AVIGNON, France (AFP) – The reality of her homeland’s lurch to the far right has seen artistes branded as leftists and criminals, laments Brazilian director Christiane Jatahy, who only wishes her theatre piece on migration were actually a fiction.
The documentary-style work by the 51-year-old Rio-born Jatahy is loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, taking as its theme the travails of exiled refugee protagonists for whom the past is as harrowing as their future is uncertain.
In ‘The Lingering Now, Jatahy carefully examines the painful complexities of a refugee’s existence that earned her a standing ovation at the Avignon Festival in southern France.
There, she denounced what she termed a “campaign of criminalisation” of artistes in her own country since the arrival in Brazil’s presidential palace in January of former army captain Jair Bolsonaro.
“It’s a very difficult time to do theatre and cinema,” explained Jatahy. “They have cut subsidies, it’s a means of gagging us,” she told AFP, having at times during the production appearing to be on the verge of tears.
“There is a campaign of criminalisation of artistes, labelling them as being leftist. It’s such an old trope,” she added.
Bolsonaro’s arrival in power has dealt the equivalent of an electric shock to the Brazilian cultural scene. A politician who has spoken with nostalgia of the 1964-85 military dictatorship, he had barely received the seals of office when he vowed to rid the country of “cultural marxism”.
He also reduced the status of the culture ministry to a mere section of a newly-created ministry of citizenship.
For Jatahy, the world of theatre has oscillated between “anaesthesia, as we are still in a state of shock, and the production of numerous plays which do talk about the situation”.
“It is impossible not to think of theatre as political today,” she said, given the current context.
The Lingering Now (O Agora que demora) is not a piece of theatre in the classic sense, but rather an epic documentary blended with fiction which flits from film to stage and back again.
The audience follows protagonists filmed variously in Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, South Africa, Greece and Amazonia.
They are themselves refugees yet also actors in real life, plucked from Beirut, the Jenin refugee camp and Johannesburg’s Hillbrow Theatre, ‘home’ notably to actors who have fled Zimbabwe and Malawi.
The theatre piece, which will tour Europe from September, follows their respective journeys as each reads, in their own language, extracts of the Odyssey before switching to recounting their own journey into exile.
Some characters seen recounting their fate on film also appeared in the flesh at Avignon – including Yara, a young Syrian woman who survived imprisonment to tell her tale firsthand through theatre.
Closer to home for Jatahy herself, she also elicits the life stories of two Kayapo Indians from Brazil’s Amazonia.
She takes classical literary inspiration as her cue in recounting the struggles faced by today’s displaced people.
“Odysseus is each of us while the Cyclops,” the one-eyed giant who clashes with Odysseus in Greek mythology as narrated by Homer in the epic poem, “can be dictators, tanks of war,” explained Jatahy.
She began working on her latest oeuvre before Bolsonaro took office and initially wanted to film Venezuelan refugees in Brazil.
“But the reality (of the election result) caught up with me,” she said.
“Brazil is my Ithaca (Odysseus’ birthplace). Yet exile is not only abroad but in one’s own country,” she added, citing “the genocide-threatened Indians in Amazonia, the lungs of the world” with its rainforest.
“Many Indians are dying of pneumonia owing to the closeness of the city – we are transmitting our diseases to them. That’s not pessimism, but reality,” Jatahy stated.
Her interaction with the Kayapo Indians in the remote federal state of Para is particularly moving.
“Before, there was no white man here. You couldn’t have seen an aeroplane for so much forest,” one Indian explained.
“We are also Brazilians. We are equal,” he remarked.
In the same state, ethnic Arara have been complaining that land reserved for Brazil’s indigenous peoples has been regularly plundered by wood traffickers since Bolsonaro took office.
Tribal groups have warned the Amazon faces increasing threats from mining and farming lobbies who see Bolsonaro, a climate change sceptic, as their champion.
“We must try to change, be it just one per cent. But it is true that, right now, I feel much fear for the future,” Jatahy said.