Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Jungle

The Jungle at the Young Vic
Just occasionally, you see a piece of theatre that completely affirms the necessity of the art form, that speaks to its context with intense moral urgency, that refuses to simplify or to sentimentalise.  Such a piece is The Jungle at the Young Vic.  Seeing this performance was a superb way to end what has been a year of political doubt and moral turpitude.  Everyone who sees this astonishing production will be better placed to move into 2018 with a clearer, more defined sense of how we can "act" in this most challenging of times.

The play was perhaps of particular importance for me, as Border Crossings is working on the new Season of Migrations, and in a couple of weeks I will be in Turkey, joining our partners at Adana University to learn from their work in the refugee camps there.  I had been feeling a deep concern about the ethical dimension of this - how is it possible for artists from the very Western countries that have responded so shockingly to the displacement of so many migrants to engage with them in a way that does not become mere voyeurism?  How can we participate in a manner that is both creatively valid and politically potent?  In the Voices of Culture report, we looked predominantly at work that engaged refugees in an instrumental way, at the same time as lamenting the failure of the cultural sector and of governments to open real dialogues and to engage in genuine intercultural exchange.  My recent talk at the European Culture Forum in Milan made the same point - we can't just employ culture as a way of moulding refugees into some pre-determined new identity, or (worse) as a means to distance them as they "tell their own stories" and make the liberal audience feel positively reassured about their own compassion.  What we have to find is a form that recognises our presence in the unfolding political drama, at the same time as understanding that we are not its protagonists.  The Jungle, written by two young men who engaged deeply with the Calais refugees at their time of greatest need, offers that dramatic validity, fuelled by compassion, humanity and anger.
What puts this work head and shoulders above other theatrical responses to the ongoing crisis are a series of courageous theatrical decisions:

  • The audience is in the thick of the action, seated at makeshift tables, representing the camp's Afghan cafĂ©, on which the actors perform.  The set makes it impossible to distance yourself from the raw emotion of the refugees' experience.
  • The refugee characters are complemented by portrayals of British volunteers, all of whom are commendable, and all of whom are flawed.  They are in some way our representatives on stage - particularly the gap-year Beth, who listens to several testimonies that deepen her sense of the people she meets.  These characters make sense of our presence, which is far from participatory, but which they prevent from being voyeuristic or exploitative.
  • The refugees are the characters at the heart of the narrative.  It's interesting that the printed text ends with a scene for Beth - and this has clearly been cut in rehearsals so that the play ends with a direct address to the audience by Safi, a Syrian migrant, played with grace and dignity by Ammar Haj Ahmad.  I don't know whether Ammar is himself a refugee - he is certainly a Syrian.  The programme biographies rightly present all the actors in a purely professional way - but there is also a sense that some people are working with material they know intimately, and that they have brought a deep sense of their cultural selves to the production.  This is vital - both for the artistic truth and the moral purpose of the project.  Safi gets the last word, and it comes from a place of truth.
  • There are a few moments when video screens serve to remind us of the political context as we have perceived it - through news reports.  We see the little body of Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach.  We see flashes of the Paris terror attacks.  Towards the end, there is a report from a charity worker in Calais - a reminder, as our recent guest blog by John Comino-James pointed out, that the camp is still there.  It's just that today, the refugees aren't allowed to build anything that could be regarded as permanent.  They are imprisoned in a perpetual indeterminacy.  These flashes of our usual "objective" perception of events serves to problematise still further the relationship between the performers and the audience, between the material and its spectators, between the refugees and British society.  


It's been a rather wonderful year for us at Border Crossings, and I had thought that I would use this last blog post to review achievements and look forward.  Well, we know about the achievements, and now I am looking forward - feeling empowered by this stunning piece of theatre further to develop our own ventures in the jungle of culture, policy, and human need.

May 2018 be a year of renewed clarity, commitment and creativity for us all.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

European Culture Forum

Michael speaking at the Forum in Milan
I was delighted - and amazed - to be invited to the European Culture Forum in Milan as one of the platform speakers.  It's not just that Britain is a bit semi-detached from the EU at the moment - it's also that speaking at this event is normally the preserve of EU Presidents and Nobel Prize-winners...  Still - the invitation came and it would have been churlish to turn it down.  What a fantastic opportunity and privilege!

