This article is part of a series of pieces covering or inspired by the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival, produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
In the traveling stage show Radio Live, French podcasters Aurélie Charon and Caroline Gillet interview young people touched by bad geopolitical circumstance. For their New York premiere last month, at the French Institute’s Crossing the Line Festival, they were joined by three guests — one each from Bosnia, Palestine, and Mexico — who took turns standing at center-stage sharing their life stories. To translate what was essentially talk-radio to the stage, they had illustrator Amélie Bonnin projecting live doodles and photo-collages behind them, with musical interludes from singer-songwriter Aviva Jaye. Ines Tanovic-Sijercic, a survivor of the Bosnian war, spoke about organizing Sarajevo’s first-ever LGBTQ Pride parade this year. Amir Hassan, a poet from the Gaza Strip, joked about the misunderstandings that plagued his first few years in Paris. Antonio Alarcon, who crossed the Sonora desert on foot when he was 10 years old, talked about the US scholarships he was offered, then denied, because he’s undocumented.
In its best moments, Radio Live made the world feel smaller with rich vignettes from lives we might have little intimate access to. Hassan told us about the Israeli missile that flew through his bedroom window, undetonated, and got stuck in the wall three rooms over. This is good material, like something from a Hollywood movie, but the most meaningful stories he told didn’t involve life-and-death situations. In high school, he recounted, the Gaza Strip often rationed electricity use, which meant that each neighborhood would get only an hour or two of lamp light each night. In order to study, they would follow the electricity as it moved from one neighborhood to the next. “If you didn’t have a friend in the neighborhood, then you’d have to just sit down and study under a street lamp,” he said. Yes, war is explosive and terrifying, but it also has a quieter side, turning simple tasks into problems that need to be solved.
In the most compelling testimonies from Bosnia, we heard not only about the horrors of war, but also the heights of human resilience. When Tanovic-Sijercic came home from elementary school one day saying the kids wanted to know if she was a Serb or a Croat, her dad said to tell them “you’re neither Serb nor Croat — you’re a child.” It’s tragic that a child should have to pick sides in a cleavage they know nothing about, but it’s also inspiring to see how a father imparts strength of character to his daughter.
There were times when the hosts dug a little too hard for painful stories. Early on in the show they asked Alarcon: “What was it like growing up without your parents?” It was lonely and hard, of course. Alarcon later described a difficult decision he faced: whether to follow his parents back to Mexico or stay in New York alone and continue his studies. A drawing appeared on the screen behind him of a boy standing at a literal crossroads, under a signpost with arrows pointing in opposite directions: “family” or “school.” It was a little condescending.
After two years in a Bosnian concentration camp, Tanovic-Sijercic told us, her father came home broken and chronically ill. He died after only a year on the outside. While she was telling this story, Amélie Bonnin projected her father’s face and blew it up to occupy the entire 20-foot screen behind her. It was as if the producers wanted her to turn around and start crying, so we, the sympathetic voyeurs, could devour her sadness.
The producers of Radio Live say it’s a show about activism, about young people fighting alongside each other in a common cause. But having survived difficult situations doesn’t necessarily make them comrades, and it might not be productive to collapse their differences for the sake of an uplifting message. This framing also raises the question of what makes an activist: yes, Alarcon works for the immigrant rights group Make the Road and Tanovic-Sijercic has organized direct-action protests, like the one that reopened Sarajevo’s shuttered National Museum. But Hassan, well, if he is involved in activism, he didn’t talk about it at any point. The conceit that activism ties these people together is tenuous, and in its absence, the thing they have left in common is trauma.
Radio Live took place at the Crossing the Line Festival at the FIAF Florence Gould Hall (55 East 59th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on October 2.