Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 02, 1997
Head: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Sect: News; International
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Asian expulsion from Uganda. It uprooted tens of thousands of Asians, mostly of Indian descent, leaving them without a home. These Asians and their children are now dispersed around the world.
Asians had come to Uganda earlier this century while India and Uganda were both under British rule. Asians came to assist the British and to find economic opportunity.
In 1972, during President Idi Amin's reign of terror, he accused the Asians of milking Uganda's economy. He said that Allah had come to him in a dream and directed him to act immediately. So, he gave Asians 90 days to get out.
My guest is one of the people who was forced out of Uganda and has since lived in England. She's now a journalist and the author of a memoir about growing up in East Africa called "No Place Like Home." Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is also a research fellow on Race and Politics at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
I asked her what life was like for Asians in Uganda before the country got its independence from England in 1962.
YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN, AUTHOR, "NO PLACE LIKE HOME": When I was growing up in the '50s, we lived a kind of idyllic life in some ways. We had extraordinary wealth compared to quite -- well, most of the black people there, but perhaps less resentment than was to come later on, particularly after independence.
The colonial system was an odd structure. People who were ruled by the British, at least, began to believe in the system, I think, and not question it for quite a long time. And the '50s was a period when we just accepted -- everybody accepted their place.
Nobody really questioned it, especially not in Uganda. I mean, Kenya was different. There was already a resistance movement. Black Ugandans didn't seem to mind very much that we had that much more money than them. They liked us. We liked ourselves, and it was a very idyllic period.
It was all to change in the early '60s.
GROSS: Independence came in the early '60s. How did that affect you and the Asian community that you lived in?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: I think what began to happen was that ordinary black people began to say things and feel things, perhaps, they'd never allowed themselves to before. The black political leadership, which has always been a disaster in Uganda until now, used those anxieties to excuse their own rather corrupt and inefficient ways of ruling, to divert attention and actually generate if not a hatred, certainly a resentment against the Asian community.
And we found ourselves marginalized, excluded, resented, despised. We, on the other hand, were not well prepared. We were not a political people. We believed, wrongly I think, and we still believe this in this country -- that having money would preserve us and save us. It didn't because you need to have political influence, which we did not have -- we had not cultivated, really, to any extent.
GROSS: What are some of the things that Asians were excluded from in Ugandan life?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: Well, what began to happen was these new regulations came into force which said that if you didn't have a Ugandan passport, for example, certain jobs were not open to you. If you had a business, you had to have Ugandans as part of the boards or part of the power structure within these businesses.
I can understand why some of these things needed to be brought in because, to be honest, I don't think enough had been done by the business community amongst the Asians to train, to teach, to bring in, bring up the Africans who had been working for us in kind of menial jobs for rather a long time.
The relationship between the Asians and Ugandans was very -- it was almost like apartheid. You have to remember this -- that, you know, the only real interactions were those of a master and a servant or a mistress and a servant. And so the changeovers that were brought in were dramatic in our terms and difficult.
I don't think they were wrong. I just thing that they were brought in for the wrong reasons. They were brought in to punish us, rather than to educate and change us.
GROSS: Your family was deported from Uganda shortly before all Asians were expelled from the country. What was the climate like at the time your family was expelled?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: My family was expelled by the previous president, President Obote (ph). He was -- I mean, he was just an evil a man as Idi Amin. In some ways, I think the aggregate number of people that were killed by Obote in the end exceeded those killed by Idi Amin.
At the time my family was expelled, he was very pro-Russia, pro-Communist Russia and going that way. The West was very alarmed about this. And the relationship between him and the British government, particularly, were at an all-time low.
He was threatening -- he was already threatening that he would get rid of British Asians -- Asians with British passports, which included my family, and he was just looking for an excuse to really start up a fight.
Then there was a very curious incident that most people don't really remember any more, but a British diplomat who had a lot of Asian friends got himself kidnapped -- arranged his own kidnapping by Asians in order to highlight their plight in Uganda, because these were British Asians who were no longer finding it easy to get jobs or to maintain their status.
Britain was closing its doors, and had established a quota system so that East African Asians, even those with this blue passport, were not entitled to come here.
So we were being pressed on both sides, and he wanted -- he was seeking a kind of confrontation. This man, this British diplomat felt that this was morally wrong, and therefore he got himself kidnapped. It was a very pathetic little plot, really, and -- in order to highlight what was happening to the Asians.
This was very quickly found out. I mean, within 24 hours they'd found him and all his Asian cronies. And the whole plot was exposed, and he was this top-ranking gentleman -- Englishman who had done wrong.
He -- this man also was a friend of my brother's, and because of all of what is happening, my brother, who was the breadwinner in my family, and the entire family were expelled by Obote, after a trial in which he was able to show that this particular British diplomat was corrupt and a liar and not to be trusted.
