By Herselman Hattingh.
The brief fails to mention who they are. They look like a group of travellers. Performers or actors, perhaps.
I saw one of the players putting on make-up this morning. He coloured his face white and accentuated the cheek bones. It made him look exceedingly thin. Very frail. A string of sighs on the landscape.
The director is a big man with long hair bound in a ponytail.
Sometimes he wears a cap, at other times a fez or a turban. He wears sunglasses against the glare. He has a deep sonorous voice and lips to match. He smiles when he talks and he gestures generously even when he is brushing his teeth, for example. I picture him with his arms open, awaiting the embrace of the world.
I often find the cameraman in the presence of young girls. He is never there when I need him. I have to call him several times to get his attention. He does not seem to be comfortable with his equipment. I have to show him where things go. I have to direct him in every detail. He is exhausting to work with. I don’t know whether the girls find him exhausting too. They are in awe of his camera. They pose and pose. He shows them the photographs. Their smiles are frozen in time.
Some of the children are the director’s favourites. He calls them to him at all hours. What interests him is the general sadness of their demeanour. I make notes on his observations. The sadness of some of the little faces makes the director blush and sometimes I see a tear in his eye. He looks again and again at the saddest faces. He wipes their little noses and smiles at them, but he is not pleased when they smile back. They have a duty to weep, he says. They have been favoured by creation to look sad. He calls the cameraman to take close-ups of their tears and their little frowns. Some of them, he says have sad hands. Hands are important, he says.
He keeps an eye on them and scolds parents who do not look after the sad children. He takes a personal interest.
There is much discussion around the campfire at night about the correct definitions of words such as ‘poetic’, ‘romantic’, ‘realism’. The broader context of these discussions escapes me.
The young ones are playing in the sand. They pretend they are on a boat. They pretend they have very little food and water. There are good ones and bad ones. The bad ones play their roles well. When the rations run out, they are the first to suggest a system for drawing lots. Eat or be eaten, they say. Then one of the children drowns. He flails in the sand for a bit and then rolls over. One of the girls cry a little, but the skiff has to move on. The sea keeps on rolling, rolling. One of them can already see land when clouds gather and an almighty storm breaks loose. They have to throw everything they have with them overboard. One of the bad ones suggest that children and babies should be dumped on the grounds that they are not yet truly bound to life and would not really mind leaving it. A moral argument ensues, presumably while the storm rages. Eventually the argument and the sea calm down and someone spots the coast guard. No one is surprised to find out that the coast guard is in cahoots with people-smugglers. We are called to dinner by the time most of the woman and girls on the boat have been sold. The game is called ‘bametse’, which I learn means ‘adrift’.
The afternoon session starts with joyful music. Accordion, tambourine, double bass. A true circus atmosphere. Soon some of the young men have erected a strong stretch of fence in the middle of the desert while others take part in what seems to be warming exercises. There is much jocular banter among the athletes. Five or six boys create a pyramid that shudders beautifully under its own weight, straining to keep its shape in the moving sand. Some, from cradled hands, shoot agile young girls high into the air and some of them are so small that they seem to disappear entirely into the hot blue sky above us. The fence is planted and secured. The main support posts at either end of the fence have attached to them large wooden platforms and on each platform sits a group of women, either making trinkets, darning socks or reading to the young ones. The collective weight of this small community stabilises the fence.
When everything is in place, the director appears. He blows a shrill police whistle he has around his neck and everyone comes to rest. The pyramid collapses slowly and turns back into six boys.
This afternoon, the director says, we will be looking at different and related ways of climbing, scaling and otherwise violating the integrity and intentions of this fence and fences in general.
Hooray, shouts the crowd.
Alright, enough with the levity, says the director.
Everyone goes quiet. The director blows twice into the whistle and immediately five youths emerge from the ranks and form a neat row in front of the fence. A sixth, a young girl with long, dark hair and a translucent gaze stands to the side, holding up a white piece of cardboard which reads: Wrong ways of climbing a fence. As the first boy approaches the fence, the girl flips to a new sign that reads: The climb of the invader.
The boy, we notice now, is wearing a black mask and resembles a burglar. He proceeds to climb the fence in a stealthy way all the while looking over his shoulder. As he gets down on the other side, a second boy approaches the fence while the sign changes to: The climb of the leech.
As the ‘leech’ climbs the fence, he stops every so often to hold a cupped hand in a begging gesture. In this way, all the climbers instruct the crowd in fence-climbing strategies that should clearly be avoided. They take a bow and after some applause from the crowd, the director blows his whistle three times…
The cameraman focuses on a poster behind us that announces other sessions for later in the week: Successful ways of scaling a fence; The climb of the tortured; The climb of submission; The climb of the boy of good will; The climb of the perfect guest; Scaling a fence, the long-term view.
Truth, like everything else, has to be promoted. That is what I hear the cook say to one of the teachers.
An evening prayer is heard above the whisper of the dry sand:
We are the embers of this forgotten earth
The desert wind breathes on us and we shine
This life blows north against the wind
And we flicker slowly into nothing
We sing our last song here
We enter the silence of another’s tongue
I teach my mother to say
“Thank you,” and
“I have everything I need,” and
“It is raining,” and
“I am no longer here.”
