Thursday, October 27, 2016

Belfast Rising: a rose-tinted musical pageant about the Belfast influence on Easter 1916 (Lyric until 29 Oct) #belfest

Starting back in 1798 and accelerating up to 1916, Belfast Rising explores the contribution made by women and men from the area around Belfast to the Easter Rising. Tony Devlin writes, directs and stars in the Brassneck Theatre Company show which looks through rose-tinted rebel eyes at the events in Ireland.

Over two hours, including an interval, Devlin and talented co-star Séainín Brennan introduce the audience to individuals like Nora Connolly, Charlie Monahan, Alice Milligan (a Methodist from Omagh who moved to Belfast and whose brothers fought in the Somme), Séan Mac Diarmada and Winifred Carney. [Winnie, originally from Bangor, became secretary and confidant to James Connolly and after the Rising, and long after the end of the play, she married an Orangeman!]

Both actors are gifted singers and Donal O’Connor sustains the show with superb live accompaniment played from one corner of the stage. Piano, tin whistle and fiddle create necessary light and shade in the scenes which feature just one of the two actors singing songs and delivering long monologues based around some of the key northern individuals, including hefty chunks of speeches and letters. Off-stage singing and live music means that the actors are mic’d up, with sound levels uncomfortably loud in the back row during some moments of shouting.

The simple set consists of a large flag draped across the back of the stage and a multi-purpose wooden chair that is oppressed stood upon in every scene. While I’m not normally a huge fan of theatrical projection, it works well in Belfast Rising with a supersized bright image projected onto the Naughton Studio’s brickwork – often taking advantage of its texture – introducing new characters and managing not to distract from the cast or music.

“Winifred Carney, the typist with a Webley.”
Belfast Rising is at its most passionate when telling the story of women, their motivation for getting and staying involved in the Rising and what they hoped would be achieved.

Yet it falls into the trap of mythologising their role, persisting the notion that many of them fought with the weapons they had been trained with. Irish History academics do not agree.

Theatre can be a great medium in which to leave people questioning at the end of a show. When the final cry of Mise Éire went up, the audience knew to applaud. Belfast Rising affirms one particular narrative and while it’s the job of other writers and directors to give alternative perspectives, I wish there had been more room for reflection in this production, more critical remembering than mere celebration.

Belfast Rising is at the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast International Arts Festival until Saturday 29 October.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Taylor Mac - a dangerous & subversive romp through two decades of music & social history #BelFest

Taylor Mac’s concert last night swept up a couple of decades of popular music from 1906 to 1926. It’s an adapted version from 24 hours of material that covers a much longer period, with local Irish and British material added for Belfast.

A five piece band (piano, double bass, drums, guitar and trumpet) curve around the back of the black curtained stage. Wearing a bedazzling costume, Taylor Mac struts on stage and is straight down to business. It’s not a comfortable, sit back in your seat kind of concert where you allow the music to drift over you. This is edge of seat, engaged material that amazes, challenges, shocks and might even offend.

Over two and half hours, we were led through analysis of the American participation in World War One, examining how public sentiment changed, and a lesson in conservative appropriation.

A WW1 trench tableau is created on stage. At first it seems to be of dubious taste as plastic body parts are somewhat humorously thrown over a the hastily conscripted members of the recumbent platoon. But the mood changes as the music begins and a sustained and very touching moment of remembrance is created. (The shows are being staged in partnership with 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary.)

Mac has a drag costume for every decade and the devil’s in the detail of the trimmings of each garment created by Machine Dazzle. A gas mask fascinator is at first concealed under a feathery hat. In the second decade, a huge back piece casts the shadow of the Statue of Liberty’s crown over the back wall of the stage.

Taylor Mac’s band are superb and obviously enjoy playing the range of songs and revel in the freedom to improvise. Worth singling out Greg Glassman’s trumpet playing which adds colour and counterpoint to the often mellow melodies. There’s lots of jazz and blues, as well as a beautiful performance of Oh Danny Boy you’ll still be humming on the way home. (If only more of the audience had known the words of the chorus to join in.)

Don’t expect an interval; but don’t feel too bashful about walking out for a comfort break or to bring a drink back to your seat (though you might miss something fabulous).

Mac refers to the performance art show as a “radical faerie realness ritual”. Every ritual needs a sacrifice and audience participation is integral and mandatory, and ultimately there’s some safety in numbers as we’re all in it together. As a performer, Mac shows amazing control amongst what seems at first to be random selection and potentially humiliation. People’s reactions and tolerances are read and respected; no one lost their dignity or left the stage looking cross or regretting their moment in the limelight.

It’s a dangerous and subversive show, full of ambiguity and more than a little sex education along the way. At times the direction of travel wobbled, but overall two decades of US history were examined with a nod to this island and even the appearance of a rather contemporary cake.

There was a full, glittery moon over Belfast last night – three in fact – and Taylor Mac will be back on stage with a version of the same show tonight at 7.45pm. And on Saturday night, Taylor Mac is back to perform the closing concert of the 2016 Belfast International Arts Festival commemorating one hundred years of songs about revolutions and uprisings.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

I, Daniel Blake - holding a mirror up to the UK's welfare system (QFT until 3 Nov)

Recovering from a heart attack while up scaffolding on a building site and told by his GP that he’s unable to work, casual labourer and skilled joiner Daniel Blake (played by Dave Johns) enters the nine circles of Department of Works and Pension hell as he battles for recognition of his health condition and financial support through the Employment and Support Allowance.

Unfortunately, points mean prizes benefits, and the widower’s heart attack doesn’t score highly enough to avoid him being deemed fit for work. After hours spent in the first circle (limbo) waiting for health professionals in all centres to explain the next stage of the mandatory and rigid process Dan jumps straight to the fifth circle (wrath) when his efforts to sell himself and find employment are rewarded with a referral for sanction.

