Via Intolleranza II

In an eccentric & multicultural performance, common misperceptions about Africa are challenged

On The Town | Michael Buergermeister | July / August 2010

An invisible Christoph Schlingensief presented one of the "best" and "most honest" productions at this year’s Festwochen in June -- via Skype. More exactly he presented its performers: musicians, composers, dancers, actors from Germany and Burkino Faso. They were invited to step outside the Brecht-like white curtain onto the shallow stage with its tables and disparate objects (including a garden gnome) and present themselves to the packed house of the Arsenal, a space reminiscent more of an aircraft hanger than a theater.

Old and young, tall and tiny, dressed in elegant black or blue, in dazzling yellow or white, a red headdress or a green jacket and black bow tie they were a motley yet likeable crew. They had been selected not for their spectacular abilities but for their ordinariness. Indeed the performance was more of a means to an end than an end in itself. The essential aim, or rather, appeal was to ask us (in the west) to try to confront Africa as it is, rather than how we perceive it.

Christoph Schlingensief is not only one of the funniest men on this planet he is also one of the most thoughtful and fiercely analytical. Moreover, not only is he "ungrateful," as Frank Castorf believes directors ought to be, he positively bites the hand that feeds, and is most merciless in his criticism of himself. No one doubts himself or his projects more than he.

Is his project to build an opera house in Burkino Faso absurd and doomed to failure? Perhaps, he willingly admits, but: that is not the point. The point is to give unconditionally, with no strings attached. It is ironic that one of the criticisms leveled most often at Schlingensief is his egotism. The truth is the opposite: few people are more selfless than he. His use of himself and of performers from all walks of life has more to do with his relentless pursuit of truth and authenticity than anything else.

A musician, playing a Spanish guitar, sang while pictures from a village in Africa were projected behind him. A white woman with a French accent walked to the podium and told how, after 14 days in 40°C, they had decided to take 10 and not 297 performers with them. Kandy, a tall beauty from Burkino Faso, told of how art was magic. A 13 year-old was presented and we were told that he was to play a refugee. Kader, a rapper began his song.

Then Christoph himself appeared, seemingly confused, asking whether he was in Bayreuth. Issouf presented his house while behind him the film L’Inferno (1911), the first full length Italian feature film ever made, was shown. Images of a very thin Christoph (he weighed only 62 kilos) meeting Henning Mankell in Africa were shown and the hotel where they stayed, which stank abominably.

This was followed by a dance and an all out assault on Neo-Liberalism. The dancing grew wilder, and the music became a discordant mix of disco and modern, with trumpets and trombones. We were told that Europe’s fleeing into a dream was a perverse fleeing from reality. The opera village in Burkino Faso was presented, shaped like a snail, with its school, film school, music school and hospital. Seven mini houses appeared on stage, lit from the inside. A hospital bed with the 13 year-old boy was pushed around the stage by a middle-aged, white woman.  Two dancers, one white, one black, portrayed poverty by means of dance to the sound track of "Taxi Driver."

If the clashes of styles of music, the visual discordance and confrontations of acting, dance and text were at times seemingly chaotic if not positively nightmarish, the end result was liberating and cathartic nevertheless. One truly did feel "free of fear," which was Schlingensief’s principle aim.

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