A ferry service that connects Morocco and Spain offers tourists rides between the European and African continents. The trip of one and a half hours costs $40 (US) for a one-way ride. For refugees trying to cross the sea on rubber dinghies or fiberglass boats, the same journey takes days and it can cost up to several thousand dollars.
The movement to Europe takes a devastating toll on human life. Since the beginning of this year, 79,889 refugees have arrived by sea to Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus, and Malta. According to the UNHCR, as of November 5, 2019, an estimated 1,089 persons have gone missing or lost their lives on this journey. While the EU is, just like the US, hardening its borders, NGOs are calling for more safe and legal pathways for refugees. The Germany non-profit Sea-Watch coordinates rescue operations at sea “to save as many people as possible from death by drowning” while the 24/7 emergency hotline Alarm Phone takes calls from refugees in distress and puts pressure on the coast guard to act in emergency situations.
In his new play, Mediterranean Migration Monologues, which will be presented at NYC’s Goethe-Institut on November 21, Berlin-based director Michael Ruf of Actors for Human Rights Germany (“Bühne für Menschenrechte”) takes up these themes through the format of documentary theater. After the Asylum Monologues and the NSU Monologues, which premiered in NYC last year, his latest work highlights what is at stake in the political tug of war around immigration in Europe. Ruf tells the stories of Naomie from Cameroon and Yassin from Libya, who find themselves on a boat to Europe. Throughout their journey, their lives become entangled with those of other characters, including coast guards and the activists of Sea-Watch and Alarm Phone.
Despite its focus on the central Mediterranean passage between Northern Africa and Italy, which is one of the world’s deadliest migration routes, the play resonates well beyond the European context. It chronicles the erosion of migrants’ legal rights and protections as well as a variety of exclusion techniques that are meant to keep refugees from entering Europe. In Libya, for example, which is an important transit country, EU-trained Libyan coastguards intercept migrants, transferring them into holding camps where abuse and neglect are rampant.
In addition, several EU member states, especially in the Western Balkans, engage in so-called “pushbacks.” Approved by government authorities, they use intimidation tactics and brutal force, including dog attacks and beatings, to forcibly return migrants to their previous country of transit. This practice is in direct violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which prohibits collective expulsions.
That pushbacks are nevertheless widespread and systematic can at least in part be chalked up to the shortcomings of the Dublin Regulation. The 2013 EU law determines that the country where a refugee first arrived is responsible for examining an asylum claim, thus placing a heavier burden on countries at the EU border. It also leads to unnecessary detentions and the separation of families as migrants are sent back to the country of first entry to the EU.
Coincidentally, just as the European Commission is talking about the need to revise its existing asylum instruments, the Trump administration has started pushing for a new asylum process that resembles the Dublin Regulation in disconcerting ways. Seeking to limit immigration from Central America, the US government has adopted a new interim final rule in July of this year that renders all asylum claims ineligible if they have been submitted by migrants who entered the US through a third country and who failed to apply for protection in the transit state.
A style of governance that encourages such measures renders anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies socially acceptable once again. It also encourages the criminalization of activism geared toward helping migrants in need. In June, Carola Rackete, the captain of the rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, was arrested for entering Italian waters. By the time she decided to disobey the orders of the Italian government, Sea-Watch 3 had been on open sea for two weeks with 42 migrants on board.
Activists like Rackete and migrants like Naomie and Yassin are the main protagonists of Mediterranean Migration Monologues, which reconstructs real cases of sea rescues from the perspective of both refugees and activists. Inherent to this kind of documentary style storytelling, there is a fine line between making art and capitalizing on other people’s stories.
In an interview with Ruf last week, we asked him to reflect on these issues by talking to us about the use of sources in documentary theater, storytelling and agency, and the problem of privilege.
Maresi Starzmann and Farhiya Hassan (Rail): You consider your performances to be documentary or verbatim theater. In this style of theater, it is common to add materials—such as newspaper reports, videos, photographs, or court recordings. Could you talk a little bit about why you are not using any additional materials in your plays?
