This essay is an exploration and critical sounding of the multi-award winning radio feature Children of Sodom and Gomorrah: why young Africans flee to Europe (ARD 2009/ABC 2011) by the Berlin radio author/journalist and director Jens Jarisch. The reviewer, Virginia Madsen, finds something close to a dialectic approach in this unforgettable and searing ‘radio film’, but also the resonances of what she explores as ‘allegorical thinking’. Jarisch, even if unconsciously, appears to have dug down deep into the modern-day ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, a ‘no place’ in Accra, Ghana where children eke out a living, forfeiting their childhoods and risking death to recycle our computer waste, before they flee to find a better life in Europe. This program takes on mythical fabular proportions while offering a journalistic ‘investigation’ based on actual field recordings and the witness of Jens Jarisch in his role as ‘reporter’ and writer. But what is discovered here goes far beyond everyday journalism and reportage, Madsen argues. Offering her reflections of this ‘radio fiction’ documentary or ‘acoustic film’, and drawing on references and dislocations experienced from her listening and research, she encourages us to tease out this tapestry of voices coming as if from an ‘underworld’, and surfacing from the depths and pandemonium to disturb our western ‘paradise’.
Madsen understands and imagines this program as a pilgrim’s journey between heaven and hell and purgatory as she sounds out key correspondences and dislocations the program evoked for her. Madsen was on a journey of her own when she first encountered this dream of paradise in Africa, an epic tale (Old Testament yet contemporary) of the blessed and the damned. Her essay speaks of the phenomenology of listening in that encounter, the underestimated power of a writing with the microphone and of the history of ‘radio feature’ culture, especially in Germany. Madsen responds to the depths this program sounds out as it invokes the voices of the dead and of the living, of hope, despair and longing in the face of overwhelming silence and noise. The interweaving of voices in this ‘impossible dialogue’ and ‘play for voices’ succeeds in writing itself onto our memories like a fable. And even if we remain fearful that nothing changes, the reviewer finds here something of great value and power that challenges us to listen beyond paradise. (And then maybe to act?) This is not quite Dostoevsky although he is invoked (as are Virgil, Dante and Breugel), but perhaps we come close to something that sounds like ‘evidence in a trial’: one of the many ‘wild ideas’ offered by great feature making traditions in radio.
Virginia Madsen is a Senior Lecturer and Convenor Radio (Macquarie University, Sydney). Formerly a producer for the ABC, she was a founding member of the national audio arts program, ‘The Listening Room’. She has published pioneering essays exploring the radio documentary and ‘cultural radio’ traditions/practices, and is writing the first international history of ‘the documentary imagination’ in radio, examining forms and developments from the 1920s to the present renaissance.