My freedom is writing. My freedom is my peace of mind. My freedom is building a good relationship – An Interview with Ken Canning

Head shot of Ken Canning. He is wearing glasses, and a long necklace of small, red, gold and black beads (Aboriginal colours). He has a greying mustache and beard, and he is smiling.

Credit: Socialist Alliance

Ken Canning is a Murri activist, writer and poet. His people are from the Kunja Clan of the Bidjara Nation in south west Queensland, Australia. His Bidjara name is Burraga Gutya. Ken has lived in Sydney for over 30 years. He worked as an academic and cultural adviser at the University of Technology Sydney and is currently a support worker at the Judge Rainbow Memorial Fund, where he assists people who have experienced the criminal justice system.

Ken’s poetry has been translated into several languages. His publications include Ngali Ngalga, Breakout Press,1990 and Yimbama, Vagabond Press, 2015. His first major play, 49 Days a Week, was showcased at the Yellamundie National First Peoples Playwriting Festival 2017. He has also written a half-hour film script called Cocky on a Biscuit Tin.

Gaele Sobott: Let’s start with your birth. There’s information on the Internet stating you were born on Bribie Island, Queensland.

Ken Canning: I spent some time on Bribie Island as a kid but I wasn’t born there. I was born in Frankston, Victoria. My mother’s family come from Charleville in Queensland.  Dad was stationed in Victoria when Mum was pregnant with me.

GS: Where was your father from?

KC: He was from Toowoomba. My Dad was a whitefella. The family was Irish from County Cork. They were very rich and very powerful. My grandfather’s name was Bob Canning.

GS: Where did you parents meet?

KC: Granddad worked out at Charleville. My father was in the navy and when he got leave, he went out to see his father. That’s where he met my mother. When they decided to marry, the Canning family didn’t want anything to do with us because they were against inter-racial marriage.

My grandfather said, ‘My son can marry who he wants.’

So, the family disowned both my father and Granddad. Any wealth, any land my father and grandfather were entitled to was stripped from them. They were outcasts. Granddad was disappointed with his family. He said they were traitor Irish. They took part in some of the massacres of Aboriginal people. I researched it years later with Dr Carroll Graham at University of Technology Sydney (UTS). They didn’t come here like your average Irishman who didn’t like authority. One of granddad’s uncles even became a policeman.

The reason I was born in Frankston was a bit random because while Mum was pregnant with me, she accidentally trod on a Red-Belly Black snake and got bitten on the foot. An old fella reacted quickly, got a sharp knife, cut her foot open and sucked the poison out. She was lucky, she was only a bit crook but after that she wanted to be with my father so she went and stayed in Frankston. About six months after I was born, we headed to Narrabeen in Sydney and then we took off to Queensland.

GS: So, you may have a bit of Red-belly Black venom in you?

KC: Well I might. I was fascinated by snakes growing up. There were snakes everywhere on Bribie Island. One time I was hiding from my cousins behind a tree, waiting to scare them and a snake crawled across my foot. I froze. I knew if I kept still it would leave me alone and it did. It took off when my cousins came running up the road. I admire snakes but I don’t really want them crawling on me!

I used to stalk kangaroos as a kid. I knew I couldn’t catch them. They were too clever for me. I’d chase goannas too then one evening a goanna turned on me. Jeez, I tell you what, I reckon if it had been an Olympic trial, I would’ve won. I ran home and slammed the door. My brother and I were looking through the front window and it was sitting there waiting for me to come out. It was much bigger than what I’d initially thought. They can give you a nice bite. The funny thing about a goanna bite is that every year to the day the bite mark will come back.

GS: Can you talk a little about your mother’s family?

KC: I don’t know the traditional names but my great, great granny was called Jane Boyd by the whites who invaded the area. I read a police document on her – ‘Jane Boyd, Aboriginal woman, associate of Chinese gardeners. Likes opium, is armed and will shoot at police.’ The Chinese came to the area because they were being persecuted. They lived with our people.

