OUR HISTORY OF HATE
The seeds of Steven Spielberg’s powerful new project were sown by bullies, writes Holly Byrnes
(Hate) has never been over and the past has always been repeated
It’s the kind of audience warning you’d expect for a Quentin Tarantino epic or an Oliver Stone, big-screen, assault on the senses.
“This series explores the concept of hate and contains racist imagery, hate speech and violence. Viewer discretion is advised.”
While his detractors would say the disclaimer should precede all of US President Donald Trump’s Twitter ramblings, in fact, this confronting message opens a timely new documentary series from none other than Steven Spielberg.
The Oscar-winning director, who gave the world a history lesson in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, has turned his considerable gaze on the issue underpinning all manner of current social crises — from schoolyard bullying and suicide, to the rise of white nationalism and terror.
As the E.T. creator tells it, the landmark, six-part television series for the Discovery Channel began as a thought bubble when the network’s boss came to visit his Los Angeles office.
“I’d been dealing with the subject of hate for years,” Spielberg says, “ever since the Shoah Foundation started collecting 52,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors.”
Making it his “business” to learn why we turned on each other in such a heinous way during World War II, Spielberg had thought the way to instruct new generations was by giving voice to its victims turned teachers.
So when Discovery’s David Zaslav asked Spielberg “if you could do anything on my channels, what would that be?” the 72-year-old says the idea for Why We Hate — title and all — “came out of my mouth without any forethought”.
“I said, ‘I’d love to see a long series, a critical study of hate and I think we should call it, Why We Hate and that’s how the whole thing was born.”
Given carte blanche, Spielberg turned to documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney who he regards as the “Martin Scorsese of documentaries’’.
When Spielberg called, Gibney listened, leaping at the chance to helm such an important project he sees as “the central issue of our times”.
While it is familiar territory for Spielberg’s work, he admits we haven’t yet learned the lessons of the past. “(Hate) has never been over and the past has always been repeated; and genocide upon genocide followed the lessons of the Holocaust where we thought, ‘never again’.
He shakes his head: “People today, through social media, are concerned about the now and on the morrow, but not so much over what happened even last week.”
Gibney agrees, arguing the amplification of hate is made possible by social media platforms.
“Hate has always been with us and will be in some form but I think one of the things now is that rapidity as a result of social media platforms.”
The internet can be a force for good, Gibney says, “but it’s also a force which encourages and provokes our sense of tribalism and it does so in the blink of an eye.”
Gibney, whose credits include Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief, The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley, and Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, says hate and hostility “reaches in at an emotional level so that is one of the things that is different today’’.
Despite his fame and influence in Hollywood and around the world, Spielberg recounts his first experience with hate as one of the few Jewish kids in his west coast elementary school, targeted by “small pods of popular kids, picking on less popular kids … in my case, I had zero popularity growing up’’.
“I didn’t think of it as hate, as much as I did as shame,” he says.
“I felt ashamed of a lot of things. They actually managed, with enough chiding and bullying to make me actually feel ashamed of being Jewish. I felt very much like an outcast. As I got older I realised that bullying is a very pervasive tool to make other people feel like they’re powerful. And so, I was on the receiving end of people’s power trips.”
It’s something he had “no control over, something I was very proud of … to be Jewish’’.
As he points out in Schindler’s List — adapted from the book by Australian author Thomas Keneally — when hate and evil is industrialised, as it was in the Holocaust, it becomes a “business of death” we must all fight to end.
“What this series hopes to achieve is that anything involving hate can never be normalised. There has to be a kind of objective overview of hate and this documentary attempts to show that this must never be considered a normal thing.”
From the evolution of the species, competing for food, land and dominance, humanity has been pitted in the battle of good versus evil, Gibney says, but it’s always begun with love.
“The whole idea of the appeal of terror often doesn’t start out with hate. Like you’re recruiting for ISIS … they don’t say ‘come kill with us.’ The appeal is always about love … about a sense of higher purpose; about a sense of belonging to a group; this idea of tribalism,” he adds.
“That allows people to do the most horrendous things, while imagining that they’re doing something magnificent and good. And that’s the thing that’s the most dangerous.” WHY WE HATE, TONIGHT, 8.30PM, FOXTEL’S DISCOVERY CHANNEL
A still from Why We Hate (above): director Steven Spielberg (far left) and documentary maker Alex Gibney.