All the while, Dan befriends a single parent Katie (Hayley Squires) from London who has been living with hew two primary school aged children in a homeless hostel. Finally offered accommodation in Newcastle upon Tyne, she has uprooted her children from school friends and family support to move north.

Dan’s selfless and angelic intervention makes a positive impact on the young family’s lives, slowing the spiralling descent of mother Katie as she is squeezed into making bad decisions, albeit perhaps the least worst under the desperate circumstances.

There are some moments of hope and kindness in this grey tale. A food bank based in a church hall offers dignity and respect once those queuing around the block enter inside. Ordinary people help the digitally challenged fifty nine year old, forced online at every welfare process twist and turn. Unfortunately the one DWP worker who goes off-script and displays a smidgeon of humanity is swiftly disciplined for nearly stimulating a dangerous precedent.

In the midst of claim forms and benefits, poor alternatives are shown. Entrepreneurial youths create income by exploiting high value goods sourced from overseas factory production lines; with some of the workers complicit in their scheme and also profiting from it. The sex trade offers steady income for those willing to sign on.

I, Daniel Blake offers a bruising critique of the system, but no answers. That’s not the point. It’s a cry for help, a plea for common sense and injection of humanity as the unfeeling social welfare system is laid bare. Someone curses Iain Duncan Whatshisface after Dan’s brief act of seventh circle violence against a wall is caught. It’s harsh but not cruel.

Letters, phone calls, hold music, inflexible questionnaires and bureaucratic bullies seem to have become the basic tenets of the UK government’s austere policies. Those with the most need and the least proficiency are asked to jump through the highest hoops to access support.

This morning’s breakfast radio bulletins brought the sickening news that the International Development Secretary Priti Patel plans to extend these principles to overseas aid, using it to help deliver trade deals and throw British soft power weight around rather than using the 0.7% tithe on Gross National Income to offer help without selfish strings attached.

While Paul Laverty’s screenplay avoids the convenient coincidences that plague many modern films, there are still moments within the 100 minute film that feel a little clunky. But director Ken Loach’s point is made and made well. It’s grim up t’north for Dan, but to be honest it’s grim for hundreds of thousands of Dans up and down the country, being slowly roasted in the DWP’s latest circles of hell. And with welfare reform in Northern Ireland, we’re not immune from this inhumane madness.

I, Daniel Blake is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre two or three times a day until Thursday 3 November. Bring tissues: if you’ve a heart you’ll need them.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Green and Blue - a thoughtful and respectful dramatisation of border policing (KABOSH, touring)

Two police officers stand facing the audience. Constable David McCabe (played by Vincent Higgins) is wearing the RUC uniform (complete with the lurid green shirt) and holding a rifle. A few metres to his right stands is Garda Eddie O’Halloran (James Doran) in the blue uniform of An Garda Síochána.

In the hour long Green and Blue performance, they speak about their experience of policing in border areas. What they say and relate is informed by interviews undertaken with officers by academics.

The audience quickly giggle as a conversation conducted over the crackling radio quickly descends into a series of comic non sequiturs and shows up the contrasting styles of policing. A border posting is dangerous for both of the officers, but while one is viewed by some with distrust, the other is continuously under threat and isolated from his family.

Remarkably, despite the cooperative working, the Gardaí and RUC officers along the border didn’t seem to often meet face-to-face. License has probably been taken with the manner in which Eddie and David first encounter each other in the flesh, mixing pathos with humour and shock.

The demeanour of the two officers at first appears like chalk and cheese. Doran plays a stereotypically laid back Cork fellow with a propensity to bend rules and find a middle path. Higgins is a stiffer, more establishment figure. Yet both officers discover that they have ended up trapped in the job for different reasons, with a shared disrespect for the actions of some of their superiors.

Conan McIvor revisits his skill of projecting imagery onto plastic sheeting in the minimal set. The atmosphere of the performance is heightened by the sound design and the low concrete ceiling in Girdwood Community Hub is the architectural reverb enhances the actors’ good singing voices. Director Paula McFetridge has kept the action static, allowing the primacy of the voices and testimony to rise above movement and gimmick.

It feels significant in 2016 to be able to make light of some aspects of the officers’ roles and experiences some thirty or forty years on from the events the script describes. Significant too to be sitting listening to the production in a mixed audience in the Girdwood complex built on the site of a military barracks.

And there’s further significance when I realise later that Green and Blue’s seasoned playwright Laurence McKeown – with at least ten plays, two book and two films under his belt – was at one time an IRA activist and hunger striker.

Green and Blue is a thoughtful and respectful dramatisation of oral history, illuminating life of officers and their families. While there are many moments of laughter throughout, it’s not all levity: the performance doesn’t shy away from the deadly aspects of Troubles policing, and the mounting personal trauma of policing terrorism and being terrorised, of shooting and being shot at.

After its premiere in Girdwood as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, Green and Blue is touring through Newry (Tuesday 25 October), Omagh (Wednesday 26), Monaghan (Thursday 27), Newtownards (Friday 28), Dublin (Saturday 29), Strabane (Wednesday 2 November), Dundalk (Thursday 3), Cavan (Friday 4) and Derry (Saturday 5). Produced by Kabosh in association with Diversity Challenges, you can find full details on the tour on the Green and Blue programme website. Each performance is followed by a facilitated discussion.

A Sinkhole In Guatemala - you'll laugh and you'll cry at this very personal tale #BelFest

The Guardian reported the story of a sinkhole appearing in Guatemala city.
“When we heard the loud boom we thought a gas canister from a neighbouring home had exploded, or there had been a crash on the street. We rushed out to look and saw nothing. A gentleman told me that the noise came from my house, and we searched until we found it under my bed.”

