On-The-Line: A film made in lockdown
Compass Collective reflect on their short film On-The-Line – created by young refugees and asylum seekers for World Refugee Day 2020
Last year, Mika, a young asylum seeker from Azerbaijan, travelled to Shakespeare’s Globe from Birmingham with the Red Cross to watch Voices in the Dark in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for Refugee Week 2019.
She saw a cast of 25 young refugees and asylum seekers take over the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in a performance that was brave, raw, emotional, honest and hilarious. Despite language barriers, they told a powerful story about a young boy who was lost in a new country. At its heart, it was a story about the importance of friendship. The cast’s ability to improvise and react to the audience was astonishing. The air was buzzing. It made audiences laugh and cry. The theatre was packed to the rafters, crowded and loud with cheerful chatter. What a memory to think of, while the country’s theatre doors are closed during this pandemic.
When Mika saw the show she immediately knew she wanted to do the same. She remembered thinking “Why didn’t I know about this project before?” She “complained to the Red Cross why I am not in that performance! Finally, this year, my dream came true!” Mika wasn’t the only one who wanted to join in. One young asylum seeker in the audience got up and joined in with the performance! It’s a joy to redefine what performance means, and the relationship with the audience, when you have a group of people in a room who don’t have the same cultural rules in place.
‘It’s a joy to redefine what performance means, and the relationship with the audience, when you have a group of people in a room who don’t have the same cultural rules in place’
Compass Collective is a non-profit theatre company that works with people seeking sanctuary. We directed Voice’s in the Dark for the Globe last year. When the UK went into lockdown earlier in March of this year, we had to postpone five nationwide projects. This was devastating for us, but all was not lost. As artists, we realised we must do what we do best. And that is to reflect the times we are living in. To be fleet footed, to adjust and represent the world around us. As a small grassroots organisation we adapted very quickly by using online platforms. But we soon discovered that 90% of young refugees and asylum seekers don’t have mobile data and 80% don’t have access to a laptop. We launched a JustGiving campaign to provide data, phones and laptops to over 100 young refugees and asylum seekers across the UK, enabling our sessions to be accessible and inclusive to all.
Compass Collective work with young people seeking sanctuary by delivering theatre projects, arts-based professional development programmes, and one-off drama workshops.
So how did we spend lockdown? We made a film with 42 young refugees and asylum seekers. Rehearsed over Zoom and made out of phone camera footage sent in by the young people, On-The-Line gives an insight into the journeys, experiences and lives of asylum seekers during lockdown.
We reached out to all the young people we’ve worked with in the past, such as Mika, who joined us for a performance at Amnesty International in January this year, as well as those who would have taken part in our postponed projects, such a Paewest, a 16 year old from Iraq who now lives in Lowestoft. He told us “Well, as we all know, in lockdown every day is the same. But when I started working with Compass I was busy most days in the week.”
‘We’ve all experienced a certain level of isolation during lockdown, but for young refugees and asylum seekers this is systematic. Alone in the UK without their families, with a limited social network and low levels of English, they are along the most vulnerable’
We’ve all experienced a certain level of isolation during lockdown, but for young refugees and asylum seekers this is systematic. Alone in the UK without their families, with a limited social network and low levels of English, they are along the most vulnerable. Many of these young people have ongoing mental and physical health issues and struggle with uncertainty in various aspects of their lives, for example navigating the asylum process, age disputes, homelessness and destitution. These struggles have become exacerbated due to the uncertainty of the pandemic. Our workshops have provided an essential social network and creative outlet during this challenging time. In Mika’s words “Well, over lockdown everyone gets stressed. It was really helpful to forget about the virus and bad news around me. Every time when I was in session I totally forgot about everything.”
Our one-click link to Zoom, a portal into a different world, a safe, friendly and creative place, made our sessions accessible to young people from across the UK, from Glasgow to Kent. We’ve worked with over a hundred in the last three months, and over 60 have engaged in our weekly online sessions. For some young refugee girls, having the courage to turn up to a rehearsal room is one barrier too far. One young girl, H, who was very shy and didn’t want to show her face, was still able to log in from her bedroom and be a part of the community we built. Discovering she loved cooking, we set her on a project to take photos and videos of her meals from Chad which we included in the film.
Mika was skeptical about the online sessions. “The first week when I joined I was so nervous. I don’t like online sessions. I’m the person that likes reality, face to face. But then I joined and I saw the people, had really good conversations. Step by step, we talked about what we want to do, I shared my thoughts and my ideas and writing. We had good people around to support us. We write and joke. We have fun. That’s the most important thing.”
‘We are driven by the young people to find the platforms for their voices to be heard, to empower them to tell their side of the story with authenticity and hope’
Paewast said “I learned to not be shy on the stage or on film. When we watched the movie, I felt like we were successful. We did that all in our own houses, in lockdown.” To that, Mika added “ there is no excuse for not making films. We can do it totally online!” And she’s right. We never dreamed we would be able to make a film, but we did. Despite having to tackle the lack of access to internet and laptops, despite some young people having no phones to record themselves, despite our shoestring tight budget, and the looming deadline of World Refugee Day, we’ve done the impossible. The pandemic has pushed us out of our comfort zone and proved new levels of achievement are possible, even with the highest levels of restrictions. In fact, the more barriers there are, the more we will fight to find creative solutions. We are driven by the young people to find the platforms for their voices to be heard, to empower them to tell their side of the story with authenticity and hope.
Watch Compass Collective‘s short film On-The-Line.
If you’re curious, have a watch of our film on the Globe’s YouTube channel. It reminds us to come together and unite in the times when it feels most challenging. We promise it will inspire you with the young people’s talents, tales and thoughts on the world we live in.
I’ll leave you with one final thought, it’s the thought that gets me up every morning and keeps me going on those hard days, especially now, when the uncertainty of the future of theatre is hanging in the air. The arts have the power to connect people that bypass different languages and cultures. If anything it celebrates differences and bridges divides. It builds resilience, communities and friendships. I’ve seen this happen in front of my very eyes. I hope by watching the film, you do too.
Watch Mika’s short as part of On-The-Line.
Watch Paewest’s short as part of On-The-Line.