My great, great grandfather walked down from Tenant Creek right into the middle of the wars, the Forty-Year war. He married Jane Boyd. He was given the name Edward Prince. There are still Princes out West but he originally came from the Northern Territory, Carpet Snake Dreaming. My mother’s side are Magpie Dreamers. My great granny looked after me. She used to tell me stories about how her mother would stand up to the police. They were very strong people. Granny got kicked in the hip by a horse out West and the doctors wouldn’t come to see her. The family mended the hip bone as best they could but she had trouble with it all her life. So, a lot of the time she was bedridden. She was addicted to morphine. She passed when I was about fifty-six.

It was confusing growing up because Mum had me when she was young and when I was little, I thought she was my sister and called her Joan. I thought my grandmother was my mother. I used to call her Mum, and I thought my great grandmother was my grandmother. That still sticks in my mind today. Often when I talk about my gran, I’m actually talking about my great grandmother.

GS: Tell me more about the Forty-Year war.

KC: The Forty-Year War was one of the longest wars in Australian history. Not the whole Bidjara people but our clan group, the Kunja clan, fought for forty years. That war went from the 1860s right up to the 1900s when they allegedly defeated our people. Men, women and children were fighting against the British. After that a lot of my great uncles went off with the bushrangers to continue fighting for another twenty years.

My great, great grandmother was carrying a gun around everywhere she went, shooting at police. We were a people who travelled on foot then. We didn’t take to horses until the cattle stations started using us as labour. Some of people rode horses but basically our guerrilla warfare was on foot. We only have oral history records of that war. My cousin, Sam Watson, found some information in the archives in Brisbane. There was a box just sitting there collecting dust and he started reading through some fascinating documents, but the archive staff told him the material wasn’t for public viewing and he should come back. When he went back the whole box was gone.

There is no official acknowledgement that the Kunja clan of the Bidjara people fought for forty years. That’s two generations and no recognition. When you look at our society today, we’re coming up to Anzac Day where people beat their chests and say, ‘My grandfather fought to save this country.’ I don’t have that right. It’s a denial of history. Like the very first boys’ home I was put into, does not exist. It’s been wiped from history.

GS: Where was the boys’ home?

KS:  It was in Scarborough, run by the Catholics behind a boarding school for white kids. The building was full of Aboriginal kids who had allegedly committed crimes. They were totally brutalised. There is no record of that place ever existing. The Catholic Church denies it ever existed. It does not exist but I was there. I know other people who were there too. I knew people who committed suicide in there. It’s as though I fabricated eighteen months of my life. Our history is denied.

GS: How old were you when you went into Scarborough?

KC: I was ten, almost eleven. It was just after my great gran died. There were a lot of kids my age there and kids up to sixteen, seventeen-years. The place was run by brothers who were mad brutal rapists. They did some terrible things. They didn’t care what damage they caused. When they tried to take me, I’d jump up on the bed and scream, bite, kick. I was too much trouble for them. But they did bed checks every day so they set me up by putting two cigarettes under my pillow. I was flogged, every single day for the two cigarettes they’d find.

I was christened a Catholic. My parents were Catholic. Then I remembered Granddad talking about a cousin of his, called Archbishop Duhig, the archbishop of Brisbane at that time. I told one of the brothers. They must have checked it out and then there was a big change in attitude towards me.

GS: Why were you put in the boys’ home?

KC: I was living on Bribie Island and there was a shop I wasn’t allowed into because I was Aboriginal. The place was all bush back then. It was beautiful. Not like now. It’s disgusting. All built up. Multi-million dollar homes.  I was waiting on the road up from the shop for my cousin. Some white boys came out of the shop. I knew them. They were older than me.

They said, ‘Do you want a bag of lollies Johnny?’

That’s my middle name. Anyway, I said, ‘Yeah, thanks.’

So, I was standing there with the bag of lollies when the shopkeeper came out and accused me of stealing them. He knew I wasn’t allowed in the shop.

I said, “I’m not allowed in the shop. How could I have stolen them?’

He took me to the policeman who put me in the cells. Twice a week a priest came to Bribie from the mainland. He was there too. The shopkeeper, the policeman and the priest made the decision without any consultation with my family, to send me to Scarborough. My family didn’t know where I was. They assumed I’d been taken to Brisbane. Everyone was looking for me in Brisbane. Some of my relatives went to the boys’ home in Scarborough but there were only records for orphans. The people in the office didn’t know who was in the home. Most of us kids were taken there illegally.

