Brasilia comes full circle

It’s July 2006. I’m in Brasilia, capital of Brazil (NOT Rio, but I expect everyone to know that by now), leading a workshop with my mate Marion on how to use drama techniques as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language. The workshop was part of the Braz-TESOL (Brazilian Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) annual convention, which we were extremely proud to be a part of as recent graduates. This, however, was supposed to be my last activity as an ESOL teacher, for, as overly dramatically announced by Marion at the start of the workshop, I would be leaving him and moving to Scotland in a couple of months. My mixed feelings of sadness and excitement were only enhanced at the end of the workshop, when one of the participants, an experienced American teacher quite a few years my senior, approached me to say thank you, ask for a book reference, and yell at me: “What the hell are you going to do in Scotland?!”, which was kinda sweet.

This was my first time in Brasilia, and I had made a point of wanting to visit my own country’s capital before setting off in an adventure that would probably take me to many intriguing foreign capitals, so I’d like to tell you a bit about it. It still is one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever been to. First of all, it’s a city that was commissioned to architects and engineers, and therefore especially designed (by the great Oscar Niemeyer) and purpose-built. This means that it didn’t develop organically like most cities and towns around the world, which gives it a sterile and somewhat intimidating character. But maybe that feeling also comes from the fact that it is the Government’s headquarters (which was indeed in Rio until Brasilia was inaugurated in 1960). Another strange thing about Brasilia is that it is definitely not a pedestrian-friendly place. Every time Marion and I asked for directions, people kept asking if we were driving and told us brasilienses were made of head, arms, and wheels. We were stubborn enough to try and walk around, but we ended up sunburnt (it was winter, but the city has been plonked in the middle of a desert and it hardly ever rains there), exhausted and almost ran over a few times. There aren’t even pavements in most areas! Other than that, it really is worth a visit. If you look at it on Google Earth from above, you can see it’s shaped like an airplane. The main Government buildings are built along the plane’s body, with the Congress and the President’s house at the ‘cockpit’, and then the rest of the city (hotels, houses, schools, etc) is methodically distributed over the north and south ‘wings’. And of course, if you are into design and architecture, all of Niemeyer’s work is a must see.

Anyway… as you know, I left Brazil and went to Scotland to study theatre. In 2007, in Bristol,  I met brilliant Brazilian dancer and choreographer Augusto Omolù, who introduced me to the work of Eugenio Barba, the Odin Teatret and the International School of Theatre Anthropology, when I was still trying to figure out the answer to that American guy’s question. And then a whole new world opened up to me, and everything that Augusto told me about his work with Barba resonated within me, like something I didn’t quite understand but felt like it was the right direction to follow. I dedicated the following years of my course to studying Barba’s practice even if it wasn’t part of my coursework, aided by lecturers from a different specialism who had introduced me to Augusto and had also collaborated with Barba in the past. The more I learned, the more interesting and confusing it all got, and I ended up using a lot of this newly acquired knowledge to write my dissertation (an analysis of the performative elements in the funeral ritual of a Brazilian indigenous tribe, if you must know).

A year and a half after I graduated, I had an opportunity to go to the Odin Teatret in Denmark for a 2-week workshop with Tage Larsen, one of their actors. Eugenio Barba wasn’t there, unfortunately, but it felt like some sort of scared pilgrimage to be in that theatre and have access to their library, videos, archives. Cheesy as it may sound, it was a dream come true. That wasn’t my last encounter with the Odin. Shortly after I was forced to move back to Brazil, I had the chance to take part in a short seminar led by Julia Varley, another legendary Odin actress, in Las Piedras, Uruguay. And then, fast forward to December 2013, the cherry on the cake: I was one of 10 Latin American directors selected to take part in a residency with Eugenio Barba himself – guess where? Yep, in Brasilia.

So that’s how it all came full circle to me. 7 years after I had been to Brasilia for the first time, just before moving to Scotland to study theatre, I was back in the capital for an intensive course led by a guy I didn’t even know existed in 2006 but was now one of my biggest role models. It was such a fantastic week, during which I felt like I was finally beginning to understand what I’d been studying for good part of a decade. And I got to sit together for dinner with Barba and Varley and tell them about my own work. Cheesy as it may sound, it was a dream come true [2].