Once that case was over, my family was deported. I was at McCary (ph) University at the time. I didn't want to leave, and so I just basically hid on campus in hope that they wouldn't find me. And they didn't.
GROSS: One of the reasons why you didn't want to leave, as you explained in your memoirs, that you were in love, and you wanted to stay with your boyfriend and future husband.
ALIBHAI-BROWN: Yes, that's right. Love is a funny thing, isn't it? It didn't occur to me that I might have been putting my life on the line here. But yes, these were the good old days when, you know, for the first time perhaps, or nearly the first time, my generation of Asians were beginning to discover this extremely dangerous thing called love and romance.
And unlike the previous generations, where our marriages were organized, arranged by our parents, we had discovered Elvis and Cliff and kisses and love. And, you know, I was not going to leave this man behind.
GROSS: Could you feel the heat constantly being turned up in the Asian community when you stayed behind? Were things getting progressively worse?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: Things were getting progressively worse, but I think we also had a very heightened sense of our own sense of danger for ourselves.
I mean, one thing I think people have yet to acknowledge is that, you know, in all of these struggles in Uganda after independence, I think fewer than 10 or 12 Asian people actually lost their lives. Half a million black Africans were killed one way or another.
But we did feel the terror. I mean, things changed dramatically. Once upon a time, our doors were open. You walked in and out of people's homes. You know, there was no dread of people coming in to steal your stuff or killing you.
Suddenly, you know, the sounds of Alsatians and guns were all that you that you heard after eight o'clock at night. People's homes became fortresses.
There was a terrible panic on their faces most of the time. We lost that ease we'd had in the '50s, and we were under real danger, at least our property was. I mean, certainly around the time I was left behind, there was an extraordinary increase of robberies and burglaries from homes -- not violence against the community, but certainly other kinds of crime.
I think we're much more frightened of black people than we have ever been of white people. This is something else that I find quite worrying -- that, you know, having come here to this country, the degree of racial violence against us is extraordinarily high -- 250,000 cases every year. And yet we don't seem to feel the same dread and panic that we felt in Africa. It's a very funny thing, that.
GROSS: My guest is Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. She now lives in England. Her memoir is called No Place Like Home. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
We're talking with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown about the Asian expulsion from Uganda 25 years ago.
It was Idi Amin who expelled the Asians from Uganda. When he took power, could you see it coming?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: We could and we couldn't. I mean, one thing about Idi Amin in the early days -- of course, he was welcomed. I mean, one theory is that the Western governments and Israel certainly more than welcomed his arrival onto the power seat of Uganda, thinking that he was some kind of a buffoon who would be more easily led than perhaps the more educated Milton Obote was.
There was such joy when he gained power after the coup, that you couldn't but help share in that joy. And Obote certainly had been giving us a very hard time.
That joy very quickly evaporated because certainly at McCary, where I was, you could see very soon how violent this regime was going to be, and how it was going to target the educated.
I mean, I remember being in the hall of residence where young women were being taken away in the middle of the night by soldiers, never to be seen again. Or if we did see them again, they were horribly brutalized. They'd been gang-raped and tortured and then dumped back. And they -- these were all black women.
They never did touch the Asian girls on campus, and we suddenly realized that the country was now in the grip of a man who was unpredictable, under-educated, a megalomaniac -- and actually very clever, cunning -- knew exactly how to raise popular support for some of the unspeakable things he was doing.
GROSS: Why do you think he was targeting the educated?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: Because he felt terribly inferior. I mean, one of the first things he did when he came into power was to become the vice chancellor of the university and put on all the robes. And I have at home these pictures of him with all his academic robes.
And he insisted on giving out the degrees to every single student, in the hot sun -- you know, before nobody bothered with that kind of thing. They just kind of come and go.
And this man sat for nearly four hours and went through every person. He felt very inferior because of his lack of education, and I think he targeted the educated people as his first group, and then went on to other people.
GROSS: When did you leave Uganda? You left shortly before the actual expulsion of Asians.
ALIBHAI-BROWN: I left in June after I'd done my -- I had finished my degree.
GROSS: This is 1972.
ALIBHAI-BROWN: June, 1972. I finished my degree and was coming -- my ex-husband now -- the man I stayed behind to marry -- had already left and gone off to Oxford because he got a very good degree.
He was a zoologist. And immediately afterwards, there was this attempt made to take away his passport in order that he might stay behind, 'cause they did want intellect -- I mean, Obote wanted intellectuals to stay behind.
And so he escaped, and came to England. He wasn't there when I finished my degree, and I was desperate to come over and join him finally. So I came over in 1972 in June and got married. And my ex-inlaws went back after the wedding, in August I think it was, and I think about a few days later came the expulsion orders.