Michael Ruf: Well, to specify, I actually do use written material if it’s necessary. In the case of the Mediterranean Migration Monologues, I interviewed a woman from Cameroon who met with me for two days, but there were some really hurtful topics that she did not want to talk about, so I used a statement based on her asylum interview and something a psychologist had written about her. But these are the exceptions and the general rule is that I work with interviews.
Rail: How did you get these additional materials, for example, the information from the psychologist?
Ruf: I did not talk with the psychologist, but I was provided with their notes. Oh, of course, the person agreed that I received these materials.
Rail: Could you tell us more about the process of conducting the interviews then?
Ruf: The most challenging part is to find the right interviews and to transform them into a part of the play. You have to make the right choice for the partners. In the case of the Mediterranean Migration Monologues, the process of looking for interview partners took one and a half years. I do pre-interviews, which can take two or three hours, where I get to know the people and they share their experiences, but I can make a final decision who to include in the play only after these pre-interviews. So, you have to be patient and see which stories fit together. For the Mediterranean Migration Monologues, I did 30 or 40 pre-interviews before deciding which four people would end up in the script.
Rail: Given that you interviewed a lot of people, how did you decide which stories to choose?
Ruf: After the pre-interviews, you know which stories you want to get deeper into. I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of both activists and refugees. This was difficult, because the Alarm Phone activists do not usually keep in contact with the people who call them, so it took me many pre-interviews until I finally met someone who had kept in touch [with a refugee]. This allowed me to tell their common story—for example, of this Libyan citizen, who is a political opponent to the government and who ended up crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and of the Alarm Phone activist who took his call.
Rail: Could you elaborate a bit on the political goals of the play?
Ruf: Well, hundreds and thousands of people are dying in the Mediterranean Sea each year. I think, if we know the people and their personal stories—if we do not only see the numbers but the human beings behind them—then we can maybe modify the discourse into the right direction. And as we do these performances in many cities and bring local activists for the Q&A after the performance, then there is a chance that people in the audience become active and that they build more pressure on politicians.
Rail: You use the form of theater to inspire audiences to critically confront racism, xenophobia, and other forms of intolerance. How does this work?
Ruf: Of course, it is difficult to evaluate whether we can affect any change. Sometimes nothing changes, and sometimes people call us and ask how they can become members of our project. And sometimes we don’t hear anything and then, three years later, you meet somebody, and they say that the play has influenced them or even encouraged them to become a volunteer for some organization. These reactions are very reaffirming for what we are doing.
Rail: In your plays you tell the stories of other people, who are themselves not performing on stage. What do your plays do for the people whose stories we hear?
Ruf: That’s a good question, whether the plays really benefit them directly. At this point, none of the protagonists who are refugees have seen the Mediterranean Migration Monologues, because they don’t live in Berlin [where the play premiered]. In the case of the NSU Monologues, the protagonists have seen the play, in some cases several times. They wanted the play to have an educational impact, so we performed in schools. In the case of the Asylum Monologues, the play led to a campaign for the right to remain for one protagonist. But you can’t do that all the time—sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.
Rail: In a sense, the stories you tell are mediated twice—by your work as a playwright and by their representation through actors. Have you thought about your role in the formation of the play and your position of privilege vis-à-vis the storytellers? What conclusions do you draw from this?
Ruf: First of all, you are right, this is a privileged position I’m in. But I’m sharing my thoughts and ideas with the protagonists I’m interviewing, and I’m giving them full editorial power. I’m not keeping the power in terms of the final decisions. There’s a written contract, so they can veto everything I’m doing. When I have my final draft of the script, I send it to them and ask them: are you satisfied and do you feel portrayed in a proper manner, or do you have comments and suggestions? And if they want to change anything, then I’m going to do this, because they have to be able to identify with the play, which is not a given. Personally, I think it’s just fair to give the last word to the people whose stories are being told.