Documentary filmmaker Geeta Gandbhir on new release, 'Why We Hate'

Despite the many horrors that have scarred human history, few exemplify the personification of hate as starkly as the slaughter of six million Jews by the Nazi party during World War II. In Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), the protagonist saves about 1,200 Jewish lives from the Holocaust.

The film won seven Academy awards and further established Spielberg in the pantheon of great American directors. However, a question never stopped haunting him: why and how do humans become such despicable vessels of hate? The desire to dig deeper gnawed at him for years until he met Alex Gibney (Academy Award winner for Taxi to the Dark Side, 2007), and they decided to create a documentary called Why We Hate.

Soon, Geeta Gandbhir, an accomplished documentary filmmaker with an Emmy award under her belt, received a call to join the project as a director, along with her mentor and friend, Sam Pollard. “When Spielberg, Alex Gibney and Sam Pollard call you, you don’t say no,” she chuckles. “And, of course, the theme was timely; we’re living in a polarised world. If we can educate people on this topic, maybe we can stop hate in its tracks.”

Political undertones

Born to Indian parents who emigrated to America in the ’60s, much of Gandhbir’s experience growing up as an immigrant informed her filmmaking, right from casual racism to being told point-blank to go back to her country. “What’s interesting is that my parents were allowed to settle here only because of the Chinese Exclusion Act which was in place until 1965,” she says, adding, “It is ironic how America, historically made entirely of immigrants, treats immigrants today. The realities of white supremacy and xenophobia are there for us to see, especially with the current powers in charge.”

Why We Hate takes a journalistic approach and draws on historical investigations and research in psychology, biology, and neuroscience. The six-part documentary traces the evolutionary basis of hatred and its impact on individuals and societies throughout history.

The filmmakers had help along the way in tackling such complex issues, and each episode features experts such as cognitive scientist Laurie Santos, evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare, journalist and author Jelani Cobb, extremism expert Sasha Havlicek, international criminal lawyer Patricia Viseur Sellers, and neuroscientist Emile Bruneau.

Backed by science

But what exactly is hate? Gandbhir says that it can be complex to define, but a clue can be taken from how scientists and experts talk about it. “Essentially, they begin by talking about love — not essentially in the romantic sense, but in the incredible ability of humans to cooperate, build societies, share resources and take care of each other,” she says. “Hate is the antithesis of this. It is rooted in tribalism — refusing to share resources and committing violence of various degrees. This was a necessary survival tactic in the Stone Age, but in a global economy, we need to be more self-aware of how this affects our behaviour.”

Interestingly, what counts as hate is usually collectively determined by society. This comes with its own set of troubles. “Consider slavery in America or the caste system in Hindu society,” she says. “Both were normalised until people took a stand and said they weren’t okay.”

For Gandbhir, the most interesting insight from her research was from the work of Laurie Santos about the persistence of tribalism in influencing our behaviour. “Santos talks about how we are born with a tribal filter which informs how we view the world. It forms a mechanism through which we identify with a certain group and, sometimes, without even being aware of it, we vigorously defend that group identity.”

On the internet

When I ask her if we live in uniquely polarised times, she disagrees. “If you talk to our elders, they will tell you stories that will make your blood curdle: stories of slavery, rape, deliberate social exclusion of certain groups. We’ve come a long way from that.” However, social media brings its own unique set of perils. Whether it is by promoting hateful and negative content, or actively abetting genocide in countries such as Myanmar, she says the internet must be used with care and viewed with suspicion.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Hate is not necessarily inevitable. Our inner wiring can be modified. One way to combat hate, says Gandbhir, is to affiliate ourselves with as many different identities as possible. “The more groups we associate with,” she says, “the less likely we are to hold staunchly to our membership of one particular group. I look at young people today and find them quite open-minded.”

In Schindler’s List, the same Jewish worker tells his employer: ‘There will be generations because of you’ to which Schindler says he didn’t do enough. We need more Oskar Schindlers.

Why We Hate is on Discovery Channel and Discovery Channel HD.

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 6:39:59 AM |

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