GROSS: I wonder what it was like for you to hear and observe from your new home in England the expulsion of Asians from Uganda. How did you first hear about it?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: Well, all my ex-inlaws were there, of course. And, you know, we got telephone calls and letters. My best friend was still there. A lot of people I'd grown up with -- my cousins, my relatives -- they were all still there.
So it -- as things started happening, we heard about it. But I think in the early days, everybody just thought this man was being a buffoon. He wasn't serious. He couldn't possibly be serious.
And a lot of these people that I have just described were not people with British passports. They were people who had committed themselves to Uganda by taking out Ugandan citizenship. And they certainly never thought that they would be expelled or they would be dispossessed of a country we all loved.
But I think initially there was shock and then there was just sort of a bit of wishful thinking that this was not really going to happen to us. You know, he would turn 'round and change his mind, as he often did about many things. The British government certainly didn't take it very seriously.
But yes, there were phone calls; there were letters. We, you know, everybody was frantically trying to communicate with each other. But when we realized things were actually getting quite serious, I think panic really set in, because most of the people I knew there had nowhere else to go.
India wasn't going to take them. We had no idea what was going to them -- whether they were, indeed, going to be put into these concentration camps that he was threatening. And then what would happen?
It was a terrifying time, actually -- and also I think the painful thing for a lot of us, though I don't know why we shouldn't have been prepared for it, was that ordinary Ugandans were delighting in this. Most of them, I would argue, although some people disagree with me on this -- most ordinary people were delighted that we were being chucked out because they thought -- wrongly, as it turned out -- that this would mean that that good life which had eluded them since independence would finally be theirs, and that their country would be truly independent.
GROSS: My impression from your memoir is that in some ways, your family was exposed and many Asians were exposed to more race-based harassment in England than they were in Uganda. Your mother was stoned by a few white teenagers in England.
ALIBHAI-BROWN: Yes, and I think that's also very important to remember. I mean, we came here -- I think one of the first shocks when we arrived was that this country wasn't going to welcome us, you know, as their lost sons and daughters -- the way we'd persuaded ourselves all these years they would.
There was acute, overt racist hatred out on the streets, at the airports, everywhere in 1972. There were newspaper adverts put in by cities like Leicester and parts -- and areas in London -- huge newspaper adverts saying: "To Ugandan Asians -- We don't want you to move into this area. We are full-up here. Thank you very much."
You know, extraordinarily insulting things were happening. And, I mean, over the years, I say this to people and they find this quite shocking, especially as now I'm married to an Englishman and everybody thinks, you know, I'm very settled -- that each year goes by, I feel more and more dislocated because the level of racism in this country is getting worse.
And I think that for Ugandan Asians, it has been -- the Ugandan Asians, I mean, today, just today, there's a massive research study which has just come out, showing Ugandan Asians to be the most successful immigrant group to this country out of every group that has come in, including the Jewish community.
They're doing better economically, in education, every way. But we're still nowhere to be seen at the very top of the power structures, and where it matters.
So yes, I mean, the degree of racism -- I mean, overt racism and the stoning of my mother is one example. I've had death threats every time I've spoken on television against racism.
My child, when my child was at school, people used to follow him. Extreme right-wing parties threatened to kill him and kidnap him. These things did not happen to me in Uganda, and I think one has to remember that.
GROSS: What year did Uganda invite Asians to return?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: I think it all started happening soon after Museveni came into power, and I think he is the best news, really, not only for Uganda, but for Africa in general.
Part of the deal for getting British support and aid also, I think, was that they should do the morally right thing by giving back the property of the Asians, both business properties and domestic properties, which had been confiscated and people had never got any money for it.
And this was part of the deal. It started off, I think, as a business arrangement, but then very quickly he began to believe in it. I mean, it still is a very difficult thing for a black Ugandan leader to confiscate back properties which are now being lived in by some very influential black people, including those in the army, and give them back to the Asians, or at least pay the Asians some money for it.
Once he started doing this, I think Asians began to have some faith in him, and very soon afterwards, he did issue this invitation -- that he wanted people to go back.
And I really do think he means it -- that, you know, this was a big mistake that was made because the infrastructure collapsed after we left, and the country never really recovered. And after all the trauma it's been through, it needs our skills.
And I think he meant it, and I think he means it still, and some people are persuaded by him. Certainly, a lot of young people were there when I went back in 1994.
GROSS: You went back to visit.
ALIBHAI-BROWN: I went back to visit and to make a radio program for the BBC. And what was very clear was that young people -- some of whom were born here, never really felt they belonged. That was very interesting to me.
GROSS: They never felt they belonged in England.