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Charlie’s Angels gone wrong & The Ghost Beach

The main objective of this blog is for me to rant about draconian immigration laws getting in the way of, or influencing my theatre work, and share my border-crosser experiences. But it is also a blog about travelling, so occasionally, I will post stories about interesting places I’ve visited just because. Like this one.

A few days after Neale’s visit and our jaunt around Uruguay and Argentina, another friend came to visit from Scotland. Pam had been here before, so Porto Alegre and Livramento weren’t new to her, but I like taking people to different places, so my sister and I had the idea of taking her to Cambará do Sul, a tiny town on the north of the state of Rio Grande do Sul famous for its national park Aparados da Serra. My sister and I had never been there either, so that would be new to us as well. The most famous thing in the park are the Jurassic-like canyons. We spent two days getting ready to go, checking weather conditions, activating the FlavNav (you know, memorising Google Maps as we still don’t have a GPS), choosing the right clothes for the occasion, and packing bags with enough supplies to survive in the jungle in case we got lost. We ended up looking like a poor version of Charlie’s Angels that didn’t get the brief, which the picture below confirms:

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So we got to Aparados, and stood at the top of trail leading to the main canyon, took a deep breath and trekked into the wild, ready to face the unknown. 45 minutes and hardly any effort later, we were at the canyon. We sat and ate our packed lunches laughing at our OTT prepping and admiring the view.

We spent a couple of hours there just basking in some nature and then went back, took the car and drove across the border (sorry, I had to!) into the state of Santa Catarina so we could U-turn and cross again into Rio Grande do Sul to go to the beach for a few days. We spent one night in Torres, the northernmost and my favourite beach in the south (shout out to Pousada Aventura, the excellent hostel where we stayed), and then went a bit further south to Capão Novo.

Capão Novo is a district of Capão da Canoa, the closest coastal town to Porto Alegre (and it feels like a suburb of Porto Alegre too). My brother has a house in Capão Novo, so we went there for sheer practicality. This, however, was November. Summer hadn’t kicked in yet, and I had never been there out of season. The place was a ghost town. Just a couple of the shops were open, and there was absolutely no one else at the beach apart from me and Pam. We did have a chilled week watching a lot of crap telly – the best show was this Jeremy Kyle-style thing in which a guy was keeping a MASSIVE secret from his girlfriend, and we were trying to guess what it was. We settled for a sex change, but it was revealed (after about 3 hours) that he had signed up to join the mission to colonise Mars!

Oh yeah, we also had a near-death experience when some loony drove straight at our taxi, but our driver managed to swerve and we escaped unscathed. A thrilling week indeed.

A Frog and Sealions Tale in Cabo Polonio

When the time came for me to leave Edinburgh again at the end of September 2013, I felt like the dog in this video:

 

However, I had a couple of visitors and some South American travelling to look forward to. My mate Neale had moved to Canada when  summer started and one day, I randomly got an email from him saying he had found some cheap flights from Toronto to Buenos Aires, and if he could come visit, as that is kinda near where I am. I promptly agreed and when the time came, I took the bus from Rivera to Buenos Aires and met up with him there.

We had a fab time in Argentina and made a few new friends at the hostel, went to the football, and consumed our combined body weights in meat. Took the ferry across to Colonia, in Uruguay, a very beautiful town. Then the bus down to Montevideo for another day, tried to sneak into a sold out football match, failed. And then we went to Cabo Polonio. This is a coastal village in the south of Uruguay, tucked away behind sand dunes that can only be traversed by 4×4, on horseback or on foot. There are about 60 houses there and most of them have their own wind turbine or solar panel, and some of them simply don’t have anything. The ‘streets’ aren’t paved, they’re just paths in the sand, and obviously, there are no street lights either. It’s one of those typical places where you go to “find yourself”, which is what we felt like we were doing sat at the foot of the lighthouse watching the sealions sealioning about and talking about life’s mysteries for a whole morning. Cliché as it may sound, I think everyone needs to do that sort of thing once in a while to reboot the system.

