In the downpour of qualifying rain we all struggle, and in the storm, we face an even higher degree of difficulty. This past year, we have seen the storm cloud cast over refugees from around the world who have grappled with resettlement and faced massive scrutiny simply for existing under unfortunate circumstances. A higher level of discourse has begun with the shift in focus from refugee resettlement to how states can provide integration for refugees in their diaspora and new realities. Cast from the Storm is a documentary that explores this relationship along with themes of home, learning, and drama as a form of therapy. The documentary centers around the Treehouse Theatre, a theatre initiative started by Ruth Hartcher-O’Brien and Catherine Maguire-Donvito from Australia.
Ruth is a schoolteacher at Miller Technology High School in New South Wales where newly resettled refugees represent a significant amount of the population. Ruth provides a space for these children to tell their “storm stories”, traumatic events that shape their personal identities as refugees. From there, the stories are taken and created into a show in which they reenact their trauma and where the students’ families, who are also refugees themselves, are invited to watch. The documentary spans seven months of footage of Ruth, Catherine, their assistant producer Tehmineh (also a refugee), and the students prepping for the “Tree of Life” Recovery show. I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of Cast from the Storm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto and reached out to Ruth, who is just as compelling and eloquent as she appears in the documentary, to answer my questions about her experiences:
How did the conception of the Treehouse Theatre come about?
I’m an English as a Second Language and Drama teacher and I work in a special government thing; it’s just part of an ordinary high school but they’re called Intensive English Centres. So anyone who’s arriving in Australia, who needs a support before they go to a regular classroom, comes to these Intensive English Centres. We have a lot of refugees, international students, and migrants. First of all, I started working with the whole language centre, like 120 kids, to tell their stories and I did this for 4 years. Then, a friend who was a counsellor, named Catherine, at the school at the time said “You know, I really can see that the kids who come to me who you’ve worked with and who told you stories, especially the ones who acted them, are really open to therapy and they’re really really ready. [In fact,] so much of their trauma has already gone.”
She [then] said, “Would you be interested in starting up a little theatre company and we can do it outside the school – because I was just doing it for families, you know, for the parents? Let’s do it for professional theatres around Sydney and really start educating the population.” So, we started working with the refugee kids. She’s a counsellor and she subsequently has moved to another project and then to another school where she does counselling with refugees. So we’ve got two projects now; one at my school, the school that you saw [in the film], and the one at her school in another part of Sydney and they’re both fairly low socioeconomic areas. So in fact, if you’re newly arrived, you can afford to live there. That’s how it started and this is our 7th year and our 10th production.
What do you think about the negative reactions to the refugee community from around the world especially in the wake of the Syrian Refugee Crisis?
Look, it’s so complex. It’s appalling. It’s really appalling! Because we’re human beings, and I really understand peoples territorialism and people wanting to protect what they’ve got and being afraid of the unknown and the other. I mean, this is an archetypal thing isn’t it? People invading your territory. But at the same time, [it’s part of] this thing that borders are part of the “natural order”. They’re creations and they’re lines drawn to set us apart. It’s so sad. In fact, I went to the gym this morning and I had an argument with an Australian woman and she was saying “My friend just came back from Germany and you should see what Germany is like now. Ah, they’re appalled! It’s terrible and it’s not like it used to be!” But nothing is ever like it used to be. People forget that change is an essential part of being human. All of us have been invading. Most indigenous populations have invaded other indigenous populations; it’s a part of being human. [However,] now we’ve got these astonishing things like international war tribunals.
They might not have teeth, but the fact that they exist means that there’s been a whole shift in human consciousness we just can’t afford to sit back into. The big trouble is, governments take these things on without the infrastructure. I think Canada has got the most astonishing, astonishing program where you just get people in and then do the security checks. I’m just so ashamed of being Australian now. We do Treehouse [Theatre] for the healing of the kids but the big one– we’ve had 25000 people see the theatre shows to see those cast from the storm– is just to put a human face, an empathetic human face, on a refugee. If they’re children, just telling their stories; they have no political intent. Every so often, we’re a little bit tempted to come in and do some editing that makes it more political and we think “No, just let the stories tell themselves.”
You mentioned giving the refugee experience a “human face”, could you expand on that more?
It’s the human-to-human, isn’t it? We’re afraid of the Unknown, capital U. We’re afraid of big things; we’re afraid of things we can’t understand and things we don’t have a personal experience of. For instance, I used to hear people say, when a lot of Vietnamese were coming into Australia 40 years ago, “Oh look, there’s too many of them!” and I said “You’ve got a friend [who is Vietnamese]” and they’d say, “Yeah, yeah, he’s great. But-” meaning he didn’t group his friend with the Vietnamese refugees. So we’re so parochial; we’ll easily cut-off. [We’ll say] “Oh I know a good Arabic person, but doesn’t mean all Arabic people are good.” That’s the beginning, that first experience of being able to feel compassion for somebody else. To invite them into your heart is the first step into changing all of this. I think storytelling is the way for that. If you let someone tell their story, you can’t really sit in judgment.
