Not Talented Enough for the UK

Most people reading this post are friends who already know the outcome of this whole saga. Irrespective of your knowledge of my ordeal, however, I would like to ask you to please read this with a sense of revolt rather than pity.

As you can imagine from the title and introduction above, I have been deemed not talented enough by the Arts Council of England for the second time, and therefore not eligible for a Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa. I can’t go back to Edinburgh and continue my work there. I will have to run around my friends’ houses to collect my things they’ve been keeping for me and find a way of disposing of them/shipping them back to Brazil. I will have to decide what to do with my Scottish-registered theatre company. I will have to change my plans and my career.

 

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If you haven’t been through something like this, you can’t really know how painful it is. Granted, I’m not a refugee or asylum seeker and there are millions of people out there who desperately need to migrate as it is a life or death situation for them. But with all due respect, this feels a bit like dying to me. It feels like I’ve been removed from my life. You know when you go through a personal tragedy of some sort, but you have your work to focus on, your friends who lend a helping hand, the rest of your surroundings to help you through? Well, that whole network of support is what has been taken from me. You can put things in boxes and into storage, but you can’t do the same with a career and with people.

I’m being punished for not being good enough, and I’m constantly reminded of that when I answer the questions I get almost daily about this. One good thing that has come out of it is that I’ve honed my storytelling and communication skills to perfection, being forced to adjust the register between talking my 30-something friends and cousins who are doctors and lawyers, and talking to my 80-year-old auntie who didn’t go to uni. Oh, and I’ve had to tell the story many times in three languages as well. But I’m not exceptionally talented, so don’t mind me.

 

 

 

Windmills and Visas

(This is not a post about Holland)

In October 2013, the UK Home Office published some small changes to the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa, adding the ‘Exceptional Promise’ subcategory. That gave quite a few of us outcasts a teeny weeny smidge of hope. Instead of convincing the powers that be that you are a BAFTA-winning director, now you have the chance to prove that you have the potential to become one someday. Ok, then. They also split the process in two: first you apply for endorsement from a “competent organ” (in my case, the Arts Council of England), and only if you are endorsed you apply for the visa itself. On the one hand, this made the process a bit fairer, as you only pay half the fee when applying for endorsement (that’s £420 – yes, this is half), and the other half only at the second stage of the application (so you don’t lose £840 in one go, like I did in 2013 when my first application for this visa was refused). On the other hand, the process became longer and slower.

Now, I am stubborn. And I’m a lover of lost causes, someone who functions on high levels of hope and denial. Don Quixote is one of my favourite stories (maybe because we have some stained glass windows depicting Quixote, Sancho and Dulcinea in my parents’ house and I grew up looking at them) and I have always been fascinated by windmills and wind turbines. Therefore, although I knew that this would become a quixotesque saga, I decided I was going to try again.

Recapping: I came back to Brazil from my last European trek (Edinburgh > Bristol > Lisbon > Paris > Metz > Basel) at the end of September and then had two Scottish friends visiting and went travelling a bit around South America with them (Buenos Aires > Colonia > Montevideo > Cabo Polonio > Riveramento > Porto Alegre > Cambará do Sul > Torres > Capão Novo). Then I went to Brasilia in December for a residency with my hero Eugenio Barba. It is now January 2014, when I sit down to work on my new visa application.

I analyse the guidelines and what is needed. Reviews, features, anything that shows you’ve been given attention from the media. National and international. This visa is aimed at people who are moving to the UK for the first time, which is not my case. I have media clippings related to my work in Scotland since 2010, already organised. I add clippings from Brazilian newspapers about the project I did in my hometown(s) in 2013. Now, it’s one thing to get national media attention in Scotland, and another thing to get national media attention in fucking Brazil. Scotland is smaller than my home state, and I lived in the capital. Brazil is a gigantic country, and I live in its southern borders, a forgotten place. As cool as my project was, and as much attention as it received locally, it wouldn’t make national news, it’s insane to think it would. So I just added what I had from local newspapers. The only other thing I could attach to make a stronger case was an email exchange with the editor of Performatus, an ejournal about theatre and performance, confirming that our project would feature in a book curated by them about interesting performance pieces that happened in Portuguese-speaking territory between 2010 and 2013. I thought it looked good.

Ok, next: awards and nominations. I just used the same as last time, as I haven’t been nominated for, or received any new awards in the past year. Sorry.

Then: three letters of recommendation. They say these will carry more weight, and one of them must be from a UK individual or organisation. These referees must be carefully selected. Last time, I had lovely letters from ZENDEH and the Forest , but they weren’t considered ‘international enough’, as per my first rejection. So I asked for letters from the Centre for Integration of the Mercosul, which represents the International Relations course of the Federal University of Pelotas, in Brazil, with whom I worked in Explorers; from my friend Jen as the UK individual, an extremely competent theatre director and writer whose studio theatre has been getting a lot of attention in Edinburgh; and from Eugenio Barba & Julia Varley, representing the Odin Teatret, possibly the most global of theatre companies, and who are celebrating their 50th anniversary as a theatre in 2014. This looked like a very strong and promising line-up.

Finally, and this is NOT a requirement, just something that occurred to me as a harmless thing to do and potential bonus points: I asked everyone who had ever worked with me and wanted to help to write me a short testimonial. Obviously, not everyone did, but I ended up with a good compilation of 20 pages and a really warm heart.

I worked on this application from the first days of January until mid-March, and I posted it (yes, in this day and age we are still using postal services for that kind of thing) on St Patrick’s Day. And then we all waited.

 

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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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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.

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.

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