This is hardly a coincidence, as there are only about 5 hostels in the village, but we ended up unknowingly staying at the same hostel that two of my actresses had stayed a few months before, after we finished our Fronteiras Explorers project. Chatting to the owner, I told them that I had a theatre company in Scotland and he mentioned them. You know those “must be the same people we’re talking about” moments… yeah, that. And despite having had to spend the whole night with a frog on the wall looking at me in my dorm, then in the morning decided to go inspect my boots and finally thought it was a good idea to jump into my bag (at which point I caved and called in the cavalry – gracias, Luis!), I had a lovely and much-needed quiet time to regain my strength and plan the next steps.

Bristol with an L

After my visa refusal in April last year, I decided I was going to Edinburgh for the Fringe anyway, just for a visit, as there’s absolutely nowhere else in the world I’d rather be in August. Prior to my trip, I started hearing horror stories about people who were seeking entry to the UK as tourists but were refused and deported. I’d read a couple of them online, via the Manifesto Club, and the third one was told by a friend. His niece went to London to study English for a month and wasn’t refused entry after all, but only after she answered a number of pointless questions about her family and their lives in Brazil. Subsequently, the immigration agents called her dad and asked the same questions and the answers had to match. Needless to say, I was terrified I wasn’t going to be allowed to visit my friends in the city I’d lived in for 6 years.

I proceeded to gather as much information as possible and be prepared to be grilled at Edinburgh Airport. I think I’ve memorised the whole of the UK Home Office website by now (it was still the UK Border Agency then). I pre-warned my friends picking me up that it might be a while until they let me through, and that there was a chance of not actually being allowed in.

As the plane landed in Edinburgh, I started to cry. My heart was pounding, and it was all a concoction of feelings ranging from happiness at being back and fear of being sent away again. I filled out my landing card, waited in a long queue and finally arrived at the desk. A lovely, really polite lady was my immigration officer that day – one of the reasons why I always preferred to connect somewhere in continental Europe and then fly straight to Edinburgh rather than to London, where people who work at airports seem to be miserable and sadistic. She took my card and passport, asked me where I’d flown in from. “Paris” – And are you here on holiday? “Yes” – Where are you staying? “With friends, and here’s a couple of letters to confirm this” – Are your friends Brazilian? “No, they’re both Scottish” – Ok, how do you know Kirsty? “Through work” – And how do you know Jennifer? “Uni” – So you lived here before? (checks out my last visa, still on passport) “Yes, for 6 years. Had a student visa for 4 years, then a post-study work visa for another 2, which is the one you can see there” – Ok, good. Have you ever had any issues with Immigration before? “Yes, and I know that this is why your computer’s beeping” – Can you tell me about it? “I’ve applied for a Tier Exceptional Talent visa and was refused” – Why was that? “Because I’m not exceptionally talented” – (smiles) What did your refusal letter say? “Ehhh, no, love” – Pardon? “They didn’t give me a reason, they just said no” – Are you sure? “Yes, I am. I actually ended up filing a Freedom of Information request to the Arts Council of England to get more detailed feedback, which was still vague. Look, I could tell you the whole story, if you want, but let’s just say I also contacted the British Consul in Rio and she said herself she wasn’t clear how this visa worked” – I see. So what did you study while in Edinburgh? “Drama and Theatre Arts. Got a First. Want to see my diploma? I have it here” – No, thanks. And now are you living in Brazil? “Yes, I am” – What do you do over there? “I’m working as a teacher and translator. Here’s a letter from my employer” – Oh, good, thanks. And do you live in a rented property? “No, I own a flat with my sister” – Ok. So is that why you requested an Exceptional Talent visa, for your work with languages? “Erm… no. For my work in theatre” – Oh, so have you done that sort of thing before? “Yes, I’m a director and producer. I worked in theatre throughout my 6 years in Edinburgh” – That’s lovely. And are you staying for… 3 months? “Yes. Here’s a copy of my return ticket” – It’s an awfy long time to see friends, isn’t it? “Miss, I lived here for 6 years. I have a fair amount of friends to visit. But I’m not spending all 3 months in Edinburgh, I’m also going to Portugal for a wedding, then I’ll come back to fly out from here” – Ah, ok. When are you going to Portugal? “Just after the Fringe. Wedding is on the 14th September, I’m a bridesmaid” – (smiles) That’s nice. So, you said you’re working as a teacher, but how can you go away for 3 months? “I don’t work at a regular school, it’s a language school for business people. We tailor our courses according to the students’ needs, so there isn’t a regular calendar of classes” – Ok, I get it. Look, have a seat over there, I’ll need to take all this with me in there and just cross-check a few things. (goes off for another 20 minutes) – Right, Miss D’Avila, let me explain this: I’m allowing you through, but there is a stamp with a code here meaning that when you come back from Portugal, you might be asked to produce all this information again. Is that clear? “Sure thing. Well, thank you”

