The Jungle Dies – Long Live the Jungle
17 May 2016Following Pan’ visits to the refugee camp in Calais to run drama workshops, we want to share some of the experiences of being an artist in the harsh and cruel squalor of the “Jungle”.
I started writing this as the “Jungle” in Calais was being demolished, at least the large southern section of it which the French authorities deemed “undignified”. At the same time the Good Chance Theatre, in the middle of the Jungle, was being dismantled and put into storage.
Of course the Jungle has been demolished before and, as the need for it did not disappear, it rose again. Watch this space, the need has not disappeared. Similarly the theatre, a beacon of community, creativity and harmony in the midst of chaos and misery, was dismantled because the bulldozers were at the door. But the need for it, witnessed by the hundreds who have used it and who saw it as their space, has not gone and the Good Chance organisers have vowed that this is not the end. Another place will be found where migrants need it and then the wonderful staff will again welcome participants to work with performers, writers, puppeteers, musicians and many more so that there is life and culture in a place of difficulty and discomfort.
And I know that we at Pan Intercultural Arts will be ready to help and assist them as we have done over two visits this year.
Why did we go, why would we return, what did we experience, how would we even start to describe working daily in the camp theatre? That’s what we, the artists who were there, want to communicate to you here. There is no such thing as a definitive description, a complete narrative for the Jungle is ever changing and the experiences are very personal. But we feel it is very important that people know the humanity, the struggle and the complexities.
Here are some of our thoughts as we reflect on what happened and what is happening right now:
Dire circumstances and people’s warmth
I am walking in mud, cold mud, in which fragments of belongings, clothes, food wrappings are already submerged. It is very cold and the mud is just the bed for thousands of dwellings, homes to those who desperately need them, ranging from tents, perhaps with an extra plastic tarpaulin thrown over them, to fairly solid wooden structures, cased in plastic or blankets; basic but wind-proof and dry. Dry is important. In winter temperatures getting wet and staying wet can be fatal. Clothes, once wet, are almost useless, for in a Calais winter they will not dry. Already the cold is getting inside me “to the bones”, and I don’t have to sleep here.
Around me muddy pathways and passages stretch in every direction. A smell of woodsmoke and burning plastic is on the air. People move to distribution centres to queue for food and clothing, dry clothing, or to the few water stations to fill a plastic bottle. Some dare to use the plastic portable toilets. They are vile and people try not to drink too much to avoid using them.
The Jungle is not the worst physical place I have been on earth but it is a shock that this is in one of Europe’s richest countries and only 20 miles from the UK coast. It is like a dystopian rock festival where the rain never stops and nobody ever gets to go home.
What makes the Jungle really challenging is that its purpose is blocked – everyone here, up to 5,000 of them, struggled this far so that they could go to the UK to end their frightening journeys there. This is no longer possible. Some still try but very very few now succeed in reaching England. The UK government has paid the French authorities to block the route , to police it, to build higher razor wire and every morning we hear stories of tear gas, of beatings to those who bravely still try to reach their families or just to achieve their dream.
The lack of hope, the dreadful reality that the journey cannot continue brings a weightiness to the camp, it makes it a ridiculous no-man’s land – a Waiting For Godot cruel joke. This “No Future” feeling is an even greater scandal than the physical conditions. Together they make it a modern hell.
Make theatre with people in this situation? What on earth can we bring to them?
Well, there is another, amazing side to all this (actually there are hundreds of other sides but let’s do one at a time).
There is warmth in the residents of the Jungle, there is welcome, there is generosity from those who have almost nothing left to give. There is a sense of playfulness, there is friendship, there is community. Almost everyone in the streets and lanes of the Jungle greets you with words and a smile or a nod. People stop you for conversation, people invite you into their shacks – their homes – for coffee, rich strong gingery, cardamom-spiked, sweet coffee which chases away the endless chill and keeps you going for the next half an hour. They make fires together to keep warm ( never have I understood the need for fire as I do here), they chat in shops and in the makeshift, but personally decorated, restaurants along the “high street”. This place is more alive and warmer than the sterility of Calais-town just beyond its borders and than most UK towns. Many languages are spoken but we feel no sense of national rivalry, resentment or friction.
But living through the cold nights in tiny shacks, moving to get water or food from distribution centres is not a whole life. Human beings need interaction to express, meet, reflect and play. This is the brilliance of the Good Chance Theatre, the “British Tent” as we were told it was called by the Pakistani shopkeeper who helped translate our posters; a geodesic dome covered in white plasticised fabric with a small stage and rough wooden benches in which things can happen!
And they did:
Another kind of workshop?
We had, between us, a couple of decades of working with refugees and asylum seekers. Admittedly this was in the relative stability of the UK, in heated, regular rooms where our participants came as part of an ever more ordered life, as part of rebuilding existences. We knew it would be different in Calais but we thought/assumed we had the experience.