From this germ of a true tale, playwright Sarah Gordon tells what at first sounds like an increasingly surreal story of denial, confusion, reproach and cover up as things that are familiar are sucked into expanding holes that just keep appearing. Stripped back without a set or sound effects, the short performance includes visual humour, plays on words, food and many moments of absurdity between Sarah and an actor who is deliberately unfamiliar with the script. Tara Lynne O’Neill was the actor on the night I reviewed.

The role of the playwright, actor and audience are established in an early scene that gently introduces some repetition of speech and awkward pauses. The programme notes inform the audience that “this is a play for anybody who has ever forgotten what they came upstairs for”. There’s a subtly to the performance and how it has been engineered to allow familiar actions to become distracted and distorted. While we’ve been warned that “a hole appearing is really about something disappearing”, these holes in the action are at first ignored by the audience, though later examples may still be disregarded.

A Sinkhole In Guatemala explores dementia with the fondness and compassion of someone who does acknowledge and understand what a family member is experiencing. Provoking laughter and tears, the performance is warm throughout and towards the end introduces a raw realism about what life must be like: a production that will live long in my mind and conversations.

Premièred at this year’s Tiger Dublin Fringe and developed with the support of Prime Cut Productions’ Reveal programme, A Sinkhole In Guatemala was part of this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Suppliant Women: Mesmerising ancient theatre with a modern message #BelFest

The Suppliant Women reinvigorates a 2,500 year old piece of theatre from the pen of Aeschylus which still has a pointed message to society today. David Grieg adapted a literal translation of the 463BC Greek play The Suppliants (the first of an otherwise nearly totally lost trilogy) which tells the story of The Danaids, the fifty daughters of Danaus.

The plot is simple. (You’ll receive, nearly unnecessary, crib notes when you arrive at the theatre.) The daughters flee Egypt to Greece by boat and claim asylum. The King of the city of Argos feels that it’s a risky decision to make on his own – to bar them would bring terror, to welcome them could bring about war – so he puts it to a vote of the people. While the vote goes the women’s way, ships on the horizon bring the Egyptian threat sailing towards the shore of Argos.
“Who are these strange women? … You don’t look Greek … more Libyan … Egyptian … Cypriot … Indian nomads … Ethiopian … What are you?”

The protagonists are the daughters, played by 15 young women recruited into the community chorus. They chant, sing, dance, sculpt and speak with a confidence that disguises the limited period of rehearsal. It’s only in moments when a Belfast voice can be heard speaking, no longer disguised by the singing, that you realise that nearly everyone on stage is local. (Kudos to the local vocal and movement coaches, Mairéad Duffy and Sarah Johnston.) The local cast playing arriving refugees chimes some bells with the unrecognised Greek roots of the daughters of Danaids when they arrive at Argos. Another sixteen members of the community churos play the wise women of Argos and the King’s soldiers.

The costumes are colourful yet simple. The staging is minimal which redirects focus back onto the cast. You’ll be tapping your foot along with some of the rhythms as the passion and verve carries you along on a wave of emotion when the daughters realise that the people of Argos are behind them and will offer them sanctuary and protection.

The libation given by a civic leader at the beginning, the long choral odes, the rhythmic back and forth, the authentic aulos instrument expertly played by Callum Armstrong along with percussion (Ben Burton) at one side of the stage, the simple set of a bricked courtyard and the musing on a mythological act all connect to the ancient Greek traditions. Essentially, it’s an extended prayer to Zeus. But don’t let that put you off!

The modern resonances with the global refugee crisis are obvious and familiar as the city leader oscillates between the worry that “letting in migrants [might] cause Argos to fall” and the desire to find “some way we can all live safely”. The public understanding that “if we turn our back on women in danger we’ll pollute and sully our city” is less universally expressed in 2016.

Do these war-battered refugees holding up their suppliant branches in their left hands deserve asylum? Do they need to threaten suicide?

The clash of culture between the Egyptian men and the King as well as between the daughters and the women of Argos echo modern concerns. The daughters are given advice on integration and rumours that could be straight out of a resettlement programme manual.

The Suppliant Women is a mesmerising piece of musical theatre, with beautiful imagery and a powerful story. It’s both ancient and contemporary. And the second and last performance tonight in the Grand Opera House as part of Belfast International Arts Festival should not be missed.

Actors Touring Company will be taking The Suppliant Women to Newcastle upon Tyne (3-5 November) where a new community chorus is already in rehearsal and will soon meet the three touring actors Danaus (Omar Ebrahim), lead daughter (Gemma May) and the King (Oscar Batterham).

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Three Sisters – dreams and wanderlust dented by Belfast blues (Lyric until 12 Nov) #belfest

Each of the eponymous Three Sisters is unhappy with their lot. Moved back to Northern Ireland after the death of their mother, the subsequent passing of their father has left these army children alone in a suburban house along with their nerdy but compulsive brother Andy. Over three two and a half hours we witness their ambitions being bashed by life’s cruel twists and turns, and hurt, most often, by their own action and inaction. Can they break through and find a better way?

Writer Lucy Caldwell has taken Helen Rappaport’s literal translation of Anton Chekhov’s drama and shifted it away from a Russian town in 1900, retained and adapted many of the original character names, and added local colour – like the starling murmuration over the Albert Bridge – to anchor the piece in 1990s East Belfast.