When stories started circulating about the place, and blokes in jail started talking about the treatment they’d received at the home, the Catholics closed it down. No record of anything ever happening there.

GS: You came from Frankston in Victoria, stayed for a while in Sydney and then came back to Queensland. Where did you live? Was it Bribie Island?

KC: We came from Sydney back to Charleville.

GS: What are your memories of that time?

KC: I was a funny little kid. I was fair. The old people in the family who lived inland, didn’t have any contact with white people, they’d come and visit, and every time they left, I’d follow them back out to the desert. Those men and women laughed at me and gave me the nick name, Myal. In our region that means an Aboriginal person who doesn’t want anything to do with white ways. The whites changed the meaning to a wild Blackfella. I later heard that all the family were killed by white people.

West Queensland in those days was lawless. It was brutal towards Aboriginal people but we had some good fighters in our family. We had some victories. My uncle Bill Bailey was a big, powerful man, huge. Any time we’d work for the white man, he wouldn’t pay us. It didn’t stop Blackfellas from working to try and make a living. My Uncle didn’t accept it.

He said, ‘I don’t care if I go to jail. You pay me or you’ll be in your grave.’

They paid him. We weren’t allowed to have bank accounts so he saved his money in an old Sunshine Milk tin that he buried in different places. No one ever knew where. Aboriginal people weren’t allowed in Charleville. He’d walk up the main street. Blackfellas weren’t allowed in the pub. He’d go in and demand to be served and they served him. The local police couldn’t get him into the jail. He was too powerful.

He saved enough money to buy a block of land just out of Charleville. We weren’t allowed to own land but they sold him the land. It’s still in the family. He made history. I loved Uncle Bill.

GS: When did you move to Bribie Island?

KC: We were hounded out of West Queensland. My old gran, my mother’s mum, wanted us to go. The government didn’t let blackfellas go to school and because of my complexion, I would have been taken by Welfare. We moved around South-West Queensland for a while then we stayed in Brisbane. We lived at a hotel under the Story Bridge. Unfortunately, by then, Mum had become an alcoholic. I was about five years old and I wandered off and nearly fell into the Brisbane River. The authorities put me in an orphanage. Two years later Dad came out of the navy. Because he was white, he was allowed to take me from the orphanage. He was a violent man.

One time, I was sitting on the beach with my granddad when he was dying of leukemia in the 80s and I asked him, ‘Have you got any regrets?’

The old fella said, ‘Yes, one regret, your father!

I got on well with Granddad. We lived in Redcliff for a while. I was seven or eight when Grandad got me into a Catholic school but they kicked me out because I was disruptive. I stood on the desk and hit people on the head with a ruler so they gave me a warning. Not long after that I got up on the roof of the boys’ toilets, jumped down onto a group of people and got stuck into them. I had a lot of rage by then. After that we moved to Bribie Island.

GS:  Where did that rage come from?

KC:  The rage came from a whole lot of things. There was a lot of violence in the home and alcoholism had taken my Mum. I found my grandfather on my mother’s side dead at the kitchen table. That shocked me. I was starting to understand the attitudes of white people towards my mother, towards Aboriginal people, racism. The police, and white people in general would call my mother names like whore, slut. Those things affect you as a little kid.

 GS: You’ve said you chased kangaroos and goannas, how else did you like to spend your time as a kid?

KC: Yeah, I played in the bush but I’d also take time and go and sit with my Gran. She’d tell me stories about what was happening in her day and her mother’s day. She talk about which family groups were related to other family groups and where they went to when they were hunted out. She told me a whole lot of things. She told me stories about the black servicemen from the States stationed in Charleville during the Second World War. She didn’t like them. Stories of rape and violence towards our women. She experienced it personally.

In our land before white people came we were very much matriarchal. Gran and my old Granny Boyd, they had several husbands. They were open about their views that if a man started playing up, getting silly after he’d done his job, given them kids, they’d show them the door. Our lands were matriarchal. That didn’t mean that men were demeaned or exploited.

Another thing I liked doing was listening to the wireless. I used to listen to radio plays, the news, BBC programs.

GS: So, you were taken to the boys’ home in Scarborough from Bribie Island. How long were you in that home?

