Research in Culturgest, Lisbon, 23 September–10 October 2019.
Researcher: Iva Kosmos, ZRC SAZU
Introduction of the research and its aims
The research was conducted in Culturgest in Lisbon, and it was centred on the interaction between Culturgest’s production Os Filhos de Colonialismo/The Children of Colonialism (Filhos) and high school students. The research was conducted during the Colonial Memories Cycle, a special set of events that included, performance, cinema, talks and lectures on the topic of Portuguese colonialism. Filhos was performed as part of this cycle; it was a documentary performance, produced by Hotel Europa (André Amalio and Tereza Havličkova) and coproduced by Culturgest. The performance was done in the mode of devised theatre, performed by non-actors who told their own experiences and memories regarding their families’ stories and the role of their parents in the Portugal colonial history and/or colonial war.
Filhos was performed for students from different high schools in Lisbon on 25 September 2019. The purpose of the research was to conduct interviews with selected students and examine how they experienced the performance. To complement the understanding of student’s reactions, I also interviewed two teachers. It was my intention to assess how this performance interacts with students’ everyday experiences, their individual histories and their knowledge of Portuguese history. I also wanted to find out whether the performance opened any new perspectives, questions and views. In other words, the intention was to inquire about the possible social impact of the performance.
Description of the sample
Interviews were conducted with ten students (aged 16–21) at three Lisbon secondary schools. Schools were diverse in terms of educational programs and the socio economic status of students.
Secondary school 1 is a public school with a so called “general” program, meaning a higher education-oriented program. The enrolment of students is based on their place of residence and the school was located in an upper middle-class neighbourhood.
Secondary school 2 is a work-oriented technical program, offering a range of programs from technologies to multimedia. The enrolment of students is based on their place of residence, and they come from the lower socio-economic background.
Secondary school 3 is a private school with a work-oriented technological program, specified for audio-visuals and multimedia. Unlike the first two schools, this one enrols students from the whole country. This school mostly, but not exclusively, includes youth from middle class families. These observations are made in collaboration with Culturgest staff and the teachers I have interviewed.
I interviewed three male students and seven females. Three students were of African background: two described themselves as Angolans (first generation), and the third as from Portugal. One student described herself as being from a mixed family. Six students were white and described themselves as Portuguese.
Method: semi-structured interviews
The method of semi-structured interviews left enough space for students to express their own views and experiences. In the beginning, I would describe the CTC->CTI project, and assure that there are no right or wrong views and opinions in this kind of interview. Then, I would introduce myself and invite them to introduce themselves. I would also ask what kind of experience they have with the theatre, how and with whom do they visit the theatre. I would then simply ask the participant(s) how did they find Filhos: did they like it or not, did they find it interesting or not, etc. From that point on, the conversations would evolve in different directions, according to the students’ experiences, but I tried to assess two topics. First, their general knowledge of the recent history and the way Filhos connected to what they already knew or didn’t know about the colonial past (e.g. did they learn anything new). Second, I inquired about their experience of the specific form of the performance (devised theatre, non-actors and non-acting oriented theatre, verbatim theatre).
The interviews were performed in school classrooms and library. The intention was to carry out the interviews in a place to which students are used to and comfortable with. There were three group interviews (two including two students, one including four students) and two individual interviews. The method was decided according to the student’s preference; I simply asked them if they preferred to talk individually or in a group. The goal was again to use the setting that made them feel comfortable. Interviews were performed in English, and once in English and Portuguese, as one student did not speak English, and the other was translating in her name.
Both the Colonial Memory Cycle and the performance Filhos were produced having a social impact in mind. Their aim was to influence public opinion and raise questions and open debate considering the recent colonial past. Portuguese colonialism ended in 1974, together with a military coup and abolishment of dictatorship when Portugal granted independence to Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique after the 13 year long Colonial war. However, this part of history is silenced or avoided in public discourse. The colonial period is traditionally presented in schools and media with the celebratory narrative of great Portuguese “discoveries”. Discussions about oppression in colonies, the dark sides of colonialism and war are silenced. Both Colonial Memory Cycle and Filhos are part of the wider trend of “decolonising” the public thought and narratives in Portugal.
