It is difficult to tell the story of a disaster. All too often the storytelling slips into sensationalism or well-worn stereotype – the human disaster smothered by our shared Hollywood understandings of catastrophe. Perhaps this is to be expected; perhaps reframing real-life horror within the conventions of cinema acts as a coping mechanism, a way to distance ourselves from stark, shocking truths.
And what could be more shocking – what could shake us and make us want to close our eyes and pretend nothing happened – than a terror attack on children. The siege on a school in Beslan in 2004, which saw over 1000 people taken hostage in a stifling school gymnasium and left 334 people dead, 186 of which were children under 10, is an event that is tremendously hard, if not impossible to process.
It is difficult therefore to underplay the challenge which Belgium-based company BRONKS has set itself in choosing to stage the Beslan hostage drama. It is a high stakes game; are these events simply too horrific to be handled artistically? Maybe in the hands of a less bold, skilled and inventive company. In those of performers Roman van Houtven and Gytha Parmentier however, the tragedy is carried with such virtuoso lightness of touch the audience cannot once even be tempted to close their eyes or look away. For, in a genius twist on catastrophe narratives, this story is not told by the adults – the ones with the preconceived notions and political biases. Us / Them is told through the eyes of children – the ones at the heart of this drama, whose viewpoints and voices are too easily overlooked. Thus, the floorplan of the school is scrawled over the stage in chalk; the teroorists’ bombs are black balloons; the trip wires that laced the gymnasium are string, hung like a cat’s cradle to be hopped over and flung under, like a make-believe game of spies and robbers.
Parmentier and van Houtven are utterly outstanding. They at once entirely inhabit the bodies and minds of young children, and also launch themselves around the stage in movements of such controlled, graceful energy the piece never seems to settle for an instant. Far from slipping into sensationalism, this retelling manages to be simultaneously playful and deeply moving. In a way perhaps only children can be, it is both silly and profound.
For what is really at the heart of this story, as the title suggests, is the process of othering. Of the lines we draw in the sand between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’. The Beslan siege seems to provide a clear cut instance of innocence versus evil – for what could be more plainly evil than the imprisonment and slaughter of the young? And yet, through the eyes of innocence, the audience is shown how very juvenile all our understandings of ourselves and others are. The tales the children tell – of all those over the border being moustached women and paedophiles – are clearly reductive, divisive errors, but where do these stories come from if not overheard from parental conversation? The power and beauty of this piece – it’s subtle handed genius – lies in the way it challenges our conventional renditions of tragedy. The exaggerated tales and dreams of the children reveal the constructed, simplified reality we create for ourselves. In the face of horror, we are all children playing make believe; we close our eyes and hope for heroes to come and save us. In a time when divisions seem to be sharpening, and lines in the sand are being drawn at an alarming pace this piece not only communicates this single event in an outstandingly original way, it speaks to all of us and our apparent need for easy narratives. The innocent, questioning gaze of children is remarkably piercing.
(Originally for Crows Nest Zine )