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Q&A with Priscilla Layne, assistant professor in German

Priscilla Layne
Priscilla Layne will give a talk as part of the Triangle Film Salon lecture series. Photo courtesy of Priscilla Layne.

Priscilla Layne, an assistant professor of German at UNC, will be speaking on Wednesday, Nov. 8 at the Triangle Film Salon series in her lecture “All That Glitters Isn’t Gold: Auma Obama's Nightmare of Postunification Germany." The lecture discusses the work and life of former President Barack Obama's sister Auma. The lecture has moved from Greenlaw 302 to Mitchell Hall 005 at 5 p.m. 

Staff writer Beni Mathieu spoke with Layne about her upcoming talk.

The Daily Tar Heel: Why did you choose to talk about Auma Obama's film specifically?

Priscilla Layne: I read Auma Obama’s memoir "And Then Life Happens" in 2015. I was intrigued by her life, because I heard about her after (Barack) Obama won the presidency. There was a lot of talk about her in Germany, because she had studied there. I thought that was really exciting, because a lot of my work has to do with the black diaspora in Germany, and how African-American culture and Germany intersect. I was asked to write an essay for a volume on women of color filmmakers of German film. I thought of her film and said, "Well, that would be a great opportunity to write something." I hadn’t seen it until this January, because it’s really difficult to see. It’s not available on DVD, and you have to go to Berlin, you have to go to the archive of the film school she went to to see it because it’s on a 35-millimeter reel. In January, I went and saw the film and thought it was really interesting, and I decided to try to write something about it. So that’s my talk on Wednesday on that essay. 

DTH: Can you tell me about the themes the film touches on?

PL: The film was mostly concerned with the experience of being a black immigrant woman in Germany at this time right after reunification. The main character is this woman named Wendo and she lives in a southern German city with her white husband and her daughter. She has an isolated life, she doesn’t work, her husband is controlling and her life seems claustrophobic. She then meets a stranger, this white man, while she’s out shopping, and he seems really nice. It seems like they’re going to have an affair, so this seems like a way out from her depressing life. But then this new guy kidnaps her daughter, and at the end of the film you find out he’s actually this white supremacist. He’s been kidnapping black children in the town. So I just thought that on the one hand, I thought it was an interesting film, because you don’t often get the perspective of what it’s like to be a female immigrant woman in Germany, of being treated as exotic and being objectified. Then on the other hand, this whole conspiracy plot of kidnapping black children seemed very dark to me. That’s why it was intriguing that she would combine melodramatic and thriller aspects into one short film. 

DTH: Can you speak about the anti-blackness in post-unification Germany?

PL: Anti-blackness has been a problem in Germany since forever. Depending on the period, there are different reasons. In the Middle Ages, people believed that to be black meant that you were a heathen and so you were not a Christian and that’s why you were evil. But after the slave trade, people associated blackness with not being human, so there were different reasons why there was anti-blackness in Germany. Around the '90s, I feel like it’s a combination of xenophobia, of reunification, but also the fact that there are a lot of African refugees who came to Germany in the 1980s and that’s been an issue until the present. People coming, seeking asylum, sometimes for political reasons, but sometimes just seeking more work. So in the '90s when East and West Germany reunified, it actually posed a big financial problem because East Germany was pretty broke, so West Germany had to pay for a lot of the reunification. There was this notion that now we have to pay for our own people, we don’t have money for these refugees, for these foreigners. There was this rhetoric at the time, that that was a bonus goal. That was causation to fan the flames of people’s fears that Germany is being overrun by refugees and that there’s not enough money in the welfare system. So that was the political atmosphere when Obama made her film. It is interesting to look at how those fears are still present today, only now people focus on the Middle East and Syrian refugees. In the '80s, it was mostly a fear of black, of African refugees.

DTH: Can you compare and contrast black filmmaking back then and now?

PL: With Germany, the problem is that there is not a lot of history of black filmmaking. In addition to Obama, the other black filmmakers I can think of are Mo Asumang, Branwen Okpako and Sheri Hagen. Just speaking about those people, they are filmmakers who started in the '90s. And before then, there’s not really a tradition of black filmmaking. That’s what’s so different compared to the U.S., you have people making films since the conception of film. The German history of film is a lot shorter and so I would argue that it’s harder for a black filmmaker because they don’t have a big tradition to draw on and they have to draw on other traditions such as the American tradition, black-British film and third-cinema African films. As far as how it’s changed, I think black-German films have become more commercial. In the beginning, they were more like experimental, like a documentary. Nowadays, you can have a black-German film that’s a drama or a melodrama where race is thematized, where the characters are black, but it’s not a political film per se. As for American film, I think it’s similar. There was very political stuff in the '60s and in the '70s. Since then, they’ve become more commercial, because black-American filmmakers today try to do both. They try to make quality film that is politically important, but stylistically good. This is a question I’m still grappling with. Another interesting film is "Moonlight." Now black film gets recognized to win an Oscar. I think the question is for now, how does black independent film straddle the space between commercialization and underground, political style?


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