ALIBHAI-BROWN: Or in Canada. Some of them were from Canada. And that seemed to me quite interesting. You know, where is home? Why does Uganda still mean so much to people who were kids, you know, hardly knew the place?
And I think part of the whole thing is that it's been very difficult. I think this is less true of Canada; more true of Britain -- that so many of us still feel so excluded by this country, and perhaps we're seeking, you know, going back to roots or at least some roots -- back to Uganda.
I don't know whether this is going to work or not, because of course some of these kids weren't there. They don't know anything about the history. Some of the younger Ugandans don't know who we are.
I mean, one of the biggest shocks for me was when a little baby started screaming in horror when she saw my face, and her mother had to explain very embarrassed, that she'd never seen a brown face before. I mean, this, you know -- huge shock, because I thought I was going home.
And here are generations of people who've never seen Asians. They don't have any sense of deference for us anymore, and that's quite good, but they don't have any connection with us anymore. So whether we can rebuild anything, I don't know. It would be very nice if we could.
GROSS: We'll talk more with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the second half of our show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
We're talking about the 25th anniversary of the Asian expulsion from Uganda. Her family was among those forced to leave the country. She's now a journalist working in England. In 1986, the president of Uganda invited Asians to come back and reclaim their property. She didn't return then, but in 1994, she produced a BBC documentary which took her back to Uganda.
What was left of the Asian community when you returned in '94?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: About three or four hundred people stayed behind, and never left, actually, and it's been -- it was very interesting to meet them, because you found extraordinary things had happened to them in the two decades or so.
Some of them were speaking with African accents, which I found extraordinary. Many of them had married African women, which had never happened -- would never have happened before -- and had mixed-race children, and in a very kind of real way, were assimilated into black Ugandan society.
Even those who hadn't cross-married or, you know, changed the way they spoke and things like that -- even those from the older age group were much more Ugandan, obviously, than the Ugandans who were going back -- Ugandan Asians who were going back.
And they were actually amongst those who were most resentful of the returnees. It was very interesting. They thought that some of the returnees were coming back with the bad old attitudes, you know, of racism against blacks.
Some of them were coming in with an arrogance that they felt angry about. I mean, the same things happened to South Africa, of course. You know, exiles going back are having quite a hard time being accepted by those people who stayed and suffered.
So the Ugandan Asians who hadn't left were some of the most interesting people I met, because they no longer kind of thought of themselves as Asians anymore. They thought of themselves as proper Ugandans. And some of them certainly didn't think I was a proper Ugandan anymore because I'd been in England, for God's sake, for 20 years.
GROSS: Did you ever consider going back to Uganda to reclaim your property when that became an option in 1986?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: Well, the nice thing about my life is that I was actually from a poor family. So I had no property to reclaim, which was great because when I did go back, I was looking for my friends, especially my black friends at university.
And so I remember I put these photographs of my friends in the papers, in the local papers, just to see, you know, whether they were alive or dead. I mean, I never knew what had happened to them. And we were very close friends.
And I got all these phone calls from people saying: well, thank you for coming back and not looking for your property. You must be the only Asian who hasn't come back for her house or her business.
So, you know, I had nothing to claim back, and maybe I don't know what that feels like to lose your home. But I did go back to find my friends and to maybe regenerate some of those relationships which were beginning to happen, I think, around the end of the '60s and early '70s, where you could be friends with black people and black people could be friends with you. You know, it was a monumental thing for us at the time.
GROSS: So did you find your old friends?
ALIBHAI--BROWN: I found my best friend, yes -- only she'd been living two miles away from me for 20 years.
GROSS: In England?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: In England.
GROSS: Oh, that's funny.
ALIBHAI-BROWN: But it was very -- I mean, she's great. It's been wonderful catching up with her. But you know, her life actually symbolizes all those things I've been talking about. Her husband was murdered by Obote when her son was only two months old.
Her father was burned to death slowly by Idi Amin's troops in front of his children. Her only daughter died of AIDS two years ago. And 13 of her siblings have died of AIDS.
And I mean, in some ways, she embodies the terrible tragedy of Uganda, in a way that my life hasn't been, you know, that tragic. I -- whatever happened to us, we did make our way here and we settled in and we found ourselves and got on with it. But black Africans -- black Ugandans -- I think suffered hugely more than we did.
GROSS: You end your memoir by explaining that when you returned to Uganda to do your documentary for the BBC, you were interviewed on a Ugandan radio station, and you were asked on that radio station if you would come back to live in Uganda, and you said: "I hope so, but you get tired of moving. What I do know for sure, though, is that I will go there to die."
Why do you want to be buried in Uganda?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: Oh, because it's my home. It's still my home. It's the only home where I feel that, you know, whatever happened to us subsequently, I still feel that I was loved there in a way that I don't feel I've ever been loved in this country.
