James Simpson writes about a documentary theatre production with refugees, which he watched on a recent visit to Finland in November 2017.
How can you understand home, as a displaced, dislocated, newly-arrived refugee? How does it feel to be faced with finding a new way to belong? How can you express your belonging and non-belonging, your not-yet-belonging and no-longer-belonging? And how can expressions of belonging be heard, become audible, be told so as to be listened to?
Here I write about a project in Helsinki, where artists and actors who are refugees and seekers of asylum in Finland, together with local-born actors, directors and other creative practitioners, are addressing questions of home and belonging through a documentary theatre production called Toinen Koti, Other Home.
I visited Finland in late autumn, as the country was about to celebrate its 100th birthday on 6 December 2017. The country only gained its independence and became a nation state a century ago: before then it had been an Archduchy of Russia, and earlier still a province of Sweden. Recently Finland has experienced a good deal of inward migration from all around the world; however, through much of the last century it was a country of net emigration. Living in the UK I have experienced migration as an established paradigm, a defining feature of late 20th and early 21st century society: the movement of people from one place to another is by now a familiar feature of the UK’s urban and increasingly its rural areas. This picture of mobility is unlikely to change in the long run, despite the best efforts of those who would strengthen borders and build walls. Evidence of migration in the UK is common-place: new arrivals, their children and their grandchildren have firmly made their mark on the work, social, personal, cultural and communicative lives and landscapes of Britain’s towns and cities. In Finland, rural to urban movement within the country has in the past dominated the picture of diversity associated with migration. To meet new arrivals from potentially any place on the globe, with potentially any background, and with any motive for movement – is less familiar. Like the UK, however, Finland has a well-established bureaucracy of immigration, asylum and deportation. The Finnish Immigration Service Maahanmuuttovirasto (usually known as Migri), is fast gaining a reputation to challenge the UK’s Home Office, in terms of the obstacles, barriers and arbitrary decisions that new arrivals seeking asylum face when attempting to claim sanctuary, to find a foothold in a place they feel safe.
And so to Toinen Koti. This is a documentary theatre project which challenges understandings of migration and asylum as flows and patterns (let alone the waves and floods imagined in the populist media) by focusing on individual narratives retold through theatrical performance. Last summer, on an earlier visit to Finland, I wrote about the early stages of the project here. At that time, the actors, directors and musicians – newcomers and locals – were coming together who would shape the production with their stories, and who eventually would take part in the performance itself. Since then, the process has moved through a phase of making – developmental workshops with the actors and musicians – and preparing for the production. The workshops also involved refugees who were not professionals and who – unlike the main performers – had not been forced into migration because of their art. These participants became the production’s choir. Toinen Koti tells the story of a singer, Ali, an asylum-seeker from Iraq whose claim for asylum has been rejected, and his interactions with Migri officialdom and other authorities as he faces deportation. This main narrative thread is interwoven with other stories: Harith, a young actor and documentary film-maker also from Iraq who meets his new Finnish partner through social media; Soroush, a rap artist from Iran, whose dog but not his wife is allowed to accompany him to Finland; Bakr, a Samuel Beckett specialist from Baghdad who watches his actor friends murdered one by one before he escapes; Terhi, a Finnish actor with decades’ experience in the Finnish National Theatre who has a deep affinity with refugee artists. It’s a profound play, intensely moving, and all the more poignant because the stories performed on stage have their origins in the migration narratives that the actors themselves recounted at the beginning of the process eighteen months ago.
Our research for the TLANG project has taught us how meaning can be made and negotiated using a great range of communicative resources. Languages, discourses, registers and styles come into play in interaction, and language is just one of multiple semiotic resources of human interconnectedness which can be deployed – sometimes successfully and sometimes not – to get things done. We also know about meanings that transform, depending upon the particular combination of modes of semiosis, and on movement across modes. So it is with narrative. There are different ways and means of telling stories. As sociolinguists we are familiar with the narrative-generating research interview, and with the narrative moments that occur in everyday interaction. Talk alone is not the only way of telling a story of belonging, though, and – if the story is to be widely heard – not necessarily the best way. On stage, therefore, Toinen Koti uses creative practice – music and song, lighting, costume, props and objects, movement and mime, and space.
Communication – and the difficulties of communicating when you cannot be heard and when people do not want to listen, is a central theme. A recurring metaphor is the game Broken Telephone, where a message is passed in ever-more garbled whispers. Different versions of Broken Telephone are used to show the haphazard nature of communication about the legal processes around immigration, providing a vehicle for a metacommentary about the unreliability of advice and support that people in precarious circumstances might have access to. In a version of the game as played in Toinen Koti, one of the characters uses a violin, rather than a spoken whisper. The replacement of language with music in one link of the telephone’s chain still entails communication: something is certainly understood. But this is not the message that is needed. So the play asks: how can we learn to know others if we do not understand, and do not want to understand, what they say?