All students appreciated the performance’s intention to talk about what they described as “our history”. On several occasions, they expressed that they felt the show is speaking directly to them, and is about them. Contrary to their teacher’s expectations, students expressed a strong need to discuss the recent history and learn from it. Most of them do not feel comfortable discussing their personal history with their families. After seeing the show that intended to encourage them to talk to their families, they still do not intend to go in that direction. They also do not plan to research on their family history or Portuguese history on their own. However, they strongly expect that it is the school’s responsibility to educate them about the recent history through a curriculum. They also expressed they would enjoy similar performances and other media, such as documentaries, on the topic of recent history.
Students from all three schools had the same level of knowledge regarding Portuguese colonial history, and none of them talk about it with their families. The only apparent difference between different students was in the form of the show. While students from the technical school and lower socio-economic background disliked the form of the performance, students from other schools appreciated it. This could be linked to students’ general cultural education and the cultural capital they received in their middle-class families. However, even the students from the school who “disliked” the show were in a way attracted to the show and closely followed it. This was evident from their behaviour, their attention and close focus on the performance, which was, according to their teacher, different from how they usually behave at similar events.
The conclusion can be made that Filhos engaged the students, it made them rethink their past and addressed their need to talk about the past. However, as both the teacher and students noticed, talking about the past is a process that cannot be concluded with a single play, debate, event, or artwork. The additional production(s) that would be aimed at high school population would complement this process and answer students’ needs to talk about the past and hence better understand their present.
In the following pages, I am presenting more detailed descriptions of the mentioned topics that opened during the interviews and around which students expressed their beliefs and experiences.
“I thought that this war was way more peaceful”: the impact of the performance on student’s perceptions of the past
Asked whether the stories they have seen and heard in Filhos are new to them, the majority of students (8) responded confidently that this is nothing new for them, as they constantly listen to stories about colonial times. However, as our conversations continued, this initial claim was relativized.
Only three students (two African descendants and a retornados descendant) said that they talked about the colonial period in the family. Only four students (all from the same school) said that they talked about the recent history in the history class and the school in general. The majority (8) also said that they didn’t know about documentary programs on the colonial history on RTP. Thus, it remained unclear where they talk, listen and learn about the past. In my view, there is a prevailing impression that the past is talked about, but apart from this impression, their knowledge is vague and not systematised. Additionally, some of the historical information that they got in the performance deeply surprised them.
Two students who claimed that they are actively talking with their families about their family history were mostly familiar with their family’s side of the story, but lacking the wider historical context and other groups’ perspective. One of these students, a descendant of retornados, was surprised to learn from Filhos that Africans were included in the Portuguese army. On the other hand, the African descendant was surprised that Portuguese inhabitants in 1974 had prejudices against retornados. As the conversation continued, several students said that the performance either challenged their knowledge or entirely changed their perspective that the war was a minor episode in Portuguese or Angolan history.
I have learned a lot of my culture that I did not know. War was tragic, people suffered more than I imagined. (E., 19)
My perspective was changed. We do not know the poverty of people that lived in those days. I did not think that there were so many deaths, I thought that this war was more peaceful. (B., 17)
I thought that this war was not a big deal in my family, as my granddad [Portuguese war veteran] did not talk about it, I have no idea that people suffered so much. It was not a drama, and now it is! I did not have a dramatic idea of it. (C., 17)
My father is from Angola, he has been in war, I do not know what he went through. This kind of makes me question how and what do I know about my father (S., 21)
On several occasions, the students negotiated between their personal family history and a wider historical narrative, and struggled to evaluate the role of their families in the wider historical context. This happened in one individual interview, and in an interview with two close friends. It is possible that both stories appeared due to the more intimate setting of the conversation. Students were white Portuguese, struggling to understand the role of their family in a colonialist context, which they perceived as inhumane and oppressive, as it was also underlined in Filhos. One student struggled to explain the difference between the historical events, evaluated as positive, and their negative effects on personal lives: she underlined that she understands that the Liberation movements were necessary, but that they also had a devastating impact on her family. She tried to reconcile to understanding of her grandfather, who moved to colonial Mozambique:
My grandfather went to […] work in a farm. He had to go because my grand mom left him and he was full of debt. Nowadays, we look at that as a bad thing. He went there and kind of stole … It is not stole … like money from Africa. Part of me thinks that. But part of me thinks he went there to find a better life. (B., 21)
Two students who had their grandfathers in the war said that they cannot judge them, as they did what they needed to do. The performance thus supported the process of re-evaluation of the personal and collective history, at least in some cases. However, when asked if they think they will try to investigate their family’s past or ask their parents about it, some of the students responded with an uncertain “perhaps” and most with a straightforward “no”. They explained that they know their parents and grandparents are troubled with this topic and they do not want to hurt them. Most of the students also told their families that they have seen Filhos in school, and briefly described the performance. As they reported, their parents did not show interest in the performance or engage in talking about their past. As one of the students said, the reaction was: “No reaction”.
