Arts Illustrated

March 31, 2020

Hope and Empathy at Gunpoint

‘Compassion: The History of a Machine Gun’, a semi-documentary, double monologue based on the refugee crisis placed questions of hope and empathy centre stage, along with the uncomfortable truths defining it

Vani Sriranganayaki
Consolate Sipérius and Ursina Lardi. From the performance Compassion: The History of a Machine Gun. Direction: Milo Rau. Photograph by Daniel Seiffert.

In 2013, I went on a trip to Krakow. A few years earlier, I had spent a big chunk of my time researching concentration camps and architecture’s ability to affect us psychologically. So visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was naturally on my ‘to-do list’. In retrospect, it seems crass, but at the end of the trip – as social conduct dictated – I put up a few photos from the trip on my Facebook page. To one photo of the camp, a friend of mine had commented: ‘One needs guts to see this place’. Having actually been there, I wasn’t so sure. The loss and despair witnessed there was enough to make one lose faith in humanity and I didn’t feel particularly courageous for having seen it. Nothing had prepared me for the actual experience of the place. But my friend’s comment stuck with me. It reminded me of my mother’s reproach to whenever I saw a movie or read a book that she considered ‘depressing’: ‘Why do you always read about death and violence and misery!’ My response to her had always been: ‘It is more interesting, feels more real’. But that flippant response didn’t fit anymore. The experience of visiting the concentration camp was already real. Perhaps, a little too real. Then why do thousands of people still go there every year? Is it an act of empathy? A means of remembering the past or may be learning from history? What is it that drives us to willingly go through, or in some obscure way, witness an experience that millions probably want to forget?

The questions resurfaced again this March when I got the opportunity to watch Schaubühne’s latest production at the Music Academy in Chennai. Titled Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun, the performance presented award-winning Swiss theatre director Milo Rau’s journey through the political hot spots of our time – the Mediterranean routes of refugees from the Middle East and the Congolese civil war zones. It dealt with the impossibility to help. The stories of two actresses, one a victim of the genocides in Africa, the other a witness, showed the paradoxical perception of sorrow and pain, which at times face empathy but at times show complete disregard. Packaged into five distinct and evocative incidents that contemplate the limits of human compassion, the semi-documentary double-monologue, based on interviews with NGO workers, clerics and war victims in Africa and Europe, deliberately ventured into contradictory terrains and put forth the questions: How do we endure the misery of others and why do we watch it? Why does one dead person at the gates of Europe outweigh 1,000 dead people in the civil war zones? Can compassion have borders?

Consolate Sipérius and Ursina Lardi. From the performance Compassion: The History of a Machine Gun. Direction: Milo Rau. Photograph by Daniel Seiffert.

I am a witness

It started with a tragic story. Consolate Sipérius, a 28-year-old Belgian actress originally from Burundi, quietly walked on stage and sat in front of a cluttered desk. She looked straight at the camera that framed just her face and shoulders, a live feed of which was projected on a screen centre stage, and told her story. ‘I am a witness,’ she said. She spoke about her life in Burundi, about how she watched her family getting murdered, about being adopted from an ‘IKEA catalogue for orphans’ and growing up a Black woman in a predominantly White community. I am not sure how much of it was auto biographical, if any, and how much was the product of a well written script. Perhaps, that was the intention. She summarised her experiences in Mouscron, Belgium as follows: ‘This is a world without compassion.’ She finished her first monologue with a sigh and shrug – an action somehow more telling than all her words before.

Who sees us when we perish?

Act Two saw a shift in momentum when Swiss actress Ursina Lardi came onto the garbage-strewn stage in a simple blue knit dress. She held up the famous photograph of Alan Kurdi – the three-year-old Syrian boy whose death sparked global headlines back in September 2015 – and asked the audience: ‘Who sees us if we suffer? Who sees us when we perish?’ Turning the discourse on compassion on its head, Lardi recounted the research trips she had made with the director, along the refugee route from Bodrum to refugee camps on the Macedonian border, and noted with undisguised sarcasm that a lot of the aid workers at the camps looked like hipsters looking to boost their CVs. Lardi spoke of her ‘lack of compassion’ in the face of the Macedonian refugee camps. She didn’t explain positions. But the intensity with which she spoke put forth to the audience a moral conundrum. Should we distance ourselves from her figure or empathise with her? It made the possibility of compassion itself the subject of the performance. Lately, ‘empathy’ is seen as a panacea that could resolve all political complications. Denying the notion, Lardi spoke against the overwhelming aesthetics of images in the everyday media and the industries that thrive on dramatic creation of ‘feelings’ through them.

