On the 6th of June, the Festival of Ideas opened with a boom with “Artistic Censorship in Repressive Regimes”, chaired by Julia Farrington (Head of Arts, Index on Censorship) and featuring, as speakers: Iranian singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat, Natalia Koliada (co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre), and finally Lisa Peschel from UoY. If I were to condense this event into two words, these would definitely be ‘utterly inspiring.’
In line with the Festival’s theme of “Secrets and Discoveries”, the panel discussion addressed issues of repression of artistic expression in historical and modern-day settings. The National Centre for Early Music, a stunning church-turned-lecture-hall, offered a suggestive setting to the talk’s themes. A place specifically designed to let voices be heard by the larger public was the best stage for voices that had been stifled, such as the ones attending this event.
The talk opened with Lisa Peschel, who recounted how prisoners in the Jewish ghetto of Terenzinstadt produced and used theatre as both a subversive action against the Nazi regime and as temporary relief from everyday horrors. Jews were forbidden to reproduce German drama and music, but were not entirely prevented from holding small performances among themselves. With topics ranging from subtle, pungent critiques of the regime to plays about hope and bright futures, it was the sense of unity that they offered that kept the Jewish community together during the war’s harsh times.
Natalia Koliada’s account was together disquieting and deeply inspiring. Having lived as a political refugee in the UK with her husband for the past four years, Natalia shared with the audience her personal experience as a theatrical director under a contemporary dictatorship: she painted a bleak picture of the Belarusian situation from a government that refuses to acknowledge the existence of suicide and mental health problems (despite being one of the most afflicted in Europe), to the banning of any sort of artistic expression deemed “too subversive.” She also recounted how the local police stormed one of her performances and arrested cast members and audience alike.
“The government’s answer is violent and repressive. But how does the audience respond to Natalia’s work? Are they scared, or are they supportive?” I asked the panel.
“It is very difficult to gather an audience in the first place in these situations,” Julia Farrington replied. “Performances are held in secret locations, usually apartments’ living rooms, to which one is led by a contact on the street; audiences are limited to twenty people at a time. Although, a sort of complicity between the theatrical company and the audience is created: the people attending the show are as responsible for what is happening as the cast members are, thus they aim at supporting each other.” Should the police apprehend them, all would suffer the same consequences. The process of getting performances “out there” is long and painfully slow, but if Natalia has been forced to escape Belarus to avoid persecution it shows that it is nonetheless effective.
Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat’s testimony as ‘invisible singers’ in Iran closed the event. Despite their international fame as singers of classical Persian and Iranian music, the government has curtailed their career after a decree was passed forbidding women to sing solo in public, unless the audience is exclusively female. The government bowdlerises heavily all the channels and programs in which the pair feature as performers, and cuts off their attempts at publicising their own concerts.
Mahsa Vahdat revealed that, as a music teacher, she acts as a role model for female singers that live in similar political circumstances and other Iranian women. She believes in the fundamental importance of encouraging women to keep the tradition alive despite the limitations imposed by the government.
On illegal downloading, Mahsa declared that “it is not a problem: our aim is to be heard, to put forward and carry on a message. As long as there is hope for that, the means by which it happens are of secondary importance.” Mahsa and Marjan are passionate advocates of hope, unwavering in their conviction that change in the future is possible.
The panel discussion raised issues of extreme relevance to modern-day societies. Maybe too used to the freedom we are given in our own, we might end up thinking it impossible for such political repression to still be taking place today. The talk prompts reflection on themes of both personal and global nature: how far is one voice allowed to comment upon its situation? How deep can this voice change those that listen to it? In what ways do the governments rely on these voices, or suppress them to maintain control? To what extent are we conscious of these political actions and situations? Definitely something quite deep and challenging to think about, and York’s International Festival of Ideas has only just begun.