At the start of the play the youngest sibling Erin has just turned eighteen. Full of dreams and wanderlust, Amy Blair dances around the stage with her cape flowing behind as her idealistic character imagines changing her circumstances and changing the world. While aptly described in the opening act with the best (and only) use of ‘flibbertigibbet’ on stage in Belfast this year, as the years roll on the harsh realities of life, and eventually love, wear her down. [Update - I was wrong: you can hear ‘flibbertigibbet’ on both stages of the Lyric during the overlap of Bag For Life's run and the last week of Three Sisters!]

Marianne (Christine Clare) has a well developed jaded attitude and post-goth look. Her longing for a meaningful bond is frustrated by her cocky DJ boyfriend (Patrick McBrearty) and her complicated dalliance with her father’s exotic colleague Alexander Vershinin (Tim Treloar). By the time we’ve reached 1998, if the rioting on the East Belfast streets doesn’t kill someone, her mood might instead.

Eldest sister Orla (Julie Maxwell) is the substitute matriarch and source of common sense and practical advice. She yearns to escape the gravitational pull of her siblings that keeps her grounded in Belfast. With the fewest lines of the three sisters she still manages to use her scenes to construct a well rounded character.
“People can start again”

These tortured lives are also a parable representing the challenge Northern Ireland faced as it strove to break away from conflict and find new ways to foster peace. The inclusion of British soldiers (Julian Moore-Cook, Lewis Mackinnon, Matthew Forsythe and Gerard Jordan) – decent as well as downright insulting – are a reminder of the difficult interfaces that society needed to bridge, and a means of prompting the local audience to remember that other places around the world have also experienced trouble. Though why soldiers from Palace Barracks would come to a house in East Belfast, even that of a dead military man’s family, defies Troubles’ logic.

Siu Jing (Shin-Fei Chen) acts as an everyman character, addressing the audience during the performance as well as playing the love interest of the brother (Aidan O’Neill). She’s the only outsider, unconnected with the Troubles, and qualified to comment dispassionately on the oscillating security situation in the neighbourhood. With turmoil out on the streets, Siu Jing’s developing confidence and bluntness riles the householders and stirs up turmoil in the already tense family tableau. But while a feisty lass from the lower end of the Newtownards Road might be a believable outsider in this household, it’s hard to understand how Siu Jing keeps such a hold over the household.

Up to twelve of the enormous cast litter the stage at any one time, spread out across the sparse set which looks like a giant marquee frame without the awning. The plain open plan household is animated with Alex Lowde’s bold costumes, including the best and most recognisable cartoon wig that I’ve ever seen. There’s a casual musicality to the performers (special mentions for Christine Clare and Patrick McBrearty as well as Lewis MacKinnon’s sadly truncated rendition of Wonderwall) that hints at significant talent. The singing and strumming offer welcome breaks in the acres of words that cover the play’s canvass.

The scene changes are like something out of a touring West End show you’d be more likely to see on the stage of the Grand Opera House. Director Selina Cartmell and movement director Dylan Quinn have created exquisitely choreographed routines that are a joy to watch in the gaps between acts.

Over the course of the play there are a few moments that stretch the suspension of disbelief to its limit. Niall Cusack oddly has to (otherwise expertly) deliver a long and rambling monologue in an otherwise empty room to explain why eccentric Uncle Beattie has gone back on the sauce. In a regular play the petrol bombing of a house might be the pivotal crisis; in this super-sized drama, it’s merely an excuse to engineer another collision of lovers.

Humour is used sparingly and often inappropriately, leaving the audience uncertain whether to laugh at a crude outburst or feel guilty for guffawing at a politically incorrect gag. It never swerves into the kind of dark satire that Abbie Spallen so brilliantly stirred up in Lally The Scut. A stray mention of Nelson Mandela undermines the subtlety of the rest of the dialogue and feels more like a piece of peace process bingo than a natural utterance.

A couple of practical points - there’ll be big queues for the toilets at the interval – rush down to them or you’ll be bringing your drink into the auditorium for the second half. And if you’re planning to use public transport to get home, don’t expect to be leaving the Lyric much before 10.40pm.

While embedded in the peace process timeline, this isn’t just another piece of Troubles theatre. The fact that the audience will recognise themselves in the characters’ journeys adds to the pain of Lucy Caldwell’s adaptation. While two of the three sisters have mascara running down their cheeks by the end, the lack of rawness in the writing and dialogue keeps the audience sufficiently detached to prevent their empathy rising to a level that would trigger tears in their eyes.

Three Sisters is an ambitious piece of writing rewarded with an equally ambitious production that would not look out of place on a Dublin or London stage. While the emotional aloofness undermines or limits the potential power of the play, it’s still worth catching this at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival or afterwards before the run ends on 12 November.

I attended an early preview of the show and went back to the final matinee to see what had changed. Some aspects may change later in the run. Indeed, some scenes had been shortened and a good twenty or so minutes had been chopped off the running time. While there was now one scene that captured the claustrophobia that is so crucial to Chekhov's original, some other magical moments had lost their lustre. It's interesting to see how a play changes over a long duration run.

Is that Macbeth I see before me? (C21 Theatre, Grand Opera House until 22 October)

It’s quite an undertaking to shrink a Shakespeare play down to 70 minutes, reduce the number of characters, keep in the most important parts of the script and keep audiences of school children and adults engaged. But it’s what C21 Theatre Company manage to do every autumn. Last year it was The Merchant of Venice, this year Macbeth.

Director Arthur Webb has a knack of making bold cuts in the Bard’s cloth and stitching the finished garment back together with panache and a modern style of direction. Shakespeare might be quite jealous that characters can talk over each other and ingeniously take over each other’s lines mid sentence.

