This outburst will strike a chord around the world
Published in The Independent (May 7th, 2009)
Abbas Kiarostami’s outburst against British officialdom will strike a chord with artists all around the world. However famous, however inspirational, they must endure a nightmarish maze of bureaucracy which, together with high costs, confusion and consular rudeness, is leading musicians, dancers and now even opera directors to boycott Britain.
One of Africa’s best-known musicians told me recently he was wondering if it was worth coming here any longer. He had travelled from his home in Bamako, Mali, to the nearest British consulate in Dakar, Senegal, a 16-hour-journey, having completed an online application. A second car broke down, stranding his drummer and a guitarist. Once there, he explained that he had a flight to catch that night, only to be first ignored, then treated with breathtaking arrogance by an official, who barked at him to come back the following day despite his protestations.
One of the politest people I have ever met, he was left baffled by such behaviour. “It is not what I associate with your country,” he said.
Or take the case of Tinariwen, a Tuareg guitar band who have become one of the hippest groups on the planet. Whenever they want to perform in Britain they must make a 6,000-mile round trip from their home village in the north west of Mali to Dakar to do biometric tests. Then they must wait 10 days in a Dakar hotel while their passports are sent for processing to Banjul in The Gambia. All in all, the visas cost them about £1,200 each – and there are eight in the band. They have not been treated rudely, but with the music industry in meltdown, it is harder and harder to make the sums add up.
For Congolese musicians, many of them celebrated worldwide, it is even worse: they must travel to Nairobi in the all-too-often vain hope of getting entry to Britain.
In some places, a confusing system is outsourced to private companies, whose contempt for applicants is even worse than our consular staff. Woe betide anyone who makes a tiny mistake in any of the highly-complex forms, whatever their first language. Artists trying to arrange visas while on tour are curtly told they should have applied in their country of origin, despite official guidelines to the contrary. Then there are rejections without reason, fees never returned, even members of the same group travelling from the same country charged different amounts.
Little wonder there is so much anger among arts organisations at how Britain is deterring the world’s artists. Festivals see their acts pull out at short notice. Promoters see bills fall apart as star names are delayed, or denied access. Attempts to simplify the system have only added to the confusion and the costs. Artists lose money, developing economies lose valuable revenue – but we are the biggest losers, left a more insular nation.
And it is not just famous musicians and opera directors. A string of impassioned letters to this paper over the past two months has revealed deep anger among Britons given a glimpse of this hostile system. There have been tales of families ripped apart, academic exchanges blocked, even the rejection of visitors to a church celebration whose application was supported by a Cabinet minister. From Moscow to Shanghai to Nairobi, the same complaints of siege mentality, rudeness, Kafkaesque bureaucracy and hefty costs.
Of course there needs to be an effective system to protect our borders. But in a nation that prides itself on fair play, is this really the surly face we want to show the world?