Refugee Narratives: 10 Pantomime Performance Videos

One of the main creative assignments of the “Imaginative Communication” course [a Comparative Media course in which we explore the theme “How to Tell the Unutterable” by analyzing and comparing the depiction of Psychic Trauma in various visual media, from comics to animated & live-action movies, tv series or choreographies] is for the students to compose and produce a group performance based on refugee narratives. After visualizing refugees’ journeys graphically [see previous assignment “Refugee’s Grid and Gestures“], watching some related footages [Charlie Chaplin’s 1916 The Immigrant, Wilfredo Rivera’s immigration choreography The Golden Bird Cage, or PositiveNegatives’ animated zoom-comics North Star Fading], reading/watching comics and webcomics [Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Marc Ellison and Didier Kassai’s immersive graphic novel House Without Windows, or our former students’ refugee comics dice], discovering refugee installations [architect Mohamad Hafez’s multi-media installation Unpacked] and analyzing and comparing Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel and animated feature Persepolis, students were asked to compose a live pantomime performance of 3′ to 5′ [depending on the number of team members]. The constraint was that their refugee characters had to remain silent, voiceless, muted by the trauma, unable to speak the language of their ‘host’ country, or fearing to speak their own language and have their illegal/foreign status revealed.

Unpacked
Unpacked multi-media installation by Syrian-born architect Mohamad Hafez.
The Arrival Shaun Tan
Page from the wordless comics The Arrival (2006) by Shaun Tan

Due to the COVID-19 crisis and while productions were well underway, performances couldn’t be presented live anymore for obvious safety reasons. Early March, students were asked to film and edit their performances as video footages so that their works could be screened online. On Wednesday March 26 in a virtual classroom, our 40 students introduced and displayed their video performances which were evaluated and commented by songwriter, performer and former [Performing Arts] CommArts student, Namtarn Jinwara (KhopKhunKhrap!) and yours truly.

I am really proud of these works, sometimes created under unexpected COVID-related logistic constraints. The brave team of exchange students -while scattered throughout the world to reach safely their native countries- managed to create an imaginative piece on their way home or while held in quarantine facilities… Below, you can discover film stills from the students’ projects, but also some of the actual performance videos. Here are the numerous choreographies, but also some creative short drama films, which sadly -and timely- echo the ongoing and future displacements of refugees caused by Climate Change, COVID-19 and other crises. Ajarn Nicolas Verstappen


ZZ 10
Film still from the refugee performance video Hope of Dawn by students Pim, Pranang and Milk [with performers from the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University]. A journey from Syria (contemporary dance) to Germany (ballet).
Z 10
Film still from the refugee performance video Hope of Dawn by students Pim, Pranang and Milk [with performers from the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University]. A journey from Syria (contemporary dance) to Germany (ballet).


Film still from the refugee performance video by students Paar, Palmmy and Tukta
Click on pic to launch video.

Z 05
Film still from the refugee performance video Disconnected by students Ben, Eve, Frongki, Pecky and Plai


Z 08
Film still from the refugee performance video Lost Boy by students Gam, Ink and Por [with perfomer Cathrin Ballmer]

Z 01
Film still from the refugee performance video by students Beam, Eye, Jean and Rika
Click on pic to launch video.

Z 02
Film still from the refugee performance video Life of a Little Refugee by students Bee, Fay, France, May and Mine


 
Z 03
Film still from the refugee performance video by students Earth, June, Lily, Praew and Prim
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Z 04
Film still from the refugee performance video by students Boat [perfomer], Jinny, Pop and Smile
Click on pic to launch video.

Z 06
Film still from the refugee performance video by exchange students Alexandra, Meg, Núria and Pure
Click on pic to launch video.

ZZ 07
Film still from the refugee performance video by students Ellie, Ice [performer], Nam, Nanz and Pin
Z 07
Film still from the refugee performance video by students Ellie, Ice [performer], Nam, Nanz and Pin
Click on pic to launch video.

ZZ 09b
Film still from the refugee performance video by students Paar, Palmmy and Tukta
 
Z 09
Film still from the refugee performance video by students Paar, Palmmy and Tukta

FURTHER COMMENTS

Namtarn’s comments and mine were usually revolving on issues of clarity and meaning. Some performances could have been made more engaging and relatable through the narrative and recurring use of simple objects [as in the Dardenne brothers’ films] or indentifiable gestures developed as motifs. Another point was the lack of “feeling of space” which might be a crucial element in refugee narratives (belonging, borders, in-between…). Most performers move through wide empty rooms and one reason is, of course, related to COVID-19 constraints: most teams couldn’t find a safe, fitting and available location for the shooting. Yet, as we discussed during the session, there were some simple options. I mentioned the German Expressionist films‘ painted set designs which could be emulated with some black and white paints on cardboards.

   Another reference provided was the set design of Lars von Trier’s 2003 feature film Dogville. Bold white lines on the floor may end up being quite effective.