The first day of the forum was very upbeat.  Much of it was around the European Year of Cultural Heritage, which was kicked off at the event, and this clearly gave a lot of people much cause for celebration.  It is, of course, wonderful that Europe is going to be putting so much energy into cultural heritage in 2018 - though I would love to know what this is going to mean in practice, and how far "heritage" embraces the complex morality of our continent's past.  If it does, then perhaps there's space to take in the migrant crisis, the role of Islam, the inheritance of colonialism. There's a danger it could all turn into a festival of "aren't we marvellous?"  Towards the end of the first day, Ferdinand Richard from the Roberto Cimetta Fund sounded an appropriate warning note when he said that culture was in danger of being hi-jacked by nationalism.  This is the Europe we are actually living in, and Britain's current tragedy reflects that.  It seemed important to address this on day 2.

So - the plenary of which I was a part is available to watch here - it actually begins at 8hrs 18mins in, and lasts a healthy two hours, so if you can't stand the thought of that, here's a basic summary.  The Moderator, Hannah Conway, very kindly gave me the first word - so I was able to set a bit of a tone for the debate.  I was asked about the role of culture in promoting social cohesion - and my response was that the two things are essentially the same.  We shouldn't be taking an instrumental view of culture, calling it a "tool" or something to be "exploited" or "used".  Culture, I ventured to suggest, is the public generation of meaning - and so it's the base from which a healthy society can grow.  You don't know why you are doing anything else if you don't have meaning - so of course in order to have any form of social cohesion, you have to have culture.  What's more, for that cohesion to be sustainable, the culture has to be dynamic and fluid - this is where it begins to overlap with democracy.

The question of inclusivity had to be addressed - I think a lot of people were very pleased that I called out the Forum for the all-white panels.  The question of culture within policy matters - I used the example of our refugee work in Plymouth, but also called for something bigger, for a real engagement of art and culture in the political process, on the lines of Periclean Athens.  Of course that was described as hopelessly Utopian - but the truth is that "realism" hasn't done too well recently. The current situation - Trump, Brexit, Putin - is a list of things many people said "could never happen".  And then they did. I think that might be true of the Utopian alliance between culture and policy as well.

Monday, December 04, 2017

"I Was Asked to Help Sort Bread" - Guest Blog on The Calais Jungle by John Comino-James


A November weekend and another trip to Calais with Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity to deliver aid and support.   A van, two minibuses, a stack of aid, 32 volunteers and only one certainty: that every visit is different.  On the Saturday half of the group will go to help at the Refugees Community Kitchen, half will go to Care4Calais.  None of us knows exactly what will be needed or asked of us.  
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I’ve never been to the Kitchen before and don’t know what to expect.  Can you imagine a workspace in an industrial building producing something like 2000 hot meals a day? A workspace with stainless steel preparation tables, sinks for washing vegetables,  deep sinks for washing up,  and a row of cauldrons bubbling over gas rings,  extraction equipment, loud music pumping away, volunteers all dressed in similar outfits?

When you enter you ask, ‘What do I do?’ and someone gives you a job.

I was asked to help sort bread.  Sort bread?  Sort bread.  Sort bread that supermarkets donate, bread that is past or on its ‘Display till’ date.   

Someone explains the task.  The drier bread is to be cut and set aside to be prepared as garlic bread; the packages of pre-wrapped rolls or bread are to be opened.  If the contents are still soft, only just out of date, they will be distributed alongside the hot meals.  Whole loaves are to be cut into manageable chunks.  Some will have to be discarded altogether.

Put bluntly the task was to sort through various kinds of bread because it was deemed no longer fresh enough for sale, no longer good enough for us, that is to say for regular shoppers like me who take a certain quality of freshness for granted or expect it as our right, and sort out what was still useable for them.  

Emotion sneaks in through a back door.  I feel myself near tears.  The word BREAD, on every level, carries associations far beyond the texture and flavour of risen and baked dough.  It suggests a universal notion of sustenance, of basic nourishment.  How unbearably invidious to be sorting such a basic food in this not good enough for us but good enough for them kind of way.  Of course, what my brimming feelings really meant was that I’d hit upon an unacknowledged fault-line in my complacency.