Almost an hour later, I’m allowed in.

Toni Nealie is a writer from New Zealand who lives and works in Chicago, and has had her fair share of immigration trouble. I completely identify with her feelings, thus described: “Being viewed as a potential threat diminishes you, fractures a personal landscape, peels off pieces of bark until you are raw. You begin to suspect your own legitimacy, your place in the long, snaking lines of mainly brown people waiting for their numbers to come up. Are you trying to sneak through a keyhole into a society that doesn’t want you? are you in the shadows of illegality? could they deport you? could they make you disappear?”. Her heartfelt narrative of her own airport trials can be found in full here. It really is a bizarre situation to be in.

When I stepped out of the airport and was taken to Cramond Island for a picnic with my friends, I felt like it was the first time I’d breathed in almost a year. And I had a wonderful month and a bit in Edinburgh, and then took a train to Bristol to see a long-lost friend and from there I flew to Lisbon.

I arrived in Lisbon with another thick stack of photocopies of everything I reckoned I’d need to be allowed in the country. I was a tad more concerned, because my friend getting married was Brazilian, but I had all her details, including her residency number. Not having a copy of the actual wedding invitation was another thing making me nervous, and I was kicking myself internally for forgetting to do that. I waited in a queue for 40 minutes and then arrived at the desk. [following dialogue was in Portuguese] – Good evening. “Evening (hands over passport)” – Where are you flying from? “Bristol” – See, when you say that word in English, you pronounce the L at the end, don’t you? “Yes…? Bristollll” – Ha. That’s funny. (stamps passport) Welcome to Lisbon.

Yep. That was all.

From Basel to Rivera

When I was last in Europe, my sister was there with me. She’s a big fan of tennis, Roger Federer being her favourite player. She’s also a bit of a stalker (love you!), so we ended up renting a car and driving from Paris to Basel as she wanted to visit Federer’s hometown. Now, this is relevant because this is where “The FlavNav” comes from – we are cheap and decided to forego the rental car’s satnav, resulting in me yelling directions that had been googled the night before and jotted down on a notepad at my sister while she drove. As perfectly sensible people would do. It is also relevant because Basel sits on a triple border, and this theme has been recurring in my life and inevitably influential in my work.

I found it fantastic that I could say I’d walked from Switzerland across to Germany, then to France and back before breakfast. It shouldn’t have impressed me much, as I was born and grew up on a border town, Santana do Livramento, in southern Brazil. It is joined by the hip with Rivera, in Uruguay. There are no bridges, no rivers, no border control stations here. The two towns are one, and everyone can move freely between them. Now, in addition to the physical differences stated above, our Mercosul doesn’t quite work as well as the EU (as much as they try), and politically and economically speaking, Uruguay and Brazil are 100% separate countries. People turn a blind eye to A LOT that happens here, endless allowances are made because the place simply can’t be regulated like the rest of both countries. Yet, bureaucracy always manages to get in the way. I could go to school in Brazil in the morning, for example, and then to my English class in Uruguay in the afternoon (which allowed me to say for years that I studied English abroad, much to my own amusement), no problem. If I wanted to set up a business in Uruguay, however, I’d need to go through a silly amount of paperwork. Things like that, you get the picture. The freedom of the border is rather unique nonetheless. So much so that locals say the border means nothing to them – we don’t realise there IS a border until we’ve been to other places.