KC: I was in there for about one year or so. When I got out, the authorities took me back to Bribie Island and dumped me in the middle of the road outside an abandoned house. I was twelve going on thirteen-years-old. I went around to my old boxing trainer. He told me the family had gone to Brisbane looking for me. He drove me to Brisbane and I asked him to drop me at Musgrave Park. I sat with all the Blackfellas there and people took me in. They looked around and found Mum living at Wilston.

I was only in Brisbane for a little while and the local police grabbed me and took me to Windsor police station. They were screaming at me about a heap of break and enter crimes. Mum came in and tried to set the record straight. They called her every filthy name under the sun and threatened to lock her up. She got Granddad and he demanded to see the charge sheets.

He said, “My grandson was in the boy’s home in Scarborough for most of these.’ The coppers weren’t about to argue with Granddad and they let me go.

After the boys’ home in Scarborough, I made a habit of being alone. I didn’t want any ties for a long time. I got into a lot of trouble in Brisbane and ended up in Westbrook, another boy’s home. I ran away from there and stole a car. Police cars surrounded me down near Roma street and ran me off the road. They were shooting at me, bullets flying everywhere. One went through the door straight into my leg near the knee. I jumped out of the car and collapsed.

They put straight into the men’s prison, Boggo Road, Two Division. That was illegal because I was only sixteen. When Two Division was eventually closed in 1989, the Australasian Post, described it as the most notorious division in Australia. It was a hell hole. They had a young offenders’ yard but they put me in the men’s yard. I came in on crutches. My Uncle Vic was in there. He said, ‘You’ll be right. Settle down.’

Everyone knew Vic. Because I was his nephew, they left me alone. I only did a couple of months and I was let out. I told Mum I was going bush for a while. I had a bit of money because I was working hot so I caught the train to Sydney. Then went to Melbourne, across to Adelaide and on to Perth. I got knocked over there with a mini minor full of stolen property. How stupid was I then? You’d think I would’ve got a bigger truck.

The authorities contacted the Queensland authorities about me. They told them that they’d put me in Boggo Road because the boys’ homes couldn’t handle me. So, Western Australia put me straight into Freemantle adult prison. I was alright there because all the Blackfellas knew me. Again, I wasn’t there long. When I got out, the police put me on the train handcuffed. Just before it pulled out they took the cuffs off and said, ‘If you come back to WA we’ll put a bullet in you.’

None of the passengers would talk to me on the trip across the Nullarbor. It was a very spooky little trip.

I got to Sydney and found out that a member of our family had been shot to death by the police in Melbourne. Cuz and I went mental. We were already working hot but after that we made sure we were armed with sawn-off shot guns coxnd pistols wherever we went.

GS: I’d like to talk about your play 49 Days a Week.  I saw the reading at Yellamundie 2017. The story is very powerful, moving, thought-provoking.  Could you tell me a bit about the creative development process?

KS: I started writing that play years ago when I was at uni. I wrote a piece for a prisoner radio program. It was stream of consciousness, the thoughts of a bloke walking up and down his cell and I added some sound effects. That was the genesis but I changed it for Yellamundie reading. I set it in the cages at Bogo Road jail not the cells. That was the focus of the story, what the cage does to your mind. I had a lot of bad experiences in Long Bay jail too but I couldn’t set the Yellamundie play in two environments so I just kept it to the Boggo Road cages.

I wore myself down to the ground doing the writing. I was working, arranging the Invasion Day march at the same time and sitting up every night doing re-writes. I really wore myself out and I got ill. That sort of shut everything down. I’ve had a break now and I’m ready to write again.

Yesterday I was at the bus stop and along comes Fred Copperwaite, the director. He told me they are interested in developing the play further. He liked it because his father and his uncle had been in jail.  I was scared that audiences wouldn’t like it, that they wouldn’t get it, they wouldn’t get why it had to be so intense.  But the reception it got at Yellamundie was really good. The play means a lot to me because my friend was actually executed by the police in 1984. He was thirty-five.

GS: He was of Irish origin?

KS:  Yes.

GS: Can you tell me more about him?

KS: Well, he was a professional armed robber. We met when we were kids. He had a great sense of humour. Me and Cuz were up and coming and the older robbers took to us. Our friend was one of the people from that era who got in with the old guard of armed robbers.

GS: 1970s?