Toinen Koti is being staged at the National Theatre of Finland in the heart of Helsinki, and you can read about it here. Being at the National Theatre is important. It puts the production and its participants in the position of being able to comment on society in a deliberately provocative, deliberately contentious way that finds a large audience. I travelled through snowy central Finland to Helsinki for the opening night, the first public performance. It was a huge success. The show was completely sold out, and it received a five star review from Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s main Finnish-language broadsheet, prompting the quick sale of all remaining seats for the entire run.
The director Jussi Lehtonen is working with Sari Pöyhönen of the Centre for Applied Language Studies, University of Jyväskylä, who over the past 18 months has been researching the process leading up to the production. Sari specializes in language policies around migration, and uses linguistic ethnography in her research in a similar way to the TLANG project. And like us, her concerns are with the practices and policies of meaning-making in places where languages and cultures come into contact. I asked Sari about her involvement, as a language researcher studying the process of arts practice.
What has been your aim, as you have been researching the production?
I do research to do with language, so my first point is to look at the linguistic resources which people have to hand to negotiate with. But I wanted to go beyond language, to understand not just the linguistic ways of making meaning but the whole semiosis. And in doing so, I realize how restricted I am with my concern with language, how much I miss when I don’t look at people’s other resources. As a linguist, how do you research what actors and the director are doing, when they are trying to find their place or position, when they are trying to embody the meaning of what they are doing?
There has of course been a great deal of language to think about in the year and a half of the production. I’ve been interested in watching how people learn from one another, and how all their interaction is intertextual. There is so much metacommentary, which I interpret as a sign of conviviality. For instance, the director and the Finnish actors use words in Arabic with each other, words they have learned in the process, which mean certain special things in the talk in the workshops and rehearsals. Language and language learning are important in the script too. Some of the actors have had to learn to use a kind of learner Finnish, for example, even if their Finnish is better than learner Finnish. They have to do this – they are actors and in some way belong to the theatre for the production.
How are you actually working with the director and the other creative practitioners involved in the production?
We come from very different points of view. Jussi is an artist-researcher doing artistic research. I am a linguistic ethnographer doing arts-based research, writing field notes, recording interaction and interviews, using video and photography. We both recognize this is about the process and the outcome. We’re not using each other instrumentally, as tools for our individual purposes, but it’s equal and we’re learning from each other. Jussi needs the tools to analyze how a hybrid community of expression is developing. This is how we join forces.
There is a lot of learning. In our disciplines we know what people are doing, or at least we pretend we know, to avoid losing face. But when working with someone from a different discipline, we can ask each other. I find it fruitful and enjoyable to say ‘I don’t know, I don’t understand, can you help me please?’
I do help with my expert knowledge. There was a line – ‘your language proficiency is not enough for family reunification’. That was inaccurate, factually wrong: family reunification in Finland depends on income not language proficiency. I feel that I have a duty to provide factual information. What Jussi then does with that is up to him. So with the actors, it’s for me to help find the words that would fit in their mouths, to sound convincing to the many different kinds of people – including officials from Migri– who will be in the audience.
Working on the play appears to be very challenging, including emotionally
Working together with Jussi and the cast, I have been learning what to ask, both of the refugee artists and the Migri officials I have interviewed, how to elicit certain stories, how these stories become an artistic experience. I have also been Jussi’s eyes and ears while he has been in directing mode. This has needed to develop step-by-step in order for us to trust each other. Now that the play is being staged, my role is to help him breathe a bit. And with the young actors, well, there’s no doubt I and some of the other women involved in the performance have become the Ummi, the mum figure, providing emotional support where needed. In theatre studies there’s a huge amount of research into empathy. Our own understanding and empathy has gradually progressed, through the workshops and also through the workplace counselling that is built in to the project. We wouldn’t have been able to do what we have done without workplace counselling.
What about the critical reception? Does that matter to you?
Of course I’m interested in how the press will view the play. Will journalists see it as an artistic performance or more like a documentary? What indeed is the difference between artistic content and some kind of political story-telling? From what I’ve seen, when the media write about the play or about refugees involved in the arts, they tend to start with someone’s story, then bring in some context, then mention the theatre performance. I would like the reviews of Toinen Koti to concentrate on the artistic performance first of all. And documentary theatre is not journalism. Documentary theatre is never trying to be neutral, it’s always on someone’s side. That’s how I feel, at least. If it was neutral, a journalistic account, why bother doing it at all? In this performance, there are points where they are trying to teach a moral message. If we’re doing documentary theatre, the questions for us are about deciding whose stories to tell, and how, and from which perspective, and whose side we are on.