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Utopian realism: Milo Rau

INTERVIEW: Can a theatre director change the world? Milo Rau isn't sure, but that hasn't stopped him from trying. He spoke to us about his three recent projects: a play about Lenin, a "General Assembly", and a film about the Congo.

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Photo by Daniel Seiffert

Director Milo Rau on changing the world.

Lenin’s last days, the creation of a world parliament, and an attempt at finding justice for the victims of the decades-long violence in the Congo: Those are just a few of the topics that ambitious 40-year-old Swiss director Milo Rau is coming to grips with this autumn at the Schaubühne – the first as theatre, the second as a series of “plenary sessions” and the third as a film.

Since 2009, when The Last Days of the Ceausescus reenacted a video of the trial against Romanian dictators Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, Rau has tackled it all: genocide (Rwanda), mass murder (Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik), pedophilIa (Belgian Marc Dutroux) over dozens of theatre productions, films, books, and events – in conjunction with the “International Institute of Political Murder” (IIPM), which he founded in 2007. Over the years, his work has won him numerous honours, including two invitations to Berlin’s Theatertreffen; last spring, critics polled by Deutsche Bühne magazine named him “Director of the Year”, and his work on Dutroux, Five Easy Pieces, was named Production of the Year in a critic’s poll for Theater heute.

You said there are two ways out of Leninism: cultural pessimism, or democratic anarchism. I was wondering what you meant by “democratic anarchism”, since that was the direction you said you were heading in?

The normal way of things is that people become pessimistic and somehow conservative when they reach their fifties, and then they are anti-Leninists or anti-leftists. That happens to a lot of former lefties when they get a bit older, especially in Germany and France. It’s like the classic biography of a Trotskyist – they go to the CDU or even AfD. And I think there’s another way, and it’s what I call democratic anarchism – an idea of the Soviets, of how to have direct democracy and how to institutionalise it. So, that’s why, after Lenin, we are now doing the second part of this triptych on the Revolution – we are putting together this world parliament, in which we try to make an institution and try to translate, somehow, Leninist or Trotskyist universalism into a more liberal, more anarchistic idea.

How does the “General Assembly” project at the Schaubühne relate to Lenin, exactly?

The first thing Lenin did after the revolution of 1917 was to dissolve the Soviets, the constitutional assembly. So it was the end of democracy; democracy couldn’t work if you changed it into a state that governs from the top down. And I think you have to do it the other way around. You have to re-think the idea of the Soviets and found an institution that shows the way to do it today, 100 years later. And that’s what we’re trying with the General Assembly.

Why call it a “parliament”?

When you look at the history of newly formed parliaments – for example, the name of the General Assembly is taken from the French Revolution – they were made through self-empowerment. It’s not me who found all these people. We did it together with 30 organisations from all corners of the world and many fields, and with them, we chose whom to invite as a representative. And this is similar to what was done in the General Assembly in the French Revolution in 1789, when people were just deciding: “Let’s send this one.” Or they said in Paris, “Let’s ask this one.” It’s a symbolic act, for now. Maybe later the decision process could be more statistical – some sort of algorithm.

The General Assembly’s first question is “What is global realism?” Do you have a preliminary answer?

You have a globalised economy, you have a lot of other globalised problems like climate change; in cultural questions: migration, the question of borders – if they are legal or not legal, etc. And nature, of course – the oceans, and everything that’s common to all humanity. And on this global level, you have only economic incentives – for example, the big corporations working the globe. But we as democratic people are totally not democratically organised. We don’t have any way to handle it. And this has to be changed in a very realistic way. We have to find institutions, ways to think about it, ways to talk about it, and ways to act. But this has to be done in a realistic and not utopian way. That’s why I call it global realism – being realistic and even pragmatic on a global level.

Much of your previous work has taken the form of a trial, and trials tend to have an intrinsic drama to them. The idea of a “plenary session” – your name for the General Assembly sessions – sounds a lot less dramatic. How do you avoid tedium? Or is theatricality not really a concern in this project?