Of course in one way that was true; ours was a team which knew how to run workshops, knew the necessary sensitivities and had the ability to galvanise groups. In another way this was quite simply like nothing else we had ever done, and for which nothing could have prepared us.
Without a doubt people wanted to be in the theatre and they wanted to do something. The majority had never been part of a theatre workshop in their home countries so there was no “given” understanding of what it was for, how to participate, indeed how to behave.
There was no guarantee, or even probability, that the same group would appear from day to day, and we certainly never had exactly the same group twice, so everything had to be planned with this in mind.
There was very little knowledge of English and no guarantee that there would be anyone who could translate into even one of the major languages in the camp. Our group’s abilities to use some Hindi/Urdu, Italian (many had passed through Italy), and minimal Arabic added some verbal elements to our physical and mimetic urging of people into ideas and exercises. Strangely, just 500m from Calais, French seemed to be of no use at all.
Another “unforeseeable” phenomenon was that at any moment a totally external trigger could empty the workshop, or draw all members of one language group away. Someone saying something which we did not understand had an effect we could not comprehend, and suddenly half the participants were gone. I think we never finished a workshop with exactly the same people who started it.
Our greatest success was a workshop which ran for one hour and fifty minutes, our most puzzling was one in which we ran for ten minutes, participants scattered, short break, ten more minutes with new people, scatter, short break and so on.
But people came, and as we noticed and tailored what worked, repeated games and exercises which engaged them, and skipped many of our normal “preparation” steps to get straight onto the stage and the creation of mini scenes, we saw the enjoyment of play, of creativity, of rhythm and song, of physicalising situations and of telling parts of their own reality.
Often participants wanted to create scenes of trying to scale the barbed wire, of being chased and beaten by police, or when others were creating images they would interpret them as borders (closed or open), ID checks, hoping for London etc. This was immediate for them, a way to show what their over-riding urgencies were, what their fears and their hopes were.
But the fact that they could do this and wanted to do it, in song, in masked characters , in short scenes, when they were only hours or metres away from a stark reality of hopelessness, hypothermia, coercion, bulldozers, is a tribute to the power of theatre and a rebuke to the doubters who claim theatre and culture is not central to lives.
A simple song pattern sums it all up. We developed this during our second stay, while police and municipal workers were dismantling homes and smoke was on the air.
It is a simple ‘call and response’pattern in which the whole group repeatedly sings “One Day in The Jungle” with a following four beat gap in which participants could sing, chant, speak how they felt about their existence there. In song they brought feelings of fun, anger, hope, delight, despair and much more as a group working and creating together. The song attracted more people and became a high point of those sessions. It became a bit of an “earworm” for us - perhaps for them too.
To conduct these workshops, often while other residents sat around the exterior of the space with music playing or rode bikes into and around the room, needed maximum energy, instant flexibility, “tag-wrestling” team work and a massive observational sensitivity to what was working and what was not. We left the space exhausted; often elated but always exhausted.
Our plan had been to run our main open-access workshops in the afternoon - on advice from the Good Chance team that nothing happened in the mornings as people were out at night, trying to continue their journeys. In the mornings we proposed running a workshop for women and children, minorities in this largely male environment. We knew that many women and many young people were vulnerable and that there was little provision for them. Indeed we were told that many women rarely left their shelters.
It is never quite as you imagine and this was particularly true in the Jungle. We found the Women’s Centre and realised that several women attended at regular distribution times for food and clothing, and that there was a small children’s play area in the same compound.
We tried to convince the women to come but in our relatively short time (a week on our first visit) it was too hard to develop the trust needed to persuade them to come into a new space for an activity which was new to them.
With young children there was some success and short creative play periods happened in the Women’s Centre and in the Theatre. These were often delightful and the children seemed happy to be involved but their attention spans were short and it was difficult to have continuity from day to day with them.
But alongside the very young children we also met some very troubled camp residents...
The fragility of young, unaccompanied people
In the children’s groups and in the main afternoon group there were many young men, whose age was difficult to guess at but mid-teens seemed about right. In fact we found later that some were only 12 but the harshness of their journey and their situation made them appear to us older.
It is difficult to generalise but they mostly had a lot of energy which could channel itself wonderfully in the workshops but could also divert into many other unpredictable routes.
It is not difficult to imagine what has happened to them and has led to fragility and instability, nor to see how vulnerable they are, alone amongst much older men with no one to care for them. Some needed to show macho traits, some needed hugs, some changed moods constantly, most had little concentration. Their volatility could be dangerous but the danger was as much to themselves as to others.
There are many scandals about life in the Jungle but perhaps the greatest is that these disturbed young men were uncared for in any formal way. There was a clear need for ongoing care, counselling or therapy in their own languages, in a safe and fear-free environment. But they were simply abandoned and they may take many years to recover from what is happening to them now. They may never recover.
French and UK authorities should be ashamed.