The set is a simple blood-smattered canvass stretched across the width of the stage and the props kept small and handheld. A cast of six play sixteen characters between them. Accompanied by sound effects and a some out of sight drumming, the actors appear around the corner with their new costumes colour coded with the tartan of the clan they’re now playing. Kilts have been replaced with overcoats. The plastic binoculars appear anachronistic, though the technology was patented contemporaneously with the writing of Macbeth.

Fiery eyed and red haired Maeve Smyth plays a stern, calculating and driven Lady Macbeth opposite Adrian Cooke’s self-doubting but eyebrow-rich Macbeth who is plagued by socially-awkward visions. Michael Johnston’s Duncan is tall and weedy with a regal beard. Banquo and Lennox are animated by Mark Claney. Debra Hill and Chris Mohan mop up nine characters and countless costume changes between them.

The three witches (no gender barriers in this show!) almost steal the show with their discordant chanting and choreographed movement.

While the young audience at the matinee I attended smirked and giggled at any sign of kissing or mention of nipples – pity their English teachers! – the production steers away from introducing superfluous moments of comedy, leaving that to the recent light-hearted tour of Shakespeare’s complete works.
“This dead butcher and his fiendlike queen”

It’s a fast paced tour of the play, with none of the bloody gore of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard’s sordid big screen version. Tension rises as the unremitting body count increases (always out of sight) and the portfolio of characters shrinks to the final handful of lucky souls who make it through to the far end alive.

Some tickets are still available for the last few days of Macbeth’s run in the Grand Opera House, which finishes on Saturday 22 October.

Walls – observing the cat and mouse game across three physical interfaces #BelFest

Walls is a film that tells the story of people living on either side of three geopolitical interfaces: Mexico|USA, Morocco|Spain, and Zimbabwe|South Africa. We meet people trying to cross over, cross back, keep people in, keep people out, and those trying to save lives in the barren and exposed wastelands.

We have a compulsion to erect fences, keep boundaries and generally compartmentalise territory. The fall of the Berlin Wall was an iconic moment in 1990 and the most familiar physical barrier in western Europe of the 20th Century. (The story of how it came to fall is worth reading).

So called peace walls and fences are a familiar sight in conflict regions around the world, with the dual purposes of keeping people apart and providing reassurance to those living on either side. New interfaces cut wide swathes of land with tracks for vehicles, cameras and security paraphernalia, and several fences in parallel to impede anyone intent on ignoring the barrier.

And then there’s US Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s “great wall” along the country’s southern border which would require around 1000 miles of concrete at an estimated cost to Mexico of $10-25 billion.

“We are the mice and they are the cats.”
Monkeys have little trouble climbing up and tumbling over the man-made barriers. But the razor wire, wobbly top sections and patrols make it harder for humans.

Footage follows guards up in watch towers as well as those actively planning crossings. A mother longs to be reunited with her three children on the other side of a wall. We catch a glimpse of the unofficial and exploitative commerce that sprouts up across interfaces.
“They realised they can’t stop the people coming in: the fence isn’t the answer.”

A mercenary turned border guard gleefully patrols a sector of fence line protecting his area of farmland. He expresses empathy for those wanting to cross but says “my job is my job”.

Like the museum curator in Lampedusa in Winter who pieced together the stories of refugees from artefacts left behind in the abandoned boat wreck yard, Walls follows two church men as they pick up wallets and personal items left behind in the sandy ground and look into the owners’ lives.

As well as distributing water to help the dehydrated living, the pair plant hand made crosses across the landscape to mark the dead. One explains that he recognises the common humanity of those they’re trying to save and are not scared by differences in culture, skin or outlook.

Pablo Iraburu and Migueltxo Molina’s 82 minute film is beautifully crafted and edited, with great use of split screen to compare and contrast characters on either side of the featured interfaces, and across continents. (They also filmed in Bangladesh|India but removed the footage to simplify the final narrative.)

Amongst the cameras, lights, probes and patrols there are drainage tunnels, gaps, dreams, persistence and an abundance of hope. The people attempting to cross prove to be at least as ingenious as those trying to stop them, and certainly more driven.

This film makes the statistics of migration human once again. No one is judged by the filmmakers as right or wrong.

It sits in the grey area, the neutral zone betwixt one territory and its neighbour, reminding us to build bridges not walls, and to connect people rather than artificially keeping them apart.

Walls was screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre as part of Belfast International Arts Festival strand on World in Motion.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Flotel Europa – footage from 20 years ago that speaks to the refugee crisis today #belfest

“Welcome to Flotel Europa” said the Danish Red Cross worker as Vladimir and his family boarded the five storey ship berthed in Copenhagen harbour.

In the summer of 1992, the young boy escaped Sarajevo along with his older bother and mother and came to Copenhagen. 1000 refugees from the former Yugoslavia were housed in a floating accommodation block: five storeys of white prefabricated living quarters and common areas held together in a steel framework.

With an unreliable phone line, someone on the boat bought two second hand VHS cameras and taped messages were recorded and sent to relatives back home.

Vladimir Tomic became a film maker. Flotel Europa is his story of two years spent living on a ship, told by splicing together the surviving video footage with TV news reports from the conflict he had fled.

We can learn much about today’s crisis by reflecting on the testimony from two decades before.

Privacy could be found in the very basic sleeping, just a little wider than you’d find on the Caledonian Sleeper train today. Food preparation, recreation and the TV room were all shared spaces. The children learnt Danish and English in a Bosnian school. Traditions from home were celebrated along with opportunities to learn more about Danish culture.

Flotel Europa is partly a coming of age biopic as we watch Tomic fall in with older friends who romance the Copenhagen girls while he shyly pursues his infatuation with a girl Melisa he sees dancing on board the ship. (She’s seen the film and liked it!)

