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Women and War: An Interview with Sarah Berger

2 July 2016 | Tom Faber

Sarah Berger may be best known for her acting, but it’s far from her only calling. A few years ago she set up The So & So Arts Club, establishing a supportive network for artists who collaborate often with impressive results. Her latest project is the Women and War Festival, a month-long celebration and discussion of the roles of women in wartime.

London Calling: Where did the idea for the festival come from?
SB: It started when I went to see the poppies around the Tower of London. I was terribly moved but I thought to myself – there is no representation of women here. I come from a military family, my father was an admiral and both my aunt and my mother were Wrens. What about hearing some of their stories rather than male-led narratives?
Once I started thinking, this question combined with the natural response we all have now to the diaspora of refugees, feeling so powerless to do anything about it. It seemed to me that, if you’re an artist, the only thing you can do is make art. So I decided to put something together that could act as a mouthpiece for telling stories across history, but especially about what’s happening now.
 
LC: Why do you think women’s war stories are less told than men’s?
SB: Women’s stories in general are told less than men’s. We all know of great male war artists, but we don’t know the female ones. Also the services remain male-dominated. Until very recently, women weren’t allowed to fight on the frontline or on warships. If you go back to Boadicea or look now at the Peshmerga, even the French resistance, women fight. The one thing I really wanted to avoid were stories of plucky nurses in World War one, because women have done hundreds of other things.
War affects society, and society is generally held together by women and by the family. It’s women who are generally at the bottom of the heap when war happens. If a country is invaded, women and children suffer terribly. But also it’s the women generally who rebuild things after conflict.
 
LC: Rebuild physically or socially?
SB: Both. Physically because they bear the next generation. And increasingly women are forming socio-political movements to help run economies of countries that have suffered badly during the war – like in India or Afghanistan. There are women of huge courage forming orchestras, football teams, businesses – they’re helping themselves. I think that should be celebrated and those stories should be told.
LC: When you were picking the works for the festival, were you open to submissions or did you go out looking?
SB: It was submissions. We’ve got sixteen theatre productions which are wildly different. We’ve got a one-woman show about Mary Seacole; we’ve got something about Aphra Behn, the playwright who was a spy in the Dutch wars; and another about a young female soldier suffering from PTSD. We have a female war photographer and a female war artist exhibiting her paintings. We’ve got women from Uzbekistan, Syria, Africa, Australia, America, Germany and Spain coming to take part in this. It’s going to be truly international.
 
LC: Because stories about women in war aren’t told, we assume they don’t happen.
SB: They’ve always happened. You go back through history – what about the Indian bandit queen?  Women have always been warriors. But people are less inclined to tell those stories for a multitude of reasons. Now seems a pertinent time to tell them.
 
LC: Over the last few decades the role of women has been championed in all sorts of forms and genres, but war is still very much considered a man’s domain.
SB: People think of war as the person firing the gun. Not all the ramifications that surround that action. Now we can’t escape it in the way we could in our parents’ generation. It takes place every night in our sitting rooms. You watch it on the television. News travels so fast, it’s ever-present.
 
LC: As a result, the viewer becomes desensitized and the refugees and victims of war become dehumanized.
SB: I was talking to a girl today who’s going to be part of the launch piece, an extraordinary verbatim piece called Seven. She was telling me that she speaks Arabic and she talks to refugees in camps and what amazes her is that the things that bother them most are the really mundane things like ‘they keep giving us sardines to eat’. When you hear that you think, of course, they’re just people. We’re all just people. Anything that draws people in and humanizes what’s happening to all of us must be a good thing.
 
Women and War Festival runs from 4th – 31st July. For full information about each show and to buy tickets, see their website.
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