How does a production co-produced by the English National Theatre become testament to the devastating situation in Calais Camp? Refugees are literally trying to cross the French-British border to enter the same ‘national’ land in which the production is freely touring. ‘The Jungle’ is a production created by Good Chance Theatre which aims to to “redefine what art can do in the 21st century through the spaces, productions and programmes”. The play follows several stories of refugees or asylum seekers in the Calais camp which is constantly being demolished and policed by British and French authorities. Interestingly, it was written by two British white men who, on recognizing their privilege, left their bubble at the University of Oxford where they were studying, and spent several months in Calais, creating this piece through workshops with people living in Calais themselves. ‘The Jungle’ is a form of participatory or immersive theatre where the realism and graphic violence put the audience in a situation in which violence, fear and death are everywhere around. This atmosphere aims to create solidarity around those people that we have conveniently called ‘refugees’ to distance ourselves from the fact that they too are humans and share the same rights as us.
However, what the production cleverly avoids is promoting the culture of unhelpful volunteering i.e. volunteering just for the sake of volunteering that yields no real results and instead just falls in place with other typical examples of poverty porn, the Western Mandate and the White Saviour Complex. The aim of ‘The Jungle’ is to ‘rehumanize’ the audience; they are not passive bystanders. Rather, they have agency and the choice to actively translate the politics of solidarity created by the play into realistic solidarity. At the end of the play the actors and playwrights ask for donations to the Calais-based NGO ‘Help Refugees’ and hand out postcards which include material and creative ways in which the audience can show their solidarity. Solidarity, however, does not have to mean: “let me go volunteer because 1) I feel like I can 2) I feel like I have nothing better to do in my life right now 3) I want to feel like I am making a difference”. Note the focus on the word ‘feel’ and how often it is this emotional response or perhaps even our sense of guilt that we are trying to serve by spending two weeks in a refugee camp. The production clearly criticizes such acts of random volunteering that actually do not offer any substantial help, whereby volunteers do not recognize their privilege often in the fact that once they are done with volunteering they can comfortably return to their hotels or homes.
Maddy Costa makes an excellent description of the volunteer characters in the play: “They have Derek, the man from Reading, self-importantly introduce “the first democratic meeting in the Jungle” directly after its umpteenth council meeting of elders and community leaders. Beth, a well-meaning 18-year-old avoiding university, repeatedly acts as though she’s old enough to be the mother of a refugee with only a year’s less life on him but several lifetimes’ more experience: that’s privilege for you. Sam, an Etonian, is constantly having his ignorance of Middle Eastern history and language exposed; the way he divides up the camp into quadrants, ignoring the national lines that the refugees themselves have settled naturally, is a bitterly ironic mirror of the way in which Britain and France colluded to carve up the Middle East in the early 20th century.” (exeunt magazine)
Drawing from the above, Derek is the typical entitled white man, who doesn’t understand his privilege. I don’t think further explanation is needed for this prototype of a character who is the perfect and perhaps most obvious example of the Western Mandate. Sam, the student who thinks his education makes him a special case for solving all the issues in the whole region of East Asia and Northern Africa is symbolic of how people in the west fail to question what their education in school teaches them, how it does so and the fact that they don’t actually know everything (sorry to break it to you guys). Beth may on a superficial level seem like the most helpful and invested, the one who perhaps understands her privilege more than the rest. However, how does an 18-year old girl feel like she can volunteer and solve everyone’s problems? The fact that she cannot is clearly demonstrated when she breaks down in tears in this ‘realization’.
The point I am making is not that people should not help. Instead, we need to find ways with which we can actually have an impact. It feels uncomfortable, but British and French governments are doing all they can to ensure that these people, who are fleeing inhumane situations, will not make it into Britain. Educate yourselves, do not rely on mainstream media accounts that often have agendas related to government interests. Write to your MPs to express your rage on your governments’ interventions that often create refugee situations in the first place. Write to media outlets to challenge and question why so many conflicts, especially where western intervention has been involved, are not being covered. In case you were not aware:
“Britain offers no asylum visa. In fact, there are very few, legal ways for refugees to safely escape their country and claim asylum in another country”
“The British asylum system is extremely tough. Just 30% of initial decisions made in the year to September 2018 have been grants of protection (asylum or humanitarian protection).”
“In the twelve months up to September 2018, 60 children were locked up in immigration detention, despite a Government promise in 2010 to end the practice. 66% of the children who left detention were released, rendering their detention not only harmful but futile.”
- “The UK Government has the power to detain people who are here seeking refuge. Today’s statistics show that in the last 12 months, 25,061 people entered detention in an immigration removal centre; among them many people seeking asylum. 54% were released back into the community rendering their detention pointless.”
This is for the UK alone.
Unhelpful volunteering acts can do more harm than good and often just distract from the work that you can and should be doing! Rather than trying to be a white saviour, question intervention and asylum policies that are coming from governments that are supposedly representing you.
Words by Valia Katsis
Photo provided by ‘The Unmentionables’ 2017