Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Présence Autochtone

El Regreso
I've been in Montréal for a few days, at the Festival Présence Autochtone, or First People's Festival, run by my Innu friend André Dudemaine.  I've known André by email for some time - he wrote the piece on Alanis Obomsawin for the very first Origins programme book - and met him properly at Planet IndigenUs in Toronto in 2012.   He's very kindly invited me to his Festival both last year and this.  It's always incredibly helpful to see how other indigenous festivals operate - how they make their meaning felt in public space.

Public space seems to have been the big issue for André this year.  Although this is the 24th annual festival, it has been a struggle to get it properly funded - Canada, like so much of the world, is cutting back its public sector and shifting towards a "market" model, which of course is pretty hopeless for a festival designed to highlight the presence of a minority in the face of an over-arching cultural diet of blandness and mass-produced monotony.  As André put it in his email inviting me over: "It was like a western but with a happy ending: the Indians won  :)."  Aside of funding, public space is also a thematic preoccupation of the festival, which after all proclaims "présence" in its very title.  In Canada, it's all too easy to forget that the indigenous people are even there - particularly as the "rez" system remains so significant here (and the festival combines its Montréal presence with programming on the Mohawk reservation of Kahnawake).  The festival takes over the central Place des Festivals with an installation, concerts, traditional dance, a parade, information tents, food stalls, and a fun piece of street theatre based on a traditional story of the sun being put out and restored, with a clear lineage from the Bread and Puppet Theatre.  

Street theatre - the sun

This is the "fun" side of the festival - and it's very effective, particularly in bringing a younger generation of First Nations musicians into the public arena.  On Saturday night, when I arrived, Beatrice Deer was playing in the Place des Festivals.  She looked out at the audience and commented that there were more people there than lived in her home village in Nunavik - population 370.  The audiences in general seem much larger than they were last year - apparently as a result of a big social media campaign.  The mainstream press in Montréal has given the festival very limited coverage for 24 years - but now the new media are allowing different channels of communication to open up, and young Canadians seem genuinely to be embracing the indigenous stories of the country.

The other key focus of this festival is indigenous film - and the scope here is global rather than simply Canadian.  André has strong links all over the world, particularly in the Americas - but his programme also ranged as far as Tibet, with a fascinating documentary film about spiritual practice, A Gesar Bard's Tale.  A personal highlight was a feature from Venezuela, called El Regreso, in which a young indigenous girl becomes separated from her tribe as a result of a paramilitary attack, and somehow survives in the city.  There are echoes of Rabbit-Proof Fence, not least in the amazing central performance by a child - but this is also a very gritty urban drama.  Insurgentes from Bolivia is essentially a dramatised chronicle of the nation's history in costume-drama style - apart from a few moments of pure magical realism, when the world's first indigenous President, Evo Morales, himself appears in the film - at one point sitting in a cable car above La Paz, passing the heroes of historical struggles as they go the other way.  

Some of the Canadian films I saw were quite troubling, especially in the light of André's difficulties in getting the festival supported this year.  Maïna is a film about Innu and Inuit before the colonial period - and lays claim to authenticity because it uses indigenous actors and languages, even though the main narrative is a voice-over by the central character in the main language of the audience (which last night was French).  The effect, of course, is to distance the indigenous people, not to make them closer, and to compound the exoticism which is already present in the story and the style of filming, with all the familiar Hollywood tropes (wise Elders who die early in the film, children lost to their tribe, wise women uttering obliquely, love "across cultures", Inuit rubbing noses, fighting off polar bears....).  It's clearly made with an eye to the mainstream, and it compromises the indigenous cultures very drastically in the process.  The Healing Winds is a much more sincere piece of work - a portrayal of the traumas resulting from the Residential Schools - but again I felt a bit uneasy, particularly as the film concentrates so much on psychotherapy, seemingly passing the responsibility for dealing with the trauma onto the survivors, without really engaging with the larger political context, which is where true responsibility lies.  As with the Truth commissions, you can't help feeling that there is a failure to engage the bigger picture.  

