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We can't separate ourselves from other human beings—it's a duty.
At the opening of the Australian parliament on 12 February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd acknowledged the traditional owners of the land after being Welcomed to Country in a ceremony performed by Aboriginal people from around Australia. Similar welcomes and acknowledgements of country are common at many types of events and gatherings (with State and Territory guidelines devised on their implementation), but they had never been part of the opening of the federal parliament prior to 2008. The landmark welcome ostensibly enacted the idea that the Australian government's authority is somehow granted by—and not imposed upon—Aboriginal people. That this symbolism is conspicuously at odds with historico-political reality has underpinned public debate in Australia over the efficacy of the Welcome to Country and acknowledgement of traditional owners. In March 2010 the suggestion by the then opposition leader Tony Abbott that the discursive acknowledgement of traditional owners is often ‘out-of-place tokenism’ (qtd in Maiden 1) prompted a brief flurry of discussion on the role of symbolic thought and action in organizing human affairs generally, and specifically, on whether Australians should be explicitly reminded of the unceded, unresolved sovereignty of Aboriginal people—in other words, of unfinished business.
Setting aside for a moment debates over intention, efficacy and symbolism, it is undeniable that whatever form of Aboriginal sovereignty the Welcome to Country and acknowledgement of country signify or articulate, its structural difference from executive, legislative and judicial powers—the bulwarks of what Aboriginal scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson terms ‘patriarchal white sovereignty’ (87)—is profound in a nation that only recently saw the first Aboriginal person elected to the federal House of Representatives. Moreton- Robinson pinpoints the ambivalence of ceremonial recognition, arguing that it is ‘simultaneously a reminder and a denial of the existence of Indigenous sovereignty.
Ali told me he had no ancestors/His parents came from elsewhere/Just one family, nothing else.
—Letters to Ali
The case studies that form the basis of this chapter are documentary films, and while they share with the theatrical productions featured in chapters one and two a concern with the challenging question of how belonging and inhabiting are to be reconfigured in the face of the person who seeks asylum, they raise different sets of questions with respect to the ethics and aesthetics of representation as well as to how they engaged affective audience/viewer responses to the portrayal of relationships between citizens and noncitizens. Over the following pages, I situate two Australian feature length documentary films, Letters to Ali (2004), written and directed by Clara Law and co-written by Eddie L. C. Fong, and Hope (2007), directed by Steve Thomas, in terms of how they portray complex textures of emotional contact between filmmakers and their subjects, and between citizen and noncitizen subjects. Law's extensive body of film work dates from the early 1980s and has mostly been occupied with transnational cultural identity and Asian diasporas; Letters to Ali was her first documentary. Thomas, on the other hand, has made several issues-based social interest documentaries since the early 1990s. In both films, interpersonal relationships, newly forged in the conflux of trauma and sympathetic response, take on ambiguously familial qualities, raising questions about ancestry, relatedness and territoriality.
On a very basic level, the reflective capabilities of film and digital technologies facilitate the forensic intimacy of the close up or zoom and can also take in visual expanses, scoping potentially vast geographies; documentary film, in particular, can enable subjects, including asylum seekers and refugees, to appear, and to speak as and for themselves without risking the public, aestheticized repetition inherent to theatrical appearance. Documentary film has obvious elements in common with the types of verbatim work and theatres of reality discussed in chapter one, but whereas such theatre's technical scope and counter-hegemonic ideological purpose tend to attenuate or even prevent the appearance of certain individuals—children, non-actors, stakeholders from metropolitan and rural backgrounds, including those whose views and rationales oppose those of the director or writer—documentary film can encompass some or all such individuals.
This exacting study examines the theatre, film and activism engaged with the representation or participation of asylum seekers and refugees in the twenty-first century. Cox shows how this work has been informed by and indeed contributed to the consolidation of 'irregular' noncitizenship as a cornerstone idea in contemporary Australian political and social life, to the extent that it has become impossible to imagine what Australia means without it.
Innocence, in the sense of complete lack of responsibility, was the mark of their rightlessness as it was the seal of their loss of political status.
—Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
At the start of the book I referred to one of the many tragedies at sea that have befallen asylum seekers transported on people-smuggling vessels across the heavily-patrolled waters between Indonesia and Australia. As I noted, the five deaths in this particular instance, following a large explosion of fuel on board the asylum seeker vessel SIEV 36, were found at a coronial inquest to be the result of deliberate sabotage by ‘a passenger or passengers’ (Cavanagh 5), that is, one or more of the asylum seekers aboard the boat, in an attempt to ensure that they would not be returned by Australian Navy personnel to Indonesia. Reports in the wake of the 2009 event speculated that the cause of the boat explosion had been deliberate, but before the findings of the 2010 coronial inquest were published, it was all too easy for asylum seeker advocates, including academics, to doubt the veracity of this claim, perhaps assuming it to be part of a general strategy of character assassination akin to that which underpinned the ‘children overboard’ scandal of 2001. But the speculation turned out to be warranted, as well as inconvenient for a politics that implicitly depends upon asylum seeker innocence as a key reason for compassion to be extended to them. Of course, the trouble with pegging asylum seekers’ deservingness of humanitarian protection in Australia to innocence is that it promotes a morality instead of an ethics and that it struggles—indeed, is often unable—to absorb complex motivations, duplicity or recklessness: in the case of the boat explosion, a plea for asylum that turns into a deadly demand.