GROSS: And you feel that way in spite of the fact that your family was deported and then all Asians were expelled?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: Yes, because what politicians and army people do is not what the people do, and even if the people did, you know, have their worries and their antagonisms towards us, I said in my book, and I meant it, that at least our graves in Uganda are still tended.
You know, I went to the gravesites of people I've known and who died in Uganda, and all those Africans are still tending our graves and look -- planting flowers.
And in this country, our graves have graffiti written on them -- have swastikas painted on them. There's a big difference between the way we were embraced by Ugandans -- whatever happened subsequently -- and the way we have not been embraced in this country.
I don't mean individuals. Of course, individual English people have been wonderful, my husband included. My daughter is half-English. But I don't feel I belong here the way I have always felt I belonged in Uganda.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you think that a lot of people are disoriented when they meet you and you look Indian, but you're really not from India. You're not from England either.
You're from Uganda. Do people not quite make the connection because your ethnic looks are from a different country than the country you were born in or the country that you live in now?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And it's always very difficult. I mean, just like in the United States, we are beginning to have these fruitless and dangerous debates about who is black and who is, you know, Indian and who has these rights and who suffered more and all of these discussions that have torn your country apart.
And we always have these very interesting discussions about who's really black, you know -- who's really black. And my Caribbean friends, or at least Caribbeans who don't know my background, will say, you know: you can't call yourself black because we're Africans.
And I have to remind them very gently that unlike them, I was actually born and grew up and brought up in Africa. So actually, I'm the African, and not them. So we have some interesting battles on, you know, what your background is; who you are, in terms of ethnicity experience and color culture.
It is disorienting. It's also very alarming for people when I don't take traditional lines of loyalty. It upset a lot of people here when my book came out because I wasn't saying: we were the victims of this big black man.
I was saying: we were the victims of this big black man, but we brought a lot of this upon ourselves, and that if we don't want white racism to destroy us, we really have to do something about our own racism against black people. This disorientates people more than almost anything else.
GROSS: When your family was deported they ended up living in Eeling (ph), which is just outside of -- it's just on the outskirts of London.
ALIBHAI-BROWN: Yes, it's near Heathrow. It was one of the areas which put in these adverts I was telling you about. And it's now very, very well-populated by extremely successful Ugandan and other East African Asians.
And we're very loved, let me tell you. You know, the mayor is, at the moment, a Ugandan -- ex-Uganda Asians. We're a highly respected people because we have a lot of money.
GROSS: But at the time?
ALIBHAI-BROWN: At the time we were not respected. We were not welcomed. We were not loved at all, and it was extremely difficult. Even the kids going to school, you know, the kids were bullied; were tormented because of the way the media was.
The media was constantly dealing with us as this terrible problem that was going to destroy the country, you know. And our kids were teased and bullied, and certainly it wasn't easy in the first years.
But your question, going back to your question, as to whether we were making any decisions, one of them was foolish decisions I think I made, or it was a foolish response, if you like, to all this pain. I remember when I was -- I was at Oxford at the time, and I thought: oh, I know what I'll do. I'll become English.
I'll change the way I speak, dress. I'll wear these Victorian dresses and hats on my head, and read George Eliot, and I'll stay away from people who are more conspicuously Ugandan Asians. And then everybody will think I'm English, and you know, that will be the end of all my problems.
And that's what I did at Oxford, for the first two or three years. I was dressing like some kind of Victorian doll. I looked like the pictures -- incredible embarrassment.
And I remember, you know, my mother -- taking my mother on a bus one day when I was dressed in this way, and trying to pretend that she didn't belong to me because, of course, she is Asian and she speaks with an accent. She barely spoke English then.
And I was trying to kind of move away from her, so that people wouldn't associate me with my mother and think I was one of these backwards hordes who had come from Uganda and were about to, you know, destroy this country. Strange things we did then -- deeply embarrassing things, looking back now.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
ALIBHAI-BROWN: All right. My pleasure.
GROSS: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist in England. Her memoir is called No Place Like Home.
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
High: Journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown describes her family's experience as Asians in Uganda in her autobiography "No Place Like Home." Alibhai-Brown's family, like many others, was forced out of East Africa by resident and military leader, Idi Amin, twenty-five years ago. Alibhai-Brown moved to England and earned an degree in English at Oxford. Her freelance work is now published in the Guardian, the Observer, and the Independent.
Spec: Africa; History; Uganda; Asia; Politics; Government; Media; Race Relations
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 02, 1997
Head: Alan Berliner
Sect: News; Domestic
TERRY GROSS, HOST: After making two documentaries about families, Alan Berliner decided to make a film about his father and their family tree. Did that make his father happy? Absolutely not.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "NOBODY'S BUSINESS")
SOUND OF PICTURES BEING TAKEN
OSCAR BERLINER, FATHER OF FILMMAKER ALAN BERLINER: I'm just an ordinary guy whose lived an ordinary life. I was in the army. I got married. I made the family. Worked hard. I have my own business. That's all. That's nothing to make a picture about.
