Read this story in Greek here
by Konstantinos Poulis
To me the script seems stunning. Perhaps it was also the inspiration for Roberto Benini’s famous Life is Beautiful. The movie The Day the Clown Cried was never released (it was only this year that the BBC made a documentary about it), but the script got out and is available online. In an astounding final scene, a little girl reaches for the hand of Helmut, the clown, but he doesn’t move at all. He hesitates and then reaches out, grabs her hand, and enters the gas chamber with her. First his face is pressed against the door, but then he takes three pieces of stale bread out of his coat pocket and begins juggling them to entertain the children, before they all die. I’ll leave aside Jerry Lewis’ recent horrible statements about today’s refugees from Syria and focus instead on the idea of this script.
Sometimes life is so surreal that you would think it a puzzle in need of solving, just as a work of art goes on display and awaits interpretation. Al Basha was a 24 year old social worker who lived in Aleppo, working for a nonprofit company that provided care and support for 365 children who lost their parents during the war, and performing as a clown. He would dress up and makeup short skits to entertain the children. In Aleppo 100.000 children are currently trapped. Al Basha got married two months ago and chose not to go with his family when they fled Aleppo. He was killed during an air raid last Tuesday.
We have a notion of heroism that connects it with “manly” accomplishments, with fearless fighters who won’t be stopped by anything. But this unusual story suggests another version of heroism. What is it like to have the courage to remain in a war zone when the rest of your family has fled, only to make children laugh?
In his autobiography, Eugene Spatharis wrote about a time he went to a military hospital to put on shadow puppet shows. He wondered what business he had there, and what he would say to those crippled men. Yet they thanked him with tears in their eyes for making them laugh despite their pain. In several countries it is common to see clowns in hospitals; they wear white gowns and comfort patients. What must it be like, though, to comfort people who are about to die, while playing the role of a clown? It brings to mind the British soldiers who found an abandoned printing office during World War I and published The Wipers Times, a satirical magazine of the trenches. But then again, they were already there as soldiers.
You wonder, amid the geostrategic chaos of the region and with all the complicated maps and arrows that show who’s fighting whom and who’s backing whom, just what is it that gives a young man the strength to spread laughter between the bombs, to the point of death? Just as an individual soldier might not fully grasp the complexity of a situation but partakes in it at the risk of life, the same is also true of anyone else who is there, among the bombs and the demolished buildings.
The clown has a two-sided and ambiguous nature. He is both funny and sad, a children’s toy and a nightmare. The first clown that conforms to our stereotypes, with the painted face and the ruffled collar,is J. Grimaldi, whose biography was edited (quite appropriately) by Charles Dickens. As a child Grimaldi was abused by his father; as an adult he lost his beloved, lost his son to alcoholism. In short, his life was the stuff of tragedy (I am “grim-all-day,” he used to say), even though he was so successful as a clown that he would sometimes perform in two different theaters on the same night.
Fellini exploited the sad look of the clown in film, in his mockumentary The Clowns, and the contemporary Clown Sightings craze in the United States exploits the clown’s potentially terrifying appearance. The roots of this image are deep, but it was largely popularized by Steven King’s novel “It”. As strange as it sounds there is even a technical term for fear of clowns - “coulrophobia”.
I imagine that this young man made children laugh, and not by scaring or upsetting them, though his painted clown’s face concealed more than even he knew. Surely he did know more than we can ever imagine of real terror and sadness, since he lived at the very extreme of human misery, in war.
The clown’s mask is a multifaceted symbol. This young man lived in horror, yet offered laughter. We hear it often that we laugh to keep us from crying; that comedy makes the world bearable or – to quote a researcher from that BBC documentary– that maybe all comedy is really about clowns in gas chambers. In other words, maybe it is all about the thin line between laughter and horror. When we say that we laugh to keep from crying, we realize that the line sounds completely different when we’re talking about people who live in a nightmare and still insist on offering laughter. And when we discuss politics, it would be good for there to be a perspective that also accounts for the story of this young man, of how he lived and how he died.