Joan Ashworth – Animation is a refuge: ‘arrivants’ dwell in the stories of the mind

When we were preparing an animation workshop around storytelling for refugees, or arrivants[1] in Palermo as part of renowned scholar and writer Marina Warner’s Stories in Transit project, some questions arose, including

  • Why might refugees engage with animation?
  • How can animation, as a form of storytelling, offer a home for imagination?
  • How can philosopher Hannah Arendt’s experiences of being a displaced person assist in understanding the condition of being a refugee?

These questions have emerged from Warner’s overarching questions around storytelling and migration, which include “can culture and specifically storytelling, in every form of narrative expression, provide a kind of shelter for people who have lost their homes? Can a tale become a home? Can narratives build a place of belonging for those without a nation?” (2019, p233).

In this framework, Warner herself has referred to the writing of German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote about her own displacement in her short essay, “We Refugees.” In this piece, Arendt describes how refugees feel in this situation and their desire to express individuality. She notes that, “If we are saved we feel humiliated, and if we are helped we feel degraded. We fight like madmen for private existences with individual destinies” (Arendt 1994, p.114). Similarly, Arendt also gave a series of lectures which were posthumously published as The Life of the Mind (Arendt & McCarthy 1978) in which she unfolds her thinking process. In his graphic novel, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth, Ken Krimstein (2018) beautifully summarises her process: “Instead of thinking which presumes coming up with the answer, I practice what I call ‘thinking through’ which raises more questions” (p.216).

In her own work, Warner picked up on this right to a life of the mind – thinking and imagination – as a central impulse for SIT, and to which I responded by becoming involved. After winning the Holberg Prize in 2015, which honours outstanding contributions to research in the arts and humanities, Warner established this project to address refugees’ right to engage with thinking and imagination. She received this award for her work on the analysis of stories and myths and how they reflect their time and place, themes which are embedded into the foundation of the project. As a part of the project’s initiatives, Warner invited a number of artists, writers and musicians (including myself) to contribute to the storytelling project, and it is the contribution of animation to this project on which I focus for this essay.

To prepare specifically for working with refugees, the full group of volunteer artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers met in Oxford and London to gather and share knowledge and, through improvisation, devise the elements of workshops. Reconvening in Palermo, Italy, we improvised further with the refugees to make new artwork, performances and – in my group – an animated film. I worked closely with illustrator/animator Lee Shearman who had devised portable rostrum devices for holding cameras or phones in place, and animation kit for capturing animation.

My contribution to this project draws on my experience as a storyteller and filmmaker. My insights into working with vulnerable people come through working in the area of Animation Therapy (, teaching and designing courses in animation at the Royal College of Art and also through working on my own documentary project. The SIT project, however, does not attempt to offer any form of therapy but instead involves the sharing of stories, word play and listening.

As such, storytelling is at the core of SIT, and we wanted to explore what animation can add to the storytelling process in this particular environment. What forms of animation could both protect identity, and still express character? Why could refugees be skilled at animation, or more appropriately, what skills and insights could refugees bring to the animation process? What skills could refugees take with them for when they are no longer refugees?

To produce our film, we settled on the style of silhouette and cut-out animation and set up Shearman’s simple rostrum cameras under which we could place our figures and move them frame by frame.

I had been concerned that young people who had possibly been traumatised by recent events would not settle easily to work under a camera, but this was not so. Together, we worked at adapting one of the stories, “The Huntsman,” which was told to the group by one of our arrivant participants, Saifoudiny Diallo (aka Dine), who was born in Guinea in l999. He remembered this story as told by his grandfather. He told us the story in Italian and it was translated into English and French for the group. The interplay of words and images, as well as the interchange of languages, could potentially be harnessed by the animation process. Written texts could be animated on the screen alongside the images. The arrivants had many languages to play with and enjoyed working them into their story processes. The visual language of film added another layer to the conversation.

The participants drew images inspired by the story of the Huntsman. The drawings were then coloured, and some were textured using chopped-up cellophane.





Image by kind permission of Stories in Transit  and Giocherenda

 A drawing of the Huntsman’s dreaming wife was cut out and offered up to the camera. Small pieces of dried carrot to represent the edges of dream were animated onto and across the screen. Once the sequence was underway, the participants were drawn into the movement as it gradually built and could be replayed to show the progress of the dream scene.





