As refugee advocates fight to make ideological inroads in mainstream Australia, in the midst of our latest crisis, the arrival of Flight to the Melbourne International Arts Festival feels perfectly timed. Adapted from the novel Hinterland by Caroline Brothers, this production by Scottish theatre company Vox Motus catches audiences off guard, forcing them to engage in unexpected ways.
Viewed from separate ‘pods’ around a carousel, hundreds of miniature tableaux capture the odyssey of Afghan brothers Aryan and Kabir through Europe. Sweet, confronting and heartbreaking, with a carefully poised tension, the little flashes of Flight are like vivid fragments of childhood memory. Although the dioramas are static, a warp of perspective and immersive soundscape transports you suddenly to a crowded city or precarious boat plunging into midnight waves.
I have waited over a year to see Flight, but according to Vox Motus producer Susannah Armitage, I am already too late.
‘The route that the boys take through Europe no longer exists,’ she says.
‘As a refugee narrative it is already very out of date, but the more it becomes removed from current news, the more people can relate it to different historical and social contexts and personal experience.’
Even the Australian context. Watching Aryan and Kabir traverse the other side of the globe in these tiny boxes, I think of children in the claustrophobic world of Nauru’s detention centre; so close we could almost touch, so far we forget they’re real; that they have names, faces, a favourite colour, food or song.
Earlier this month, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) were forced to stop providing mental healthcare to refugees and Nauruans. MSF have since called for an ‘immediate evacuation’ of asylum seekers and refugees and an end to Australia’s practice of offshore detention. In their press conference, MSF professionals powerfully condemned the psychological torment of people imprisoned by Australia. One shared how patients said they would set themselves on fire to escape their life and imprisonment: ‘Maybe people will know, and other people will be saved,’ they told her. As though, untethered from the moorings of suffering flesh, their story could take flight from their island prison and reach countries they believe they’ll never see.
Aryan and Kabir stand for the many children sustaining perilous lives in limbo, miles from home, in transit or in cages. Caroline Brothers based Hinterland on accounts from unaccompanied refugee minors she met as a journalist.
I meet Caroline in Melbourne the week after the MSF press release. It’s our hot topic, along with Australia’s hostility to refugees, and our solutions when, to quote Caroline’s 2015 Wheeler Centre speech, ‘journalism is not enough’. For Caroline, the answer was fiction.
‘My priority in Hinterland was to try to do justice to the stories I’d been told, which meant being faithful to what [people] had told me and credible in what I had to imagine,’ she says. ‘The point for me was that these are ordinary stories happening around us every day and I wanted to draw attention to them in a deliberately understated way.’
She’s very aware of honouring those voices and experiences. This is central to her work Hinterland, and by extension Flight, and even in our response to Nauru – this is about ‘how we treat other people’s children.’
Australia does not treat other people’s children well. MSF reported that 78 of the people they treated on Nauru, including children as young as nine, have attempted suicide, expressed suicide ideation or self-harmed. We already knew about the sexual abuse, depression, illness and traumatic withdrawal syndrome. This matter of ‘other people’s children’ makes Flight resonate, linking a story about Afghan boys in Europe to children suffering in Australia’s offshore camps or families separated at the US border.
The perspective of children – uniquely vulnerable in conflicts and crises – is often overlooked. They are silent, forgotten and lost. This first prompted Susannah to take Hinterland to her Vox Motus team. Capturing the child’s experience also informed the decision to use the ‘boxes’ in storytelling.
‘We wanted to show them as children in an adult’s world,’ she says.
It’s deeply effective. Watching the toy-like brothers in Flight, you are keenly aware of their delicacy and vulnerability, underscored by the gentle – and practical – pre-show reminder not to touch the models.
Vox Motus creative director Candice Edmunds has said that Flight’s unusual, experimental design developed from a need to entice audiences with something other than the story. They had originally planned Flight as traditional theatre. But as the Syrian crisis created a new movement of displaced and fleeing persons moving across Europe, maligned as a ‘swarm’ rushing over the West, a conventional response wouldn’t cut it. The unique form of Flight and its tiny doll world is what draws people in, Susannah says, is what piques their curiosity.