KS: Yeah, late 60s going into the 70s. I started doing stick-ups when I was very young in Brisbane and got mixed up with older fellas. When I escaped, I did jobs in Sydney, then I’d head off to Adelaide to live quietly. That was a little recipe I had. Come back and do some more. I got to know some good people. They were good at their trade. They liked me and Cuz because we were naturals. We started when we were sixteen. We got knocked when we were eighteen but in those couple of years we did some big jobs. When we escaped, people saw exactly how willing and how good we were at the work.

GS: What makes a good armed robber?

KS: I used to talk to my best mates who were armed robbers about this subject. One of them is a whitefella with a long surname. I don’t know if it’s German or what. He was the most infamous escapee we had in this country and the most proficient armed robber we’ve ever seen. The authorities described him as a modern-day Ned Kelly only better. I liked him. So, we’d spend hours discussing these sorts of things. Once you escape, the authorities always say, ‘He’s armed and dangerous and will shoot at police. Do not approach.’

So, the public gets the idea that you’re a raving lunatic and a killer. The consensus is that we’re low in intellect but my mates were all deep thinkers.

We talked about our early lives and how those experiences influenced what we did for a living. Whatever happened to one man must have been traumatic. He had no memory of anything before he was eight. He couldn’t remember what his parents or aunties or uncles looked like. Not one memory from his childhood. Completely blank. Another came from a poor Irish family. His father refused to assimilate, refused to obey authority. From the start, my friend was targeted because he was the son of a mad Irishman who hated the authorities and liked blackfellas. When he was about seventeen, he moved in with an Aboriginal woman. They had a baby together. He told me he had thought his life was hard but once he started living with a Murri woman, the police were breaking down the door, putting a gun to his head, calling her all sorts of filthy names, even putting guns at the baby’s head. It was like a horror story.

When you have those kinds of experiences, you can go two ways. You can take the anti-social path where you are reckless or the anti-social path where you want to beat them. We were driven by the desire to beat them. We were all thorough planners. We all had a mad survival instinct and a sixth-sense for trouble. Every one of us were experts at counter surveillance. If we were under surveillance, we knew it.

When one mate escaped from Katingal, he was out for eleven years. That’s a phenomenal amount of time to be on the run. He was the smartest of us all. In all aspects of criminality, he was an absolute genius. The other commonality we had was, we didn’t think we were doing anything wrong.

To be a good armed robber you need to be able to plan. A well-thought-out escape route is the most important aspect of the planning. you’ve got to be able to think on your feet. Something might go wrong. Someone in the crowd might try to rush you. It’s best to work by yourself or as a pair. Three people gets too complicated. We were a close circle of friends. We trusted and knew each other. Fitness was another requirement. We all worked-out very hard. Even in jail. Exercise was illegal in Boggo Road but I worked out in my cell all night. Fitness for when I escaped. We didn’t like drugs and alcohol.

GS: Can you briefly describe a typical job?

KC: We re-enacted one in the play. You run through the front door. You’re wearing overalls, gloves and balaclavas. One puts everyone on the ground, the other jumps the bank counter and takes the money. That’s easy to do.

We were the first groups to hit armoured trucks in the seventies. We’d wait for then to come out with the money. Then we’d come from behind, put them on the ground, take their weapons, take the money and get out. You’ve got to do your homework. I’d watch a place for five or six weeks. During the seventies and eighties and into the nineties vans were being done over left, right and centre. The insurance premiums were going through the roof. You can’t do it now. They’ve tightened up now, invested in better security in the banks, back-up people and back-up cars for the vans. Those cassettes they put in the ATMs hold A$200,000. I know that because even after I’ve done my time and retired, I still observe these things. If I see a van pull up I look at the time and note the location. I automatically go ding, ding, ding and start figuring out how to do the job. It’s a habit. I’m not remotely interested in robbing a place but I can’t help observing.

One of the smartest robberies was done by the late Jack Wilson and Don Flanders in the mid-seventies. They ran a postal van off the road, coming from the Sunshine Coast to the Reserve Bank. It was full of old bank notes but still legal tender. They got over a quarter of a million. In those days, it was a lot of money. Jackie Wilson was as smooth as a cucumber. We used to call him Hungry Jack because he’d be sitting on a fortune but he was as tight as they come. He’d open his wallet and moths would fly out. A cunning old bugger. He wouldn’t give away a thing but Donny got knocked and the coppers verballed Jackie.

