Beirut-based theater company brings joy and laughter to Syrian refugees’ lives

Clown Me In has performed worldwide. (Supplied photo)
Updated 23 June 2019

Beirut-based theater company brings joy and laughter to Syrian refugees’ lives

  • Sabine Choucair and Gabriela Munoz founded Clown Me In in 2008, which performs and organizes workshops for vulnerable people
  • Initially people wanted Choucair to do clowning for children's birthdays while she wanted to use it for a social cause

BEIRUT: Sabine Choucair, a professional clown, is on a mission to spread light relief to Syrian refugees and vulnerable people worldwide. She discovered her true calling when she learned the art of clowning while studying theater in the UK.

“I found it (clowning) magical. I found the answer to why I really wanted to do theater and how to use it with people,” she said.

Soon enough, Choucair and her friend Gabriela Munoz founded Clown Me In in 2008, a Beirut-based theater company that performs and organizes workshops for refugees and other disadvantaged communities worldwide.

More than 5.6 million Syrians have fled their war-torn country as refugees, according to the UN.

Half of them are children, many of whom now live in Lebanon and other neighboring countries, where temporary settlements have become home to tens of thousands of refugees who have stayed for years. Having experienced civil war as a child, Choucair understands the hardships that these children face every day.

“I know exactly how these kids feel and what they’ve gone through. Going to a refugee camp is very special for me,” she said.




Professional clown Sabine Choucair. (Supplied PHOTO)

But it was not easy introducing clowning in Lebanon. People wanted her to do clowning for children’s birthdays, while she wanted to use it for a social cause. She decided to invest her time and money into growing her company and making clowning a known art. “I sent proposals to 70 different organizations to tell them about the importance of clowning,” she said.

Her hard work paid off. Today, Clown Me In is one of Lebanon’s largest clowning groups, bringing performances to people who need it the most. The group has performed around the world for Mexican, Lebanese, Palestinian, Indian, Moroccan, Jordanian, Brazilian, Greek and British communities.

In November 2015, Choucair travelled to Lesbos, Greece, to perform with the non-profit group Clowns Without Borders for the influx of refugees arriving at the island. “I broke. It was so sad. People weren’t finding their relatives. We’re also human beings, but it didn’t stop us from performing,” she said. “On the contrary, it was important for us to be there, to bring joy to the people and children who really need it.”

There is usually a common feeling of hopelessness and despair in most refugee camps, but when the clowns begin their performance there is an instant change in energy, from stillness to joy, said Choucair, adding: “It’s magical despite the misery.” Clown Me In also uses clowning to raise awareness of social issues such as children’s rights, education, early marriage and the environment.

Now they are working on organizing a “trashion” show to talk about garbage, which is not only a problem in Lebanon, but also in the Middle East and across the world. The audience tends to be receptive to the ideas and messages being conveyed during these performances, said Choucair.

“People listen more and pay attention when they’re not being attacked. They also accept things better when they’re happy. Play and laughter can do wonders,” she added. Choucair was recently invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she organized a workshop on dealing with loss and talked about the importance of play at work.

“It was an amazing experience. It’s not only important to be there, but it’s also important to be active and get the message out about the importance of clowning,” she said.

With the global refugee crisis not going away anytime soon, Choucair believes that we need clowning today more than ever.

“We need more of this in the region and in the world, because we don’t have enough of it. We all need more joy,” she said.

 

This report is part of a series being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.

 


Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour’s ‘The Perfect Candidate’ wows UK critics

Haifaa Al-Mansour’s movie launched in the UK late last month. (Getty)
Updated 5 min 59 sec ago

Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour’s ‘The Perfect Candidate’ wows UK critics

LONDON: ‘The Perfect Candidate’ — Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour’s latest movie — launched in the UK late last month (on streaming services, since cinemas are currently closed) and has garnered hugely positive reviews for its “subtle power” (Backseat Mafia). 

“The Perfect Candidate” tells the story of Maryam, a doctor who — outraged by the state of the road leading to her clinic, which sometimes prevents patients from reaching her — decides to run for a position in the local municipality. It’s a decision that shocks not just politicians and the media (a presenter on the local news assumes she must be campaigning on ‘female-focused’ issues “like gardens, for instance”), but her family and friends too. 

In The Sunday Times, Kevin Maher described “The Perfect Candidate” as “an inspirational tale.” He hailed Mila Al-Zahrani’s performance in the lead role as “furiously good” and said the film was “the perfect streamer,” praising Al-Mansour for the ease with which she “blends arthouse and mainstream conventions.”

Al-Mansour’s comedy drama premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August 2019.  At the time, the filmmaker told Arab News, “It’s feminist. It’s about empowering women and it gives them a chance to believe in themselves and think that they could run for office and get involved in politics in Saudi Arabia.” 

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw said the movie gives the audience “a fine lesson in some key ingredients of political life … nepotism, cynicism, sexism and chaos,” finding the themes so universal that it is, “the sort of film I can imagine getting a remake in contemporary America or Britain, with not as many changes as we might assume.”

“The Perfect Candidate” tells the story of Maryam, a doctor who decides to run for a position in the local municipality. (Supplied)

In Little White Lies, Ella Kemp described the film as “a fiery message playfully wrapped in irony” that “attains a greater level of sensitivity beyond just delivering yet another cry for vague female empowerment.” 

As she did with her pioneering debut film — 2012’s “Wadjda” — it seems Al-Mansour is once again proving that there is an appetite for stories from Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world in international markets; a fact that should help convince others to see the creative arts as a viable career option — something Al-Mansour was keen to see happen when she spoke to Arab News last year. 

“Art will become something people can actually work on and live off in Saudi Arabia, which was not the case before,” she said. “ Art was not respected. People didn’t have that kind of appreciation for it. But I think it’s different now.”