When some of them were asked if they think they will research more on the colonial past on their own, they responded that most probably they will not. They said that at that moment, they might feel that they would do it, but that they will probably not. The reason was simple: “This is not something that teenagers do” (E., 19). In other words, obligations, events and interests of their daily lives are not going to lead them in that direction. However, the place where they think they should learn about the past is school.
School as the place to discuss past
Students offered a range of articulated explanations on why the past is important, saying that past and present are connected and that we learn from the past not to repeat our mistakes. There was only one student who expressed the view that “the past is the past, and the present is the present”. This is in stark contrast with the opinion of one of their teachers that students are not interested in the past, as they are focused on their individual lives (on their phones and social media), disinterested in the world around them, and passive. Other teachers expressed that students are not interested in the past because the colonial story is not as defining for their generation as it has been for previous generations. While the latter might be true, the students themselves expressed that the past is important for society. They also did not talk only about their individual (hi)stories, positions and needs. When talking about the past, they saw themselves as members of the wider community who have the social responsibility to learn from the past.
This is important for us, to know about that [past] and everything they went through, so we can have an open mind. (E., 19)
In history lessons, we do not talk too much about it, it is an important subject for us, my grandfather was also in the war, but he does not want to remember what he has done and lived. But it is important to see other perspectives and learn more, it is too little what they teach in the school. (B., 17)
We always need to talk about the past, that an awful thing happened, and it is a reality, it is a part of who we are now as a society in Portugal. It influenced our lives, my mom could be a different person and she is not because of that. (B.,21)
I am interested in the past, it is my story, the story of my parents, it can change a bit how people think. Sometimes people do not want to talk about it, but that decision from the past still influences us today, and we repeat it. If we could see it is wrong, we could just stop doing it. (S., 21)
We learn from the past, the mistakes and things that were done well. (C., 17)
I remember history teacher said that problems of humanity are cyclic, so we have to know what older societies have done in order not to repeat failures and have a good solution. (D., 17)
As I have already noted, in spite of the perceived importance of history, the students responded that they are not going to educate themselves on their own. However, when I asked if they would like to learn more about the past in the school the answer was straightforward and even enthusiastic “yes”. This is the part of the conversation with one of the students that includes the mentioned enthusiasm:
Researcher: Would you like to talk about that in school?
Interviewee: Oh, yes. In school, yes. At least the facts and what happened on a political level. We talk about WWII a lot, a whole semester, but we do not talk about this [colonial past], we just pass it, and this is closer, it involves us, and we want to know what happened.
Researcher: Would you like to see more plays like this?
Interviewee: Oh, yes. Not only on the colonial war but also on other things we do not talk a lot about, the dictatorship. If we talked and learned a bit more about that. We talk about the dictatorship in the school for two weeks, this is not enough! This is more important than WWII.
Appreciation of the form of the performance
The level of historical knowledge, the lack of conversation about the past in students’ families, and the appreciation of the topic of Filhos were the same in all three schools. The visible difference between students in the three schools was the way they appreciated the form of the performance. Interviewees in the Secondary School 3 articulated that they did not like the way the show was done, although they underlined that they appreciate the topic and the effort of the performers. They expressed that they would like Filhos to resemble a historical drama with costumes and rich scenography, produced in a fantasy genre. As they have said, they wanted “fiction” and actors who would “play”, as that would enhance their feeling of being in an imaginary world. They were also confused with the interviews performed with the headphones in the mode of verbatim theatre. They dismissed them as incomprehensible.
When I watch movies, I really feel I am in the past. They represent everything, every detail. I liked hearing the stories, to find out what happened, but here I did not have a feeling that it is really a play, that they are playing the past … I want a play, to feel I am in the past with them. (S, 21)
In the Secondary School 3, I interviewed only two students, who claimed that this was the view expressed by the majority of their peers. This was confirmed by their teacher, who said that he has heard similar comments from other students. Their teacher later explained that students’ expectations are, in his opinion, based on the blockbusters and video games, which represent most of the production they consume. However, although students expressed their dislike, their teacher said that they behaved in a way that was different from their usual behaviour in the cinema or theatre. Frequently, students can be loud, while during Filhos they were silent, did not use their phones, and clapped during the scenes, which are clear signs that the performance caught their attention. As the mentioned teacher said: “They were watching the play. […] The show was a success, even if they said they did not like it”. The thing that caught their attention, elaborated the teacher, is the same reason why they disliked the performance – they were faced with an unpredictable series of events.