The best Canadian films I saw were shorts - an evening commemorating the tenth anniversary of the wonderful Wapikoni initiative, which facilitates film-making by young people from indigenous communities.  One young man who spoke at the event explained that he had been "doing nothing", and had never been off the rez, until the programme enabled him to make his first film, which has done well at international festivals, and has led to him getting a university place and making more films.  The great thing about this is that it isn't simply a social development programme - the films themselves are very good.  One or two, for example Kevin Papatie's We Are, are quite superb.  My one niggling concern is why Kevin is still making films via this programme, when he should be seen as a major talent in artistic / activist video: we screened his powerful short The Amendment in the very first Origins, as long ago as 2009. 

Monday, August 04, 2014

Terror and Performance

On Friday night, Border Crossings Laboratory hosted Terror and Performance: An evening with Rustom Bharucha, in response to Rustom's new book with the same title.  Rustom has been important to the company for some time as a sounding board for a lot of dramaturgical ideas, and a powerful critical voice - we've corresponded during the gestation of most of our projects since about 2004.  But this was only the second time we'd been able to involve Rustom overtly and actively in our work - the first being his chapter in our book on Theatre and Slavery (sadly out of print at the moment). 

The great thing about Rustom is that, as well as being a brilliant academic and critical thinker, he is also an active theatre-maker, a director and dramaturg, who understands the huge political themes with which he engages as they relate to the creation and reception of performance.  So, as well as outlining the themes of his book, we were able to discuss them in relation to what we've been doing as an organisation, and how we and other theatre-makers can respond to the atmosphere of terror that so pervades our lives today.  We related his opening chapter (on the way 9/11 changed perceptions of a production) to our own recent experiences in Palestine and their relationship to the current horror in Gaza.  His second chapter, on literal border crossings, became the start point for discussion of the company name, and the political issues around border controls that we have recently encountered.  The third chapter, on Truth and Reconciliation processes, related fascinatingly to much of what we did in the last Origins Festival, particularly in relation to indigenous processes of reconciliation, and the emphasis on the need for reparation of some kind. 

That all took two hours - with some fantastic audience interaction thrown in - so we didn't get round to the final chapter of the book, which deals with Gandhi and non-violence.  It's a shame, because I had hoped to ask Rustom about the move into religious language here.  He not only quotes Gandhi and uses him as a theoretical frame to engage with issues around how non-violence can be performed in the context of terror - he also makes use of Aurobindo and Krishnamurti.  It's as if he finds the cold, logical language of performance theory impossible for the moral engagement - which is ultimately an emotional engagement - that is required.  I'm reminded of the emotional overspill that seems to be happening in journalism in response to Gaza - for example Jon Snow, or the thrilling column Giles Fraser wrote in Saturday's Guardian.  The language of theory needs to be expanded in order to embrace the spiritual heart that demands justice and common humanity.  Otherwise you end up with the unbelievable coldness that greeted Rustom last week at an academic conference, where a theorist actually asked him why he got so bothered about the killing of children.  I mean, please....

The last chapter of Rustom's book also touches on the Breivik incident, which we had also addressed in Origins through the wonderful film Biekka Fabmu.  On Thursday, I had been at the Young Vic to see The Events - also a response to Breivik, and to my mind the best theatrical response I've so far seen to terror in its multifarious contemporary forms. 

The Events
The central character, Claire, is a priest (a lesbian priest leading a diverse urban congregation - so the embodiment of the liberal multicultural modernity loathed by the radical right) whose choir were the victims of a crazed attack.  The choir is onstage throughout, brilliantly represented by a real amateur choir, who are clearly not entirely familiar with the play and are so, quite literally, caught up in "events", and are rightly bemused as things unfold around them.  The gunman ("The Boy") also plays all the other roles, including a right-wing politician, a therapist, and Claire's partner.  On one level, this gives a powerful sense of how Claire finds it impossible to move beyond the shooting - quite literally seeing the gunman everywhere.  On another level, it suggests how her constant questioning of the gunman, herself and of humanity, asking why he did it - mistakes the real issue.  The warped mind of one individual is not really what matters in the contemporary climate of terror.  What finally matters is the wider social and political context within which such events occur, and through which responses are made.  As playwright David Greig put it in a Telegraph interview:  “you have to find a way to go beyond understanding. You have to go, ‘I need something else. I need acceptance, or something'....  it’s about communities, people, religion – about transcendent things, which drama is very good at.”

This is also the register of language that Rustom is moving towards at the end of his wonderful book.