you give us a background on Syrian-Danish ties?
Denmark and Syria have had diplomatic relations since 1950. We have a strong bilateral relationship based on frequent political contacts and good people-to-people links. With the establishment of The Danish Institute in Damascus in 2000, another component was added to our relationship, giving us an excellent launch pad for Danish-Syrian cooperation and enabling even more Danes to come to Syria and get to know the country. 

How have ties changed following the cartoon crisis?
I think that we all learned valuable lessons during the crisis. We learned that knowledge, dialogue and respect between people is the only way to counter misunderstandings and misconceptions.

In Denmark the crisis made people much more interested in understanding and exploring the Middle East, learning the language and meeting the people. Now we see a growing number of Danish tourists coming to Syria, wanting to experience this beautiful country. People always leave Syria with big smiles on their faces and I believe that the personal encounter is the best and most efficient way of moving our two countries closer.

How many Syrians live in Denmark?
There are all together about 4,000 people of Syrian origin living in Denmark. Approximately 4 percent of the Danish population today is Muslim, who obviously enjoy the same civil and political rights in the Danish democracy as other citizens in Denmark.

Denmark has just released a new immigration law. Is it making it more difficult for Syrians to travel to Denmark?
Denmark is always in need of skilled people and globalisation means that people will be less bound by national frontiers. The new legislation will make it easier for well-educated foreigners to come and work in Denmark and it does not change the rules for leisure and business travel. That being said, Denmark has its rules when it comes to immigration as does any other country in the world and, being a member of the EU, there are also common European rules and regulations that Denmark needs to follow.

What are the fields of collaboration between Syria and Denmark?
I would like to mention the cooperation between Syria and Denmark in the field of cultural heritage and museums. We recently had a delegation from the Danish National Museum visit Syria. Also last year, an agreement on economic cooperation was signed between our two countries. We soon plan to also sign an agreement on educational exchange between Syria and Denmark.

How will Denmark sustain good relations with Syria?
Denmark wishes to have good relations with all countries in the Middle East. We have a mutual interest in present and future cooperation between our two countries and consider Syria a very important partner in this region. Regionally, we support a negotiated solution to the Middle East Peace Process, and there can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria.

This interview was published in Syria Today magazine.

Q&A: Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council

Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council comments on the integration of Muslims in Denmark.

 
 

Andreas Kamm

 

Do you think it is harder for practicing Muslims to integrate into Danish society?

I am sad to say yes. Statistics, however, show that the number of Muslims who feel discriminated against is going down. Still, some Muslims say they feel that others have problems with them because of their religious beliefs and because they signal that they are Muslims.

How can Denmark change that?

I think that Danish politicians have a great responsibility. We need to work against creating a picture of the Muslim world as an enemy. Maybe 15 to 20 percent of the Danish people tend to say yes, [the Muslim World] is dangerous. So leadership from the politicians would be much welcome from our side.

What do you think of the right-wing Dansk Folkspartei’s call for a ban on the niqab face veil and all Arab satellite channels in Denmark which they claimed keeps Muslims’ focus on their own affairs and prevents them from integrating into Danish society?

It is counterproductive. You can not force people to change their minds from one day to the next. Why should they? It is a private matter if you have one or another religion. If you have this kind of clothes or another kind of clothes. Who cares?  I would say 75 percent of the Danes don not care.

Denmark has recently introduced a new immigration law with stricter requirements for would-be immigrants. What do you think of the changes?

Actually we do not like it because it is so restrictive trying to keep people out of Denmark. I think that there is a very negative rhetoric performed by some politicians in Denmark. Dansk Folkspartei, for example, has a very negative influence on the immigration process in Denmark. And the reason why the party is so negative is purely political. We are moving towards an election so they [the politicians] cook up a lot of strange things to prepare for the election.