Updated: Sep 11, 2020
A 1.38 Minute Sketch in Three Acts
Border Control* is a highly charged, provocative sketch that is incredibly short, and offers tight, clean, sharp actions and writing about what might initially seem to be a fairly straightforward experience, but in actual fact is loaded with political issues that are as current now as they were in 2014 when FAH performed the sketch live at Vicar Street in Dublin, Ireland.
The sketch is a mere 1.38 minutes long and contains frightening, even chilling actions that bring to mind several recent historical events, which emphasize just how powerful and timely FAH’s work can be. Watching this sketch in 2020, against the backdrop of a rise in political change spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the plight of people seeking asylum at borders all over the world, it is clear that this sketch is incredibly relevant now.
The emotional intensity of the sketch feels both disruptive and eruptive, exploding on to the stage with a rapid-fire presence of sound and action produced entirely by the human voices projecting out over the audience. There is an immediacy in the narrative, which is over almost before we know it, but the effects of sound, light, human actions, emotions, and revelations are profound in the way that FAH pushes meaning out at the audience. This is really driven home by Arms, whose singing propels the narrative along and acts as an anchor point for what is happening between Foil and Hog.*
The plot, such as it is, revolves around a simple premise: a man walks up to a border control agent and tries to cross the border in an orderly, legal fashion. He is asked for his passport and when he cannot find it immediately tensions rise quickly and soon he is shot in the back, and killed.
The Border Control sketch is below.
Border Control, I would argue, is at its core a dramatic play in three acts, which develops in such a way as to show distinct, multi-layered experiences that represent an array of politically charged issues. FAH is definitely playing around with stereotypes in this sketch, two of which can be seen in the first 28 seconds (Acts I & II). As well, they have managed to capture iconic symbols of oppression, fear, brutality, and authoritarian violence in Acts II & III.
Act I: 14 seconds
Foil Arms and Hog stand on the stage.* Initially we see Foil and Hog facing the audience, and Arms is standing in the shadows with some distance between himself and the two others, so the direct focus is on Foil and Hog, playing two nameless characters. The very initial moments of this sketch are entirely calm and routine; nothing is out of the ordinary, and there is nothing in the exchange between these two characters to suggest what is to come. However, soon after Foil is asked for his passport for the third time, and he is searching for it in his pockets, we are very aware of a rise in tension because of the change in Hog's tone of voice.
Foil to Hog: “oh, hi, um, sorry, excuse me, um, is this border control?”
Hog: “yes, this is border control, may I see your passport, please?”
Foil: “yeah, sure no problem.”
Hog: “I need to see your passport, thank you.”
Foil: searching for his passport in his pockets, “um, yeah, sorry.”
Hog, raising his voice: “passport now, ASAP buddy, please!”
Foil: “I’m sorry, I just can’t find it.”
The place where they are is unknown, though we initially assume it to be a Western, English-speaking country because the first few seconds of the sketch are in English. Hog uses the word "please" twice and "thank you" once and the voices and exchanges between the characters are calm, relaxed, and quite polite. However, the polite sentiments set up a false sense of safety, and illuminate the first stereotype presented in the sketch: English, Western borders are quiet and present no threat to those people wanting to cross them. In turn, English speaking border control agents are without prejudice and only wish to be helpful.
The trap is set in the first 14 seconds of the sketch, and Foil - the everyman at the border - is unprepared for what occurs next.
Act II: 14 seconds
One of the many strengths of FAH’s work is their ability to surprise and to take the audience unawares and this is one of those moments. Very quickly Hog’s initial mild request for Foil's passport moves into one of intense urgency. In just seconds Foil and Hog are in an entirely different exchange.
Hog: moves into an indecipherable foreign-sounding language, and begins to gesticulate.
Hog: continuing to escalate and now getting angry, still speaking an unknown language.
Foil: “I’m sorry, could you speak English please?”
Hog: Getting progressively more irate, incensed, and angry, and seeming to call over reinforcements.
Foil: with a sense of relief, “Oh, sorry, it’s in my coat, it’s in my coat, here we go, sorry.”
Hog: Seeing Foil reach into his coat, he produces a weapon, presumably a militarized one, since it is border control.
Foil: pushing his hand out in front of him and crying out, “no, no, please, you don’t understand that’s not what I wanted you to do.”
Hog’s transition to an unnamed foreign language shifts the tone of the moment immediately and introduces the arbitrary nature of foreignness as a threat. The escalation of threat against an English speaking, white person in a foreigner’s tongue and its equation with a violent border sets up the second blatant stereotype about the unsafe nature of crossing between countries in certain parts of the world. But it also shows a disconnect between those people in power and those without power. There is a growing sense of fear on Foil's part. He becomes more flustered, and seemingly confused by Hog's response to him until he reaches a pivotal moment when he finally finds his passport.
Reaching into his pocket, and declaring "it's in my coat," and Hog's response of lifting a firearm and pointing it directly at Foil captures a moment of injustice in progress. The assumption that Foil is suddenly a threat to the border control agent is premised on the fact that Hog has already escalated the situation on his own terms, already called for backup or reinforcements and has already made up his mind about Foil within the context of his authoritarian position of control.
