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UNHCR News Story: Q&A: Spanish clowns make refugees laugh with their favourite girlfriend
Tortell Poltrona, the clown with the red nose, performs at UNHCR's 60th birthday party in Geneva.
Q&A: Spanish clowns make refugees laugh with their favourite girlfriend
GENEVA, February 23 (UNHCR) – Jaume Mateu is a legend in the circus world of Spain's Catalonia region, where he's better known as Tortell Poltrona, the clown with the red nose. But when he grew up during the rule of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, laughter was a scarce commodity and clowns faced a lot of restrictions. At home in Barcelona, Mateu founded Circ Cric and the Circus Arts Research Centre and worked with other famous clowns and artists, including Joan Miro and Joan Brossa. But, as a founder and stalwart of Payasos sin Fronteras (Circus Without Borders), the 55-year-old has brought joy and happiness to thousands of young refugees and internally displaced people across the world. He has often worked with UNHCR and last December performed at the refugee agency's 60th birthday party in Geneva. He talked with UNHCR Web Editor Leo Dobbs. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us a bit about how you personally got started
I grew up after the [1936-39 Spanish] Civil War. During the Franco dictatorship it was hard to find clowns in Spain, especially those with the nerve to speak in Catalan. I was one of the few clowns in Catalonia performing in Catalan and that's how I started to make money and to build my circus . . . I think being a clown is a revolutionary act.
I started to work in 1974 as a professional . . . I learned from performing on the street. I was in touch with other people who wanted to work as clowns and were also working in the streets and parks. I met, for example, the famous Swiss clown Dimitri. I loved the job and I felt that we all have a bit of the clown inside us.
Children are natural clowns because everything they feel, they express. When they grow up and become adults, they start to lie. Children don't lie. We [clowns] feel this purity with children. And history is full of clowns. Two saints, Genesius and Philomene, were professional clowns.
What about the origins of Clowns Without Borders?
I was asked by the children at a school in Barcelona to go to the Istria Peninsula in Croatia to perform for refugee children there [from the Yugoslav Wars of 1991-1995]. The Spanish children were in contact with the refugees through a volunteer programme. From the Istrian Peninsula, the refugees told the Catalan children: "You know what we miss most? We miss laughter, to have fun, to enjoy ourselves." So the Spanish kids asked me to travel there with a troupe and we went [in 1993] by car. The children in Barcelona raised funds to pay for the trip and they came with us to Croatia – a group of 12-year-old children. After that first experience for the proto Clowns without Borders, we started to tell other clowns in Spain about our experience and set up a collective. In the first year [1993-1994], we organized 12 expeditions to the Balkans.
We began in Istria and after that we went to Mostar [in Bosnia and Herzegovina]. We received help from UNHCR and Spanish troops serving there, who provided transport to reach more children in the area . . . And later, Clowns Without Borders began to perform in Sarajevo, and always in refugee camps. All of our volunteers are professional circus artists and they fly out once a year and spend 20-25 days in the field with two or three shows a day.
When we started, it might have seemed like a joke to some people. An NGO with clowns in the middle of a war! It was surreal. At first we wondered what we were doing, but after the first experience it was such a powerful and emotional feeling. There was a very warm welcome and the visit was very helpful for the children.
When did the movement start growing?
After 1994, a Clown Without Borders section opened and then clowns set up official national sections in the USA, Sweden, Belgium, South Africa, Canada, Ireland, Germany and Italy. We are trying to set up an international federation. But they are all clowns, so it's difficult to organize anything.
And what happened next with your branch, Payasos sin Fronteras?
After the Dayton Agreement [of 1995], the war ended in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We continued working there, but also started going to other places. We entertained refugees from Western Sahara in Algeria, and then we went to see Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Today, Payasos Sin Fronteras works in about a dozen countries and we perform about 400 times per year before up to 200,000 children . . . Our headquarters is in Barcelona and we have five permanent staff and some 200 volunteers, including clowns and magicians. And we also have about 1,200 members, who help us cover administration costs and the pay of permanent staff. We use funding from private and public donors to pay for our overseas trips.
We have mostly Spa
The Funniest Man Alive
This was another peice I had abandoned a long time ago but I came across it again about a year later and decided to re-work a bit. After I had the drawing done and began coloring, I started coming up with a back story for the clown who I now call "Vincenzo". He used to be a local sensation until the children he was performing for, became bored of him. Vincenzo becomes depressed and realizes that to make everyone love him and laugh with him again, he has to commit suicide. Which he thinks is the funniest thing he can do in his life. I guess this story stems from the joy I get when people tell me how much they dig my art and how it's scary to think that some people believe you might not be good enough or that you can't hack it in the real world. Anyway, I hope everyone likes it and I would love to hear what everyone has to say about it.
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