Some of the most high-profile indignities suffered by the world's displaced noncitizens in recent times offer a picture of how human lives are coerced and disavowed against a background of profoundly inequitable economic organization in a globalized world. In July 2014, the Australian government donated two patrol boats to the Sri Lankan government so that this developing nation could assist one of the world's most wealthy in implementing Operation Sovereign Borders. This military-economic transaction, commissioned during a state visit to Sri Lanka by the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, coincided directly with Australia's interception at sea, outside Australian territorial waters, of an asylum seeker vessel and the government's subsequent Tampa moment, whereby the 157 Sri Lankan asylum seekers were detained on a customs vessel in an undisclosed location outside Australian waters whilst their fate was wrangled in the High Court and in diplomatic discussions with Sri Lanka and India. Australian human rights lawyer Hugh de Kretser explained during the episode:
It's a zone that is outside of Australian territorial waters but in which Australia […] can exercise power to prevent the entry of vessels. The Australian government is effectively arguing, ‘we can exercise power in that zone but we don't have responsibility for the exercise of that power’. […] It's very difficult to predict what will happen. […] It's extraordinary what's happening; it's taking the ‘stop the boats’ mantra to a whole new level. (qtd in Morris)
When asked in a television interview to confirm that the asylum seekers would not be returned to Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared, ‘I will confirm today, as I always will, that we will operate in accordance with our legal obligations, and we will operate in accordance with safety at sea’ (qtd in Morris). The prominent Australian barrister and human rights activist Julian Burnside stated that the interception may amount legally to piracy (qtd in Borello).
The decisive activity of biopower in our time consists in the production not of life or death, but rather of a mutable and virtually infinite survival.
—Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz
In the early morning of 16 April 2009, a small Indonesian fishing vessel that had been intercepted the previous day by an Australian Navy patrol exploded, causing the drowning of five of the forty-seven asylum seekers on board and injuring dozens more. A coronial inquest in 2010 found that ‘a passenger or passengers deliberately ignited petrol’ in an attempt to ensure that the boat, designated SIEV 36, would not be returned to Indonesia (Cavanagh 5). The explosion occurred near Ashmore Reef in the Indian Ocean; thirteen seriously injured people were evacuated directly to the city of Darwin for urgent burns treatment, while twenty-nine were transported to AED Oil's Front Puffin rig in the Timor Sea before being taken to detention centres. While the injured thirteen were entitled access to Australia's refugee determination and appeals procedures, the remaining twenty-nine were not, having first arrived at an excised offshore place. The oil rig stands outside Australia's migration zone under the terms of legislation devised in response to the Tampa scandal of August 2001, when the Australian government refused to permit the Norwegian container ship MV Tampa and its human cargo of 438 rescued asylum seekers entry into Australian waters. That escalation point in policy and mood on unauthorized asylum seekers, concurrent with the tightening of security measures worldwide amid the shockwaves of 9/11, continues to inflect Australia's combative engagement with ‘irregular’ noncitizens. The control by disavowal over the bodies of the asylum seekers taken to the oil rig can be traced to the instrumentalization of lives at sea that prevailed during the Tampa incident eight years earlier.
It is just such lines of articulation that map the territory of this book.
…can you look at this? There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching.
—Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
This chapter takes as its point of departure the idea that in and through the bodies of unauthorized Australian noncitizens, the Australian state produces a symbolic excess. The marked, managed bodies of irregular noncitizens are constructed as surplus to the nation's human requirements. Moreover, excess becomes coterminous with waste in the collective national consciousness: through the inherent indignity of incarceration, and particularly via reported acts of self-injury such as sewing lips and refusing food, asylum seeking noncitizenship comes to represent an abject corporeality, and noncitizens themselves the objects of intense responses of pity on the one hand or disgust on the other. I examine the instrumentalization of asylum seeker self-injury via an analysis of its representation in Australian performance art, theatre and protest. The case studies that form the subjects of discussion are Mike Parr's durational live art piece, Close the Concentration Camps (2002), in which the artist's mouth, eyes and ears were sewed together; Mireille Astore's site-responsive installation at a Sydney beach, Tampa (2003), which saw the artist emplaced in a cage-like structure each day for eighteen days; solidarity fasts by Australian activists and celebrities, most of them undertaken in public spaces (2002–04); and former detainee Shahin Shafaei's solo touring play about a hunger striker, Refugitive (2002–04). These works are framed in terms of ‘instrumental’ self-injury because, first, they sought broadly to amplify the effects of political self-injury by detained asylum seekers—that is, self-injury structured as protest and intent on communicating with others—thereby highlighting the way the self-injuring body puts itself to ‘anti-work’ in extremis; and second, because in each case, the representative or performing bodies became acutely and evidently vulnerable.
…a comic character is generally comic in proportion to his ignorance of himself.
—Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic
On the face of it, the categories of refugee and comedy appear to be segregated into an incompatibility that has ethical or moral basis. Certainly, there is little to be found in prevailing conditions and definitions of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ that would warrant the characterization of comic. But even that sentence seems wry. Theories of comedy and humour have identified incongruity as an important ingredient in the juxtaposition of meaning and outcome that makes something funny. The other most commonly identified mode of comedy, that of laughing at the victim or victims of a joke, is explicated by so-called superiority theories —which perhaps underscores why refugee comedy might be at once out of order and entirely, subversively, in order. While the plays examined in the previous chapter were confined by their relationship to true stories to a certain spectrum of tone, characterized by greater or lesser degrees of solemnity, the plays under discussion in this chapter, Victoria Carless's The Rainbow Dark (2006) and Ben Eltham's The Pacific Solution (2006), open up a different range of possibilities for representing and responding to the topic of asylum. These one-act plays had their premiere productions within weeks of each other in 2006 at Brisbane's Metro Arts Theatre, an inner-city space that, as noted in the previous chapter, has become prominent in the development and staging of works by new and emerging performance makers. Both Carless and Eltham were first-time playwrights in their twenties when the plays were produced.
It is certainly the case that comic theatrical approaches to refugee narratives are uncommon, but a handful of other Australian productions have engaged with humour in this context. Certainly, CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident) (2004), discussed in the previous chapter, integrated very many comic elements.
At the end of the 1980s a renewed push to Africanize Kenya's secondary school literature curriculum prompted Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi to intervene and insist that Shakespeare, who he declared a universal genius, retain a permanent position in the nation's schools; today, Shakespeare continues to appear in a curriculum that otherwise centralizes African literature in English. A chuckling admission by Kenyan actor Sharon Nanjosi when asked by a member of the Globe research team about her experience of Shakespeare offers another perspective on the cultural and political matrix that informed the Swahili Merry Wives of Windsor that she and her compatriots brought to the Globe to Globe Festival in 2012: ‘I never grew up with Shakespeare. I only saw Romeo + Juliet, the movie…the one with Leonardo DiCaprio.’ It is no great insight to point out that the only Kenyan name that would come as trippingly off the tongue of the average Westerner as DiCaprio does off Nanjosi's is, as history would have it, Barack Obama. What is more telling is the fact that Nanjosi attributes her awareness of Shakespeare's work more to a product distributed globally by 20th Century Fox than to her Kenyan education.
The Africanization of the literature curriculum was hard won. Following Kenya's independence in 1963, debates concerned not only authors’ backgrounds but also the language in which they wrote. Born some two generations before Nanjosi, the acclaimed Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o recalls that when a state of emergency was declared in Kenya in 1952 and all schools came under the authority of the British, ‘English became more than a language: it was the language.’ Despite a landmark 1974 conference at the University of Nairobi (spearheaded by Ngũgĩ) on the teaching of African literature in secondary schools, the drive for an indigenous literature curriculum only gained pace in the 1980s. Even in the context of Swahili advocacy, former president of Tanzania Julius Nyerere's Swahili translations of Julius Caesar (1963, revised as Juliasi Kaizari in 1969) and The Merchant of Venice (Mapebari wa Venisi, 1972) implicitly bolstered the perception that Shakespeare had cultural validity for Africans.
Contemporary theatricalized refugee narratives are often understood to communicate the profound trauma associated with forced displacement, even as this trauma is made ‘meaningful’ or ‘recognizable’ to audiences by the identification, however nebulous, of hope. This article examines some of the ways in which an affective dialectic of victimhood and hope functions in Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking (2006–), a small-scale international touring work directed by Mark Fleishman and produced by Cape Town-based Magnet Theatre. Paying attention to questions of narrative and performative form, I investigate how, and for whom, victimhood and hope function in and through the work, constructing its emotional and political tensions. I trace some of the conditions of its circulation, with particular emphasis on its transnational work with respect to a metropolitan audience at London's Oval House Theatre in 2010. In this, my purpose is to probe the question of who is served (as well as who is implicated and mobilized) by refugee narratives that may occupy all too easily a generalized geopolitical imaginary: ‘far from here’.
Postnatal depression seems to be a universal condition with similar rates in different countries. However, anthropologists question the cross-cultural equivalence of depression, particularly at a life stage so influenced by cultural factors.
To develop a qualitative method to explore whether postnatal depression is universally recognised, attributed and described and to enquire into people's perceptions of remedies and services for morbid states of unhappiness within the context of local services.
The study took place in 15 centres in 11 countries and drew on three groups of informants: focus groups with new mothers, interview swith fathers and grandmothers, and interviews with health professionals. Textual analysis of these three groups was conducted separately in each centre and emergent themes compared across centres.
All centres described morbid unhappiness after childbirth comparable to postnatal depression but not all saw this as an illness remediable by health interventions.
Although the findings of this study support the universality of a morbid state of unhappiness following childbirth, they also support concerns about the cross-cultural equivalence of postnatal depression as an illness requiring the intervention of health professionals; this has implications for future research.
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