Questions were also raised about production as I felt some works were slighlty too slick, sometimes missing the roughness of the refugee experience. On the other hand, some students were concerned that the quality of their videos had been impaired by production problems caused by the COVID crisis. I mentioned that improvisation and DIY approaches actually benefited the production; and I mentioned the DIY aesthetic of French director Michel Gondry on numerous music videos and movies, and mostly his lesser-known 2008 Be Kind Rewind feature film. Some excerpts were screened: The Chemical Brothers’ Let Forever Be MV, The White Stripes’ The Hardest Button to Button MV,  Massive Attack’s Protection MV or Björk’s classic Bachelorette MV.  

As a conclusion, I mentioned that all performance videos had a grim and dark tone and that other approaches were possible. Thinking about a Martin Parr aesthetic, I mentioned Dario Fau’s colorful and caustic music video Dégueulasse by Caballero and JeanJass. But all in all, I’m a #ProudAjarn, as I was so impressed by the involvement and dedication of my students on this meaningful project in a time where the fate of refugees is even more thrown into jeopardy, and invisibilized in the main news outlets. Ajarn Nicolas Verstappen 


END CREDIT
I’m feeling relieved you didn’t state the opposite. ;^) Love you too! Stay safe!

Ongoing Research: Jamnong Rodari [จำนงค์ รอดอริ], the forgotten Siamese comics master

00 Jamnong Rodari
“Raden Lundai” [ระเด่นลันได] tier by Siamese artist Jamnong Rodari [จำนงค์ รอดอริ] , c. late 1932

Kingdom of Siam, 1932. If the pre-1960s Thai Comics production is a lost continent, some artists -such as Prayoon Chanyawongse, Sawas Jutharop or Hem Vejakorn– are well-known from local aficionados. To the best of my knowledge and in the literature I’ve been able to access over the past 5 years, only two lines are mentioning Jamnong Rodari (จำนงค์ รอดอริ; brother of best-known illustrator Fuen Rodari), hailed as one of the greatest cartoonists of the 1930s. Not much more on his art; I only saw a fragment of a comics strip at the National Library of Thailand, and two series of beautiful book illustrations. So I was thrilled to get my hands on a collection of comic strips cut from 1932 Siamese newspapers [miraculously unearthed in an attic], and discover his stunning long-form comics which are said to have influenced prominent cartoonists of the late 1930s. Here are two excerpts. First is the upper-tier of his 48(?)-page comics adaptation of then-famous play Raden Lundai; or the Pauper Prince (ระเด่นลันได; a parody of the classic “Inao” play), with additional captions in Klon-16 versification below the panels, probably from late 1932 [there’s an ad for Chaplin’s 1931 City Lights at the back, and American films were usually screened in Siam one year after the US release]. Character design and gestures might be informed by the traditional Nang Talung (หนังตะลุง) shadow puppetry [as was suggested to me by my kick-@ssistant Bird]. Second excerpt [which I edited as I wanted to show the three-panel dance sequence which is allocated over two tiers in the original] is even more interesting as it unveils an example of realist-art long-form comics seven years before Hem Vejakorn’s Sri Thanonchai. Also unusual; the story is set in contemporary Siam -and is a “migrant” narrative- under the title KatunNaiBoPhachoenChok (การ์ตูนนายโบ้เผชิญโชค; The Comics of Mr. Bo who seeks his fortune [in Bangkok]). Drawn in late 1932 [as the newspaper banner was not cut from the first comics installment]. It appears that these two comic strips series -with two different styles and genres- were drawn by Jamnong Rodari in late 1932 or early 1933.

One question is left unanswered. Why was Jamnong Rodari forgotten from Thai Comics History while being hailed as “one of the greatest Siamese cartoonists.” I would venture that, unlike contemporary artists such as Sawas Jutharop and slightly later Prayoon Chanyawongse, Jamnong Rodari didn’t collect his serialized stories in comic book format. Sawas and Prayoon’s comic strips collections are known, and might have helped their names and works to be remembered in the following decades. No trace, so far, of any collected works of Jamnong. Might be a lead. [EDIT: a collection of Raden Lundai was recently sold on internet, so at least one collection of newspaper strips in comic book format was released]. Nicolas Verstappen

PS: These are not my favorite excerpts from the series; the most stunning pieces will come later, in another format [if current COVID-crisis doesn’t shatter this research project].

00 Jamnong Rodari 2
“KatunNaiBoPhachoenChok” [การ์ตูนนายโบ้เผชิญโชค] edited tier by Siamese artist Jamnong Rodari [จำนงค์ รอดอริ] , late 1932. Two opium traffickers want to take revenge on Mr. Bo who lost their opium load by accident. As Mr. Bo is in a dance club, they approach him by dancing together but Mr. Bo is saved by the club dancer in a bold move.