Somehow, it is. Of course we try. I’m thinking of how we did it in The Congo Tribunal, which is also not an antagonistic court concept but more a concept of finding the truth. But we try to integrate antagonisms into the discussions. For example, when we export weapons to Kurdistan, is it good or bad? For our discussion, we’ve invited the Kurds, who will say: We are fighting Daesh and it’s necessary. And somebody from Iraq or Syria, who will say, “But it’s a problem for us because Kurdistan is just fighting for themselves, so stop it.” And we will discuss a lot of topics in this way. For example, freedom of speech. A lot of people in Russia say they don’t want freedom of speech because everybody, every nation, should decide what can be said and what not. And of course the universal idea of freedom of speech is totally different. And so on. So I think it will be quite interesting.

Do you really hope to solve antagonisms that no one so far has managed to solve through these sessions, and come out of them with a “Charta For the Twenty-first Century”? It’s very ambitious…

There already are problems with some people who are saying, “If this person is coming, I can’t come,” and we explain to them, “But you have to, because this is part of democracy – that your antagonist will be present. So you have to accept it, you have to accept it in every parliament.” On the one hand, we are trying to have a good discussion somehow, and to show the complexity of reality, and on the other hand, we are trying to find some solutions. We’ll try to balance it. But even these 15 points, I have no idea if they will be accepted or not. We don’t know what the Charta for the Twenty-first Century will be. It’s scripted like a tennis match: You know all the rules, but you don’t know who will win.

It’s scripted like a tennis match: You know all the rules, but you don’t know who will win.

Is it a little weird for this project, which is in some ways co-opting the prerogatives of the German Bundestag, to be getting funding from the German government?

Even more absurd is that several people from the Bundestag, from all parties except the AfD, are joining the world parliament. It’s an inclusive institution, because the national is part of the global. Of course it seems like a paradox, and on the surface, it is, but even in the end, the real world parliament – who will finance it? Of course it will in part be money from Western Europe. We’re even talking to auto firms from Germany and abroad to give money. We ask the people joining us in the audience to give their €5 to symbolically invest a bit. But we also didn’t want to ask for €10 or €15, at which point it becomes a problem to pay. Symbolically, we wanted there to be a cost for coming in.

You’re also planning on re-enacting the 1917 storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, but with the Reichstag, on Tuesday, November 7. Could you talk a little bit about why you decided to do that?

I think this “storming” of something is an archetype in the history of revolutions. You have it in the storming of the Bastille in 1789; you have it with the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917. One is the bourgeois revolution; the other is the so-called proletarian revolution, but in fact it was the beginning of the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party. What are we trying with this? Let’s say: We’re revisiting these two moments, the liberal and communist utopias, and asking ourselves: what could be a beautiful picture and what could be a charta, and what could be an archetype for solidarity and global democracy in the 21st century? We are trying to create it together, with the people from the parliament, the organisations, etc., so we will read this charta in front of the Reichstag, and people from the Bundestag will join us. It’s about the politics of images, it’s about creating a climax for the discussion of the other three days.

It sounds like there’s a bit of a tension here, because you speak elsewhere about the power of the theatre to create a utopia, but at the same time you have a preoccupation with realism and pragmatism. Is it a balance that you’re trying to create? Is it a contradiction?

You have to try and try again to make the utopian become a real place.

I think somehow, in time, it’s a contradiction. Utopia means “no place,” and we try to create utopian places, “no places”, that exist for a time. The problem or the contradiction is that, as in The Congo Tribunal, you can judge the Congolese government, you can judge the UN and so on, but after these three days, or after the five days of the world parliament, normality takes over again, and what was real for a few days becomes utopian again and only stays real in the consciousness of the people who were there. And what we are trying now with the world parliament is to overcome this contradiction. We are now searching for organisations to help make a second session, a third session, a fourth session, to continue with this idea and to really realise this institution over time. For example, in Germany, before the first parliament really started its work, you had around 10 “try-outs” of parliaments – they were closed again and again. And only towards the end of the 19th century did they really open it. So you have to try and try again to make the utopian become a real place in the end. You have to try, realistically and pragmatically, to make it become something stable. That is our hope for the world parliament, or a world economic tribunal – to mention two of our projects.