The sketch at this point is disturbing on another powerful level for how it resonates with the recent killing of an African-American man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis by a white police officer on May 25, 2020. When Foil reaches into his coat pocket, declaring that he does have his passport he is confronted immediately by a gun pointed at him. One can hardly escape the comparison to the number of innocent Black men and women who have been in this very same situation and been shot doing something entirely innocuous like reaching for a license during a traffic stop, or taking something out of their pocket only to be killed by a police officer in the name of the officer's own protection. How many times have we heard an American police officer say, "we thought he or she was reaching for a gun, or a weapon of some kind, or a knife" only to discover later that the African-American person had no such weapon.*
In Border Control, the action of reaching for something on his own body becomes a death knell for Foil, like so many innocent people in the world who are presumed guilty and a threat before any evidence exists to make these claims. This is really an important moment in the sketch and should not be overlooked at all; it matters hugely that FAH have managed to capture such an iconic and politically charged image of a man being shot at for something that was asked of him by a person in a position of authority: please show me your passport, but the response to this is his murder by the border control agent. Foil is simply following the rules set out before him like so many others, but in the context of this border exchange, he is literally condemned for following those rules, not moving quickly enough, and then actually finding his requested passport.
Act III: 1.10 minutes
The last act of this sketch brings in Arms and his singing. It is at this point that Arms pivots towards the audience, coming out of the shadows, and moving into the light, and in turn, the narrative. The stage lights switch from bright white to red just after Arms begins singing, foreshadowing an even darker tone and Foil's death. Foil and Hog go into full slow motion pantomime as Hog proceeds to threaten and shoot at Foil who begins to run away. We also hear gun shot noises and watch as Hog gets progressively more animated with his shooting at and of Foil, and also into the air. His aggression towards Foil, and his use of the firearm remain at a high intensity throughout the rest of the sketch. Foil, in turn, begins to falter, and fall as he is shot over and over again by Hog, until at the end he is lying face down on the stage.
The difference in Act III compared to the other acts is the change in focus and tone; this part of the sketch seems to resonate not with a response to an action - reaching for a passport in a pocket - but instead invokes a resistance to change, that is, the change that might take place at an actual border: crossing into another country or asking for asylum. What was Foil trying to do in the first place by approaching the border control agent? Did he want to find a place of safety? Or shelter? The sketch suggests another life tragedy being played out in microcosm, that of immigrants trying to cross the border and any government's willingness to murder them, either literally or through diabolical laws which strip them of all their human rights and needs.
Arms and his singing add to the provocative feeling of Act III. The visceral and very physical aspects of Hog killing Foil are embodied in Arms's vocal performance. To say that he sings is an understatement of the sound that he produces throughout this part. His participation comes after Foil and Hog have already established the narrative, but he is pivotal in helping us understand the powerlessness of Foil, and the control of Hog in these dire circumstances.
Arms both anchors the plot's narrative and is disjointed from it because he is literally separated from the action, but his voice has been triggered by Hog pointing a gun at Foil. He is aware of the tragedy occurring between Foil and Hog, and he raises his voice in protest, leading the narrative with haunting and plaintive vocals. He draws the action out over the audience, encircling in sound Foil's slow motion movements,
Like Hog's indecipherable foreign language, the words that Arms sings sound non-Western.* But unlike Hog, whose words and movements are aggressive and quite violent, Arms's sound is plaintive and almost keening. He presents a sorrowful, wailing voice to the audience, emphasizing the social injustice that Foil is experiencing. Arms is a very physical singer; his is a strong sound from the diaphragm, forceful but not overwhelming. His tenor voice is clear, aching in tone, and clean without much vibrato. He is a powerful singer, using his entire body to push out sound and asking for the audience to listen, to understand the experience of Foil and Hog, like a vocal symphony of emotion but with no power to change the violent moment.
He is commenting in a lone voice, which rises above the violent fray playing out next to him. As the sketch is filmed live, and someone is at the helm of a camera, it is possible to see Arms looking at Foil and Hog at certain angles. This suggests connection, but he is still set off in his own physical space, apart and alone; yet through his voice we hear an awareness of the pain, anguish, and heartache of Foil's plight, a man soon to be killed by the border control agent, Hog.
Arms ends his vocal performance in a high range, reaching up to a final note which resolves into a plaintive sound and fades away before we hear the maraca at the end.
Foil is dead, and Hog, the border control agent and a symbol of oppressive authority, stands triumphantly over him, weapon in hand. Border Control is unbelievably timely and prescient in its content, for it captures some of the social injustices that exist in our world today and for that matter, have existed for some time. In the final seconds we understand that the one person left with any connection to humanity is Arms, as witness to the brutality against Foil. It is his beautiful and powerful voice dying away in the shadows that offers a link to hope, a measure of some light amidst this dark, turbulent human moment.
*I have never laughed at this sketch, but understand intellectually why others might laugh. When I first saw it I was deeply affected by the exquisite beauty of Arms's singing and that is why I continued to watch the sketch over and over again. Anecdotally, when I showed it to friends, and family, they too did not laugh but were also impressed and in awe of Arms's voice. Most of my friends, who are quite politically aware, have been unsettled by the sketch and find it particularly relevant to today's cultural and political climate. I am writing this analysis from that same perspective. *For the purposes of this analysis, I shall simply refer to FAH by their individual stage names Foil, Arms, and Hog but they are of course playing fictional, nameless characters in this sketch.
*I have included the video of Border Control here from YouTube (2013); however, I've seen the sketch in the context of their live show on their Patreon page (2014), and that is how I can describe in detail where the three are standing on the stage at the very beginning of this sketch.
*I am including an objective website that lists the African-American men and women who have died between 2014 (the year FAH's sketch was performed and 2020). This site doesn't take a political view, but merely lists the names of people who have died at the hands of police officers, and gives information about why they died and what happened to the officers involved.
*When FAH posted this sketch to their YouTube channel in 2016, one of the viewers commented and asked: "Anyone know the name of the song" that Arms is singing. FAH replied (and I'm going to assume this is Arms's own response): "I made it up".