Watching the film in the Queen’s Film Theatre as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, I couldn’t help wonder whether Tomic was inspired to make the film about the 1990s by the scenes of refugees now arriving in Europe. Rather than being housed in ships while waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, some are being accommodated in Greek registration camps.

Flotel Europa and Tomic’s retrospective analysis of his childhood years spent in Copenhagen is an object lesson about 2016.

There’s the same lack of privacy and long-term temporary living; the same need to learn new languages and integrate with new cultures; the same uncertainty about future location and employment and finance; the same worries about family who stayed behind and sudden phone calls bringing tragic news.

We see old divisions from the Bosnian war slowly re-emerge as the refugees settle into their new circumstances. Tensions that may be felt in modern day camps too. There’s also a realisation that after a couple of years on board Flotel Europa that the refugees have been trapped living in a bubble and isolated from opportunity. Familiar too are protests at conditions on board the vessel (rats and disease) and impatience with the speed of the asylum process and provision of more permanent landlocked accommodation. And his mother’s strength of character and hiding of emotion can be seen today in the faces of refugees holding families together with a stability that belies their inner turmoil.

The narration is gentler than a Mark Cousins flâneur film shot over a couple of days in a new city and the finished work is all the more remarkable having been pieced together from fragments of cloth created more than twenty years ago and never intended to be stitched into pieced into a coherent tapestry.

In the 1990s, the TV room in the floating apartment block was the hub for incoming news, full of people watching the international news reports and straining to see familiar faces. Today, media consumption is less collective with the mobile phone and its access to family and news more important than a torch for anyone displaced from their home.

Flotel Europa, with its twenty year perspective, is a fine way - albeit with a couple of adult themes amongst the seventy minutes - of thinking again about today’s crisis and our response to the needs on our doorsteps.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Preview - Lampedusa in Winter - QFT Wed 19 Oct #BelFest

“I want you to remember Lampedusa as the island that saved you.”
Those are the words of the island’s Mayor Giusi Nicolini. With other migration routes blocked by European Union countries, the dangerous passage by sea is one of the few alternatives available for displaced people. They voyage to islands on the edge of Europe, islands like Lampedusa just 100km off the coast of North Africa.

The film provides glimpses of how the tiny population of 5,000 have adapted to sharing their island with tens of thousands of people who have arrived by sea over the years. Lampedusa in Winter is redolent of the film Fire at Sea that was on cinema screens in June this year. But instead of telling the story through the children on the island, director Jakob Brossmann uses the town’s Mayor, refugees, a museum archivist piecing together the stories behind artefacts found in the ‘boat dump’, as well as seafaring rescuers and the familiar strains of the island radio station.

Lampedusa in Winter opens with a man standing on the bridge of a coastguard vessel scanning the sea from his high-up vantage point for a wooden boat hugging the waves and reported to be holding 300 people. The distressed craft may have drifted away with the tide from its reported position. A caption explains:
“According to the International Organisation for Migration, since the year 2000 more than 23,000 people have died trying to reach Europe.”

So far this year, 3,610 people are dead or missing in the Mediterranean.
“The island is just an immigration office.”

The struggle of refugees arriving by sea and abandoned for months on Lampedusa while waiting for authorities to process paperwork is paralleled by the islanders’ struggle with mainland powers and their inadequate ferry service. Everyone agrees that the island’s infrastructure is stretched to breaking point. Fishermen stand up against the late arrival of an unsuitable replacement ferry which they fear is too small to transfer their nightly catch to the mainland.

Stuck in the middle is the Mayor as she tries to placate rising tempers. Giusi Nicolini’s commitment to work for everyone on the island was galvanised by the death of 365 people in a boat on 3 October 2013. She couldn’t ignore “people [dying] basically in front of your eyes”. She negotiates a resolution to a stand off involving twenty or so refugees who are occupying a church. Yet church goers and officials as well as aid agencies are largely absent from the 93 minute film’s narrative that shows a community fighting for the rights of everyone.

A poignant insight into the harsh realities of the collision between and settled and displaced communities fighting alongside each other to survive.

Lampedusa in Winter is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre on 19 October at 6pm in a short season of refugee cinema that forms part of the World in Motion strand of Belfast International Arts Festival (previewed in an earlier post).

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Preview – After Spring – life in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp (QFT 14 October) #BelFest

“We can't continue to treat this as a very temporary situation”
After 4 years and 5,000 babies – some of whom have never left the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan – there’s an air of permanence to the temporary infrastructure that is now home to 80,000 Syrians (still only a tiny percentage of the estimated 4.8 million who have left their birthplace).

Filmmakers Steph Ching and Ellen Martinez have put together a 101 minute documentary After Spring that looks at the largest camp for Syrian refugees. While organised and run by the UNHCR, the camp has a life of its own. If measured by population, it would be the fourth largest city in Jordan, yet it is incredibly dense and only covers two square miles of desert to the east of Mafraq.

Refugees adapt their existing skills and occupations for the new situation, running 3,000 shops along the main street (dubbed the “Champs-Élysées”) and roads that criss-cross the camp.

Like life on the camp, the film sets its own pace, with lingering shots and moments of silence.

After Spring follows families moving into and out of Zaatari, assessing their mood and motivation. A caseworker evaluates the needs of new families. It’s rigidly process driven case work, with no help offered until the registration paperwork is in place and no automatic right to a ‘caravan’ (static home), even if you have a quadriplegic child who's shivering. “They have their rules.”

The retiring camp manager Kilian Kleinschmidt reflects on the achievement of getting the camp up and running, yet. He can’t hold back tears as children at the Taekwondo academy set up with UNHCR’s blessing and his assistance present him with a black belt and thank him. The kids are keeping fit, learning to be disciplined, socialising away from their tents and caravans, and learning life skills to prepare them for an uncertain future.
“We must prepare for the future of Syria right here”
After Spring isn’t the first film to come out of the dust desert camp, and won’t be the last. The European Commission-funded District Zero looked at daily life in the camp through the life of Maamun and his mobile phone repair shop.

