In bold two-part play, immigration takes center stage

Active over the past 42 years, the Parisian avant-garde stage ensemble Theatre du Soleil, or Theater of the Sun, established and headed by esteemed director Ariane Mnouchkine, is legendary. Popular to the masses and therefore political, the theater has survived its fair share of turbulence, both social and political, and has also toured the world. Until now, the French theater group had never made it to Greece, but finally it has been booked, courtesy of the Athens Festival, for a series of performances over the next few days at the Olympic tae kwon do stadium in Faliron. The production, «Le Dernier Caravanserail – Odyssees» (The Last Caravansary – Odysseys»), which is divided into two parts, «Le Fleuve Cruel» (The Cruel River) and «Origines et Destins» (Origins and Destinations), examines the subject of immigration, one of the contemporary era’s most pressing problems. Concerned about the prejudice and fear imbued in the immigration issue, Mnouchkine, in an interview with Kathimerini, said the issue must be examined honestly. She spoke openly but avoided political judgments. She refused to respond to a question regarding Europe’s position on US foreign policy, and another about the reactions occasionally prompted by her theatrical ensemble in certain French circles. The Theater of the Sun will perform the first part of «The Last Caravansary – Odysseys» on July 19, 20, 26 and 27, and the second part on July 21, 23, 28, and 30. There will also be two nights when the play will be performed in its entirety, July 22 and 29. How familiar are you with Athens and Greeks? I know very little about Athens. I’ve passed through twice. The first time I was returning from a long trip, which, in a way, was one of initiation for me. Martine Franck and I passed through Athens on our way back to our country following many adventures. The only thing I managed to do was to visit the National Archaeological Museum, something I’ll always remember. Athens back then was nothing like now. It was a very difficult city. My second time was very recently, when I came to see the venue we’ll be performing at, and it looked like a fabulous city. Have you been annoyed in the past by unreliable Greek offers for performances in our country? Yes, the truth is that many times we were close to reaching agreements with various individuals who did not keep promises, and there were also some last-minute cancellations. So, I’m grateful that this time both sides have stuck by their word. Do you know that one in 10 people living in Greece is an immigrant? It’s about the same ratio as in France, 0.7 per 10. Do you think that the current state of European countries, surrounded by millions of immigrants, is breeding danger? It is a question that deserves to be posed without ideological prejudice… By fully opening the borders aren’t we generating fear, which, consequently, is fostering the growth of extreme-right factions all over? I think these kind of questions deserve an enlightened approach, one that is honest, serious, and based on the truth of matters and the substance of problems… But let’s ask ourselves with honesty: Who are we afraid of? Is it immigrants in general, or certain immigrants? Are we afraid of certain immigrants whose presence stands to threaten our democracy and other fundamental rights, like gender equality, the secular state, and respect of law. Could they put all this in doubt? If these are the type of immigrants we’re afraid of, we need to name them and engage in discussion with their representatives, and, above all, we must know how to defend our democratic values. If we don’t defend our values, then we are obviously going to be afraid of the foreigner. We need to know what our values are and then support them. In the battle of questions, there is no room for taboos. If the questions are of a religious nature, we must respond to these. If certain religions seem aggressive to us, we must know how to express this. We must know what scares us, what we can tolerate and what we cannot. Refusing hospitality is also totally unacceptable. We stand before a very serious issue that cannot simply be solved by the negativity of fear and condescension. As for condescension, in particular, we need to know when it’s exaggerated or justified… Do you believe European countries can proceed with more daring measures regarding the integration of immigrants, but are not taking the necessary action? Assuming they are able but not willing, what do you attribute this reservation to? I think that, at present, European countries are acting under the spell of fear that is being created by prevailing opinion, rather than basing their work on research, real research, and not only into issues concerning numbers, but objectives as well… Does the effort of trying to integrate into society large groups of foreigners hailing from very different cultures carry dangers? It doesn’t carry dangers, but difficulties instead. Everything is dangerous when dealing with human relations, but exclusion and states of siege are even more dangerous. If guided by a no-risk policy, then we change nothing and problems aren’t resolved. Instead, they remain trapped inside their own walls. And that is an extremely dangerous situation. Is the West entirely responsible for war and poverty, the two basic reasons that produce waves of immigration in the modern world? No, the West is not totally responsible, and it’s a huge lie to claim that. The West is partially responsible, but there are also the local despots, too. It should be mentioned that, following colonization, many countries institutionalized oppression. What are you afraid of in today’s world? Violence. Not only war’s violence and physical violence, but psychological and ideological violence, fanaticism – all forms of violence… Fear and ignorance are the two things I fear most. Or, rather, I should say that I fear ignorance, and, therefore, violence. Drama enlightens Does theater help people adopt a more positive view of immigrants? Yes, theater helps, even if each performance manages to change the mind of just one individual. That’s something. I’m not claiming that the Theatre du Soleil has the power to convince like a propaganda machine. But, if you consider theater’s personification of people, or the embodiment of people by actors, and the form’s ability to go beyond simple journalistic coverage, individualize foreigners and show that they share similarities with us, then, yes, I do believe that theater can change the stances of people. I don’t know if it really changes opinion, but it does change position.