Image by kind permission of Stories in Transit  and Giocherenda





Image by kind permission of Stories in Transit  and Giocherenda

Within the clutter and jargon of the animation process, ideas flourished, and were (eventually) laid down for everyone to see. Through the process of animation, a tentative drawing was converted into movement and its idea transformed into something bolder through attention. Each frame sits and waits for the next moments of its life to be decided. The focus on the animation, the concentration on the process, the rhythm of small movements and the capture of a frame, can soon impel the maker into a state of creative reverie. Interruptions of this reverie regularly occur, with mobile phone calls, translation needs, advice on a cut-out piece, a narrative detail or even some loud drumming from outside. The noise of rehearsals from the nearby musicians and the puppeteers working on their own storytelling projects was a challenge for the animators. Progress could be very slow.

In a key section of the narrative, the Huntsman and a prince both shoot the same animal, and they argue as to which of them should claim the kill. In the earlier dream, the Huntsman’s wife had predicted that the Huntsman would meet someone important on his next hunting trip, and she advised him to take food to share. During their dispute over the kill, instead of fighting, the Huntsman invites the prince (who was lost in the woods) to sit and eat with him whilst they decide what to do.






Image by kind permission of Stories in Transit  and Giocherenda

We adapted and dramatized the story into a new version, improving the narrative and turning it around in our minds like a cube to explore its different faces. Creative work of this nature engages the arrivants or migrants (or ‘migranti’ in Italian) who willingly offer up their ideas, their drawings, and watch and assist each other within the process.

Within the main narrative of the Huntsman’s story, there are two shorter stories, nested inside its main structure. These nested stories are told by the Huntsman to his guards after his arrest. This follows the same conceit as that of the collection of folktales, 1001 Nights, and the Huntsman’s motive is the same: to prolong his life. One of these nested stories tells of a mother who leaves her cat in charge of her baby, as she must go out to the market. While she is away, a snake tries to attack the baby, but the cat intercedes and kills the snake. There is blood everywhere, including on the baby. The cat drags the dead snake into the garden. At this moment, the mother returns to see her baby covered in blood, blames the cat, and kills it. When she goes outside to the garden, she sees the dead snake, the baby wakes up and cries, and the mother realises what has really happened. The moral of the story of course is not to jump to conclusions. Accordingly, justice is a recurring theme in the Huntsman as well as the other stories told by the refugees.





Image by kind permission of Stories in Transit  and Giocherenda

A drawing of the cat-baby-snake scene was made in response to the spoken recounting of the story. The drawing was adapted into the cut-outs pieces, and we discussed the dramatization of the scene: who would see the snake first? The cat, or the baby? How would we show that the cat is caring for the baby? Perhaps the cat could sing a lullaby to show its care? Working with the poet Phil Terry, the refugees devised a lullaby in French, and we decided to attempt to animate the words to the lullaby on the screen. Momadou, who was animating the scene, naturally changed pace and slowed the speed of the sound emitting from the snake, which added more tension to the scene. The refugees discussed how best to write the sounds that a baby makes when it cries, as each language has its own ways of expressing sound as text. When the camera was knocked, we cut in for a close up to disguise the jolt:





ImImage by kind permission of Stories in Transit  and Giocherenda

The expressive nature of the cat and baby drawing, made just after we had heard the story carried through into the animation. When our piece was screened, the members of the audience joined in to make the sound of the snake, “shhhhhhhhhhhhhhheeeellllllll.”

Musta and Ibra, two of the participants, provided feedback on their experience of SIT in terms of what worked best for them, and what part of the process was most useful or enjoyable?

“All of it,” said Ibra. “Everything.”

“The play with words,” said Musta.

I asked them about the animation, whether it would be useful beyond the workshops? Might it be something that people choose as a career? Was anyone interested?

“Dine, Dine is interested” said Ibra. “If he shows that it can be a career, then the others will know.”

With that short conversation, I had to leave it until our next meeting. I remembered again how keen the refugees are to pass on their knowledge, and when they are learning something new that they promise to tell the others. Their fellow travellers have become their new family, and their thought and kindness and camaraderie in this context is of interest to the project.

Ben Rawlence, author of City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp gave a short talk to the volunteers at the start of this project. In his book, he describes how the migrants have secret codes for communicating in unsafe or unsure situations. In a section of his book titled, “Italy, or Die Trying,” he describes a group of young refugees gathered at a khat stall in a market area of the Dadaab refugee camp.[2]

Around Guled’s khat stall, they congregated. The boys talked together while Auntie, her beady eyes dancing and her flesh shaking with laughter, anchored the scene, joking and doing business. Among the ten young men, all beneath the age of twenty-five, there were no unfamiliar faces, the atmosphere was intimate, as though among family; indeed for many of them it was the only family they had.