Zaatari is reckoned to be the refugee camp that is most visited by the media and has developed sophisticated external and internal facing communications. (The @ZaatariCamp Twitter camp is defended as not being “propaganda” but instead offering truthful insight into the highs and lows of life on camp.)

The presence and management of UNHCR doesn’t equate to UN central funding for all activity. Voluntary fundraising along with pledges of development aid by individual nations and all contribute to the running of the camp. Over the years, external support has diminished in light of competing crises. The World Food Programme itself has lived hand to mouth with funding and supplies close to running out before being replenished at the very last minute.

Despite the harsh realities and inequalities of life on camp, there is some hope. The new Zataari camp manager Hovig Etyemezian was himself once a refugee, fleeing Lebanon during the war to live in Aleppo. He describes refugee status as “a title that you have next to your name that you want to disappear at some point”. He’s now working to help people who have stepped into his old shoes.

The lighting of the Arab Spring touch paper has had unpredictable results. The situation in Syria is still uncertain. Much analysis and many media column inches concentrate on the perilous journeys with smugglers, people traffickers and unsafe modes of transport. After Spring rests with the displaced people who have arrived at a destination. For some it’s a temporary home, for others it has proven to be a medium term habitat. But for all it has the potential to offer hope and security.

After Spring is currently being screened at film festivals. You can catch it in the Queen’s Film Theatre as part of Belfast International Arts Festival’s World in Motion strand on Friday 14 October at 6.30pm.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

American Honey - running away on a swindling road trip (QFT 14-27 October)

Star (played by newcomer Sasha Lane) is a spirited eighteen year old who walks out (technically climbs out) of an unhealthy relationship with a dopey partner and hands her two younger siblings back to her aghast mother. Making a clean break she follows the promise of a job offered by twinkly-eyed Jake (overplayed by Shia LaBeouf) and hops on board a minibus with a group of disturbed misfits who were passing through town.

The larcenous mastermind of American Honey is Krystal (Riley Keough) who directs the crew as they move from town to town selling magazine subscriptions through pity, lies and whatever other means they can use to swindle money from the oft-suspecting householders. The only person getting rich is Krystal, who keeps the bulk of the takings to cover “overheads” and experiments with different sales psychology in different neighbourhoods. Robin Hood only robbed the rich, but Krystal has fewer moral qualms.

She encourages her cult-like followers with a daily peptalk and they bond over animalistic high jinks in the car parks and anthems wailed out while they’re on the road. Despite the rough living conditions, the painful forfeits for being lowest earner of the week and the guys behaving like Donald Trump in a locker room, the purposeless chuggers seem to trap themselves in the itinerant cycle of misselling until Krystal spits them out and abandons them by the side of the road.

Star adapts her street skills to the new challenges, but loses something of herself in the process as she becomes entangled with Jake.

I’m in two opinions about American Honey. I both like it and dislike it.
“You’re a kind of a crazy one aren’t you?”

If anything, we see too much of LaBeouf on screen and too little of Keough (in terms of screen time even if little else is left to the imagination). Jake never quite lives up to his reputation as a selling guru while Krystal’s mean streak is mostly left hanging as threat rather than action.

The run time is far too long. Like everything about the style of the film, it must have been a very deliberate decision by director Andrea Arnold to allow the action and inaction to linger on screen for 163 minutes. Just as he chose a 4:3 aspect ratio that focuses attention on characters’ heads rather than the landscape. The epic duration allows space for a fabulous soundtrack and introduces a little of the monotony of driving up the highway to the cinemagoing audience.

The sex and its moaning and groaning adds little to the storyline but instead stretches the bladders of the audience and adds another layer of exploitation to the film. As exploitation movies go, this must be one of the greatest onions in the genre. Magazines that may not even exist are offered by exploited youths to people who are exploited into buying into ambitions that they know they can never afford. The hapless subscribers hand over cash to kids who in turn hand it over to Krystal. A metaphor for aspirational consumerism.

Lane is totally believable as she blends vulnerability with eighteen year old confidence and a fair dollop of arrogance as the film’s lead. As an actor she rescues the film, yet her spirited character Star may not yet be able to rescue herself and climb out of her new honey trap. Yet even half a day after the film credits rolled, I’m not sure whether Star’s ‘journey’ merits the bum-numbing investment in the improvised dialogue and the enervated plot. A film to ponder.

American Honey opens in the UK on Friday and if you had the stamina to endure The Revenant then this is only 7 minutes longer and you can catch it in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 27 October.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Previewing Rebecca Schaaf's talk on The European Migration Crisis #belfest

“Global displacement is a huge problem and has been for quite a while, but hasn’t really been on the radar.”

Bath Spa University’s Dr Rebecca Schaaf is delivering a lecture on The European Migration Crisis in Belfast on Thursday evening as part of Belfast International Arts Festival’s World in Motion strand.

With an academic background in poverty and development, Schaaf’s talk will look at three areas: putting the overall patterns of global migration into perspective, addressing the underlying drivers as well as calling out the lack of compassion and empathy in Europe’s response to the crisis.

“We’ve got quite consumed by what’s happening on our doorstep – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg … 86% of the world’s refugees are being hosted by developing countries.”

Countries which themselves may be struggling to provide for their existing population, are taking in and supporting millions of migrants.

