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Black and white

October 22, 2009

Guenter Wallraff's provocative new film Black on White is released this week. The journalist and filmmaker wore black make-up for over a year, trying to establish himself in German society as a Somali-born man.

Guenter Wallraff in black make-up
Guenter Wallraff spent 14 months as a Somalian in GermanyImage: X Verleih

Wallraff created the identity of Kwami Ogonno from Somalia for his latest documentary, which aims to uncover the casual racism in German society. The film follows him attempting everyday activities like renting a caravan and applying for an apartment.

”After the 14 months I realized how widespread everyday racism is," director Pagonis Pagonakis told Deutsche Welle. "Not just the violence we read about in the media - the everyday racism. You can't find a flat, you can't get a job. You are sitting in a bar and someone says to you, 'you nigger'."

Guenter Wallraff in a beer garden
Wallraff travels throughout the country in his controversial filmImage: X Verleih

Wallraff travelled some 6,000 kilometers across Germany accompanied by filmmakers Pagonis Pagonakis and Susanne Jaeger to complete the film.

The filming was done both with a secret camera carried by Wallraff, and cameras meant to resemble amateur cameras, which Jaeger and Pagonakis used from a distance, posing as a couple. "People just thought we were tourists just shooting there," Pagonakis told DW, "Because we are white and he is black, they never guessed that we could be friends."

67-year-old Wallraff is no stranger either to controversy or disguise. In the early 1980s he spent two years as a Turkish guest worker in Germany, working in various low-paid jobs. He also spent three years as an editor at the Bild mass-circulation daily, and published a book exposing the big-selling newspaper's sloppy journalism.

The new film shows how unafraid Germans are to admit their racism. At one point in the film, the attendant at a campsite openly tells Wallraff that his skin color is the reason why he can't get a spot for him and his family.

"I was very surprised that a lot of people had no problem giving permission [to let us use the film material in which they appear], because they thought they did right," said Pagonakis. "For instance the lady that had this flat and didn't want to rent it to a black man."

Black community criticizes film

The film has been criticized by members of the German black community, notably musician and writer Noah Sow. According to Sow, Wallraff used the issue of racism as a self-serving vehicle. "He apes repressed minorities and receives money, attention, and even respect," Sow told public broadcaster ARD. "He can't have black experiences as a painted white man, and he can't put them into context, even if he thinks he can."

Guenter Wallraff as his African alter-ego
The film has angered members of Germany's African communityImage: X Verleih

"We had a lot of discussions with black people beforehand," countered Pagonakis. "For example with human rights activist Mouctar Bah, who is also in the film. He said it is a good idea because maybe we as white people would show our people what is going on."

"The film is not about black people. We don't say how black people feel in Germany, we just say how white people react when they see somebody who seems to be black,” Pagonakis said.

The film has also been criticized for deliberately provoking aggressive situations. "There is a scene in a bar where a woman is talking to someone who is not her husband or her friend and he just asks if she wants to dance. This is what people call a provocation," commented Pagonakis.

Black on White goes on general release throughout Germany on Thursday.

Author: Tanya Wood/bk
Editor: Michael Lawton