But something else, something positive happened as I worked, at first sorting bread, then scrubbing potatoes, then chopping salad.  Working alongside volunteers from France, Belgium, Germany and Canada was incredibly energising.  How wonderful that we were all there with out diversity -- and even our differences -- working alongside each other in an enterprise made necessary by the insistence on borders and destruction and division.  There was no glamour in most of the tasks we were doing:  what was paramount was the idea of service, of getting on with the job – and the need to support the preparation of the day’s meals for the refugees.   Refugees, migrants, people, most of whom we would never meet face to face.
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Can you imagine a lake surrounded by grassy areas and thickets of bushes and trees, the sort of place you might go with your family on a summer’s evening or at the weekend?   A narrow concrete road that leads you to a car park?  You can’t see that one boundary is a motorway embankment, or that beyond another stretch of woodland are the backs of houses. Here the world falls away, it’s a place to relax.  My grandchildren could skateboard here or dash about on scooters. There’s a colourful sign of Do’s and Don’ts: no motorbikes in the woods, but horse-riding permitted, no swimming in the lake, no picking flowers, but windsurfing is allowed. Do not light fires. 

This is where we park the van, roll up the shutter, unfold tables. 

Perhaps I only imagine I smell smoke drifting out of the woods.

There are five of us, two experienced long-term volunteers from Refugee Community Kitchen who will co-ordinate and organise the distribution, and three of us to serve the food: rice, a spicy curry, and salad.  I’m to serve the salad.  There are chopped onions, seasonings, bread.

There’s a sail visible on the lake, the waters dark and ruffled by the breeze.

In two’s and three’s figures appear.  Dark anoraks. Scuffed trainers.  Men in worn clothes, huddled against the cold.  We hand out rectangular polystyrene dishes.  Cheerful greetings.  Rice first.  Some ask for more, some ask for the curry to be on top of the rice, some want it separate.  Some don’t want the curry.   Some decline the offer of salad.  Respect the dignity of choice.  I do my best to serve the salad tidily while trying at the same time to make eye contact.  How are you?  Good, thank you.  No no, no  salad thank you.  Plastic spoons.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  The sun settles, dusk comes.  Would you like more?  For many this is the first food since this time yesterday.  In little groups a stream of people.  A mix of nationalities: Kurds, Iraqis, Afghans.   I am humbled by their thanks, by the generosity of their response.  What does it do to them, this hiding in the woods, avoiding the police, this reliance on donations of food, of clothing? What does it do to them, seeing their tents or other makeshift shelters destroyed by police or having sleeping bags or clothes contaminated with pepper spray?  What does it do to them?

The wind bites deeper.  

As we drove in I saw a rig on which there were four taps and a long trough at waist level.  There was a man there stripped to the waist, his hair frothy with shampoo, soaping his upper body for the cold water.  They have come to this, somehow, and through what unimaginable dangers.  They have come, following a dream of a better life, a life that they believed must surely be better than existing in a familiar homeland shattered by war.  They have come to this.  We met a man who had twice made the journey from Afghanistan.  He crossed illegally into the UK, was deported and set out again.  Politicians speak about not creating a pull factor, but what kind of ‘pull factor’ was that?  Those same politicians rarely acknowledge courage, initiative or persistence, qualities that should surely be valued.  To see these qualities, to see this potential would be to risk seeing these people as we are trying to do, as human beings in need, as individual human beings, each with hopes and pain, with dreams and loss.  Politicians urge us to look at the bigger picture, but perhaps that way lies not reassurance but madness or despair: the temporary tented camps gradually taking on the social mechanisms of permanence, the fences and razor wire, the infrastructures shattered by war, the disrupted governance, the rival militias, the estimated 65 million displaced persons across the world…

There’s not an exact count but we’ve served somewhere between 150 and 200 meals.  What distresses me almost more than anything is not that the distribution process is so practised, so well-drilled, so efficient, so generous, but that it seems so terrifyingly normal.  

It’s getting dark, the wind is really cutting through our clothes as we stand waiting for the last few men to come.  I feel myself impatient to get out of the cold.  It’s about 5 or 6 degrees, and the wind-chill drops that right down towards freezing.  What a relief it will be to slam the door of the van against this cold.  We pack up.  What’s left of the food is loaded back into the van.  We fold the tables and just as we are about to pull down the shutter two or three latecomers arrive.  They too will be served. 
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Bright lights in Calais, a convivial restaurant and illuminations for the Christian Festival. God rest you merry, Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.   Joyeux Noel.  The winter solstice is barely a month away, the turning of the year, the shortest day … and for the men in the woods, trying to get a little warmth from forbidden fires, the longest night.