Sunday, September 21, 2014

Terni Performance Festival: Hate Radio

Genocide can happen, it seems, remarkably quickly. Once you have your triggering event, the dominoes just fall. When race is used as a reason for hate and dehumanisation on a wide scale, all humanity seems to evaporate into so much pink mist.

Of course, the speed is a fiction. A given society can have its violent bed made long before the first shot is fired. The media's key causal relationship with horrific violence is clear and well-documented, which doesn't stop it being a breeding ground for new ethical vacuums, (yes, even in the West), or indeed, instances of genocide occurring.

Hate Radio, a production from the International Institute of Political Murder that has done the rounds in European festivals, documents explicitly this link between propaganda and genocide in one specific instance of recent history - the Rwandan genocide of 1994. This event saw race-based crimes against humanity that exhibit a shocking level of dehumanisation. Rape, murder, torture, and a particularly pathological fixation on, not just killing, but suffering are key narratives of that conflict. To fragile, western ears, it's a barrage of monstrousness that begs belief.

These stories are relayed to us by actors, appearing on screens and speaking through radio headsets allocated to each audience member, in the grueling first 15 minutes of Hate Radio. The dramaturgy here is carefully layered but does not spare us the violence of the stories, women offering themselves as sex slaves only to have their breasts cut off, children having limbs cut off, hiding in underground toilets for days, staying alive in the middle of a pile of massacred corpses. There appears no atrocity which could not occur in this space of madness.

After the videos fade, the screens come up to reveal a radio studio. What follows is a reenactment of radio broadcast from RTLM, a youth-based station mixing the latest beats with pro-Hutu, and anti-Tutsi, anti-West and anti-U.N propaganda, most famous for its key role in the genocide. The broadcast ambles through mundane weather and sports reports, political commentary and biased reporting from the front line. Whether the broadcast is verbatim or reconstructed from multiple broadcasts is unclear from the documentation or the press release (from the sheer mundanity of it, you would have to say it's verbatim, though I think probably subtly constructed) but regardless, the rigourous research of the creators is on display as they breeze through a distinctly everyday, yet so obviously absurdly horrific, broadcast.

I had a unique experience of Hate Radio, largely because about halfway through, numb from anger and sadness, I accidentally changed the station of my receiver. It wasn't long before I was reading surtitles about horror and listening to classics such as Walking on Sunshine or Billy Jean, all of which felt oddly appropriate. I was surprised to look over at my young Italian locals sitting next to me and found them doing the same, at which point they kindly directed me to their favourite station. Yes - this was absurd - to be in an audience for a show like this and to thoroughly escape it. Call it what you will. Insulting to the actors? A slap in the face to the memory of the victims? To me, it just happened. I sometimes study propaganda, but only in as much as it is interesting to see how people are manipulated. At the point when it becomes uninteresting to me, I must switch away. So, dear reader - I felt no shame. It was not an escape - it was an experiment, or perhaps a reminder of something that didn't really occur in the show - the connection between western media, or indeed western societies, and faraway atrocities.

And here is where I reach a difficult point with Hate Radio. As much as I appreciated its rigour, it did occur to me that for a show built for western audiences, it's targeted fruit actually hangs quite low. It is easy to generate a sympathy for genocide victims - it is not so easy to make the connection between horrific violence and the audience itself, to ask the question "how did this happen?" and to ask that question, which is difficult and complex, in a way that implicates the spectator in this circle of violence. I will paraphrase Slavoj Žižek here, because on points of - I will use the term 'global systems of the production of violence' he is at his strongest:

'the Congo is not outside of the system of global capitalism - it is a perfect representation of it'. 

Yes, this is a radical idea - but one that at least challenges established truths and asks an important ethical question. Making a direct link between atrocities and the West is impossible because of the level of obscurity involved in this global system, but given a certain reading of history, let's say one focused on colonialism and power imbalances - it is clearly there as a potential argument which should (ethically) be made.

I think Hate Radio probably results in sympathy for the situation of Rwanda, and there is a lot of learning to be gained sitting, listening to and watching the mundanity of violence unfold. All of which I absolutely don't discredit - but it sidesteps more challenging questions about why such situations occur. Indeed - as the play mentions as its rather hopeless finishing point - why will they happen again?

Hate Radio
International Performance Festival Terni

Script and Direction - Milo Rau
Dramaturgy - Jens Dietrich
Set/costume design: Anton Lukas
with Afazali Dewaele, Sébastien Foucault, Dorcy Rugamba, Estelle 
Marion, Nancy Nkusi

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