Welcome to the Palestinian Circus

(Photo Credit: Milan Szypura)

Welcome to the Circus is a new documentary about The Palestinian Circus School in Ramallah and its collaborative shows staged in the West Bank and Jerusalem with the visiting LIDO circus school from Toulouse, France.

Beyond the salient joy and excitement of training for and performing in a circus, the documentary illuminates the experiences of the French troupe. Newly arrived in Palestine, most performers know very little about the daily reality. Before the circus tour commences, the visiting French are taken on a tour of Israeli settlements, the separation barrier, and a checkpoint. This is one of the most illustrative features of the documentary: the necessity of bearing witness. An effort to bring more artists and other influential individuals to the Palestinian territories would be equally eye-opening for many Westerns, especially Americans, as it clearly is for the visiting French.

(Photo Credit: Milan Szypura)
(Photo Credit: Milan Szypura)

Since the circus is a touring group, the arbitrary nature of Israeli rule reveals itself when the Palestinian-French group prepares to perform its final hurrah in Jerusalem. Since Palestinians who hold West Bank IDs cannot travel to Jerusalem without Israeli-issued permits, which are nearly impossible (especially for young men) to obtain, some Palestinians are left out of the show. A Frenchman can freely walk the streets of Jerusalem, but a Palestinian who has lived his whole life just miles away can only visit at the whim of an Israeli officer.

As perhaps anyone who has lived in Palestine can attest: the people and the place leave deep imprints on the soul. And, by the end, it is evident that the departing French have grown attached to their peers, the land, and the food.

Although some might view The Palestinian School as an exhilarating escape for its participants, the Palestinians might object. There is, of course, no escape from occupation and Israeli control is simultaneously present and absent depending on one’s immediate circumstances. The Palestinians joining the circus are not trying to “escape” the inescapable, but proudly proclaiming – as one performer explicitly does – they are still on the land. The circus isn’t trying to avoid the occupation, it’s a confrontation with the occupation that says to the settlers, the colonizers, the occupiers: We will not succumb to defeatism and despair. This isn’t to argue that the Palestinians who’ve joined the circus did so as an expressly political act of artistic resistance. But the existence of a Palestinian circus under military occupation does speak louder than its performers’ individual voices: If Israel Defense Forces chief-of-staff Moshe Yaalon said in 2002, “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people,” then the Palestinian circus – in its merriment and spontaneity – is a resounding, defiant cry of perseverance and optimism.

(Photo Credit: Milan Szypura)
(Photo Credit: Milan Szypura)

Palestine Square recently spoke with director Courtney Coulson about Welcome to the Circus:

My first observation is the knowledge the LIDO crew acquire when they visit Palestine. Everyone has an impression of conflict, but not everyone recognizes that this is an asymmetrical conflict between a colonial state and a native population. How important are the people-to-people connections for building solidarity?

I firmly believe humanizing Palestinians is the key to generating solidarity. Especially in the U.S., so much of how we view Palestine and, in turn, Palestinians is shaped by this very extreme version that we are consistently shown by the media. It eclipses the real issue, which is humanitarian. Basic human rights are being ignored, but this isn’t acknowledged openly by the press. For instance, when you read about Israeli settlements, rarely do you see the word “illegal” next to it. Without the humanity, Palestine is just another headline; we need that connection to achieve momentum.

How did the circus partnership come about and is the Palestinian circus still touring and teaming up with other circus troupes?

The Palestinian Circus School has a history of working with other circus organizations around the world. The organizer of the LIDO met the founder of The Palestinian Circus School in Belgium and for three years they collaborated to put together the exchange. The Palestinian Circus School is famous for their hospitable and, even when I was there, they hosted a slew of foreigners. Through these exchanges, The Palestine Circus School can share some of the admirable traits of Palestinian culture, like hospitality and solidarity. It’s also a way for the students to be exposed to other cultures and widen their world view. The Palestinian Circus School still tours and teams up with other circuses. Recently, the Palestinian Circus School toured to raise funds for rebuilding Gaza.

(Photo Credit: Milan Szypura)
(Photo Credit: Milan Szypura)

Is there a history of the circus in Palestine? 

The circus is fairly new in Palestine. When The Palestinian Circus School first started, a lot of people didn’t  know what a circus really was. Some had an antiquated view of a circus based on what they watched on TV. They expected to see a lion or a tightrope walker, but The Palestinian Circus School was trying to do something more modern and expressive. Also, at the time, there wasn’t a lot of the performing arts in the West Bank so people didn’t really understand the need. Now, the perception has changed significantly as other arts organizations have developed in the region.

While watching I was reminded of the anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) line that the movement is divisive and undermines contacts between artists. Evidently, it is Israel that puts up barriers between cultural workers. Palestinians artists do not enjoy the freedom to travel and perform, as illustrated in the documentary. Do you hope the documentary raises awareness about how the rights of Palestinians artists are curtailed by the occupation?

Welcome to the Circus does highlight the limitations imposed on artists. The circus has to go through a constant obstacle course of permits and checkpoints just to bring amusement to Palestinian children. It’s really quite absurd. I think in this context, it’s very clear who’s the oppressor and who’s the oppressed.

(Photo Credit: Milan Szypura)
(Photo Credit: Milan Szypura)

Ramallah, in many ways, is a Palestinian bubble. It’s nearly possible to forget the occupation exists when you’re in the city center. For some performers, do you think the circus is a way to momentarily escape from the occupation?  

Yes, that’s a very accurate description of Ramallah. Circus is definitely a form of escapism, it’s a way to have a childhood that most of them never had the luxury of experiencing, a way to tell their own story in their own voice, and most importantly, a peaceful form of resistance. For the Palestinian students, performing in Area A [under Palestinian Authority-governance] is not a problem. It’s traveling to Jerusalem that is the real issue. Most of the students had the Green West Bank ID, which means they can only travel in the West Bank. In order to enter into Jerusalem the students are required to have a permit. Often, not everyone will get approved. Some of the students were twenty-years old and they had never been to Jerusalem despite it being a mere seven miles from Ramallah. A lot of the youth, through the circus, have been able to travel not just in Palestine but around the world.

(Photo Credit: Milan Szypura)
(Photo Credit: Milan Szypura)

Near the end, an individual remarks on the path of non-violence and why she joined the circus. The Palestinians continue to exist, to live on their lands, to live in Jerusalem and elsewhere, and they continue to build and be creative and resilient. What do you want audiences to take away from that dramatization of cultural resistance?

Welcome to the Circus is about showing a different side of Palestine, one of perseverance, hope, and the life that is still there. The people that are thriving despite the difficulties of living in the occupied West Bank. Most importantly, this documentary shows the humanity. Ultimately, through this film, we can prevent words like terrorist from becoming synonymous with Palestinians and educate audiences about what is really going on in the region.

Director Courtney Coulson. (Photo Credit: Milan Szypura)
Director Courtney Coulson. (Photo Credit: Milan Szypura)

Article and interview by Khelil Bouarrouj.