It is a reason to get them and also a reason why they say they do not like it. It was not a planned succession of episodes. Performers can sing, march, talk to us, have interviews, show photos, big photos, small photos, big movies, small movies – a succession of unexpected. It keeps their focus on what will happen next. In the end, they say “it is not what we expected”. (Teacher)
In the other two schools, the situation was different, and it was unanimously appreciated that Filhos are different from the traditional drama. It has to be noted that students from the two other schools have more experience with theatre, some of them visiting it with their families, and some of them being part of student’s theatre groups. They also expressed that they were sometimes confused with interviews with headphones, or that they would get lost in the stories, but they did not report that that influenced their general understanding. The dynamic of the show, the energetic combination of music, movement, dance, interviews, videos and other archival material was appreciated as something that made them focused and caught their attention.
It was more experimental, they were playing songs as they were talking about a serious subject, and that shocked me, but not in a bad way. It was different, cool … It is a thing we are tired of listening, and seeing it in a different environment is nice, fresh. (B., 21)
The whole play mixed a lot of stories, so sometimes I could not understand … But that was the thing that was making it different, we were not bored, you never knew what was going to happen, so you needed to follow. (B. and C., 17)
Relatability of the non-actors and their intimate stories
All students expressed that they could easily relate to the show, as the show presented stories from their own history, but also because it was performed by non-actors, which helped them identify. The presence of non-actors on the stage made them feel the story was “real”, “authentic” and “genuine”. Students also admired the fact that non professionals gathered the courage to appear on the stage and perform in a professional manner. Several of them expressed that they would not relate so easily to the show if it would be performed by actors.
They also appreciated that Filhos did not concentrate exclusively on the “big historical events”, such as war conflicts, but on every-day events and private lives. In the other words, it was appreciated that the performance did not construct the standard historical narrative, but instead included personal memories. Several students also noted that the value of the performance is not only in the final show in the Culturgest, but in the process that was transformative for the performers and helped them establish communication with their parents.
If these would be just actors telling script I would not be that interested, I would stop listening during the play. It is completely different when it is fiction […] They showed that they are not only characters but real people, that has a different impact on the people [spectators]. (D., 19)
They surprised me, you would not think that non-actors are so good. I think because they were talking about themselves and that made them natural. (J., 19)
They [performers] were strong to talk about it. How they performed was “wow”. I would probably start crying. It was amazing. It touched me a lot, it is part of my culture. T(E.,19)
They [performers] were not only talking about the war itself, but about living with the war, that is important. (C., 17)
When we think about the war, we think about soldiers, and we know it affects their families, but we do not know how, we do not normally think about that … So, this is why I liked this show. (C., 16)
Another important thing is that performers got a chance to talk to the parents. There was a girl whose father did not talk. She knew he is suffering, but could not help. For her, this must be important. (C., 16)
Great idea to have non-actors because they know the story better than the actors. (B., 17)
Interviews conducted in Lisbon’s high schools demonstrate a high level of students’ engagement with the performance The Children of Colonialism. Students felt that they are personally addressed by the performance and that the topic of the performance concerns both their family’s story and the wider social history. Performance acted as a mediator between what students already know and the multi-layered, multi-perspective and complex colonial past that is still not discussed in Portuguese society. It made students re-evaluate their perceptions about the recent past, and, in some cases, question the role of their families. It made them question their knowledge about the past, how do they perceive it, and how they position themselves in relation to both history and the present moment. However, due to the sensitive character of the recent history, the students do not intend to talk with their parents and tackle this topic at home. Nevertheless, they unanimously emphasised that learning about the past is a social responsibility, which should be performed by all members of society in order to avoid historical mistakes and improve society. They expect to learn about the past in school, and in their view, schools should provide a better curriculum and far more opportunities to address this need. The performance was appreciated as a possible way of deepening the understanding of the past. As underlined by both teachers and some students, learning is a process, so it cannot be fulfilled with a single lecture, performance or event, and there is a need for additional content, including theatrical production, aimed at discussing t