‘Nothing like this, as far as we know, exists,’ she says.
Flight can’t be recorded, approximated or even fully described – only experienced. There’s no blood in the show: no live, moving flesh or vibration of vocal chords. We experience the human story in the absence of humans – even fellow audience members.
The experimental aspects of Flight rubbed TimeOut reviewer Ben Neutze the wrong way: ‘Is it theatre?’, he asked, calling the private booth viewing ‘unsatisfactorily isolating’. He felt curiously alienated and passive as ‘the show will be exactly the same whether you’re there or not’.
Susannah disagrees with the idea that the viewing experience induces passivity.
‘The voyeuristic element makes you feel more involved with the characters, maybe more redundant but also in a strange way complicit,’ she says. ‘It demands more of you as an audience member.’
I would argue that, watching Flight, you feel responsible for the fragile lives you cannot touch. You can’t save Aryan and Kabir, or comfort them, and the doll-like quality underscores your distance and helplessness. You can’t leave the show: you are forced to watch, blinkered and alone. It insists on engagement, and this can be wrenching.
Creativity is necessary to cut through collective moral apathy. No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, by journalist, filmmaker and refugee Behrouz Boochani, defies category and limitation. Like Flight, there is nothing in the world like Boochani’s poetic memoir and darkly enchanting ‘horror surrealism’, as translator Omid Tofighian terms it. Tapped out in text message on hidden phones, interrupted by the camp siege of 2017, sent from a prison island to a former prison island to be compiled and translated into a cross-cultural narrative both horrifying and achingly beautiful, it is the ultimate resistance work.
But we are dangerously fatigued. Even First Dog on the Moon’s recent cartoon speaks to our weariness: ‘It is a terrible grinding interminable story and we must keep telling it over and over because what choice do we have?’ Impotent and frustrated, I am anxious to change people, but Caroline cautions me – you can’t force or predict ‘the alchemy of the exchange’ between artist and audience. I ask what it will take to make this world better. Will Flight change things? Will Boochani?
‘It won’t change overnight,’ she says, ‘no one story’s going to do that. It could take years, a generation. So, I’ll keep chipping away.’
Bringing refugee stories into different media means they’re not just a political conversation, but one taking place in art, literature, film – even food. Reaching audiences by different means offers more ways to connect, and that’s crucial.
Refugee stories are systematically suppressed. It is law and policy: journalists detained, doctors expelled for ‘activism’, detainee communication restricted and phones confiscated. Authorities tighten this stranglehold not just to control the official narrative but to create a void, a silence to ensure the collective act of forgetting. Their unwieldy iron-fist response to leaks shows these stories are powerful enough to be feared, making them a vital weapon for resistance.
Flight finishes in Melbourne on 21 October. But it is not the last time Australians will be presented with the lives, names, terrors and dreams of people seeking refuge. People like Aryan and Kabir, like Behrouz, like my family nearly 70 years ago.
When the attendant touches my shoulder to let me know it’s time to leave, I am a quiet mess of tears, but I walk out and emerge into a day that hasn’t changed at all. Turning to cross Princes Bridge, I see rising in golden light the towers of St Paul’s Cathedral, hung with an enormous banner: the image of a child’s face, monumental in size, still fragile and far, and the words of a call to open-arms: ‘Let’s fully welcome refugees.’
In ‘The Translator’s Tale’ in No Friend but the Mountains, Tofighian writes: ‘Over the last few years, especially after meeting Behrouz, I’ve come to realise how integral narratives are to living life well.’
We’ll chip away and find routes in, because these stories run to our core and I believe they can connect us more than they divide us. We haven’t finished telling stories, and that’s a terrible, wonderful thing.
Lead image: Flight (August 2017); image by Beth Chalmers