'˜It's about finding that strength to exist and resist'
If anyone understands the ethos of Journeys Festival International it is Natalia Kaliada.
The festival aims to showcase innovative works exploring the refugee experience.
The annual event started in Leicester in 2013 by ArtReach but is expanding to Manchester and Portsmouth for the first time this year.
As co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre with her husband, the playwright Nikolai Khalezin, Natalia put on underground performances in their then home Minsk.
But fearing for their safety, they fled the repressive regime – which has seen thousands jailed and beaten.
Along with their youngest daughter and fellow founder Vladimir Shcherban, they fled to London, but were forced to leave their 16-year-old daughter behind for nine terrible months while the KGB put pressure on their families back in Belarus.
They continue to work in exile as political refugees.
BFT is now putting on a new work – Burning Doors as part of the festival. The play has been written by, and features, Masha Alyokhina.
She attracted international attention as one of three members of Russian punk activists Pussy Riot jailed for two years for ‘hooliganism’ after they performed in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Burning Doors looks at what happens to people when they are declared enemies of the state simply for making art, using Masha’s own experience and that of the still-incarcerated Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.
For Natalia it is important that the play is seen beyond London – it has already played in Leicester and will also go to Manchester.
‘When your own country rejects you and when you are absolutely banned there, it is about how you need to find that strength in order to continue and to exist and to resist – that was an important message for us to share with our audiences,’ she says.
The BFT continues to operate in Minsk – putting on regular free shows. The exiled trio communicate with and even conduct daily rehearsals with their actors back home via Skype.
‘We live in two parallel realities. We have a meeting at the Young Vic where we are an associate company – it’s our London home – and suddenly you get a phonecall from Minsk and get told the company has been raided by KGB. It’s something that you can never stop thinking about, that reality, even when you are in London,’ says Natalia.
‘Whatever we do, it has consequences, when our website is hacked, or my email is hacked and we get computer viruses that say our web camera is working when it’s not on.
‘They’re really trying to show us their presence and when the system is fighting with you, they have the machinery – thousands of people who are very well paid to harass you.
‘In terms of opposition, we don’t have the resources, but we have us. And that’s the idea of Burning Doors, to present our own bodies as a major tool of resistance, and art as well – how to create art using our bodies, but also to understand that it’s the only weapon we have.
‘When we put together creativity and morality, it creates a pretty strong mixture that puts the authorities into a panic mode.’
Masha still lives in Moscow, despite everything she has been through, and continues to campaign.
She became involved with the BFT after writing to them when she heard about their show Staging a Revolution, ‘and because I’m passionate about revolution, I was very interested. I said I wanted to do a project with them and that’s how it started.
‘I am showing my story, I took the moments which were the most frightful for me from my prison time and out of prison time and I was reflecting a lot about freedom and what it means for us now.
‘If you are in prison, and one day somebody opens the door and says “okay Masha you are free”, I cannot believe it because there is no freedom in Russia at the moment.’
She goes on to describe various incidents – including when she was beaten up on film by Cossacks at the Sochi winter Olympics in 2014. ‘This is not freedom. In this play I’m trying to show what freedom means for us now.’
And this is what drives her on, in the hope of inspiring others: ‘Because it’s my country and I believe it belongs to me, and I don’t want to give my country to such people as Putin’s team.’
The play also aims to shine a spotlight on the case of Oleg Sentsov, jailed for 20 years on charges of plotting terrorism. ‘He did nothing. He is in total isolation now in Siberia. He cannot receive any calls, and refused the last visit of his family.’
But she recalls how knowing that the world beyond Russia was watching helped keep them safe.
‘One of the main roles was the attention of world society – we received letters and we heard about statements made by artists and politicians so we knew we were not alone.’
n Burning Doors is at the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth on Friday, October 14, doors 7.30pm. Tickets £15, £10 for concessions. Go to newtheatreroyal.com. For more on the festival go to journeysfestival.comJOURNEY’S FESTIVAL INTERNATIONAL PROGRAMME
* October 10-22: Look Up. Delivered in partnership with Aspex, it is a high-impact, large-scale outdoor visual arts exhibition on the exteriors of selected buildings across Portsmouth’s cityscape. Look Up presents Greek artist Nikos Papadopoulos’s colourful series Plasticobilism - a series of images inspired by the artist watching his young son play with Playmobil figures – and the exhibition provides a thought-provoking comment on current refugee issues.
* October 12, 17, 19: Coffee Shop Conversations. A free opportunity for the public to discuss and exchange views with refugee artists over the domestic ritual of coffee and cake. Taking place at Aurora, Javalicious and Guildhall Café, each session is facilitated by a chairperson with guests including Malcolm Little from the British Red Cross, novelist and poet Miriam Halahmy, and Dr Nora Siklodi, lecturer in politics and European studies.
* October 21: Sanctuary & Sustenance: The Story of Many Journeys to the UK. A multimedia projection of photography, film, music and in the stunning setting of Portsmouth Cathedral. Viewers have an opportunity to trace the journey of a family during the catastrophic events of displacement, on to their path of sanctuary, and through the long process of rebuilding life in a new community.
* October 13: Pop Up Theatre. A free theatre performance at a non-traditional outdoor theatre venue, this is an immersive, interactive piece of dance-theatre fusion by New Theatre Royal and Pamodzi Creative Productions. Entitled 10,000 Missing Children, the production explores the refugee crisis, with specific focus on the 10,000 refugee children who are currently missing in Europe.
* October 15: Kite Making and Flying Workshops. Portsmouth Guildhall will host two interactive kite flying projects for all ages to enjoy the historic, cultural tradition. International Kite Project uses innovative digital technology and projections that allow the public to design and fly kites – virtual kite flying – over the landscapes of Syria, India and Afghanistan, where kite culture is widely popular. The project is delivered with Inspirate.
* October 10-22: The Container Project.
A shipping container will be transformed into an innovative project space in University of Portsmouth’s Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries Eldon Building Courtyard. The container will host the WELL COME Project, in partnership with Aspex, the British Red Cross and Friends Without Borders. WELL COME will engage young participants from the refugee and asylum seeker community in visual arts workshops leading to an exhibition of their work. Southsea based artist M-One will guide participants to spray the façade of the container with a design highlighting the theme of the festival.