#MeanwhileHereComics #การ์ตูนที่นี่ Challenge

As an individual assignment for the “Creative Writing Section 11 [Experimental & Fiction Comics Composition]” (International Program, Faculty of Communications Arts, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand), students were asked to explore the concept of “windows on time in a single place” developed by American cartoonist Richard McGuire with his two stories titled “Here” (1989 in the pages of RAW, and 2014 as an extended graphic novel). The complete groundbreaking graphic narrative can be read on this post: “Here” by Richard McGuire. Some of our students’ comics are displayed below in this post. More will be added soon.

mcguireHere_001
First page (out of six) of the short comics Here by Richard McGuire, published in RAW Volume 2 #1, USA, 1989. Full story… here.


The graphic narratives produced by my Thai [and exchange] students were inventive and striking, as some explored not only the COVID-19 crisis but addressed social and political issues in a straightforward way, revealing Thailand’s traumatic decades made of military coups and bloody crackdowns. I guess the assignment came timely, capturing the frustrations of a new generation of young adults, revealing visually the overburduning and endless cycle of coups and sociopolitical struggles. With my students and with Richard McGuire’s approval, we decided to set the assignment as a challenge and invite everyone to take part, as we believe that in these times of self-isolation, it might be interesting to widen the limited and constrained space we now inhabit by exploring it through time.

“Like how does something happen, and… how does it reverberate through time? And that act of memory is important, and comics are great for memory. Like even when you have a short comic, like a three-panel comic, you’ve got a past, a present and a future as soon as you look at those three boxes. And that allows you to reflect and compare times.” (Art Spiegelman, in: Conan, N. (2011). MetaMaus: The Story Behind Spiegelman’s Classic; radio interview, Oct 5)


OPEN-ACCESS LAYOUT

So here’s the layout that you are free to use [click on the image for larger version], and please add the hashtags #MeanwhileHereComics and/or #การ์ตูนที่นี่ (‘KatunTiNee’ which means “Here Comics” in Thai language) so that we can follow your artworks online.Thank you in advance for joining!Meanwhile Here Template


“Time, as cut into minute sausage slices and laid out on the [comics] page in an array from which larger connections and patterns may be sensed, is the cartoonist’s ‘paint’ or ‘clay.’ […] Trying to communicate the hugely incomprehensible yet indescriptibly fine texture of life in little reconstructions sort of mirrors the way we remember it… Really, when one come right down to it, in the end, that’s all we have: our memories!” (Chris Ware, in: Why I Love Comics. The New York Times , 2015)


OUR STUDENTS’ COMICS

#MeanwhileHereComics pages by students of the “Creative Writing Section 11 [Experimental and Fiction Comics Composition]” course. More will be added soon. In the captions below some pages, I’ve introduced links to some local/Thai events referred to in the graphic narratives. PS: I’m proud of my students’ hard and meaningful works. #ProudAjarn

Meanwhile Here by Jib
Click on page for larger size. Panel 1 [1932]: Siamese Revolution leading from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. Panel 2 [1976]: Student protests and Thamassat University Massacre. Panel 3 [2006]: 2006 Coup d’Etat. Panel 4 [2014]: 2014 Coup d’Etat (and Red/Yellow Shirts conflict). Panel 5 [2030 & 3,000 Years Ago]: reference to 2020 news on the Government giving up part of prehistoric cave painting site for mining. Panel 5 [2020]: ongoing University Students Protests for a fairer democratic system.
 

Meanwhile Here by Mind
Click on page for larger size. Panel 3 [2019]: waves of harmful [Particulate Matter] PM 2.5 levels in the air.
 

Meanwhile Here by Palmmy
Click on page for larger size. Panel 1 [1934]: tree growing two after the Siamese Revolution leading from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. Panel 2 [1976]: reference to the [graphic] photograph of Pulitzer Prize winner Neal Ulevich showing a junta supporter striking the lynched body of a student with a foldable chair in front of a cheering crowd, during the Thamassat University Massacre. Panels 3 and 5 [1976]: reference to the same photograph (lynched student). Panel 5 [2020]: ongoing University Students Protests for a fairer democratic system, with students making the “three-finger [Hunger Games] salute” in a sign of defiance against military rule. Panel 6 [2020]: COVID-19…
 

Meanwhile Here by Pim
Click on page for larger size. Panel 1 [2012]: reference to the Democracy Monument which commemorates the 1932 Siamese Revolution. Panel 4 [2020]: COVID-19…
 

Meanwhile Here by Proud
Click on page for larger size. Panel 4 [2020]: COVID-19…

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Click on page for larger size. Panels 1 and 6: Chinese-type funeral altar above which a portrait of the deceased person is placed.

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Click on page for larger size. Panels 3 and 6 [1868]: reference to the famous Thai ghost story Mae Nak (where the spectral nature of a female ghost is revealed to her husband when she stretches her arm oddly to pick a fallen lime).

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COMPOSITION PROCESS

As these “constrained comics” & concept are quite challenging, composition was achieved over a couple of weeks, and with the submission of several drafts commented by yours truly… via the Line app due to current COVID-19 crisis. If you want to spot the differences, and see how every minute detail [from color to fonts or encapsulation] matters in comics composition where “each element is thus: one with everything” (Nick Sousanis in: Unflattening, comics dissertation published by Harvard University Press, 2015).

MIND HERE PROCESS
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