TV Interview: Steven Spielberg And Alex Gibney – Why We Hate, Or Hope Beyond Horror

January 27, 2020

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Why We Hate (16PVL, available on Showmax)is a documentary story exploring one of humanity’s most primal emotions.
“Humans have an unparalleled ability to love and co-operate. So why do we sometimes act cruel and hateful? Not just as individuals, but as whole communities or nations. Hate breeds bullying, social injustice, violence, war, even genocide and mass murder.” These are the opening words of Why We Hate, a six-part Discovery series on Showmax that sets out to answer the question, “Where does hate come from?”
Directed by the Emmy-winning editors of Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, Geeta Gandbhir and Oscar nominee Sam Pollard, Why We Hate is executive produced by, among others, three-time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) and legendary documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, who directed the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and this year’s Emmy-nominated The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley.
Why We Hate currently has a 100% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Time calls it “a vital show.” Forbes praises it as a “timely series.” And The Wall Street Journal calls it, “Startling, and humbling, especially in its representation of human nature as a force almost beyond human control.”
We chatted to Spielberg and Gibney to find out more.

What was the beginning of Why We Hate’s story for you?
Spielberg: I’ve been dealing with the subject of hate for many years, ever since the founding of The Shoah Foundation, where we collected 52 000 video tape testimonies of Holocaust survivors, preserving these testimonies and allowing these witnesses to become teachers of Generation X and subsequent generations. So I have been in the business of discovering why we hate. I had an idea when David Zaslav approached me. He’s a friend of mine and he also runs Discovery Channel. He asked me, ‘If you could do anything on my channel, what would that be?’ I swear to you, it came out of my mouth with no forethought. I said, ‘I’d love to see a long series, a critical study of hate.’ I even said, ‘And I think we should call it Why We Hate.’ That’s how the whole thing was born.
Gibney: The beginning for me was a phone call from Steven Spielberg. I can remember standing on a rock two miles off the coast of Maine and Steven talked about how important this was and I couldn’t have agreed more. This is the central issue of our time. So of course I jumped in.
Why did you want to work with Alex on this, Steven? 
Spielberg: Alex, to me is the Marty Scorcese of documentaries. He brought so much of his wisdom and he put together such a great team with Geeta [Gandbhir] and Sam [Pollard], that was really able to produce a series that promotes critical thinking.
We’re seeing such an upsurge of extremism. We thought it was over; why is it happening again?
Spielberg: It’s never been over and the past has always been repeated. Genocide upon genocide followed the lessons of the Holocaust, where we thought ‘Never again’ actually meant never again. It keeps happening again and again. We just don’t learn the lessons from history. People today, through social media, tend to be more concerned about what’s happening in the now, and on tomorrow, but not so much what happened even last week. These are hard lessons to learn.
There are some experts on the series who talk about the ‘perfect storm’ of extremism, social media and the internet. It wasn’t possible before that fake news was spread around the world in a blink of an eye. Is this why it looks so bad these days?
Gibney: Let’s face it: as Steven says, hate has always been with us, and will always be in some form. But I think one of the things were seeing now is the rapidity with which it can spread, as a result of the social media platforms. The internet is a force for great good – it brings us together – but it’s also a force which encourages and provokes our sense of tribalism, and does it in the blink of an eye. It reaches in at an emotional level. So that is one of the things I think is different today.
Can you share a personal encounter with hate?
Spielberg: I had no problems in New Jersey. Then I moved west and encountered anti-semitism as an elementary school student – in my school, in several schools. Not widespread and not throughout the entire school; just small pods of popular kids that would pick on less popular kids, or in my case, zero popularity. I didn’t think of that as hate; I just thought of it as shame. I felt ashamed of a lot of things. They actually managed, with enough chiding and bullying, to make me feel ashamed of being Jewish. I felt very much like an outcast. As I got older, I realised that bullying is a pervasive tool to make other people feel like they’re in power, so I was on the receiving end of people’s power trips. So that was my main experience of being hated for something that I had no control over, and something that, inside of me, I’ve always been very proud of:  being Jewish.
What was the most moving story for you from this series?
