Thursday, September 24, 2009

Action, acting, and re-enactments

This morning there's been some serendipity; I began reading a novel by a young writer whose exploration of a sexual harassment incident and its aftermath at a girls' school veers back and forth between the formality of an actual stage play and the notion that everyone in life spends a lot of time acting a part, especially adolescents trying out adult personae. At least I think that's what she's doing, I'm only on page nine. It's very good so far, blackly funny and very original, with at least one character (a saxophone teacher) whose dialogue comes express from her id, and very startling it is too.

So it was odd to get my email newsletter just then from Médecins sans frontières, a fixture in my charity budget (though I think the aggressive campaign to get people who are already regularly giving them money to give them more money may prove counterproductive and I wish they'd stop), with the announcement that their 'Refugee Camp in Your City' exhibition? experience? re-enactment? show? was on in Adelaide this week and coming to Melbourne in October.

On the one hand it's good that they're publicising their activities, and yes I think schools in particular should take kids on the tour, and yes its aims are admirable, and yes I like the upbeat approach that focuses on the sorts of help that aid workers in the field can provide.

I can see, as I say, that their reasons are uniformly excellent, and you couldn't call it exploitative, but there's something about this idea of cheerfully replicating sites of human misery that just doesn't ring quite right. And yet it never bothers me when people do it in literature, or onstage (and yes yes, of course drama is literature, don't get me started), or even in movies (except for the Holocaust, which I don't think people should make movies about, but at least I have a worked-out line of thought on that).

This reaction to the MSF project is defective thinking, I know, but somehow it's not about thought, more an instinctive shrinking away. Does anyone else feel a bit squeamish about this whole idea?

12 comments:

Fyodor said...

InTentsive Care!

Anonymous said...

I've had a look at the MSF re-enactment project. I can see why one would be a bit sceptical about something like this. There is possibly a certain amount of fetishism involved in creating an artificial refugee site. My dilemma would be related to the question of how much would we really understand people in these circumstances, and what is it exactly that we would take away from visiting such an exhibition. Would we just end the visit with a flat white and a slice of cake, and let the whole business wash off because it's too difficult to contemplate? Improving general awareness about refugee issues is a good thing, though. I can see this would be good for school excursions, and I would support it if my children visited.

I'm intrigued about one thing from this post: your view on movies about the Holocaust? Is it the film medium that you find problematic? How does a film differ from a novel or a play? This is interesting stuff, and if you would share your line of argument regarding this question, it would be fascinating to know.

anon ed

ThirdCat said...

On the issue of more requests for money, there is probably an opt-out option from such correspondence. If you can't be bothered looking for the opt-out request, just send them an email and say 'don't send me anymore requests'.

The exercise probably isn't counter-productive - if it were they wouldn't do it. The reason organisations keep asking people who are already giving money to give more money is because they (the organisations) know that that particular group of people is already committed (sp? - sorry). It does annoy some people, but they (the organisations) do have to keep reminding people that they need more money.

Pavlov's Cat said...

3C, I wouldn't mind if it were just mailouts, but I've had several MSF phone calls as well -- interrupted at home, caught on the hop, and being made to feel guilty about saying no to a real person in real time. Always by a bloke, too, and on the whole they are far more persistent and aggressive and have thicker skins. When I initially signed up it was in response to a doorknocking young bloke who stood on the doorstep, all six-three and 100 kilos of him, and more or less stood over me till I gave him my credit card details in public while the dinner burned (though if I hadn't basically wanted to, I wouldn't have). Yes, obviously all this improves their chances of getting more money and yes obvs that's the whole point -- but from a punter's point of view it's more than just annoyance, it's about feeling exploited and bullied.

ThirdCat said...

yes, well, you definitely shouldn't be left feeling like that. Also, I don't want to make it sound like I think the end justifies the means.

cristy said...

Interestingly I've recently had a few conversations with people who've stopped giving to orgs they regularly gave to after feeling similarly harassed. I hate unsolicited phone calls. Especially during the day.

I can also see what you mean about the reinactment. It just seems not quite right, bit I'm also not entirely sure why.

Finally, like anon, I'm intringued about your feelings regarding films based on the holocaust.

Peter said...

I have had no problems with MSF, but another mob I subscribe to had been giving me the whole Readers Digest treatment. I responded to a phone call: "If what I give is too small for you, I would be happy to cancel it and give it to someone who appreciates it."
Not another peep out of them. :)
I agree about the model camp, though.

Bernice said...

