Women, Media, Revolution: Acting Together on the World Stage

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The IPJ kicked off its 2011 fall forum on “Women, Media, Revolution” with an homage to a previous IPJ event, the 2009 arts festival “Bearing Exquisite Witness.” Cynthia Cohen, co-producer of the film “Acting Together on the World Stage,” and playwright Catherine Filloux, featured in the film, first showed the trailer in 2009 and returned yesterday to screen the full-length documentary, six years in the making.

The documentary and accompanying anthology highlight cases of theater groups around the world that are “performing peace” and engaging conflict in productive, meaningful ways. Organized according to three Rs – Resistance, Rehumanization and Reconciliation – the film travels the world to explore how peacebuilding performances allow individuals and communities – both on stage and in the audience – to encounter the “other” and face their own experiences of conflict.

In interviews with artists in places as diverse as Peru, Serbia and Cambodia, the film articulates the necessity of counter-narratives. During conflict and its aftermath, governments and those in power often control the narrative – and the media by which it is spread – of what is taking place in a country: Argentine dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s claimed they were protecting civilians while at the same time disappearing them. Dijana Milosevic, founder of DAH Theatre in Belgrade, Serbia, relates in the film how Serb citizens felt almost “schizophrenic” as they heard stories of wars breaking down their Yugoslav federation while the government willfully denied it was at war with its neighboring republics. But courageous and unflinching artists, theater directors and actors forced these governments and their fellow citizens to confront the truth. Artist Charles Mulekwa of Uganda called it “reminding the population that power is with the people, not the people they put in power.”

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Some governments, in turn, have learned to recognize and harness the power of theater in their attempts to rebuild after war or as methods of reconciliation. Following the war in Peru, the official Truth and Reconciliation Commission traveled the country to collect testimonies of what took place during those years. It asked the Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani to precede the commission’s entry into communities to help prepare the people for what they would be asked to recall and share with the commission. The performances became moments of healing for rural communities that had yet to look deeply into what had taken place during the war. The group’s director, Augusto Casafranca, called the plays and the approach to the community “a more sensible angle which is more human” than the formal interviews the commission would be undertaking. The encounters between performers and audience members “were not things that we can understand rationally. … We were cleaning and healing each other.”

In Australia, years of localized performances and rituals in which white Australians learned the stories of the Aborigines and the “stolen generation” became the foundation for a national process of reconciliation, culminating in Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s state apology to the Aboriginal people in 2008 – for many, a long-delayed but cathartic moment of recognition and a step toward reconciliation.

In the spirit of the “Women, Media, Revolution” forum and the journalists and media professionals gathered here over the next two days, Filloux reminded viewers that this work – documenting and remembering – are revolutionary acts in our time.