The Good Chance people
The space left by the failure of governments has been filled by an amazing team of volunteers who quite simply were unprepared to stand back and do nothing while the scandal of the camp continued. Hundreds of them moved to Calais to cook food (thousands of meals a day), sort and distribute clothing and bedding, build shelters and, yes, construct and run a theatre.
It is worth saying that the vast majority of these volunteers were British, at least something we can be proud of in this unseemly mess.
So were the two playwrights, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, who ran the theatre from October 2015. Their policy was simple: everyone was welcome, nobody would be refused, people could enter to participate, to sing, speak, take part in workshops or just sit and watch, or chat with friends or listen to their music while other activities unrolled. Totally inclusive, slightly anarchic, very unpredictable and enormously valuable. With the two Joes was a team of theatre volunteers, skilfully managing the space, dealing with the needy or over boisterous inhabitants who wandered in, with a warmth which was visible in the freezing air.
These were the people who knew what was going on, if anyone did. They could feel the ever-changing atmosphere in the camp; good days, quiet days, miserable days, and the whole camp seemed to know them.
They knew the people who had parents, uncles or even children in the UK and were desperate to get to them. They knew those who were suffering or who could be dangerous. So they too lived the emotional roller coaster of trying to deal with the impossible, trying to help in any way from providing a bandage to finding an interpreter for a desperate situation to helping lift someone’s makeshift house in the middle of the night onto a trailer so that it wouldn’t be bulldozed in the morning. They are all heroes.
The Bulldozers are Coming
Our first visit had left us with so many questions. We returned to London in a state of shock, tears and inability to fully digest what had happened, or what effect we had really had.
Before we had processed this in any depth we received a call from Calais, asking us to return, the bulldozers and riot police were entering the camp. The Prefect had vowed to remove the southern half of the Jungle amidst conflicting claims of numbers of people, especially children, who would be displaced. The mood was tense and they felt they needed our work back in the theatre.
We could only manage to get a team at short notice for four days but these were important days, and they were not easy.
The workshops went well, there seemed to be even more need for them now, but the stories from their daily lives were more gruelling.
Before and after the workshops we could wander the areas already destroyed, seeing the bulldozed mud with buried boots, babies’ dummies, toys, toothpaste, pots, pans and, to me most shocking, food. Piles of food left behind. Cans of everything and, as many houses had been burned down, piles of still smouldering rice and lentils. This was devastation at one end of the camp, guarded by the slightly ludicrous silhouettes of the French Riot Police while at the other end life tried to continue as usual. Every day the line of destruction came nearer and the mood was grim. Everyday we could see somewhere which had been a café, a house, a hamam, now just a burnt out wreck. Smoke was in the air and it became clear that some people were burning their own houses rather than let the authorities destroy them. We watched blazing fires in the night, ironically giving some heat in the freezing air.
Those huts which were stable enough were being lifted onto trailers and pulled through the camp to the northern section to find some space there in an already crowded area. One night we answered a call to help lift a substantial hut onto a rickety trailer. Some twenty people, in as many languages, were trying to coordinate the lift. Part farce, part tragedy, somehow it worked.
Several of the younger participants had seen the inevitability of the situation and were applying for asylum in France; not where they wanted to be but at least someone would be taking responsibility for them.
Some of the participants’ more extreme behaviour became evident. Driven by conditions they could be more disruptive or more “play-violent” - which is not very playful when a knife is drawn!
But in general there was great attendance and great enthusiasm for the theatre workshops. Participants loved the image making, the masked scenes, the singing. A determined solidarity seemed to keep them defiant.
We are just about to start a workshop when we are asked to wait. Four (or was it five?) men walk into the theatre and onto the stage . A mass of inhabitants and press follow. They are the Iranian men who have sewn their lips together in protest at the treatment in the camp and hold a silent demonstration, with hand written messages held high.
They go - we continue.
And we continue until we have to go. A few days later we hear that the theatre has been dismantled. It was in the path of the bulldozers, and it had been doused in petrol, but not ignited.
Home but still there
Our journey home is sober, we ask; is it all worth it, are we making any difference, why do we do this, is it art or just keeping people from misery, and does that matter? Many questions return with us, along with the smell of smoke in our clothes which seems to defy several washes, and the mud on our boots, which I am reluctant to wash off - I want some connection.
We bring back a number of objects found in the ruins of the camp and these become part of a performance/presentation in which we try to pass on to an audience the realities of being an artist in “the Jungle”.
We are glad that our relationship with Good Chance continues and we plan to be back with them when the new theatre is constructed in a safe place in the confines of a Women’s and Children’s Centre.
I think I speak for my colleagues in saying that this was a deep, disturbing and unforgettable experience. There is nothing glorious about it, it was rough, edgy, uncomfortable, but we are glad we could be involved in a small part of this pan-European dilemma.
Surely we shall all be judged by the way we treat the many refugees and migrants who need our help.