Sunday, June 24, 2007

FIRE AND SKIN

Can pictures tell the truth about a conflict ridden world? Does a single photograph have the power to convey the misery, dread, death or even of hope in the midst of violence. Or are such photographs a mere mass marketing strategy.

It is true that lenses have captured the pain of Phan Thi Kim Phuc or the quiet strength of Sharbati Gula for posterity. But how far have they helped the victims? The image that can be used to draw international attention to conflicts can also be used to catapult a photographer and his newspaper to fame. When does a victim's poison become the media's meat. How does one draw the line.

These are precisely the questions that "Skin in Flames" which plays at Adrienne forces upon the audience.

The setting of the play is a war torn country now on its path to peace. The rebels factions are still in armed conflict but a new democracy is slowly taking shape. The new government has initiated a peace process with the rebels. Into this country invited by the new government, arrives Frederick Solomon, a foreign photojournalist. Solomon's photograph of a small girl flying into the air with a book tucked under her arm as a bomb hit her back, shot two decades earlier, had brought international attention to the region. As a result of which the country is finally getting conflict free and is on its road to peace. Now that there is peace at last, Solomon is being bestowed an award by the government.

Solomon arrives in his hotel room accompanied by a journalist, Hannah. Hannah works for a local pro-government newspaper and wishes to interview him. As Solomon settles into his room he looks out of the window to see the sounds and sights of the city he knew so well. What he sees instead, is the body of a young woman lying on the streets. Hannah tells him that this is a fairly common occurrence, given that the hotel is the tallest building of the country. "People seeking a quick painless end, often come here", she says.

But as the interview proceeds and Hannah begins to question him about that event which shot him to fame, it becomes apparent that she knows more than she should about that small girl from the photo. Who really is Hannah?

In a parallel plot that has occurred in the same room some time ago, a young woman Ida is in an compromising position with a UN diplomat, Dr. Brown. Ida gives sexual favors to the doctor in return for the medical treatment of her daughter Sara. As he undresses her the audience gets a glimpse of her burned and disfigured back. Ida carries with her a book of animals. Though we are told that this is Sara's book, Ida enjoys reading it to herself; in fact it is the only time that she looks genuinely joyful. This partly burnt book she keeps hidden under the pillow in the hotel room.

Sara's medical expenses continue to climb and Dr. Brown assures Ida that he would send the girl to America. In return he demands that Ida satisfy his sadistic urges. Ida endures the misery for her daughter's sake.

Meanwhile tempers flay in the course of the interview and as Solomon gets more and more suspicious, Hannah takes off her blouse to reveal her burnt back. But Solomon is not convinced. Hannah then recounts her story of the morning of the bomb attack when she, a 7 year old was on her way to meet her friend Ida, a girl from another school, nearby. Hannah had Ida's animal book that she had to return to her. As she entered Ida's school, the bomb siren sounded. Hannah panicked; she knew she had to go to a bomb shelter but she was suddenly afraid. She went into the toilet to hide but left her book outside the door. As the planes came close, she ran out. She saw no Ida; the streets were empty and she was lost. She saw noone save a man with a camera, wearing a yellow jacket and bloodied armband. Up above the sky, the planes droned in circles. And then there was darkness.

Who was the girl Solomon photographed? Was it Ida or Hannah?

Solomon gets ready for the ceremony to receive the award. He intends to take Hannah with him to finally reveal before the world his long lost subject. With a sardonic smile he softly tells her that her story has two errors; he wore a white jacket with no armband on that fateful day and the planes had not circled the school before dropping the bombs. But she would still do as his "small girl from the bombing" story.

Ida worried about her girl, tries to give Dr. Brown the animal book so that he may request the hospital nurse to read it. It is here that Dr. Brown informs Ida that Sara has died the same morning in the hospital. Ida is overcome with sorrow and doubles in pain on the floor.

As Solomon moves toward his bed, he notices a book under the pillow, its covers somewhat burnt. Inside is the picture of a small girl. This girl is Sara, Ida's daughter who probably is in the image of the mother. There is a flicker of recognition in Solomon eyes. In another time in the same room, the devastated Ida moves toward the hotel room window. And for a moment it seems that Solomon and Ida transition the time and space between them, and see and acknowledge each other.

But only for a fleeting second before Ida hurls herself from the high rise window.

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