There's a moment in Mo Asumang's The Aryans when you think she's made a mistake. Throughout the documentary, Asumang, the daughter of a black Ghanaian father and a white German mother, speaks with neo-nazis mid-protest and enters into German villages taken over by right-wing extremists, but it's when she plans a late-night meeting with members of the Ku Klux Klan that you worry she's placed herself in harm's way.
During the scene, Asumang stops by a gas station in the Midwest to ask directions to the evening's Klan rally. The camera flashes a shot of a local newspaper headline announcing that the KKK is in town.
The woman at the counter tells the crew to drive down the road and take a turn at the tractor with Confederate flags hanging from it.
Later that night, Asumang is shown standing alone in a clearing. A pickup truck tears down a deserted back road toward the film crew. It's late and they're alone. Asumang is met by two local Klan members. Both of their faces are covered and one is dressed in the full white robes and a hood. As she's done throughout the film, Asumang calmly lays out her questions and allows her subjects to explain their fractured logic, reasoning which falls apart with the easiest nudge from the documentarian. Even when faced with outright hate, her voice maintains the same gentle tone as the narration that runs throughout the documentary.
"What's wrong with the black people?" Asumang asks the Klan members.
One of the men responds that "Nobody said there is anything wrong with [black people]. They are trying to take us over. I do believe that."
When asked why they wear the white robes, which Asumang points out represent "hundreds of years of threat and terror," the men backpedal.
"This is more for ceremonial purposes," says the man in the hood.
With a few simple questions, Asumang is able to bring out the hypocrisy inherent in these hate groups. Speaking with her, these extremists are forced to face the very thing they claim to hate in a new way — seeing their enemy not as some abstract invading force, but as a real person. This is never more clear than when Asumang sits down with Tom Metzger, online shock jock and founder of the White Aryan Resistance, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labelled as a hate group.
Metzger is introduced in the film as he delivers his daily address to listeners. Behind the microphone, his speech is all fire and brimstone — the words of a man who believes he and his nation are under attack from all sides — but later Asumang shows another side of Metzger.
The two meet in a public park for an interview. It's a bright, clear day, but Metzger refuses to let the cheerful setting stop him from explaining his theories on race mixing. He says we're ruining the races and tells Asumang that her father is guilty of racial gene-hijacking. In Metzger's mind, the white race is weakened by all others and he's the only man brave enough to talk about it. Asumang continues to cut through the white supremacist's bravado in an attempt to connect with him on a personal level. Then the conversation takes a turn. Looking out onto the park, Metzger confesses that he likes to hug trees. Asumang is almost thrown off by his response, but follows Metzger's recommendation. The two continue to speak, but Asumang now has her arms wrapped around the nearest tree as Metzger looks on. The scene almost comes off as comical, but then we see that through her playfulness and sincerity, Asumang has broken through to Metzger in some small way. As Metzger and Asumang walk away almost out of view to say their good-byes, the camera captures the moment as Metzger offers Asumang an embrace.
"I'll hug you," he says before remembering his reputation. "That's interracial. I hope nobody sees a picture of that. I'll be through."
Earlier in the film, Asumang is asked why she would even choose to speak with people who consider her an abomination. The question comes during her talk with Esther Bejarano, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz during World War II. In 1941, her parents were deported from their home in Breslau and killed along with 1,000 other Jewish citizens in a mass execution. For Bejarano, forgiveness is impossible and the thought of speaking with those who hold on to the ideals set forth by the Nazis is unimaginable. For Asumang, the search for understanding is necessary to figuring out who she is and where she comes from. Asumang explains that her grandmother who helped raise her was a member of the Nazi SS. It was never something that the family discussed, but throughout the film Asumang carries with her a photo of her grandmother in uniform. It's difficult to imagine carrying around such an ugly part of one's own family history, but it proves that change is possible.
The Aryans shows Asumang's quest to not only discover the origins of the Aryan ideal, but also find the underlying insecurity of those who promote it. "So what have I learned about the self-proclaimed white master race?" Asumang asks. "Racists believe we're stealing their genes. They hide beneath their KKK hoods. They have to defend themselves with national liberated zones. And they see themselves as victims. Is that fear I'm seeing here?"
Asumang will be speaking and taking questions following a screening of The Aryans Friday, Sept. 25, at 6 p.m. at the Charleston Museum Auditorium. The event is sponsored by the Department of German and Russian Studies, the Avery Center, the First Year Experience Program, and the school of LCWA at the College of Charleston. The event is free and open to the public.