After watching the video, I'm still not quite clear about what MSF are hoping to achieve. Toward the end, someone said 'we're hoping to raise peoples' awareness of what is like being in a camp.'
Which is necessary, yes but it's not enough to simply know; surely the point is to act. So what are you then encouraged to do? Donate to MSF? Find out about Australia's efforts in supporting refugees? Australia's efforts to further political negotiations to stop conflicts? To become political activists and actively campaign around the issues and struggles that force people to become refugees in the first place?
I'm not suggesting MSF should do nothing, I'm just not quite sure what a very tame replica of the chaos, fear and stench of a refugee camp actually achieves.
And yes MSF is non-political; fiercely so; but don't we need to focus on the processes that shatter people's lives?
Sorry - suffering from a surfeit of token efforts at the moment. Which I'm not suggesting MSF is...

JahTeh said...

I've always been impressed with MSF and the work they do so why not stick with the positive. We'd have to have been living in a cave not to know what refugee camps are like all over the world.
I don't have much money but I do donate to the Fred Hollows Foundation and will continue to do so after the very personal thank you letter that arrived after the Christmas donation.

Pavlov's Cat said...

JahTeh, good point, and I hesitated for that very reason. If I were not a big fan of MSF in the abstract I wouldn't be giving them money in the first place. But Cristy's story of people actually stopping donating because the organisations have harassed people so much is what I meant by 'counterproductive'.

Regarding having mentioned, in passing and I now think carelessly, my view that people should not make movies about the H*locaust (the asterisk is to foil demented denialist Googlers and anyone else who wants a fight), very briefly, that's because I've got a notion that you can never contain or properly represent or draw a line under or come to the end of an event like that. The defining quality of it is that it ought to be ultimately unimaginable, not rendered somehow controlled or contained by any form of fiction, especially a mass-market movie. It's as if people will think, having seen it, that they have somehow 'done' the H*locaust, or that its reality is as per the movie and no more. It's really more an instinct than an idea, not unlike the faint distaste for the mocked-up refugee camp. And I know there are good counter-arguments, the best being that stories and movies are precisely what keeps historical events most alive in the popular imagination, however much it makes one's inner purist wince. I'd send people to the Diary of Anne Frank and Vikram Seth's Two Lives and the H*locaust Museum in Vienna, myself, but squillions more people will go to the movies.

Bernice's point about not forgetting what creates refugees was at the back of my mind as well, but of course it's not either/or. They're doctors and their particular focus is on people's immediate bodily survival and, ideally, well-being.

I've got a real cross-section of regular charities, some for personal reasons, others not: MSF, the RSPCA, the Arthritis Foundation, the Red Cross (charity store stuff, money and blood) and any big natural disaster. So the others tend to get short shrift. JahTeh's point about the nature of feedback is a good one -- I actually stopped giving blood for a while because I was so extremely put off by the wording of the reminder letter, which began 'You are now due to give a donation of blood.'

cristy said...

I can completely see what you mean re: H*locaust films. My experience of watching such films was a strange feeling of the event being somehow glamorised.

While The Diary of Anne Frank did help me to gain a better understanding (as did Un Sac de Billes - a french book about two Jewish brothers who fled Paris during WWII), it was Privo Levi's "If this is a man" that really brought home to me just how unimaginably awful it must have been.

Regarding the refuge camp situation, I agree with Bernice regarding the inherently political nature of the issue. I'd also add that camps are dramatically varied.

I have only ever been to one refuge camp and it confounded my expectations completely. As did the people living there. What I came away with more than anything else was the essential humanity of "refugees". Of course I'd like to think that this was something that I already completely understood, but it struck me that I had somehow "other-ised" them in order to cope with the existence of refugee camps etc. Meeting them, dining with them, touring their self-run schools, etc... challenged me to take the whole thing so much more personally.

I find it difficult to imagine how this experience could be translated to a reenactment scenario.

Anonymous said...

It’s a tough one with the charities: dinner getting burnt because someone has knocked at the door at 6.30 pm gets to me most.

Regarding the h. movies, it wasn’t a careless mention, and thank you for sharing your view. Many would agree. There's definitely something quite offensive about the use of any mass human tragedy in a commercial product. I find the depiction of war themes in commercial TV series exploiting ‘modern’ conflicts equally distasteful, particularly when the characters have been 'otherised', as Cristy mentions. I have young children and feel that the stories need to be told, precisely so that they are not forgotten, but directing them to the original sources is clearly better than sending them to Hoyts Cinema.

There’s a lot of discussion about some of this at the moment, the opening address at this year’s Melbourne Writer’s Festival and subsequent responses gave some food for thought.

anon ed