GS: What does verballed mean?

KS:  It’s when an unsigned record of interview was used to convict suspects. I got convicted on unsigned records of interview. I never got convicted on evidence, neither did Cuz, or our mates. Brett Collins was one of my old colleagues. He started up the Prisoners Action Group and they worked hard to get verbals outlawed. You’d say nothing but the coppers would just type up a confession. They’d present it in court saying this man confessed then refused to sign the confession. It was accepted as evidence.

Before I first got verballed, we were in Sydney working, I was only young, and the armed robbery squad got hold of us and told us that if we gave them twenty-five percent of our earnings, we could do what we liked. Our answer was, ‘What earnings?’

They’d say, ‘We know you’re running hot.’

We’d say, ‘The only thing we’ve got going is a hot shower.’

No way we’d work with them. There were people that did work with them and they got free range but we hated them. They also gave up other criminals. Part of the deal was dropping other crooks in. They were dogs, informers. Barking to the coppers. I had so much contempt for people like that. All of us who refused to work with the police, when we got shopped, we were in for a very long time, but at least we had our honour. We chose a certain life and we stuck by what we thought were the rules.

We used to talk about all kinds of things in the cages. When I first tried to read Foucault, I wasn’t used to the language and it didn’t make much sense but once I did get the language, I sat down in the class at UTS and said, ‘You know, this is very ordinary.’

They said, ‘What?’

I told them I was sitting in a cage for years and we used to talk about this stuff. We were uneducated men talking about prison structures. Two Division was a circular design. You could see everybody at once. At any given time, you could be observed.

We didn’t call it the Panopticon but we did talk about how the prison meant you were under constant surveillance and that you ended up surveilling yourself and everyone else. You became your own jailer. We worked that out and we were one step ahead of the system because we deliberately allowed ourselves to fuck up. It was as simple as that. I was considered a very violent inmate. But all my life I have acted intentionally. I was violent intentionally. I don’t deny that sometimes I’d blow up. I’d lose my temper but most of the time it was planned and there was purpose to it. I saw what I was doing as part of the war against the invaders. My mate saw it as the continuing war against the British. We were aware that the surveillance was happening but we were not going to let them control us.

I’ve always felt that defiance, that wilfulness. I think that goes back to my old gran. Granny was strong willed too. Well before the Black Panthers came on the scene, she gave me my first taste of Black Power. It was on Queens Street in Brisbane. She wanted to go to a shop across the road. My cousins told her she had to walk down to the lights to cross.

She said, ‘Why would I want to go all the way down there and back when the place I want to go is just opposite?’

My cousins said, ‘That’s what it’s like in the city Gran,’ and they all ran off to the lights.

I was stuck with my grandmother. So, she just crossed the road there and then with me following behind. A car beeped its horn and she smashed the walking stick straight into the bonnet of the car.

She yelled, ‘I’m walking on my land. You don’t do that!’

It was in the middle of Brisbane where black people were locked up and shot at the drop of a hat. To use a biblical analogy, it was like Moses parting the Red Sea. The traffic stopped. She walked across her walking stick in the air, yelling, ‘I’ll go where I want to go.’

She didn’t speak very good English. I was in a sort of daze. I felt like I was floating a foot off the ground. It was an amazing thing for me after seeing so much oppression, then here was this black woman standing up to a city. She was my hero. The feeling that surged through me at that point was pure strength.

When I was in Sydney’s Long Bay we had some very bad things happen to us. We had an attempted break out. It backfired and we took over the amenities block. The screws grabbed us, stripped us naked and flogged us. It got that bad, some of the screws dropped their batons and went to get the senior to stop the others belting us. We were taken to the cells and dumped naked. The ones who stopped the beating insisted the prison doctor should come. He said we were alright. We weren’t alright. The sweepers could hear our groans. Other prisons knew we were not alright. They threatened to burn the jail down unless an independent doctor came in. There was an inquiry and that independent doctor gave evidence saying the four men he examined nine days after the beatings resembled four lumps of raw meat in a butcher shop. Heavens knows how we survived.