ALAN BERLINER, FILMMAKER: Someone in the audience is watching right now and saying: why am I here watching this film about this guy?
OSCAR BERLINER: I would ask, too. 'Cause I don't know what the hell are you doing here? I'm being honest with you.
ALAN BERLINER: You should be honored.
OSCAR BERLINER: I'm not.
ALAN BERLINER: Your life not only can be...
OSCAR BERLINER: My life is nothing. My life is no different from I don't know how many billions of peoples. Who the hell would care about Oscar Berliner? Who in the hell am I? You know, it's ridiculous.
ALAN BERLINER: Everyone has a life that has something special about it.
OSCAR BERLINER: No.
ALAN BERLINER: Your life has nothing special?
OSCAR BERLINER: No.
ALAN BERLINER: Nothing?
OSCAR BERLINER: (Unintelligible)
ALAN BERLINER: How could you be so convinced about that?
OSCAR BERLINER: You're trying to make something of nothing.
ALAN BERLINER: You're my father. I have to do it. I need to do it.
OSCAR BERLINER: You don't have to do it.
ALAN BERLINER: I have to do it.
OSCAR BERLINER: Alan, you're gonna do what you want to do whether I want you to do it or I don't want you to do it.
GROSS: That's from Alan Berliner's new documentary Nobody's Business, which will be shown tomorrow night on PBS, opening the 10th season of the documentary series "POV."
For Alan, the film was a way to learn about his father's Eastern European roots, which they knew little about, and to learn about his parents' divorce, about which Alan also knew little.
But most of all, the film was Alan's attempt to communicate with his father, who's in his late 70s and had become reclusive and withdrawn. I asked Alan Berliner if thought the camera would force his father to confront the issues Alan needed to discuss.
ALAN BERLINER: Well, there's a little bit of that. At the same time, you know, I mean, I'm -- I like to think of myself as a somewhat dutiful, loving son, and there were long periods of time where I would just go to visit him, and we would sit and we'd watch the baseball game.
He'd sit on one side of the room and I'd sit on the other. And I knew that I was doing a kind of good deed. I was -- my father, again, lives a very, very sad life. He's alone; no friends; isolated; reclusive.
And just my presence there was something I felt was helpful -- just another human presence. And of course, I'm his son, so it's a meaningful human presence. But after a time, that's not good enough, and you know, my father used to be, at one time, or so the photographs reveal, and it's part of family lore -- he used to be a quite gregarious person.
And so somehow using this idea of interviewing him and engaging him in discussing his life was a way of allowing him to become who he is, or peel away those layers so that he'd become perhaps who he was.
And so in effect, and I say this towards the end of the film, to him -- that in a way he's never more alive, never more alert, never more articulate than when we have these conversations. It's -- in a way, it's a kind of emotional or psychological therapy or exercise for him.
GROSS: One of the things you tried to do during the course of the film was to sketch the family tree. So you go to the family history library in Salt Lake City and bring back all kinds of documents. And then you try to interest your father in the family history, and here's what happens. This is a clip from your film Nobody's Business.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "NOBODY'S BUSINESS")
ALAN BERLINER: Solomon Isaac Berliner, your grandfather. What do you think about the way he looks?
OSCAR BERLINER: (Unintelligible) an old Jew. (Unintelligible) look like, another (Unintelligible). What else can I tell you? I have no emotional response. He means nothing to me.
ALAN BERLINER: That's your grandfather.
OSCAR BERLINER: You want the truth from me? Or don't want the truth?
ALAN BERLINER: I want the truth.
OSCAR BERLINER: (Unintelligible) I don't care. It doesn't interest me.
ALAN BERLINER: This is a photograph of your grandmother -- your father's mother. Her name was Rachel Sitkin (ph).
OSCAR BERLINER: I don't know what is it that you want me to tell you.
ALAN BERLINER: These are your ancestors.
OSCAR BERLINER: What do you want me tell you? Oh, I love you? I love you? I don't give a (expletive deleted) about them. They could've been taken out of a storybook. I don't know them...
ALAN BERLINER: I'm introducing you to them.
GROSS: Alan, is this the response you were expecting from your father?
ALAN BERLINER: Well, you know, I knew my father wasn't interested in the family history issues, but I knew, or I hoped, that our agreement to disagree could become the basis for an interesting dialectic -- a dialogue that would engage the viewer in the very meaning and question of the value of family history.
