By Dove Barbanel
ATHENS — Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the refugee women in our film club would fall in love with Charlie Chaplin’s silent movies. Beyond transcending language barriers, the films made it easy for them to relate to the characters onscreen.
At the end of “Modern Times,” Chaplin’s 1936 comedic masterpiece about the alienation and unemployment of the lower classes in an increasingly technological society, an orphan girl breaks down in tears on the side of the highway. “What’s the use in trying?” she asks. Chaplin’s tramp replies, “Buck up — never say die! We’ll get along!” The two of them force smiles, clasp hands and march into the sunrise.
This never-ending journey received resounding applause from our audience, young women who traveled thousands of miles from the Middle East and Africa to Greece to escape bleak and violent realities. Nahid, usually flighty and detached, sat spellbound. She speaks four languages despite having never gone to school, and escaped from Iraq as an unaccompanied minor, cutting ties with a family that married her off at 12 years old. She might have seen herself in the orphan girl alone in the city.
Aziza is a Syrian mother of two children who watched the movie with her.
“Their story is our story”
she said. (Because the women fear retribution from family members or government forces, their last names are being withheld.)
Film is a way for refugees to share their thoughts without language, to connect across cultures and create a vision for themselves in a new place. In our film club at Melissa Network, a center for young refugee and migrant women, we sip tea, share films and videos we like from around the world, and learn the skills to create our own.
I was afraid that Chaplin’s old black-and-white silents would be more boring than inspiring, but our audience’s nonstop giggling, raucous laughter and, sometimes, tears brought the screenings to life. In a once elegant but now dicey neighborhood of Athens, we were a room of people with different backgrounds, customs and tongues, but we all had an infectiously good time watching his films.
It was during one of the screenings that the Harvey Weinstein accusations made the news and opened a discussion about whether our judgment of a film could change based on the behavior of its makers. Chaplin himself displayed a much different face offscreen. He was a Weinstein of his time, a man who shared many traits with the oppressors of the refugee women in film club.
He was a relentless womanizer who fathered 11 children and had four much younger wives, two of whom were teenage actresses he married to avoid pregnancy scandals. His first wife, Mildred Harris, divorced him for “mental cruelty,” saying that “he was short-tempered, impatient and treated me like a cretin.” His second wife, Lita Grey, described Chaplin’s treatment of her as “inhumane.” During her divorce, women’s clubs pushed some states to bar his films. Marlon Brando wrote that Chaplin was “probably the most sadistic man I ever met,” recounting how the director had repeatedly bullied and humiliated his own son Sydney on the set.
But in “City Lights,” Chaplin plays a touchingly sensitive tramp who gives all his money to a beautiful blind woman for surgery without expecting so much as a kiss on the hand in return. In “The Kid,” he nurses, raises and protects an abandoned baby boy he finds on the street.
Many of the refugee women I work with at Melissa Network have experienced forced marriages, objectification and abuse. Their situations are not nearly the same as that of Chaplin’s wives — they are not Hollywood starlets. Still, when they connect with films that turn out to be made by a person whose behavior toward women has a lot in common with their persecutors, does it then become a cruel joke (as some people might consider Mr. Weinstein’s support for feminist causes)? Or has the flow of time somehow washed away the tramp’s dirt, as the real people involved pass away and the ghostly image of a perpetually mustachioed saint remains on our screen?
After learning about how he treated his wives, some women declared Chaplin a liar and said his behavior changed what they thought of his films.
“I wish you hadn’t told me”
said Eunice, a 16-year-old from Kenya who always sat in the front row. Others said they could make a distinction between the films and Chaplin’s personal life. The women also noted how unrealistic many scenes in his movies were, especially the ones involving women and violence. But they decided it was the way in which serious problems were dealt with so lightly that helped make his films so poignant and hilarious.
In film club, as part of their path to self-definition and healing, the women make shorts that reflect their own problems. In one, 17-year-old Fatime of Afghanistan walks through a near-empty refugee camp in an abandoned baseball stadium. She contemplates the puddles between rows of tents where she lives. The camera zooms out from this depressing landscape to the birds in the sky and in to the snails on the ground. In another, Mahboubeh, of Iran, takes us inside the enigmatic black box she carries with her, containing the sculptures she made to express her feelings about her childhood abuse. The wrinkly hands and faces within take on frighteningly life-size proportions. Before a view of the Acropolis, Marzia raises her arms triumphantly in her film, a letter home to Afghanistan, where she was unable to attend school.
Many of Chaplin’s best gags have to do with the tramp getting lost in time, repeating the same actions without reason. It’s as if the tramp lives only in the moment, separate from a real past and a real future. Likewise, the refugee women in film club find reason in their lives by framing stories from moments on an uncertain journey. The joy and solace they get from films comes from discovering themselves in the work.
Read the article in The New York Times here