Monday, May 25, 2020

Dev Virahsawmy - Guest blog of Farewell

Dev Virahsawmy
In this characteristically outspoken and moving guest blog, Mauritian writer and political activist Dev Virahsawmy marks his farewell to public life.  He will, however, join us for the last of The Lockdown Dialogues with Peter Sellars on June 3rd.  Dev says that "Since Toufann, I have always felt as being part of the Border Crossing community."  We are honoured to publish his message of retirement.

Whether we like it or not, human beings have always needed myths and will always need them. What is a myth? It may be “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events” or “a widely held but false belief or idea” or “a misrepresentation of the truth” or a combination of all these.

All societies generate their myths in order to come to terms with reality, to make life meaningful and to have a raison d’ĂȘtre and plural societies have several sets of myths which are often antagonistic. In the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, a dominant myth was that Mauritius was ‘Little France’. The alliance between the new English masters and the local oligarchy led middle-class Euro-Creoles to rally around the French language and ‘Frenchness’.

At present, a dominant myth is the belief that Mauritius is ‘Little India’. This politically motivated myth is linked to another more pernicious one carefully nurtured to support a racial objective. It is to show that people from India belong to a superior race for they have succeeded where Afro-Creoles have failed although both groups experienced the same ill treatment. There is nothing further from the truth. Slavery and indentured labour have nothing in common. The story of my great-grandfather clearly illustrates this. He, a ‘coolie’, came to Mauritius as an indentured labourer and during his stay he was attracted by the beauty of a young lady and when he proposed, his proposal was turned down. At the end of his contract, he returned to his homeland, changed his name, bought a passenger ticket, returned to Mauritius, proposed again and was successful. This is how he and his beloved started the Virahsawmy clan. A slave did not have this kind of freedom.

A very strong myth concerns capitalism which is believed to be irreplaceable, has always existed and always will. The history of the human race shows that this is not true but billions believe it is gospel truth. Skilful and systematic brainwashing has produced the required effect.

I do not intend to condemn mythmaking or mythmakers for the poet that I am, is guilty of much of this.

• Creole is our national language and must be known as Morisien. Myth or reality?
• We can achieve universal bilingual functional literacy in Morisien and English, another creole language. Myth or reality?
• Artocarpus altilis (breadfruit) or madegonn or friyapen will one day become our preferred staple. There cannot be genuine food security without it. Myth or reality?
• It is possible to build a supraethnic identity. Myth or reality?
• Mauritius is a Maritime Republic. Myth or reality?
• Mauritius is a creole island whose flora and fauna have been transfomed by different waves of immigrants from Africa, Europe and Asia. Myth or reality?
• Marxism and religion are compatible. Myth or reality?
• Men and women are different but equal. Myth or reality?

For more than half a century, these ‘myths’ have fuelled my existence. Covid-19 and PPS now tell me to take it easy. How much time is left? Only God knows. One thing is certain: some day soon, like Hamlet, I will say, “The rest is silence.” I promise that I’ll try hard not to pester you anymore with my frivolous myths.

This is my farewell message.

God bless you all.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

MORE THAN WORDS - Making the Film

MORE THAN WORDS - Raffaele Messina
“Every film is a foreign film”, write Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour, “foreign to some audience somewhere - and not simply in terms of language”.  Their book Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film addresses the paradoxical nature of this international art form in the age of digital communication and global distribution.  In spite of its apparently global reach, most film remains firmly rooted in, and so constrained by, language.  As B. Ruby Rich argues in the same volume, audiences tend to resist subtitles because reading them makes the experience of film-going into “work”, when they prefer to think of it as “relaxation” and “entertainment”.  “My guess”, argues Rich, “is that foreign films function as a rebuke for some viewers…  evidence that the world is not made in ‘our’ image, and that neither our society or our language is universal.”

The undermining of universalism, with all its postcolonial, neoliberal overtones, is a key element in the MORE THAN WORDS project.  Charged with creating a film that could function as one of the project’s Intellectual Outputs, we gradually realised that, in order to be true to the spirit of this European partnership, we had to find a way of communicating through film that was not solely, or even largely reliant on spoken or written language.  The original application form had stated that the film would be “subtitled in all project languages”.  Since there are at least seven of these (one of which, Arabic, is written in a non-Western script), conventional subtitling would have the effect of turning each shot into a calligraphic page.  Given that all the other Intellectual Outputs are written texts, this seemed to be a bit of a wasted opportunity.  As a result, there are titles in all the project languages, but they happen as an independent element in the film; highlighting the challenge posed by language, rather than using language as an artificial means towards a spurious accessibility.