I mean, my father has three modes: don't know; don't remember; and don't care. And he weaves through them quite fluidly. In fact, one of the big surprises for me in the film was the sort of integrity of my father's indifference -- the consistency of his attitude.
GROSS: I'm wondering, like, when you look at pictures of great-grandparents who you've never met and who've never been to America even -- what connection do you feel to them?
ALAN BERLINER: Well, this is one of the key questions in the film -- one of the key issues of the film. For me, I take a kind of romantic attitude. I imbue these photographs; I imbue these documents; I imbue all of these little, little fragments of history with meaning, with resonance. And for me, it gives me more texture. I like knowing my story, and I think that other people should know their stories.
Again, my father will have none of it, and what I think the film does -- what I want the film to do -- is to create this polemic, this dialectic between the romantic, if you will, son/filmmaker and the stoic, cynical father -- and put the viewer in a position to make judgments; to assess: Well, who do I agree with here? Who do I believe? How do I feel about these very issues?
GROSS: Alan, one of the things you wanted to learn about your family history to help you understand yourself better was why your father and your mother divorced after 17 years of marriage, and it was something that your father didn't discuss with you; didn't like to discuss with you; but during the film, you confronted him and told him you really wanted to learn about this. And he was really angry with you, and didn't want to talk about it at all. Let's hear a little bit of his response to your request.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "NOBODY'S BUSINESS")
SOUND OF A BELL
OSCAR BERLINER: And you keep on hounding me and pounding me.
ALAN BERLINER: But I don't understand what the problem is.
OSCAR BERLINER: That shows your lack of understanding. That shows your lack of sympathy and that shows your lack of empathy; that shows your lack of feeling of what this means.
ALAN BERLINER: A son is allowed to ask his father.
OSCAR BERLINER: What the (expletive deleted) I can (Unintelligible) of this.
ALAN BERLINER: No, don't. Now, come on. Don't you (expletive deleted).
OSCAR BERLINER: Leave me alone.
ALAN BERLINER: (Unintelligible)
OSCAR BERLINER: Leave me alone.
ALAN BERLINER: Tell me what the problem is. Just tell me once.
OSCAR BERLINER: Leave me alone. I don't have to tell you anything. What are you trying to get out of me?
ALAN BERLINER: I've been trying to make sense of the divorce all my life. This is my chance to talk to you.
OSCAR BERLINER: It's nobody's business.
ALAN BERLINER: What?
OSCAR BERLINER: What went on between your mother and myself. It's nobody's business. These are things that should be discussed between you and me, but brought it up, I can tell you this: the single bar to that marriage was the age factor -- the difference in the ages.
ALAN BERLINER: How much older are you than she is?
OSCAR BERLINER: Who the hell knows.
ALAN BERLINER: Twelve or 13 years?
OSCAR BERLINER: Something like that. And it becomes more pronounced as you grow older.
ALAN BERLINER: All of the dialogue that you just heard takes place over boxing footage, which is a recurring motif through the film. And the interesting thing about this is that this is a big issue of contention between me and my father, because it's something that I have really struggled with. These are questions and issues that I've never, ever asked my father about. We've never discussed.
And it's important to know that in the boxing footage, there are no knock-outs. There might be knock-downs -- one of the boxers might hit the canvas and then get up again, but there's always a kind of mutual exchange, back and forth, back and forth. No one -- in effect, no one wins. It's important that no one win.
And so when my father says things to me like: you know, that shows your lack of empathy; that shows your lack of sympathy; your lack of understanding; your lack of feeling of what this means to me or what it means -- these are hurtful things to me.
You know, I'm allowing him -- and in other parts of the film as well -- I'm allowing him to hit me, in effect -- to admonish me. And it's very important that the playing field be equal or be leveled, I should say, to some extent in that way.
I knew that the sort of core issue to my father's life -- to my father's existential predicament -- was the divorce. In many ways, you might even say that the film is a love story, and it's a story about a broken heart.
GROSS: My guest is Alan Berliner. His documentary about his father is called Nobody's Business. It will be shown tomorrow night on PBS.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
We're talking with Alan Berliner about his new documentary Nobody's Business, which will be shown tomorrow night on PBS. It's about his father and their family history. Alan's parents divorced after 17 years of marriage.
Alan, why was it so important to you to hear about the divorce?
ALAN BERLINER: Well, it's -- everyone in my family, each person, was wounded by the divorce in a different way. And on some level, I think that -- pervading particularly that section of the film, but I think on some broader, in a broader sense, the entire film seen as a whole -- is an attempt at a kind of healing.
You know, it's an attempt at a kind of -- is an attempt to gain an understanding; is an attempt to, in effect, in this however distance way -- however many years later -- to bring my parents together to talk about the issues surrounding the divorce and to mediate.