We see these kids as humans first and in the show, we always have funny stories because they are the groundwork for, “Oh, you’ve gone and knocked on people’s front doors and ran away when you were a kid. Oh, so did we!”. In fact, we did that one year; all the kid’s stories were based on people going up to doors and running away. And everyone in the audience said, “I did that when I was a kid!”. [This] straight away leads the way for people to think, “Oh okay, we’re both human, we are the same. But, oh my goodness! You’ve had these experiences,” instead of just pathologizing the refugee experience and pathologizing drama, which is very easy to do when you just see it in terms of numbers and huge migration paths and all that sort of stuff.
How did you come in contact with the director and crew of Cast from the Storm and how did the idea of them filming a documentary about your program arise?
Well Catherine, the director of the Treehouse Theatre, has a daughter who is childhood friends with a director named David. So he had previously seen a couple of Tree of Life shows and he convinced some friends to come see it with him. From that, he said he really wanted to take this out. So, he got his friend who is a fantastic cameraman and they approached us about if they could make a video. We didn’t realize it would mean they would follow us around and they’d come to our houses, interview us, and there would be a camera on us at all times! Especially Catherine was worried about them filming when she wasn’t wearing any makeup! That was the start. We didn’t meet James, the producer, until considerably later, but Simon, the photographer and cameraman, and David really started to take a place in our hearts. They’re a warm pack of people who just really wanted to get this message out.
Was there a moment in time where the project took too much of a toll on you and you just wanted to give up? What motivated you to carry on?
Oh every year. I think I was caught on film saying to the kids, “You might not be having nightmares about if this show won’t happen, but I am!” So yes, there’s always that time pressure and that feeling of “Oh my goodness!” But the thing that happens to me every year is that I have a post-traumatic stress time of about a month to 6 weeks, just absorbing the kids stories and really trying to be true to them so that I can write the script that they will feel is truthful for them. I confirm with them and usually with the translator so that they can really get the language they want and I write it into English, so that I can expand their English repertoire and also be more poetic for Australian audiences. Then, the re-impact of these stories just hits especially if there’s a death.
Last year for example, an Iraqi 14-year-old boy’s story involved the Iraqi police suddenly invading his house demanding for his father’s arrest. He insisted that the man they were looking for was next door but instead they began bashing him with their guns on his head. Then someone came in and told the police that they had the wrong house and they just left. [Later,] he developed head pains and eventually had a tumor that he died from after a couple of years. In the meantime, after the attack, he lost bodily functions and he couldn’t speak and they slowly had to watch him die. It was just so horrible.
[In another story,] a young boy from Syria, whose cousin and whose Arabic families are much more connected that most Anglo families are, was killed in this small village of just 1000 people by a rocket. They left and went to Lebanon because they could see the war starting in 2013 or 2012. So last year, in Australia, on his Facebook feed, he’s getting all this stuff about ISIS coming in and taking all these villages. So these villages are like twenty-minutes walking distance from each other and he went to school with these Kurdish young kids in high school and now, instead of being in school and holding pens, they’re holding guns and defending their homes and their families. Our local news channels picked up this story and he was showing us on his Facebook feed, “Oh, this is my friend, we sat next each other in high school, and he was killed fighting ISIS and they were bombing each other across the river and now his village has completely gone.”
[In response,] I wrote this really powerful piece. We just had the cast standing in white t-shirts and three guys à la ISIS walking across the stage from the back forward and as the cloth touched them, they collapsed. And as the young boy, Simon, is telling the story they’re walking across the stage. [Due to the stories’ impact,] I go under; I can’t really handle it. But I also think it’s a privilege and people say “Oh you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that,” but I feel, you know, they’ve got to live with this stuff; I’ve just got to bear it until I know it will pass. [Naturally,] Catherine has said that “You really need something here,” but eventually we came to the conclusion that doing the actual performances so that they work through their trauma; they change; they blossom, they open and they feel accepted by audiences and they hear the audiences crying. Then they get the standing ovations, the thunderous applause, and they feel their open heartedness is met by audiences.
Open-heartedness and that acceptance and that sense of belonging is a major step in their trauma and recovery; and it heals me as well. So that’s what keeps me going; seeing kids change and knowing I can handle it and feel “yup, this is just for a little time; I’ve just got to deal with it.”