So last year I had the chance to bring my theatre company over and explore this border, its features, peoples, languages, relations. We were supported by Creative Scotland, a Brazilian university and many other local organisations and companies both in Brazil and in Uruguay. We had an excellent time and I’m very proud of what we achieved. We’re hoping to release a documentary about it this year, and will also feature in a book about performance pieces that happened in Portuguese-speaking territory between 2010 and 2013. If you want to know more about this project, please check out our blog on that.

Anyway, the point is, to this day I struggle to wrap my head round less amicable borders. Brazilian writer Donaldo Schüller said that “beyond a border, there’s threat and seduction”. I’ve spent most of my life being seduced by the other side, but now after the experience of the past few months, I’ve started to get a taste of the threat. I confess I would like to visit some of the most extreme bordering areas in the world so I have the whole spectrum. This was the idea of Fronteiras Explorers (the aforementioned project), but now my own border-crossing has come to a standstill, when I’m no longer allowed to hop over to the other side where I used to live.

Tomorrow I’m speaking at a local university in Santana do Livramento as part of a panel discussing the construction of a border-specific culture and art. Maybe part of it is to fully exploit this tension between the threat and the seduction. I’m sure it will be a thrilling debate.

Some people get kicked out of bars, some people get kicked out of countries

One of my best friends once taught me that good artists steal, so the above line was stolen from a Bacardi ad. If you’re reading this and don’t know me personally, hi, I’m Flav and I’m an alcoholic a theatre director/producer Brazilian. I’m starting this blog because something very bad happened to me recently and putting things in writing as if I’m talking to someone helps organise my thoughts. Also, because the whole situation is too ridiculous to bear alone, and I’m sure there are quite a few people out there going through similar predicaments. I say we find each other and start a support group. Anyway, if you’re new to my life you have to catch up and if you can’t be arsed reading, here’s a video of my telling this story. If you’ve been around me for long enough, you know what I’m talking about and may stop reading now.

I moved to Scotland in 2006 to study Drama and Theatre Arts, which was something I’d wanted to do for years. I had a Tier 4 Student Visa for 4 years, at the end of which I graduated with a First Class Honours (nae bad for an international student whose first language isn’t English). After that, I was granted a Post-Study Work Visa (previously known as Fresh Talent) for another two years. During that period, I got an alright “bill-paying” job and set up my own theatre company. I’d worked with quite a few theatremakers from the UK and beyond throughout the previous years and only now had a clearer idea of the artistic direction I wanted to pursue. I went to London for 6 weeks to take a course in Theatre Production to help me with this endeavour, and spent 2 weeks in Denmark training at the Odin Teatret as well. My company, Fronteiras Theatre Lab, put on its first show at the Edinbugh Fringe in 2012. Earlier that same year, the same company was a semifinalist at the Scottish Institute for Enterprise’s New Ventures competition.

However, despite being able to pay rent, bills and taxes, I didn’t make enough money to apply for a Tier 1 Skilled Migrant, or Entrepreneur visa to stay in the UK and take this project forward. What I could potentially do was apply for the wonderful brilliant well-thought out Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa (applause, please). But in order to do that, I had to move back to Brazil for a few months. Because that isn’t counter-productive at all.

I don’t want to bore you too much, so I’ll cut the story short. I moved back at the end of September 2012. I organised an international theatre project, worked as an advisor for local cultural organisations in my hometown, and went back to my old job as a teacher and translator to get some money. I applied for the Exceptional Talent visa, but was not deemed Exceptionally Talented by the powers that be. I went to Edinburgh for a wee holiday and then went to Portugal for my childhood’s best friend’s wedding. Then I came back to Brazil and started planning my second attempt at that visa. That’s a whole new post, though. We’ll get to that.