The Year I Was Born
Review by Cicely Binford
Perth International Arts Festival brings South American perspectives to Perth in a PIAF exclusive of Fundacion Teatro a Mil and Lola Arias‘s production of The Year I Was Born. The Year I Was Born presents the true-life stories of the performers and their families under the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and is performed in Spanish with English surtitles. Ten men and women try to come to an understanding about the multitude of viewpoints and actions taken by their parents and siblings during the coup and the turbulent years that followed.
You wouldn’t think there’d be so much fun in a show about life under a dictator, but Arias’s documentary theatre piece has plenty. Her playful, schooldays-inspired tone buoys up some heavy material that delves into skeletons in some of these families’ closets. Each performer has a chance to introduce us to their parents and how politics played a part in their lives, and not everyone was working for ‘the good guys.’ But Arias wants us to think beyond the good-guys/bad-guys binary and consider that there are a lot of grey areas in between.
For example, three times one of the cast members asks everyone to line up along political and socioeconomic lines according to their parents’ views and their class status at the time of birth. Each lineup becomes a debate, and people are shuffled up and down the line depending on group consensus. There are a few grumbles and protests, but everyone seems to accept their spot on the spectrum.
Displacement was also a huge part of life for many families under Pinochet – they were broken up and scattered across the globe, often moving frequently from country to country, biding their time until it was safe to return to Chile. Some were ordered away by the rebel groups they were fighting for, some left to protect their families, some sent their families away and stayed to fight. Alexandra Benado‘s mother, an underground resistance fighter, was brutally gunned down.
Each of their stories is amplified by the use of key photos, drawings, letters, and sound clips – memborabilia that is significant in some way, or becomes significant through the telling. A projector screen unfolds and rolls up via an offstage pulley system, and a table at the side of the stage, a camera is set up to film live drawing, which is then projected on the screen, similar to those overhead projectors we used to see in school. Alejandro Gómez Sepúlveda provides live accompaniment on guitar along with his contributions about his own family.
The stories come together in a loose, unhurried fashion, and the performers don’t seem like performers, they just seem like people off the street coming together for a support group meeting. Arias plays with form, so that there’s movement and variety and everyone takes part in retelling each other’s history. She even has them perform a group dance choreographed by Soledad Gaspar just to break things up, but also to demonstrate how easy it is to find common ground through music.
There are a few parallels to be made to current day politics, and it may be possible to make something of a comparison between Pinochet’s coup and what some are labelling an attempted coup by Trump. The final analysis from Arias seems to be that the spirit of resistance and active protest is a necessary part of any healthy society, and she and the cast encourage us to keep at it. They give a nod to WA in a scene where the cast are carrying banners and protest signs: one woman carries a No to Roe 8 sign.
The Year I Was Born is a spirited and honest look at Chile’s not-so-distant past, and provides an intriguing political history by showing how it impacted a range of families throughout two generations.
The Year I Was Born runs until Feb. 18 at the Heath Ledger Theatre, with a post-show discussion on Feb. 17. For more information and tickets, visit the PIAF website here.