Illegal Migration Takes the Stage in French Puppet Show


French puppetry troupe Les Remouleurs show ‘Frontiers’ explores illegal migration. (Photo courtesy of Salihara)

The young man heads out to face the unknown, feeling more daunted with every step that takes him farther from home. Aside from facing the unknown, he also has to deal with the mindboggling change from the rural world of his home village to the alien surroundings of the big city. The venality and brutality of the police, and the racism and humiliation inflicted upon the villager by urban denizens are equally harrowing. His experiences jolted him, searing indelible impressions on his mind.

The scene is part of “Frontieres,” a show by French puppet troupe Les Remouleurs, which was performed at the Salihara cultural center in Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta as part of the Institut Francais d’Indonesie’s Printemps Francais cultural festival. Half mime and half puppet show, the group used a somewhat mystical backdrop of Thai shadow puppets to take on the ongoing crisis of human trafficking. 

True to its French meaning of The Grinders, Les Remouleurs truly put its anonymous main character through the grind. Special effects specialist Olivier Vallet got this point across by deft use of camera obscura and innumerable props to highlight the character’s plight and bewildered state of mind. This includes depicting his physical and mental experiences as an unsettling chaotic storm, to the metamorphosis of the city as a relentless monster who will break anything or anyone in its path.

Musician Francesco Pastacaldi did much to set the mood. His resonating, momentous drums gave a clear picture of the main character’s plight and challenges, while his more tender violin solos glimpsed at the character’s internal tensions and the toll his experiences take on him. 

The main character’s plight is relieved by an old woman who appears recurringly. 

“The old woman is none other than a people smuggler who moves illegal migrants along. They tend to have ambiguous relationships with their charges, as they alternately help and exploit them,” says Les Remouleurs director Anne Bitran, who founded Les Remouleurs with Vallet in 1983. “She is a vital cog in the [human trafficking] machine, as she knows how the system works and knows which official to pay off. True to her ambiguous nature, she either eases the main character’s way or stacks the odds against him.”

This is made obvious in a scene depicting the perilous boat crossing, the ensuing capsizing of the boat and the main character’s survival. Depicted in the backdrop of a blue sea, one gets a notion of the magnitude of their struggles and the migrants’ perseverance. 

“We often hear about illegal migrants making perilous crossings on unsafe vessels and the resulting casualties in their wake. But there is a heroic element in the illegal migrant experience that is often overlooked, and which we brought up in the sea crossing,” says Bitran. “The scene is inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. But while that epic highlights Odysseus’ heroism and perseverance, ‘Frontieres’ wish to emphasize that the migrants share those qualities, though they remain unsung.” 

“[‘Frontieres’] is inspired by the plight of illegal migrants, refugees and others who were displaced from their homes, whether it be African migrants crossing to France from North Africa, Rohingya stranded in Thailand or boat people attempting to cross to Australia through Indonesia. The crisis is not only ongoing, its also exacerbated by public ignorance,” Bitran adds. “I can relate to the issue because my own grandparents emigrated to France in the 1920’s after they were displaced from Turkey. I also saw the effects of the issue firsthand, as I helped a number of migrant families with their paperwork or their childrens’ schooling.” 

Bitran added that migrants’ hardships don’t prevent them from reaching the pinnacle of success, citing former French president Nicolas Sarkozy as an example.

Vallet agreed with Bitran. “‘Frontieres’ features puppet show elements of East and West, such as Thai shadow puppets and the camera obscura, which has long been the visual effect of choice in western puppet shows. The mixing of both traditions highlights the universality of human trafficking,” he says, while also recalling how the group came up with ‘Frontieres’ at a puppeteer workshop in Bangkok last January. “We opted for the camera obscura, mirrors and other items because they lend themselves well to live performances. Unlike video recorders or cameras that form pictures from pixels, the camera obscura and other items show everything in sharper detail as they aren’t broken down. In short, our methods are traditional yet innovative.” 

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 19, 2014

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