Anyone who has experienced the immigration systems of European countries can tell you that language is often far from being a means of accessibility.  Language can just as readily be a tool of power.  It can be used to obscure, to obfuscate and to exclude.  Our film includes a number of sequences in which various languages are employed without subtitles, so that only a portion of the audience will have a literal understanding of what is being said.  The emotional power of these sequences should be in the way they reflect the experience of people who enter European spaces without European language skills.  The audience is made foreign by the film.

The great advantage of film to a project like MORE THAN WORDS is that it is primarily a visual medium.  Through the composition and juxtaposition of shots, the rhythmic energy of editing and the nuances of facial and bodily expression in performers, film allows for an emotional narrative that speaks across languages and moves beyond the purely intellectual.  If the film was to complement the other project outputs, and to offer something distinct from them, then it had to become more purely filmic, a visual and musical construct that could convey the project’s work in a mode that moved beyond language, that was “more than words”.  This was how music, rather than the spoken word, became the dominant element in the film’s soundtrack - to the extent that much of the language involved becomes itself a musical and emotional rather than a rational element.

The original brief was for a film that charted the linear narrative of the project’s development: I freely admit that this is not what we have done.  However, our film absolutely does what the more detailed description specifies:
“It will follow the work of the partners, the discussions and debates, it will show the problems, doubts and solutions found.… The film will also focus on how the different forms of expression - theatre, story telling, dance and humour - can be merged.… It will end up with a common performance prepared by the partners together.”
Our common performance is the film itself, which draws off the skills of the partners in Clowning, dance, theatre and the digital to tell a story inspired by our journey together.  It tries to be honest about the challenges we face, both as practitioners engaged in work that attempts to embrace linguistic minorities, and as educators whose methodologies are not always practically or ideologically compatible.  As a result, it seeks neither fusion nor resolution, but rather engages in an emerging and ongoing dialogue between different art forms, educational approaches, cultures and languages - a dialogue which is dynamic, vital and profoundly democratic.

European societies rest on a creation myth that emphasises the primacy of language: “In the Beginning was the Word.”  That is not how creation is understood elsewhere.  Hindu myth portrays the beginnings of the universe through the figure of Shiva, the cosmic dancer, while many African cultures speak of a primal music from which emerged the physical world and the spoken word.  These cultures, which today interact so potently with our changing continent, are closer to scientific truth than our own traditions.  It is now commonly accepted amongst evolutionary psychologists that music preceded language and is actually a more fundamental aspect of human communication.  If we are to generate a contemporary European polity that embraces its global reach, then we need to find ways of relating to one another that are musical just as much as linguistic.  We need to be brave enough to move beyond the merely rational.

I hope you enjoy the film.  Click here to watch it!

MORE THAN WORDS was made with the support of the Erasmus + programme of the European Union.  
The European Commission's support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

[Victory in] Europe Day

As my son and I took our permitted daily walk through Enfield yesterday, I felt as if I were on a film set.  The combination of street parties with social distancing was weird enough - combined with a fierce jingoism and a bizarre nostalgia for the grim 1940s, it seemed totally surreal.  I've been very disturbed in recent weeks by the rhetorical elision of Covid-19 with World War 2: the constant talk of the Blitz spirit (whatever that was); the evocation of Churchill; the way in which the war veteran Captain Tom Moore, wonderful though he undoubtedly is, became the symbol of our pandemic moment as he raised funds for the NHS, which is (incidentally) not a charity but a state service funded by general taxation.  The analogy is doubtless useful to maintaining morale, and I don't honestly begrudge people the chance to enjoy a scone and jam on a sunny Friday in the thick of a global pandemic - but the analogy is also nonsensical and frankly dangerous.  The virus is not a military enemy that might change its tactics if it works out what we're up to.  It is not a general or admiral who will surrender when the "fight" is over.  There will be no glorious moment of victory: like the world of Eliot's Hollow Men, this will end "Not with a bang but a whimper."

What makes the persistent use of the World War 2 analogy even more disturbing is that it has also been constantly employed in the Brexit debates.  This reached a new low this week, when a Daily Mail souvenir offer called VE Day “Britain’s victory over Europe”.  To unpick that a bit...  it was not "Britain's victory", because Britain was merely one member of a group of Allies, which included the USA, Russia, the free French, the exiled Polish forces, many nations from Africa, India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand....   It is a total fabrication to suggest that we ever "stood alone", even in the "darkest hour" after Dunkirk.  Many of those Allies were Europeans, so of course it was not a victory "over Europe" either.  It was a victory over the racist and oppressive regimes who held power in some European countries, but most victims of those regimes were also Europeans, and for them VE Day represented a liberation, not a defeat.  Germany now calls VE Day "Liberation Day", as President Steinmeier reminded the nation yesterday, while warning against "the temptation of a new nationalism. The fascination of the authoritarian. Of distrust, isolation and hostility between nations. Of hatred and agitation, of xenophobia and contempt for democracy - because they are nothing but the old evil spirits in a new guise."