Consolate Sipérius and Ursina Lardi. From the performance Compassion: The History of a Machine Gun. Direction: Milo Rau. Photograph by Daniel Seiffert.

Escape into Beethoven

From the Middle East, Lardi then moved on to recount her experience in Congo – how as they visited specific spots during the research trip she was reminded of her days spent as an aid worker in the area during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. But as she looked at her image projected on the screen, she seemed even more distant. She began describing the day of the genocide, her room by the lake and the hillside beyond it; and how the sounds of the killings were carried over with the wind – gut-wrenching words that were almost drowned by the loud music that suddenly overwhelmed the venue. As the music grew louder, she recounted how she fled into the most dramatic works of Beethoven and barricaded herself in it to keep her distance from the death and violence she had witnessed. How the eyes of the translator she had managed to rescue by paying off a few soldiers still haunted her nights. Again, it was not clear who was doing the talking here – Lardi herself or the naive, fictional aid worker who had gone to Congo in search of a life-changing experience, only to realise that there is no such thing as a good person.

Consolate Sipérius. From the performance Compassion: The History of a Machine Gun. Direction: Milo Rau. Photograph by Daniel Seiffert.

We are all Assholes

‘I was very young and stupid,’ said Lardi about her deployment in Congo. ‘We were part of “Teachers in conflict”, “Heal Africa” or “Convoy of Hope”’, she reported, describing how completely ingenuous young Europeans were unleashed on war victims and asked to conduct obscure workshops in the hope of preventing the next massacre. In a biting mockery, her words targeted the absurd businesses of humanitarian aid organisations that profit from misery. Once again forcing the audience to question simple certainties. ‘We are all assholes’ – that seemed to be the ultimate message of the performance and director Milo Rau made sure that no one was exempted. He even brought to questioning the role, the contribution and the complicity of theatre. ‘Even the theatre,’ said Lardi ‘profits on the suffering of others.’ As an end to a disturbing monologue that illuminated the moral ambivalences of the helpless helper, Lardi recounted a nightmare she had upon returning home. As a White person, she was allowed safety when the rebel forces invaded the camp she was working with. But in her nightmare, she saw the flames enveloping the camp and ran back to save a colleague. Instead, she was forced to humiliate her and urinate on her at gunpoint. As Lardi described the event, carefully staking the garbage on the stage and slowly lifting her dress, she seemed to demonstrate that everyone in the midst of hell eventually loses all moral integrity. ‘At the end of the story, it all depends on who has the machine guns,’ summed up Lardi.

Consolate Sipérius and Ursina Lardi. From the performance Compassion: The History of a Machine Gun. Direction: Milo Rau. Photograph by Daniel Seiffert.

Shosanna’s revenge

For the epilogue, Consolate Sipérius came back on camera for her final monologue. She talked about her interests – her penchant for tales of antiquity, great tragic heroines and Tarantino’s revenge fantasies. He spoke about how she was intrigued by that one scene in Inglourious Basterds when Shosanna’s face appears in close up on the cinema screen – looking down on the assembled Nazi elite as they perished. She recounted how her director wanted her to have the same merciless look of revenge for the finale. But when he asked her to aim a machine gun at the audience, she politely refused.

As I listened to her speak, I was reminded of a conversation I once had with my college history professor. He claimed that mine was a generation that was very unique. For the most part, he said, we led sheltered lives, experiencing loss or ordeal only by proxy. But in the same breath, he talked about the immense relief he felt every time his son came back home from work. He felt that my generation was acutely familiar with terror and hence had the capacity to easily empathise – something many in his generation still struggle with. At the end of the performance, as Consolate Sipérius smiled, sighed, shrugged again and held up the ‘Fin’ sign, it somehow felt like there was still hope for humanity.

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