You know, the film's a mediation of these very, very sensitive issues. And just presenting the family home movies, or my parents' wedding album to my father seemed a rather kind of simple thing. OK, let's talk about them, and I was shocked.
I must say, I was shocked at his inability to face them. And this created -- this created a big, well, I should say a big battle. It created a big moment of tension that we had to get through.
But you know, there's something that my father says later on in the film, after the divorce discussion, that I always found particularly poignant. He ways to me: I'm not fooled. You know, in your own tenacious way you're making me talk and talk, and eventually you're getting what you want.
And to me, at the time he said it, a light went off in my head, and I realized this is my father's way of saying: I have things to say, and somehow you're getting me to say them. And you know something? That's OK.
GROSS: I wonder if your father would agree with that.
ALAN BERLINER: Well, you know, I mean -- I can say that our relationship as a result of making the film has actually gone through quite a transformation. And, you know, while I don't necessarily feel he thinks any more kindly of my mother or that their relationship is any closer, I mean certainly having gone through the journey, he recognizes that with it, he and I did something quite special and endured a process that was, you know, quite authentic and powerful.
GROSS: Alan, in the clip that we heard, I think your father makes a really legitimate point which is: just because you're a documentary film maker, does that mean he has to make his private life public; does that mean that the world has to know about his divorce and why it happened. It's one thing talking to you personally, father to son, but it's another thing him having to talk about this on film.
And I think this is a dilemma that all memoirists and people, you know, writing autobiographies; people writing poems that are autobiographical; or even novels that are based on their lives -- ran into, because there's always somebody who feels, whether it's true or not, that their life is being dragged into this story; that their life is being revealed.
ALAN BERLINER: I think that's a profound issue. It's a profound question. Who owns the family history? Who owns the family history? And I think that there are compelling arguments on both sides, you know, and I think it's another judgment that the film engages the viewer to make.
I know from -- speaking for myself, if I don't ask the questions, I will never know. And he has the right not to answer, but I have the right to ask.
GROSS: In your movie Nobody's Business, you're the one making the argument for the importance of family history and understanding who you are. And you father's the one who's making the argument: I am who I am and I don't really care about ancestors who I haven't met. I don't know them. They mean nothing to me.
Now, I don't think you have any children, and...
ALAN BERLINER: I don't.
GROSS: ... I guess it was interesting for me to think about that, hearing all of your arguments on the importance of family history and everything. Do you care about having children and having, you know, continuing the family legacy, and all of that's supposed to go along symbolically with the act of having children.
ALAN BERLINER: Well, I think it's probably the most poignant irony of my life that I don't have children at the moment. And I say "at the moment," because, you know, game's not over yet. It's something I think about every day, and I've thought about for -- I mean, I've thought about it for a very long time.
I think before it's all said and done, I will have a child, and that means a lot to me, because all these issues that I address in the film about posterity and about the meaning of life and the various forms of, you know, psychological and cultural and genetic transmission are incredibly important to me.
And you know, I've waited, and somehow I think having made this film has prepared me even further for that.
GROSS: Alan Berliner -- his documentary Nobody's Business will be shown tomorrow night on the PBS series POV.
I'm Terry Gross.
BEGIN AUDIO CLIP
ALAN BERLINER: I'm much closer to you than you were to your father.
OSCAR BERLINER: No question about it.
ALAN BERLINER: Unbelievably so.
OSCAR BERLINER: First of all, I wouldn't dare -- I wouldn't dare talk -- even ask my father these questions. I don't recall ever sitting down with my father, having a man-to-man talk. Never.
ALAN BERLINER: What do you see of yourself in me?
OSCAR BERLINER: I see brains. I see smartness. (Unintelligible) personality in here. (Unintelligible). What do you think you inherited from me?
ALAN BERLINER: Well, we both have strong wills. I'm meticulous like you.
OSCAR BERLINER: I think you're a perfectionist.
ALAN BERLINER: I think we have a similar sense of humor.
OSCAR BERLINER: I think so, too.
ALAN BERLINER: Sometimes I think that our faces have the same shape. Also, our body types are similar. What also worries me a little bit is that I like to spend time alone, by myself, like you do.
OSCAR BERLINER: I don't think there's much doubt that you are my son.
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Alan Berliner
High: Filmmaker Alan Berliner has focused much of his work on the dynamics of families. His newest film "Nobody's Business" is a documentary about his father, Oscar Berliner. This critically acclaimed film reveals the ongoing conflict between Alan Berliner, who obstinately works to complete the film, and his father, who is scornful of the project. It will premiere on PBS on June 3, as a part of the Tenth anniversary season of "Point Of View."
Spec: Movie Industry; Television; People; Families; Nobody's Business
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact WHYY, Inc. at (215) 351-0541
End-Story: Alan Berliner
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