Theatre keeps hope alive in the mud, tears of Calais 'Jungle'
It's approaching 7pm and some among the crowd at the entrance to "the Jungle" in Calais are growing tired of the spectacle.
For three hours riot police have fired tear gas down onto them from a motorway bridge to keep them inside Europe's most notorious migrant camp on the north coast of France. Stones whizz back in response.
For once, the residents of what Doctors Without Borders calls this "shameful... squalid, state-sanctioned shanty town" are grateful for the fierce wind whipping in from the Channel.
Time to go to the theatre.
A small group of Afghans peels off to walk arm-in-arm back through the second-hand clothes market at the crossroads between "Afghanistan" and the Sudanese section, past "Eritrea" with its large plywood Orthodox church, to the big white domed tent rising from the mud of this former rubbish dump.
Their beacon in the darkness is the Good Chance Theatre, set up in September by two young British playwrights known as "Joe and Joe".
There's some kind of performance every night, and Wednesday's was a two-hour variety show, a kind of "The Jungle's Got Talent".
A cheeky version of "Clandestino", Manu Chao's song about illegal immigrants in the US -- "Africano clandestino, Afghani clandestino, Pakistani clandestino" -- is met with cheers and howls of laughter.
Then a young Iranian in a hoodie comes in, bent from the cold, and asks for a guitar.
- 'Mission Impossible' -
He takes off his gloves and flicks out his fingers like a gunslinger and begins to play a concerto by the Spanish composer Rodrigo.
As it finishes, all you can hear is the sound of the wind and the lorries on the motorway heading to the port and on to England, where almost everyone in the room is risking their life to get to.
Seventeen have died in the attempt since June.
Every night the migrants wait for the traffic to slow as it backs up from the ferry terminal before trying to clamber into moving lorries.
A young Kurdish man nurses a wound on his hand where he claims a lorry driver slashed him with a knife as he clung onto his cab earlier in the day. "He was afraid. I was afraid, he wanted to kill me," he said.
Others walk the 15 kilometres (nine miles) to try their luck at the heavily-guarded entrance to the Channel Tunnel.
"There is a scene in the first 'Mission Impossible' film where they jump on top of a moving Eurostar train. That happens every night here," said Joe Robertson, who set up the theatre with his co-writer Joe Murphy.
They stumbled into "the Jungle" in August on their way south to research Europe's migrant crisis only to realise the "worst refugee situation of all" was on their doorstep.
NGOs accuse the British and French governments of trying to make life in "the Jungle" as unbearable as possible to deter further migrants.
A site is now being cleared to put up weatherproof tents for 1,500 people, less than half "the Jungle's" present population.
"How could people care if they don't know who these people are?" Murphy said.
"That is where the theatre comes in, it allows people to tell their stories... and to explain who they are to the rest of the world through Twitter, Instagram and Facebook."
Refugees -- including an actor who says he dubbed "Tom and Jerry" into Kurdish in Iraq -- not only star in the nightly shows, but also give daytime workshops in everything from drawing to kung fu.
Leading British stage figures, including Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry, pitched in to get the theatre off the ground and it has now morphed into "the Jungle's town hall", Murphy said.
- Cholera fear -
"The reason 'the Jungle' is so bad is because this is not classified as a refugee situation," said Robertson. "Which is why we have unaccompanied children walking around looking for their next meal and why I am worried cholera is going to become a problem this winter."
Robertson spent eight days in hospital after falling ill following a month in the camp.
"There were people in there with broken legs and backs from trying to get to England. People don't realise the power of hope. It is not Tom Cruise or James Bond doing this, it is little 13-year-olds like Mohammad (an Afghan boy) who came up with a strategy to scale the three fences around the Channel Tunnel entrance with his uncle.
"They lay still without food and water during daylight and climbed one fence every night. His uncle got through but Mohammad was caught and came back to the theatre half dead but happy his uncle had made it."
After two hours of non-stop singing, the night's show ends with a frenzied Pashtun drummer that gets most of the 200 or so people inside up dancing.
Baraa, a 31-year-old English teacher from the Syrian city of Hama, has spent the day photographing the camp and the clashes with police to make "postcards" of life at the site.
"I will try to get to England tonight," he said. "You cannot hold back humanity with a fence."
© 2015 AFP