Fame Asylum: Thinking out of the box to change popular opinion on asylum seekers

If someone asked you how you would try to change the public’s perception of refugees and asylum seekers, the last thing that would come to mind would be to form an asylum seeker boy-band in 2 weeks. But nothing escapes the mind of Richard Dedomenici.

The Platforma Festival, a collection of talks, performances and displays of artwork by and about refugees, has run from 29th November to the 4th December.

It has given me another chance to see ‘Fame Asylum‘ by Richard Dedomenici and listen to his reflections on the project 5 years after it was broadcast.

The man himself

Renowned for coming up with thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, or to some, jaw-dropping Live Art, Richard Dedomenici isn’t your average film-maker, or artist.

He spent part of 2004 wandering around Chicago with a plastic bag over his head and hands tied behind his back, in the same fashion as prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Then spookily days later, the prisoner abuse scandal was availed in the Iraqi prison.

“I want to create the kind of uncertainty that leads to possibility” he says on his website, where one can get a real sense of what live art is.

Show Aims

The documentary, art project, TV show, however you may perceive it, ‘Fame Asylum’ was aimed at poking fun at the genre of talent shows but eventually became a part of it. It was structured with all the X-Factor/Pop Idol elements; auditions, rehearsal, performance.

The difference this time is that this talent show also aimed to take away the stigma that exists around asylum seekers and refugees due to negativity portrayed in the mainstream press.

Richard had wanted people who wouldn’t usually come into contact with asylum seekers, but who would watch talent shows on TV, to interact with asylum seekers through the project. Some people who commented on the show by email had expressed their change in opinion towards asylum seekers after watching it.

Richard admitted to losing a lot of control over the project as Channel 4, who commissioned the piece, had preferences.

The show provokes emotions at both ends of the spectrum. There is the comedy of four asylum seekers who begin dancing out of time, and singing out of tune. But there is also the heart-breaking story of each individual’s plight, having lost family and traveled alone far from home at a young age.

Status, as the group was eventually named, consisted of Long from Vietnam, Saeed from Iran, Aaron from Albania and David from Nigeria. 

Asylum Issues

Many of the issues in the lives of asylum seekers are covered in the show. Aaron, after making his life in the UK, is ashamed to let his English friends know that he’s an asylum seeker due to the stigma around the term.

David, having relied on the Church since coming to the UK, battled between performing on stage or going to Church when they need his assistance.

Unaccompanied minors are asylum seekers who come to the UK under the age of 18, without the supervision on an adult. They are allowed to stay in the UK under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As Saeed was approaching 18 when the show was being filmed, he faced deportation.

Richard had had doubts before starting the project, wondering if making the boys into a boy-band for 2 weeks only for it to cease to exist afterwards, was being fair or not. But the ‘Status’ boys reflected positively afterwards.

Apparently when Richard and the boys watched the show back together, emotions were high.Status didn’t get snapped up by a record company, but Richard is glad of it. He thinks they are all capable of much more than that.

Though his original priority had been to create an art project, it soon changed to be the interests of the boys in Status.

My Reflection

With years experience working with refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, and the issues that they face, I feel Richard Dedomenici’s project had a genuine intention to change public opinion.

We all try different ways to tackle the problem of the negativity towards this vulnerable group, but none of us have thought outside of the box.

‘Fame Asylum’ helps us to realise that there are no limits to what we can do. And even if the things we do only change a few opinions, then we’re on our way to getting there.

The reality of the infotainment era that we are in, is that people don’t like to deal with serious issues. The only way we can get ordinary people to look deeper into issues like Asylum, is to make them entertaining. And that’s what Richard Dedomenici has done.