“The response from the EU has been one of deterrents, trying to stop people from moving, trying to detain them if they do, almost criminalise them. It’s become a security issues with a military-type response. And that’s not dealing with the key issue which is around long-standing conflict, weak governance, poverty, inequality, lack of aspiration, lack of opportunity, climate change and environmental vulnerabilities. If you don’t deal with those things you are still going to want or need to move.”

Schaaf describes the current strategy in Europe as “short-termism” with “a long-standing failure to deal with the underlying problems and not accepting responsibility for our share in creating the problem”.

“From a development studies perspective, some of the failures of development strategies that have been put in place over the past decades arguably are creating the problems we’re seeing today.”

While the UK Department for International Development is “well aware of these underlying problems, the agenda is driven by other sections of government and you get this militaristic, security deterrent policy”.

“We seem to have lost a compassionate response to this crisis. We – Europe as a whole – seem to be turning towards anti-immigration views rather than a more empathetic response.”

Schaaf highlights the tardy response by UK Government in processing the list of unaccompanied children currently living in the Calais ‘Jungle’ Camp who are likely to have a legal claim to live with family members who are already in the UK.

“It seems painfully slow to get any kind of movement, quite bizarre really, that this sense of empathy and helping vulnerable children seems so slow to happen.”

If you’re near Belfast on Thursday evening, you can still book a free place at the Royal Geographical Society event on the Belfast Festival website.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

The Nest - stretch marks in a strained relationship (Lyric Theatre until 22 October, then Young Vic)

The Nest is Conor McPherson’s new translation of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s play Das Nest. It’s a tense two hander in which a young couple prepare for the birth of a baby and adjust to the changes that follow. All the while, intolerance grows like the weeds in their magical allotment.

Martha (played by Caoilfhionn Dunne) is a pregnant cleaner, no longer fit for the physical work and squeezing in some telemarketing from home while awaiting her due date. She apparently has an eye for the finer things in life, though oddly the chrome kettle is the shiniest part of their dingy bedsit.
Do you want for anything?

Just my husband.

Kurt (Laurence Kinlan) is an HGV driver and a petrol head, proud to be the breadwinner and to proud to deliver whatever the expanding family unit needs. His insecurities about the relationship and the strain on their finances are hidden behind a bluster of giving approval for purchases and taking on vast amounts of overtime. The infrequent laughs betray the script’s German roots and build up the tension.

And it’s that compensatory willingness to provide that proves to be his vulnerability when one special load has disastrous consequences for the family.

The director Ian Rickson has somewhat indulgently given the play a lot of air to breath – it has the feel of an episode of ITV’s Broadchurch in places – but perhaps overly elongates one character’s disturbing breakdown and stretches it over ten minutes when five would have been dramatically sufficient in the no-interval performance.

Caoilfhionn Dunne brings to life the complexity of Martha as she switches from attacking her ape-like mate for being obsessed with bringing home the dough to applauding his instincts when she realises he’s necessary for the longer term survival of mother and child. The storm clouds grow, the pressure rises and Dunne sheds real tears.

After his emotionally gripping scene, and as Martha’s strength weakens, Laurence Kinlan captures the changes in Kurt as he wrestles back control of his destiny and faces up to his actions. Kroetz/McPherson’s ending tidies away loose ends, understandable given the turmoil in the previous hundred minutes, but far too convenient for the mismatched couple.

Alyson Cummins’ ambitious inside/outside raised set works well with its tall trees and magical allotment. It’s the first time I’ve seen a production use the red brick walls of the Lyric Theatre’s McNaughton stage as a back drop. When combined with Gregory Clarke’s subtle sound design and its spatially accurate strains of traffic and birds, set and sound really add to the set up of each scene.

While only having a cast of two simplify matters, the well constructed original play was written with stagecraft in mind, with the actors requiring very little movement during scene changes. It must make the process of blocking a lot more straightforward than normal.

The Nest sticks to the personal rather than the political, sounding a klaxon as a timely metaphor about our Western materialistic desire to generate profit at the expense of others while underplaying the profiteering at the expense of the environment. It’s also about how we undervalue the less financially tangible worth of deeply rooted relationships and human decency.

The Nest runs in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast until Saturday 22 October before transferring to the Young Vic in London (Thursday 27 October – Saturday 26 November).

Photos by Steffan Hill

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Little Men - a delicately constructed inheritance fight (QFT until 13 October)

Two boys form a friendship but find it tested all too quickly when a family move into their dead grandfather’s Brooklyn apartment above the shop he rented out to a dressmaker. Little Men reveals the upstairs downstairs tussle over rent values spill over into childhood affections. At first the children strike back in solidarity at their parents, before the adult games take their course and a life lesson is taught.

Paulina García plays Leonor the dressmaker who feels that she should have the upper hand in the negotiations given her long history with the deceased. Her confident son Tony (Michael Barbieri) bonds over video games with the similarly aged but quiet and creative Jake (Theo Taplitz). His mother Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) is a psychotherapist who fails to defuse the rising tensions as her actor husband (Greg Kinnear) and his sister (Talia Balsam) decide how to realise the value from their inheritance in the changing neighbourhood.

There are no heroes. There is no melodrama. Ira Sachs’ film seems to deliberately dawdle as it unfolds its carefully crafted tale. Every scene seems delicately constructed and given sufficient space to allow it to be peeled back in the audience member’s mind to unearth significance in its dialogue, and parallels between and across families.

At times, the understatement of Little Men verges on the humdrum, before another scene will steal your attention and imagination. While the financial arrangements bring people into conflict, lots of other emotional, relational and identity trip hazards are deftly sidestepped in a way few screenwriters could normally avoid.

Don’t hold your breath for a neatly wrapped up happy ending. But do savour the richness of the eighty minute study of the sad entanglement of two families and impact on the two lad’s friendship.

Little Men will be screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 7 and Thursday 13 October.