A new mini-series by the ORF hopes to empower immigrants in Vienna by giving them a chance at Austria’s center stage
An Austrian teenager, Xaver, in a yellow polo shirt sits silently with his mother at the table eating lunch. Xaver finishes his drink, points to the pitcher of juice and asks his mother: "Can I?" The blond woman in her forties looks up from her plate and says nothing, then wordlessly puts another forkful of spaghetti into her mouth. Only after Xaver adds an insistent "please," does she begrudgingly hand him the pitcher.
"You have really changed a lot, Xaver," she says. "You can’t even say please anymore – just like those friends of yours. And I don’t want you in that break dance competition. Turkish parents might not worry, but I don’t like it. Really Xaver, this is simply another culture. I mean, you’re not a drop out who is going to end up as an unskilled labourer."
In another scene, Xaver’s Turkish friend, Rafet, sits at the table with his father, a shop owner. When Rafet finishes his last sip of orange juice, he asks his father in German to please hand him the carton. His father keeps reading the newspaper and doesn’t even look up when his son repeats the question in Turkish. Only after Rafet’s elder brother, a muscular man in a red tracksuit, enters the room and gives him the carton, does their father look up.
"Rafet, you have really changed. Can’t you even speak Turkish at home? Soon you will ask me if the Koran is a spice," his father lectures him in Turkish. "You don’t have to fully give up your culture to be accepted!" After exchanging looks with his brother, Rafet gets up and abruptly leaves the room.
"I hate this constant culture crap!" the two teenagers conclude in unison in a sequence in episode four of Tschuschen:Power – the Austrian National Television mini-series centering on the life of five Viennese teenage boys and girls with migrant backgrounds, that ran for five episodes from Mar. 30 to Apr. 4 on ORF 1.
"I really like this sequence," Jakob M. Erwa, the director and co-writer of Tschuschen:Power told The Vienna Review. "It captures the message of the series in a nutshell – that all people are afraid of different cultures."
The series – with witty dialogue, a dramatic storyline, hand-held camera shots and fast cuts, against a sound track of lively Balkan music – is the first of its kind, part an effort by the ORF to correct what has been an almost total invisibility of migrant populations on Austrian television. It had been part of their long-term plan, but the idea was entirely Erwa’s.
"I consider it extremely important that short-term Austrians [as Erwa calls immigrants] get more space on TV, and that over time, the ORF gets closer to reflecting reality and not constantly leaving immigrants out of its programming."
It was to be a project focused on teenagers, following the success of Erwa’s debut film Heile Welt, also co-financed by ORF, winner of the 2007 Diagonale Film Festival award. The result of which was the mini-series Tschuschen:Power. That the production took this turn was clearly in the interest of the ORF.
"From the start we were convinced about the necessity to take a first step into this direction," Dr. Heinrich Mis, head of the ORF television film division, told The Vienna Review. "I wanted exactly what Jakob Erwa did."
The clique of teenagers, whose members come from Iran, China, Ethiopia, Turkey, the Balkans, and Austria, has to overcome obstacles and resolve a few fights to get ready to participate in a break dance competition that culminates the series. At their first performance, they name themselves Tschuschen:Power. "Tschusch" is a derogatory Austrian term for immigrants, originally reserved for those from the Balkans – roughly equivalent to "Paki power" or "Polak power" in Britain or the U.S.
Erwa settled on the name during the five months he spent in Viennese parks and youth centers, talking to teenagers with immigrant backgrounds about their daily life. They called themselves "Tschuschen," he noticed, regardless of their country of origin. Should he call the series Tschuschen:Power? Yes, absolutely, they told him. Still, the title lead to discussions and controversies among the ORF production team, even though "Tschusch" as an insult had long since been co-opted in the 1980s by a popular Austrian band called "Wiener Tschuschenkapelle" (Viennese Tschuschen Band).
But Erwa had intended to cause controversies.
"The worst thing would have been if no one had reacted," Erwa said. "Of course I understand that some people might feel put out; I would be lying if I said that this wasn’t partly intended. We wanted to stir people up, to provoke; but we didn’t want to insult anyone."
As for attracting public attention, Erwa has certainly achieved his aim. Nikolai Gemel, who played the only Austrian member of the clique, finds that even mentioning the title inevitably leads to questions, an immediate reaction of "Tschuschen:Power? What’s that?"
However, he may have been less successful in achieving his larger goal of making a place for immigrants on Austrian television. His portrayal of the migrant youths in Tschuschen:Power has been controversial among some audiences and provoked criticism, some finding it reinforces stereotypes rather than breaking them down.
Simon Inou is one of them. As president of M-Media, he is committed to "making a lasting change in the picture of immigrants in the mainstream Austrian media." Having immigrated to Austria from Cameroon in 1995, he is far from satisfied with the series and doubts it will help to make room for immigrants on Austrian television.
"With this kind of a series?" asks Inou back, his voice filled with indignation and rage. "How can you involve immigrants into the media if you create such images?"
By "such images," Inou refers to the many scenes where the protagonists simply fulfil negative stereotypes: They lacquer their subway tickets to reuse them; Rafet pretends to be hurt by a passing car to press the driver for money; the boys get involved in a brawl that nearly costs Jamal his asylum status. The only black member of the group, he is constantly hiding from the police. And Leyla - who is trapped between the cultures when her romance with a Croatian boy, Milan, is forbidden by her overprotective brother Karim - is nearly pushed into an arranged marriage with her Iranian cousin. Only after much grief does Karim realize his mistake and bring the two back together.
Erwa, by his own admission, deliberately used and even played with negative stereotypes. Without clichés, the series would be "completely divorced from reality," he said, justifying his decision. Does he see the danger that Tschuschen:Power could reinforce negative stereotypes?
"Yes", he answers bluntly without hesitation, and then adds: "but only if you switch it off after three minutes and don’t think any further, independently. But anyway, I don’t produce TV shows for stupid people!"
One wonders if he would consider Simon Inou stupid to wonder why, among the ten teenagers in the story, the only asylum seeker is the African Jamal.
Tschuschen:Power "carries a wrong and unreflected message," Inou says, "that all young Africans are asylum seekers." Similarly, the girl Leyla is trapped in a biology-is-destiny script in a struggle against forced marriage, thus a character imagined with no human objectives beyond her role as the mate of a man.
In spite of his frustrations, Inou kept watching the TV series and reflecting on the wealth of the clichés contained in it:
"What does it mean that immigrants steal and forge tickets," he asks? "It assumes that you are poor, which is not true for many immigrants. As with Austrian families, there are rich and there are poor families."
However, "in a country where very few people really think about immigration," he considers it "extremely dangerous to create a series that works primarily with negative stereotypes, as these may even enforce the negative images already in people’s heads."
Immigrant teenagers themselves seemed more comfortable with the series. In a park in the 17th district on a weekend afternoon, their answers mostly ranged from "cool" and "slamming" to "It was too short; I hope there will be a sequel." Nevertheless, there were also critical voices. Wearing a red T-shirt with the Turkish crescent 15-year-old Ali said he enjoyed watching the show, but immediately made it clear that he considered it just a story.
"Such youth gangs aren’t real," he said. "Real life is different."
However, regardless to the critical response to Tschuschen:Power, the fact that a series about immigrants is still out of the ordinary and "big news" in Austria shows there is an enormous task ahead before immigrant populations find a place on the public airwaves – until, as Inou says, they are no longer just "victims or offenders, but a part of society."