Every foreign humanitarian crisis forces a government to balance compassion and restraint. To what degree should a country fulfil its moral obligation to offer aid and sanctuary to refugees? At what point does national benevolence threaten national stability? Sober deliberation soon descends into hysterics. Respondents to a 1940 poll that asked British citizens to estimate the number of refugees from Nazi Germany who had come to Britain in the previous six years put the number at 2-4 million. The true figure was just 73,500.
Abuses – everything from verbal hatred to anti-immigration posters – are predicated on such fears and manipulative exaggerations. This is one of the clear lines drawn by Have Your Passport Ready, an interactive work of autobiography by Syrian-born brothers Khaled and Mohammad Aljawad.
Billed as a form of digital play (its original run, commissioned by Knaïve Theatre for the inaugural season of their digital venue Knaïve Theatre Presents: A Digital Lyceum, is available in its gallery until 12 December), it’s a film-based choose your own adventure You click through a series of simple choices (or, at times, perform virtual dice rolls) as you guide the brothers though the British immigration system, and your choices and outcomes direct the path through the story. It’s an altogether simpler format than Charlie Brooker’s benchmark Netflix extravaganza Bandersnatch, but often just as affecting, not least due to its fourth wall-breaking snippets. One brother quips to camera that he wishes live speech came with subtitles. You watch the other man debate which groceries to buy with his £37.75 weekly allowance. Bread or deodorant? “So now we stink for the rest of the week,” says Mohammad. “Great.”
Mohammad has a spinal condition from when, aged 13, he was forced to carry 20 litres of water each day. How do you explain this to a pharmacist when you have only a clutch of English words? These domestic-scale burdens are underpinned with a greater and pressing anxiety: the need to supply sufficient evidence to support your asylum claim. It’s here that Have Your Passport Ready is at its most dispiriting – and revealing for those of us who will probably never have to navigate the administrative thickets surrounding the plains of asylum. Deportation is an ever-looming threat, and one wrong answer can redirect your future.
Have Your Passport Ready is one of a number of recent interactive projects made by Syrian refugees. Others, such as Bury Me, My Love and Path Out, typically focus on the author’s dramatic exile voyage. Have Your Passport Ready is a rare documentary piece about the refugee life post-refuge, the reality that reaching a place of asylum is only the first act in a brutal journey.