Anja Franck | 18 March 2022
Our kitchen table is always messy, but this Thursday morning, as I sit down to have my first cup of coffee, I have trouble finding space due to all the colored pencils and drawing books scattered across the table cloth. They remind me of the weekend visit from my six-year-old friend, a very creative and determined young lady who also happens to be my husband’s niece. Her visit was a much-welcomed break from everyday life but also the current horrors of the world. For a few days, I didn’t think about the horrific scenes from the war in Ukraine, the talk of an imminent nuclear disaster, or the blatant racism in Europe’s response to the different groups of people that flee the wars of madmen across the globe.
“Did you know that I used to be a juggler?” I asked my six-year-old friend on Sunday afternoon. My question was an attempt to distract her from a very distinct wish to return to the skateboard ramp around the corner from our house. It is true. I used to be a juggler, but she looked at me with the kind of skeptical face that only a six-year-old can master, “So, show me.”
I picked up three mandarins from the fruit basket on the table to show her. I dropped one or two on the floor, and she laughed, “You can’t juggle! You keep dropping the mandarins!”
She had a point. I am certainly out of practice. But the distraction worked.
She jumped off the kitchen sofa two seconds later and ran up to me, “Can I try?”
Only then did I realize that I am also seriously out of practice with younger children.
What a rookie mistake. We would now have splashed mandarins all over the floor.
As I scroll through social media while having my morning coffee these few days later, I stumble upon an online clip of some people from the Dream Doctors Projects that are clowning the border crossing between Ukraine and Moldova. These red-nosed clowns do their usual thing. In the light snowfall, they move between the groups of people waiting and attempt to make them laugh. They perform magic tricks. They make balloon animals. They hand out sweets. They dance. One of the clowns also tries to juggle, but he keeps dropping one of the balls on the ground. The young girl standing in front of him picks the ball up, but the moment she hands it back to the clown, he drops another one. She picks it up. He drops another one. And another one.
As I watch these juggling balls fall to the ground, I have trouble holding back my tears.
It’s the oldest trick in the book. I did it on Sunday. Distraction through laughter.
In the context of violence and adversity, such distractions should not be underestimated. Instead, research shows how laughter can help us install a provisional sense of normality and safety in situations that are otherwise beyond our control. Laughter in the face of oppression and brutality is thus as much about relief and coping as it is a claim to humanity. In fact, after watching the video of the clowns working the Ukraine-Moldovan border five times, I start thinking that these clowns are doing much more than offering much-needed comic relief to the people – and especially the children – that are fleeing the atrocities of war in Ukraine. Instead, their clowning also marks, in Mikhail Bahktin’s words, “the victory of laughter over fear.” The ambiguous and liminal figure of the clown itself – comical yet tragic, funny but also creepy – awards the clown a peculiar position from which it is possible to disrupt the expected. In fact, clowns, jesters, fools, and buffoons have a longstanding global history of using their “foolish wisdom” to challenge the arrogance of power. Through laughter, the figure of the clown inserts ridicule, mockery, and chaos in spaces where we expect there to be order and authority. Clowns should therefore be seen as doing much more than amusing their audiences: they clown because they have something to say, and through their absurd performances they also reveal the inherent absurdity of power.
Provoking laughter in the face of overwhelming violence and hardship, these clowns along the Ukraine-Moldovan border signal the power that lay in not taking the worldviews of madmen like Putin, Assad, or the Taliban seriously. These madmen should, of course, be held accountable for the seriousness of their crimes against ordinary people. But they also need to be exposed for the ridiculous figures that they are. The clowns that provoke laughter along the border, I think, help us do this. Or, as phrased by Roger Waters, they help state the obvious, namely, “Big man, pig man. Ha ha, charade you are.”
Anja Franck, associate professor, studies migration, borders and humor, with a particular interest in the tactics that migrants employ to navigate illegality and deportability in everyday life. She is (sort of) on Twitter @anja_franck.