Journalist Ulrich Müller Reports on ID: Babylon Festival

ID: Babylon Festival, Clermont-Ferrand: 4 – 6 April 2019

We were privileged to have Ulrich join us for the whole festival in France earlier this year. He wrote a shorter piece on the festival that ran in German press but also gave us his perspective on the full festival which we wanted to share with you. Here’s his account.

4 April, 2019

“Das junge Kleinod” has arrived, and it’s definitely France. “Bonne journée, Madame. Merci, monsieur.” The ladies are wearing their sunglasses in their hair at temperatures just above freezing, filled baguettes are waiting in the window. The tables are already set in front of the bistros: Plat du jour in coat and scarf. Bustling life in Clermont-Ferrand, narrow alleys and wide squares, small shops and modern shopping arcades. The black cathedral dominates the city, a soldier patrols with a machine gun in the crook of its arm, snow-capped volcanic peaks can be seen in the background. Pigeons, quails and foie gras are on offer in the market hall, the fish counter in the supermarket is fantastic.

The first event sees us gather in the late afternoon at a reception in town hall as we walk there we discover that zebra crossings are not necessarily safe and red pedestrian lights, more like recommendations. The strains of the journey are still in the bones of all participants of the European theatre project “ID: Babylon”, but the elegant reception hall in the town hall knows how to impress with stucco, busts and chandeliers. Madame Isabelle Lavest, who is coordinating Clermont-Ferrand’s application for the European Capital of Culture 2028, welcomes the guests from Slovenia and Italy, England, Germany and France. Jean-Claude Gal, director of the Théatre du Pélican, is particularly pleased to host the weekends festival, which marks the first large international gathering of the project.

5 April 2019

The next day is dedicated to theatre, after rehearsals in the morning the first three performances follow in the afternoon. Just before 2pm the nerves of the young performers are palpable. For the German young people at least, performing in a modern and well attended theatre with over 200 seats is not commonplace. The performances start with Jean-Claude Gal’s production Paths of Rain, a dialogue by and with young migrants. Eight young actors and two professionals try to break out of isolation and emphasise the commonality of their stories: performed in French with English subtitles and touching moments. The Slovenian group from Nova Gorica, on the other hand, uses the means of comedy to reflect the bizarre fear of Muslims, which does not yet exist in the country. In Won’t Curdle With Us, elements of tabloid hysteria and farce are performed by very professional actors to a very enthusiastic audience.

Between the two performances, which have been prepared over a long period of time, stands the play by the young German group, It was/n’t, which was created in two workshops and has found its place in this theatre hall. The ensemble – Omid Daoud, Oria Daoud, Viyana Dimen, Vincent Lenkeit and Jule Viebrock – are in top form. The audience reacts positively from the very beginning, the mixture between rather entertaining and thought-provoking elements fits perfectly. Juliane Lenssen’s production remains close to the themes of the project with the story of the Tower of Babel and quotations from interviews with young people. It’s told with a variety of theatre techniques and if there were grades, it would be a smooth “one” here – the highest grade in the German school system.

The German play is described as “very cool. Very funny and very touching” afterwards during the rather formal group discussion. With the restrictions of the microphones and the ordered translators, what had long since begun unofficially and casually among the young people outside in the courtyard seems somewhat stiff. French and Italian, Slovenian and German, English and Arabic – for the young people the change between the languages is no problem at all. One could quote from the German performance “to all parents: trust your children, trust in us and always say: you can do it”.

6 April, 2019

The next morning, a thematically guided tour of the city is on the programme. In the afternoon, the day of the “European flag” continues with a well-organised “Café Citoyen”, which is also interesting for the young people, and a live broadcast on two radio stations, which is part of the application for the European Capital of Culture. In between a workshop with actress Jessy Khalil – the German young people take part always and everywhere in all the activities.

The evening brings the rest of the performances: The Glej Theatre from Ljubljana is leaving migration and growing nationalism out of the equation in its Café Europe and is reflecting on the young people in the group’s wishes and sensitivities with both absurdity and emotion. Without words, but with good ideas and multimedia, the young Italian group of delleAli teatro, explore the subject of flight with lo qui, while the British group from the Albany focus entirely on its text. The London Show shows in concentrated reduction what black skin means in the British capital. The strongest effect is produced by the empty chair of a missing actor in the spotlight: “You can take away our freedom, but not our voice”, Tendayi Mutongerwa, who couldn’t travel to France due to visa problems, is heard as a recorded voice.

Things wrap up with a lot of respect and applause, a lively exchange and of course a party: “It’s nice to hear people talking about the same thing from different perspectives”, says Englishman Peter Johnson and this view has the full approval of the audience. Thanks to the organisers, “ID: Babylon” is definitely a success. In Clermont-Ferrand, young people from five countries are moving closer together without any reservations.

Ulrich Müller, Journalist, Nordsee-Zeitung

All images by Finigan Rasch


Tayo Olowo-Okere on the Festival in France

Tayo is one of the UK project participants and she wrote this blog about her experience at the ID: Babylon Festival in France earlier this year.

ID: Babylon is a European collaboration with 5 European partners – France, Germany, Slovenia, Italy and the UK. From each country young artists and performers were chosen to create a performance in response to their own meaning of Babylon and how that expresses what being European means to them. Our piece, named after the project, explored belonging and what it means to be British while Black and was performed in France, London and Amsterdam.

ID: Babylon for me was more than an experience to travel and perform. I gained so much more than I imagined. The process of preparing to perform our piece was really insightful for me. I was able to work with other young, talented writers to talk about something really important – race. With guidance from rapper and spoken word artist Potent Whisper, we learnt about the structure of spoken word and rhyming. As a group we were given the freedom to explore our British and European identity and we began to explore the theme of racism, injustice and borders.

 As a British Nigerian, these topics are not entirely new to me but I had never written and performed about them. It felt so daring and provocative. Each week I felt nervous about my own words, unsure about how audiences will receive it. But unlike other projects and performances, it began to feel bigger than me. Our words were important, our experiences and feelings were valid and deserved to have a voice. I was able to honour my family and culture while also critiquing the injustice and racist systems in this country. It felt empowering to speak my truth. I can admit that there was a part of me that was still nervous, but another part of me felt proud. I wasn’t relying on the audience for feedback or approval, I was expressing myself as an artist and it felt brilliant.

What was also amazing and unexpected was the response from audiences. When we performed for the first time in France I had no idea how it was going to be received. But it was so fascinating to speak to people as they were so interested in the topic and how we had created it. It garnered such an emotional reaction that led to some great conversations about what we had been through and why it meant a lot to us to share.

Having the opportunity to leave your country is a huge privilege in the right circumstances. Being able to explore more of the world and connecting with other young people was amazing. It was so inspiring to see them perform and see the many different and creative ways Babylon was defined and showcased. It was apparent to see that there were so many similar themes to do with identity, culture and migration in many of the performances from these groups. It definitely showed that many of us have had similar experiences despite being from different nations and cultures.

Projects like ID Babylon are extremely important as they highlight the importance of the arts as a tool that connects and allows us to express our opinions and feelings about the world. I’m very honoured to have been granted this opportunity by the Albany as I have grown as a writer and performer. Most of all I gained more confidence in expressing many ideas and topics that relate to who I am as a British Nigerian woman.

Tayo Olowo-Okere, June 2019