Her veiled figure is only just visible in the flickering light at the edge of the small camp fire and perhaps we were not listening, or perhaps her story starts somewhere in the middle because when we join her she has already been without food for several days and thirst is burning in her throat when the attack comes and men enter the house and—
“No, no, no,” says the director, emerging from the shadows, from where he had clearly been waiting for this exact moment because his voice holds an I-told-you-so tone as he shakes his head slowly, sage-like.
“No, no, no, there is too much of yourself in this story. We cannot imagine your pain when we are forced to confront it so directly, do you understand? You are too close to the whole business. Your fear and disgust and pain clouds the story for the listener. Too much detail. You leave no room for me into which to project my pain, there is no space for my sympathy, you fill me with horror and horror is hard to digest. Your pain is quite simply unimaginable and it is through the imagination of others that we will enter their worlds and their hearts. We need distance between you and your story. In fact, it may be altogether easier if you tell another story entirely. Don’t pull such a long face. I don’t mean that you should tell a lie, strictly speaking, but what is the point of telling the truth when the truth has no impact on the listener? Is the truth without impact still the truth at all? Is the impact not all the truth you need? It is not what stories contain, but what they do that make them true.”
And he spoke like this for a while, his voice becoming more soothing until the fire gave out and everyone disappeared into the desert night.
“I’m not sure that this is the correct question. We are artists and everything we do aspires to rise to the truth of the matter. Or at the very least a general level of truthfulness. But of course, quite apart from the effects of our art, we embody the truth of each situation, of our own situation…”
“Which is…?” I ask.
“Precarious,” he says.
A poster on the infirmary wall reads Survival lecture tonight— Hiding your religious orientation in the face of religious freedom.
I arrive late and it may be that the director had been drinking too much. The camera is rolling.
“It was a warm night and my family was having a meal on the roof. Everybody was there, Mira, my wife…” He goes quiet for a long time. When he looks up we see tears in his eyes. The cameraman lowers the lighting a little. The scene becomes intimate and very true to life. “We heard the drone, but we were used to it by then. Down the road there was a small party going on. A birthday. My wife…” Again, a silence. “My wife and I had been discussing our daughter just before she joined us on the roof. We spoke about her lovely hair and her eyes…” Silence again. “At any rate, the drone’s sound changed suddenly and when it struck us, everything was dark for a long time and I was blinded by dirt, my ears were pounding and when I could see again, I wished that god had taken my sight, that he had turned my heart into dust.”
He sits quietly rocking back and forth on the low bench in front of the fire until the cameraman moves slightly. The director’s face is in his hands. When he lifts his head, his mouth is open and he cannot speak. I leave a long pause for effect and then signal for the camera to keep rolling. When the director calms down, I walk up to him and congratulate him on his script. Very convincing. Totally realistic. Utterly believable. Damn good show. The audience will love this. He looks at me for a long time and leaves the tent without saying a word. I’m not sure what to make of this. Perhaps he is not pleased with the take. The cameraman rolls his eyes.
“I know that actors are also athletes; the body, of course, when wielded competently, a complete system of communication. Yet I could not help but be astounded when I saw that man doing a balancing act on a stretch of barbed wire!” And we look, and it is true. On a stretch of barbed wire fencing, a very thin, bald man is walking slowly, inch by inch, making his way to the other side.
When he gets there, he bows to an invisible audience, turns around and starts back towards the beginning. His smile is the fixed smile of a performer in deep concentration.
Sitting around the fire one evening, a middle-aged woman starts in on a slow and breathy monologue. It is not the content so much as the delivery that demands our attention. As we continue our conversation she starts to circle the fire, her voice becoming an almost monotone song as she moves faster and faster, coming so close to the fire that a concentrated hush falls over all of us who sit here and after a while, we share to some degree her ecstasy. Just when we fear she will get hurt, she falls down and prostrates herself in the dust near the fire. It is quiet for a moment before the director says, “We do not know what befell her or whence she comes, but she embodies the truth of the artist who plays with absolute abandon, expecting nothing from the universe.”
It is early. The tension is palpable. They mill around in small groups. They are like orphans being assigned a new home. They are warming up. The great Bandini flexes his muscles. The twins speed past on unicycles, a small tiger is running loose and is being chased by a clown dragging a pony by its tail… Or this, rather, is the dream that wakes us. Outside the cameraman is sharing his coffee with a young girl. In the background, the camp is being dismantled. There is little mirth among the troupe. The outcome of the day is not certain. Walking through the remains of the camp, we feel the rhythm of a limited hope. We wish them good luck. They wave without conviction. I do not want to say, here at the end, that they disappear over the horizon, but that is what happens, because we have reached a point at which we can no longer follow them.
Not everyone who is lost in the desert is lost in precisely the same way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Herselman Hattingh lives in London. He knows that there must be good reasons for Brexit and Trump and why a lot of grownup people want to start a war with Russia. He is patiently waiting for an explanation. In the meantime he writes stories about things.
ABOUT THE ARTWORK
‘Figures of Sand’, courtesy of the author.
NOTE ON THE TEXT
“We do not know what befell her or whence she comes, but she embodies the truth of the artist who plays with absolute abandon, expecting nothing from the universe.” This line comes by way of Todd May’s introduction to Deleuze, regarding Nietzsche’s stance as per the universe’s purposelessness: “This is not the stance of good players. Good players play, and play with abandon. But they do not expect anything of the universe. The universe owes them nothing. It is headed nowhere in particular and they have no role to play in it. The universe gives what it gives.” Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2005)
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 6th, 2017.