The woman on my left is wearing a grey kimono. She is in her thirties, has very short hair and piercing, blue eyes. When our gazes meet, she frowns and whispers to me all her anger, before armed guards scream to turn around and to put our hands on the wall. The woman on my other side, I think she is wearing something supposed to look middle eastern, tries to repress a giggle, but one of the guards has noticed her, so she is asked to leave the wall and to kneel in the middle of the room, next to one of the cages with the actors dressed as refugees. She is ordered to keep the hands behind her back, they put a black hood on her head and a minute later she is carried away to another room.
I’m not writing the beginning of my next short story, this is really happening, and at the same time, it’s not.
I’m inside an empty undercover market in Melbourne north, a huge space, after hours. I’m here with hundreds of other people (600? I’ve never been good at estimating numbers), following the orders of guards that scream with what I believe is an Irish accent (not good at recognising accents either). The guards are in full Kevlar uniform and carry guns, some have muzzled German shepherds at the leash.
We have all dressed ‘foreign’ and have come equipped with ‘strength, resilience and courage’, just like they told us to do as we booked the ticket for Underground Cinema, the last frontier of reality-cinema. Go to the movies without knowing what film you are going to see, but first, experience what the world of the movie would feel like. Tonight’s mystery movie being a post-apocalyptic dystopia of border control, we are now pretending to be refugees, pushed and rounded up by armed guards that shout incoherent orders.
“It’s unbelievable that they are playing at incarcerating people, while people are being incarcerated right now, here in Australia”, this is what the woman in the grey kimono is so angry about. I shake my head uncommitted. I ask her whether she knew what she was getting into when she bought the ticket, she says yes, but this… she cannot finish the sentence because we are again marched to another wall.
Personally, I am trying to imagine what would happen if I were to run away from my line and try to ‘escape’, like I’ve seen doing so many times in war movies. I play with the image of me running across the space, arms outstretched, screaming viva la rivoluzione (in Italian for theatrical effect), I also think about starting to sing La Marseillaise, just to see what happens. But I decide not to.
After ten minutes of screaming session, we are escorted through layers of plastic curtains, doors, wires. At the other end, we find ourselves inside a cinematographic set representing a refugee camp designed by a groovy Australian fashion designer.
There are many clues to remind us that it is not real: the $60 ticket paid to be part of the show, the many stalls selling exotic food, the hipster cocktails served in jars – everything available at real Melbourne prices. And yet, there is something scarily real about all this.
I’m not talking about the actors who wander around the refugee camp, dressed as fortune tellers, beggars, underground agents, recruiting people for their operations, engaging the audience in this form of vivid entertainment.
I’m talking about the colorful crowd, doing their best impersonation of dressing ‘foreign’, elated at being part of something so cool, so different, so right-now, so out-there, madly posting under the #ugchope hashtag, dying to get more and more inside the game, enjoying every single semblance of reality. I’m talking about myself.
We look so decadent, sipping bubbly from a jar while reclining on comfortable beanbags scattered under an impossibly blue evening sky. I think basso impero, that time of late-Roman Empire characterised by ostentatious splendor amidst poverty and misery. Yes, we are the lucky inhabitants of the most livable city in the world, citizens of one of the richest countries in the world, a country whose official refugee policy is to turn back crumbling boats full of refugees, rather than honour the international treaties that oblige us to help them. Here we are, in an exciting evening adventure, bonding with strangers, playing at being refugees.
Unlike the woman in the grey kimono, I’m not scandalised, I did know what I was getting into and I decided to do so more than willingly, in fact I had to wait 40 minutes until everybody was in to see whether there was a way to get me into the sold-out event. The atmosphere reminds me of a domesticated La Fura dels Baus, for that feeling of ‘anything can really happen now’, domesticated because I know that they are working really, really hard so that nothing outside OH&S standards happens tonight. And it reminds me of Kusturica’s Underground, but less confronting, less polemical.
But I see the irony. This is why I accept the fact that my post-apocalyptic adventure feels very real in its absurdity. And yes, I also acknowledge to belong to a privileged, decadent minority, the same lucky minority with an income, a roof above the head, a citizenship that allows free travel around the world, a draw with precious family photos, a loving circle of family and friends who care about my well-being. I know, and I acknowledge this.
But I also know that the refugee theme is just one of the many that the Underground Cinema has presented. I play along. And I can’t wait to book my next more-real-than-reality adventure.