Groups in the camp had code words to police their conversations and to warn against strangers whom they didn’t know. Some developed hand signals for use in crowded spaces like the tea-shops of the market. ‘Be quiet. Turn Around. Watch your back,’ or ‘He’s with me. It’s okay.’ Loose talk was dangerous.

Informers from al-Shabaab, or the governments of Kenya or Ethiopia could be listening at any point. (2017, p. 422)

Might these heightened observational skills be valuable for making animated films? Animation is a useful medium for visualising movement within imagined spaces, and potentially for trying out subtle movements to denote character. A close up can be used to pick out a subtle detail. A timeline pushes forward and points towards a future. “What comes next?” asks the filmmaking process.

Getting inside the skin of another person, intuiting how students might behave, is part of the preparations to design any workshop. Entering into the character of ‘the student’ is not unlike inhabiting the character one animates for the screen. Imagination and empathy are needed. There is a particular pleasure in entering another’s mind and attempting to place oneself into the workshop situation, turning oneself around to imagine the snags that might arise. Imagine the entering the space, the resistance, the fear, the excitement of not knowing how it will go. Anticipating the eagerness to please, as well as the desire to disrupt. My dyslexia tutor taught me some techniques for thinking through a challenging event such as a particularly important lecture or workshop. She referred to the ideas explored in I’m OK – You’re OK (Harris  1999), wherein the whole event is imagined through, anticipating snags and reactions, imagining a stumble, and then bringing the event back on track, along with the overall anticipation of a positive outcome. You want to be there, the audience wants to be there, everyone is okay. For this project, so many elements were up in the air that I could not imagine it through, so had to stay lightly poised for anything, at all times. The essential improvisatory mode is essential to the project and is at odds with some aspects of animation production. Lee and I needed to carefully prepare equipment so that improvisation could occur within the workshop constraints. Each workshop we have coordinated has given us more insight into what works. There is an exchange of knowledge to which we are learning to stay open.

It is important to state that this project does not focus on the stories of refugees’ journeys – it is not about directly documenting their realities. SIT is about exploring myth, fairy-tale, fantasy and playing with words, languages, archetypes, transformations and designing narratives to make a space in which to play and exchange ideas. This is an important difference compared to many other animation projects because refugees are asked over and over to tell the story of their journey. As Rawlence notes, “Everyone in Dadaab has an original story. A story that has been retold so many times, the narrative worn smooth like a wooden handle” (2017, p. 223).

There is the potential for refugees to be extraordinary filmmakers – and possibly exquisite animators – because animators are people watchers. Through extreme circumstances, refugees have had to become keen observers and have been thrown into themselves. They have absorbed movement, gesture, stance, expression of feeling all thickened by the intensity of their experiences. Inviting refugees to animate, to condense their watching, into simple silhouettes and cut outs has resulted in remarkable expressions emerging from the screen.

Animation can similarly facilitate a conversation, and the act of concentrated listening. Sound plays an important part alongside the images. Musician Stevie Wishart, one of the artists in the SIT group, uses the violin to communicate across language barriers. She asks participants – some having never picked up a violin before – to play. When the participant makes a sound with the violin, she copies it and plays it back. The ‘conversation’ continues, gradually building into a piece that can be played together. It is hoped that Wishart’s approach can be used to make a soundtrack for the Huntsman film.

For developing these conversations, Hannah Arendt’s enthusiasm for a multiplicity of voices, the chaos of truths (rather than one big truth) becomes particularly salient. She warns that not listening to all the voices of the past leads to totalitarianism. Are we heading in that direction, as so many people live precariously and cannot have their voices heard? Accordingly, Arendt notes that refugees don’t like to be called refugees. They prefer “newcomers,” or “immigrant”: “it is true we have had to seek refuge” and are “Unfortunate enough to arrive in a country” and to need help, but this experience should not define them (1994). Arendt further lists their losses:

our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. (1994)





Image by kind permission of Stories in Transit  and Giocherenda

The SIT workshops are an opportunity to address these losses, to express language, reactions, and gestures in words and drawings and movements. The drawings resonate with cultural specificity. All under the safe recording – but not judging – eye of a lashed-up rostrum camera, and on a miniature scale. Animation can assist to condense and simplify a story. The process begs for the maker to think carefully before the effort of putting an idea or an image on the screen and taking the time to make it move. Once the animator gets into the flow of the movement, the process suggests new options, new interpretations and new gestures to communicate thoughts.