Did you apply for a permit to organise this demonstration?

Yeah, you have to; of course we did. If you don’t, it’s finished after one minute.

So it won’t really be a “Storming of the Reichstag”?

No, I mean it’s storming “auf den Reichstag”, not “sturm den Reichstag”. Syntactically, it’s not the same. And actually, it’s not even possible. It’s the Reichstag, and in Germany it’s the most secure place against terrorism. We will do this re-enactment there, but it will not be possible to enter. And we know it and we say it. And I mean, we have people coming out of the Bundestag to join us. In the end, as I say, you never know, but I don’t think that there is any chance of people forcing their way into the building and there shouldn’t be.

Why refer then to the events at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg?

We are doing it on the seventh of November, 100 years afterwards, so the parallel, it’s in time… and in meaning, as if we’re overwriting the other images. It’s the idea of the re-enactment as an art form that interests me: You have this archetype and you ask yourself: How is it to be embodied today with this group of people that is forming the world parliament? What does it mean? And it’s interesting to see how closed the Reichstag is, because a lot of people are joining the “Storming of the Reichstag” from Romania or Poland, and they say, “Our parliament, you can just go into it. There’s no problem. Why is your parliament so closed?” And it’s an interesting question. Why did it become such a closed place?

How was it working on something like The Congo Tribunal? Photographer Sebatião Salgado stopped photographing humans for years as a result of the trauma he experienced documenting the Rwandan genocide and visiting Congolese refugee camps… How has it affected you?

There’s a quote from Antonio Gramsci that I use a lot; it says the pessimism of reason has to be completed by the optimism of will.

There’s a quote from Antonio Gramsci that I use a lot; it says the pessimism of reason has to be completed by the optimism of will, or the optimism of what you do against what you know. And I think that’s a difference between a photographer who only takes pictures and a director who is doing projects that can change what is real, doing projects that can change what there is to be photographed. When you take The Congo Tribunal, the movie starts with a massacre, witnessing a massacre. And then: the decision to do the tribunal. And I think this art project, as an answer to the reality of violence and exploitation, is my way of finding the reason to do what we do.

Two government ministers in the Congo were actually dismissed as a result of The Congo Tribunal. What’s the story behind that?

It was the mining minister and the Minister of the Interior. We could prove that the mining minister was responsible for some mass deportations. Concerning the Minister of the Interior, he was responsible for the massacre that starts the movie. You see it very clearly in the movie, and you saw it very clearly at the tribunal. And there were no other possibilities for the government to save themselves except to dismiss these two ministers, in effect saying, “It’s your fault.” Which is somehow true, but, of course, somehow not. But it was a good decision, anyway, to dismiss them.

The people involved in The Congo Tribunal are describing their own experiences, but there is a “Witness J” who is a creation of a Congolese artist and the game development studio Monokel. Could you give us a little background information on Witness J and explain why it was necessary to create him?

“Witness J” is the name of an independent game, a video game created by Monokel. I was a bit critical in the beginning because: Is it not absurd to make a video game about this huge civil war? But it’s a very clever thing. It starts with the massacre of Mutarule; you are somehow a survivor, managing to find a taxi, going to the UN, the UN is closed and doesn’t respond to your requests for help, and then you go into the tribunal room and you understand more and more of what happened, why it happened, why the UN didn’t help you, who is responsible, and so on. It’s a very pedagogical and very emotional approach, but very well made. For a lot of people, it will help them enter this topic in a way other than by a book, or an archive, or more intellectual tools.

General Assembly, Nov 3-5 | Schaubühne, Charlottenburg, Storming of the Reichstag Re-enactment, Nov 7, 15:00 | lawn in front of the Reichstag, Tiergarten

The Congo Tribunal (general release Nov 16), Nov 18, 18:30 | Schaubühne

Lenin, Nov 4, 5, 16-19; Dec 5, 9, 10 | Schaubühne