Gibney: For me it was the story about Cambodia. The reason was you had a very powerful person who spent a great deal of time, not so much with the victims, but with the people who perpetrated that great atrocity: the Khmer Rouge’s attack on its own people. To understand the banality of it was really the shocker for me. I think we get used to the idea that in the world there are good people and there are bad people. Then actually what you see is: there are people. And under certain circumstances, hate comes to the fore and becomes systemised in a way that overtakes us all, so it could happen anywhere. That was for me the revelation of that particular episode; that it overtook the country in a way that was completely unexpected because normal people were in charge.
Spielberg: A lot of people who perpetrate evil do not see themselves as monsters. The perpetrators of great evil, until they’re caught, while they’re in the process of mass murder, it is the banality of evil, it’s an industry. The genocides have been industrialised. Especially the holocaust, where so many lives could be taken so quickly in massive quantities, it was a business, a business of death. It was run like a steel factory or like a mill of some kind. It was perceived by the perpetrators as being normal.
What was the most shocking part of listening to all these testimonies for you?
Gibney: I don’t know if there was a shocking moment. But the young woman who comes out of a place of hate to be an ambassador of love – that was one of the more interesting stories for me. That and the former white supremacist gang member who turns inside out. It’s those stories of human flexibility that are the most moving and powerful.
Spielberg: For me too. The stories of dehumanisation and the stories of being deradicalised were the ones that were powerful to me.
What do you hope viewers take from this series?
Spielberg: What this series hopes to achieve is that anything involving hate can never be normalised. There has to be an objective overview of hate and this documentary series attempts to show that this must never be considered a normal thing. And also that the brain is a supple, amazing organ. The brain is pliable. It’s elastic. Even though the prefrontal cortex stops growing at 25 years old, the brain can change. It’s a changeable system, which means that hate can be unlearned.
Gibney: One of the things I found most interesting is the whole idea of the appeal of terror. For example, if 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, a sense of belonging to a group, this idea of tribalism. So the hate actually starts with love. It’s this process of believing that the ends justifies the means that allows people to do the most horrendous things while imagining that they’re doing something magnificent and good, and that is the thing that is the most dangerous.
If we want to find hope somewhere, where would you look for it?
Gibney: In all of us. I think the hope is in all of us; that’s the point. As Steven said, we are hardwired in some ways to hate, to be tribal, but we’re also hardwired to be flexible and with an extraordinary intellect, to engage in critical thinking and understand that while we may be subject to spasmodic, emotional thinking, we’re also capable of overriding it, of being better. That’s the hope. That’s my greatest hope for the series, that it gets it out to everybody. It’s not particular. We dealt with stories from all over the world, as if to say to everybody, ‘We’re all like each other and it’s up to us to understand that we have the capacity for hate so that we can overcome it.’
Spielberg: We also have a responsibility never to be bystanders when hate is happening to others right in front of us. Every episode ends with hope. Every segment of this series has solutions. So it’s not just a condemnation of those who hate, and those who are essentially them versus us. There’s a middle group. So I really hope that when people see the series, they’ll see that the middle ground happens to be about one thing: creating conversation, talking about the things that we share in common, not just the things that divide us. That will bring people, eventually, together.
Were there any big surprises in the process of making this series? 
Gibney: In the case of documentaries, you always start with the plan and start going down a road, but you always have to be prepared to take the road less taken, or take the road that seems to be drawing you in a certain direction. That’s the glory of documentary – the script gets written at the end, not the beginning.
Spielberg: The surprise for me was that it increased my love for humankind. I got to the end of the series and I really saw hope for all of us.
Gibney: I feel exactly the same way. Indeed, the directors both said the same thing to me. That going down the path of making this series, as much as we investigated the horrors of hate, we found in individual stories and also collective stories this sense of hope that was tremendously uplifting, and also gave us this sense of community that was quite powerful. So I hope the watching of this series will have the same effect on viewers as it had on those making it.

A visitor looks at the photo exhibit at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which documents the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi population in Rwanda.

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