Returning to the central question of this paper, how can Arendt’s experiences of being a displaced person help us to understand the condition of being a refugee? – which thereby assists us to offer appropriately challenging animation workshops – it is helpful to keep in mind that Arendt herself states that “understanding is closely related to the faculty of imagination.” In this respect, refugees are invited, as a part of their participation in SIT, to imaginatively express the shapes, spaces and the stories they have held in their minds to build understanding. Haltingly, or confidently, they make a babble of voices heard. Animation is an exquisite medium for recording imaginative work of this nature, externalising one’s thoughts and ideas, and being a record of a voice.

In his graphic novel, Krimstein quotes Arendt back to herself through the voice of her second husband, Heinrich Blucher. He tells her, “as you always say, storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”









© Ken Krimstein, 2018, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt and Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.
Used with kind permission.

Arendt’s quote is originally from Men in Dark Times, (1968, p. 105) and is in relation to Isak Dineson’s acts of storytelling to her lover Denys Finch Hatton and how she had made up stories to tell him when he visited her farm in Africa. These stories were perhaps intended to keep him on the farm, or perhaps to offer a mental space for him to reside after his experiences of World War I. Akin to the experiences of our refugee participants, Dineson once again created stories to keep herself alive after Hatton had been killed in a flying accident. Story, as a narrative act, as Arendt puts it, “reveals the meaning of what would otherwise remain an unbearable sequence of sheer happenings” (1968 p 104). In this sense, Arendt recognises the freedom of storytelling as a way to uncover meaning, by not ‘chasing facts’ or apparent truths. Meaning emerges from the pulling together of ideas, imaginings, and reinventions. This is Warner’s intension for the project, and what we all agreed with when we participated in SIT’s activities.

“When faced with deprivation and uprootedness,” Warner asks, “can imaginative works of myth, fairy tale and fable – map geographies of home onto surroundings that are not home: can a story provide shelter?” By responding to stories, by demonstrating you have been listening, by animating the narrative elements, and by offering the rough reply to the group to expand and mash, this addresses another need that refugees have: the need to be heard. What is happening now, what can their imagination conjure and be shared, what fantasies can be dreamt up to flex the imagination muscle? Animation within the SIT context offers a depository for the imagination, an archive and record of ideas, a refuge for the thoughts that could’ve slipped away unnoticed, but here they are, tentative or confident, textures and sounds. A refuge to return to and on which to build.

Joan Ashworth is an artist/ filmmaker & independent scholar whose animated films have explored women’s rights, meadow swimming, gothic fantasy and the fertility of mermaids. Ashworth’s research includes multidisciplinary projects CHILDSPLA and Animation Therapy. From 1994-2015, Ashworth headed up the internationally renowned Postgraduate Animation Programme at the Royal College of Art, UK. Ashworth lectures internationally, and published occasionally, and is a participant in Stories in Transit project initiated by Marina Warner to address refugee rights to a life of the mind and imagination. Ashworth studied filmmaking at the National Film & Television School and co-founded 3 Peach Animation through which she directed commissions for cinema and TV including the opening titles for Tim Burton’s Batman 1. In 1998, Ashworth co-founded Seed Fold Films through which she directed How Mermaids Breed, 2002 & Mushroom Thief, 2010. Ashworth is in production for a portrait of Sylvia Pankhurst, suffragette & artist, using animation to explore the Pankhurst archive of writing and images.


Arendt, H. (1994). “We Refugees.” In: M. Robinson, ed., Altogether Elsewhere, Writers on Exile, 1st ed. Faber and Faber.

Arendt, H. and McCarthy, M. (1978). The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Fernyhough, C. and Holloway, R. (2019). Others: Writers on the Power of Words to Help us See Beyond Ourselves. London: Unbound.

Krimstein, K. (2018). The Tree Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth. London: Bloomsbury.

Rawlence, B. (2017). City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp. New York: Picador.

Warner, Marina (2019). “Living in a Country of Words: The Shelter of Stories. In (eds.) Fernyhough, C. and Holloway, R. Others: Writers on the Power of Words to Help us See Beyond Ourselves. London: Unbound.



[1] A note on terminology for refugees, migrant and ‘arrivants.’ In Palermo, our participants are all unaccompanied minors, and are seeking asylum. The Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford calls them forced migrants. Within the project, Warner has encouraged us to use ‘arrivants’. As she explains, “Arrivant is the more open, factual, and welcoming term Kamau Brathwaite adopted in his epic, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy: the term embraces immigrant, émigré, migrant, refugee, asylum seeker, etc. Such new arrivals are often severed from families and friends and from their geography of home, and one of their needs that should command attention is the need for culture” (In Fernyhough & Holloway 2019, p.234).

[2] Khat is a type of plant that is chewed, and is also a stimulant drug.


© Joan Ashworth

Edited by Amy Ratelle