The day after VE Day is Europe Day.  Five years and one day after the end of the war in Europe, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman presented The Schuman Declaration, which marked the beginning of the process that has, over the last 70 years, led to today's European Union.  "World peace", the declaration begins "cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it....   A united Europe was not achieved and we had war."  It is the most extraordinary irony that VE Day, the Union Jack, the war and that great pro-European Churchill have all been hijacked by the Brexiteers, as if history somehow justifies their preposterous narrative of British exceptionalism.  Surely, if VE Day means anything at all, then it means re-asserting the post-war settlement, of which the European Union has been a central part, creating the longest period of peace between European nations ever.  No two members of the European Union have ever been to war with one another.

As well as the European Union, the post-war settlement saw the establishment of the United Nations, which is the EU's equivalent for the American right: Trump's current whipping boy, the WHO, is a UN agency.  In Britain, the post-war settlement meant the establishment of the welfare state and the NHS - both of which have been systematically undermined for years by successive Tory governments intent on bankrolling the profiteers, with consequences we now see all too well as medical staff die for the want of protective equipment and essential testing is entrusted to provenly corrupt accountancy firms.  Brexit has to be understood as part of a larger programme to dismantle the post-war settlement for private gain, to bring about an extreme global deregulation of economic activity for the most wealthy.  It has nothing to do with patriotism, but it's easily dressed up and sold that way.  If we're not careful, the pandemic will also play into this insidious narrative.

Monday, May 04, 2020

GIFT and Manifestos

Song Ru Hui in RE-ORIENTATIONS - 2010
Whenever there is an obstacle, theatre makers find ways to make theatre.  The most obvious shift at the moment is to work happening online - and we're part of that process ourselves with our streaming offer and THE LOCKDOWN DIALOGUES.  A big part of the conversation is going to be about how the form itself can adapt, so that we move beyond streaming recordings of existing performances, and start to make work that is actually intended to happen online.  If, as seems possible, the theatres don't re-open until 2021, then this is going to be essential.

GIFT is a festival that has already started experimenting with online work, and I was a participant in the piece they presented with Rosanna Irvine, MANIFESTOS from times of CRISIS last week.  The piece was an online meeting to work out, at first in "break out groups, and then as a full group of twelve attendees, what we wanted to say and do in the time of coronavirus.  The final manifestos make interesting reading: you can guess which one I worked on....

Before we met to create our manifestos, we were asked to reflect on some questions.  The process turned out not to involve any sharing of our responses, so I thought I would post them here as a few thoughts in the time of the virus.  Responses are very welcome - we need to start working through these things together.
  • What is happening?
We are retreating.  The virus is sending us all into contained, private spaces - but even before the virus we were retreating.  Brexit is a retreat.  The rejection of refugees is a retreat. Nationalism is a retreat.  And - sorry to say this but…  there are ways in which even some forms of identity politics are a retreat.  We are all saying “Keep away from me.  I will keep close only those who are mine.  I reject the other.”
  • What do you want to be happening?
I want us to meet again.  Not in a Zoom room or some weird virtual reality but physically present, in the same room.  I want to be able to hug my friends and to feel our common humanity.  I want to be aware of living (and mortal) bodies passing before me in real, unredeemable time.
  • What do you not want to be happening?
"We’ve done really well and we’re past the peak.  We have to keep it all in place because it’s too early to stop being scared but we want people not to be scared so let’s all wear masks because it really boosts people’s confidence if they can’t see our faces.  You aren’t allowed out unless you have to go to work in which case you can go out.  We all have to keep indoors except on Thursday evenings when we all go out and stand with our neighbours and clap all the immigrants who work in the NHS who we intend to deport after the lockdown is over.  That doctor was an Italian you know.  Amazing thing was, he was quite good."
  • What are you remembering?
The last few weeks before it all really kicked in.  Performing our show across London.  The laughter in the audiences.  The energy on the stage.
  • What are you hoping?
The end of the retreat - the end of fear.  A realisation that things can’t go back to normal because normal was the problem.  The return of ceremony, the recognition of common purpose.  A meaningful rite at the burial of the dead - our lives recognised as having a value beyond the statistical.
  • What kind of a world do you want?
A world that retains its global connections but combines that with a local sensibility.  A new sense of place, a loyalty to the land.  A world in which travel happens because it is necessary, and where the traveller is not regarded as a dangerous interloper but as a welcome guest.