I was in and out of consciousness.  I couldn’t move and the only way I could breathe was taking lots of short breaths through my mouth. Later the pain of taking a drink of water was unbearable. One guy was found dead in his cell months later. We got sent back to Queensland and put in the cages. Cuz was put in the intractable section in Parramatta. They had him in a cage for five years. It was a horrific period of time but it taught me a lot.

GS: What did it teach you?

Colour photograph, interior, mid shot of Ken Canning standing in his apartment. Right hand clasped around the back of his head. He wears a striped grey, white and black T-shirt and two necklaces in the colours of the Aboriginal flag.

Credit: John Janson-Moore

KC: I know more about the world by being in there than I probably would if I was out. I know how peoples’ minds work. When you’re in there you’re seeing the most brutal aspects of mankind and you must work out how to survive. How to come out with your sanity intact? I developed some mental health issues but I learnt how to survive. When you get out, it’s worse. We didn’t do medium security or minimum security, it was all maximum. When you get out, you’re a lunatic. How do you survive that? The first few years I was completely off my head. Mad!

GS: When did you get out?

KC: In 1979. My parole was transferred to NSW. I was hallucinating, seeing things, screaming. By 1982 I was starting to calm down.

GS: Did the hallucinating start after you got out?

KC: No, I started hallucinating in jail. When I came out of the cages, I was in the mess hall getting my food, walking with my plate looking at one of the other prisoners and he turned into a creature. That was alarming.

GS: Can you describe the cages?

KC: They built six cages onto the walls in one corner of the yard where it narrowed into a point. Metal bars in front, to the sides and across the top. Small barred, rectangles joining each other.  A rough concrete floor and a seat built out of the same iron bars.  We’d get escorted down from the cells. We were in the cells at night. In the morning at about seven-thirty, the screws would drop the flap on the cell door, we’d put our hands out to get handcuffed. The screws would not enter the cell unless we were handcuffed and facing the back wall. Four small paces square. Because we were classified as intractables, they had to have a minimum of four prison officers to take one of us out.

GS: What are intractables?

KC: We didn’t accept the prison discipline and kept on escaping.  I was classified as an intractable not long after I first went to prison. That classification doesn’t exist anymore. Once your papers were stamped, intractable, they could isolate and brutalise you, put you in the cages for as long as they wanted.

GS: You were saying a minimum of four prison officers were required to take you out of the cell.

KC: Yes, the first thing they did when they entered was smash our head so our face would hit the wall. That was how every day started. Then they’d turn the cell upside down, go away and leave you to clean up the mess. They’d come back in ten minutes and escort the prisoner out of the wing, down a passage way and through the yard. The blokes in the yard were not allowed to talk to us.

Some refused to obey and would say, ‘How you goin’ Bra?’

We’d be carrying our toilet tub. When we got to the cages yard, there were three security doors to go through. The detail would grab the toilet tub and it’d be back outside the cell when we returned. Once in the cages, we’d put our hands out a little square in the door and they take the cuffs off. That was our outside time. They’d take us back about three o’clock. There was a cold shower at the front of the cages but for a while they wouldn’t let me shower. That’s why I’m fanatical about showering now.

GS: What was the worst thing about being in the cells?

KC: No space. As much as we got on together, sometimes we really got on each other nerves, wanting to kill each other. Most blokes were put in the cages for a couple of months, we were in there for years. For extra punishment, we’d be taken to the underground cells.

GS: You kept escaping?

KC: Yes, I liked to escape.

GS: Why did you like it?

KC:  It was like doing stick-ups, there was an adrenaline rush and it was defiance. There were cruel, despicable, white people in control in the jail. A hardened, inhuman bunch of people. I was not going to accept their authority over me.  I was always in maximum security. Escaping from maximum meant I only got three months on top of my sentence. Medium was twelve months and minimum was eighteen months. Every minute of every day, I’d be planning my escape. I was obsessed.

I talked to a criminologist, Dr Tony Vincent, about this. He believed that my obsession with getting out, stopped me becoming institutionalised mentally. If you go along with the daily routine and the surveillance, your mind becomes part of the system. Bodily I was pretending to go along with it most of the time but not in my mind. It was continual defiance on my part.

My initial sentence was thirty-two years. I’d just turned nineteen and I was given thirty-two years for four armed robberies. That’s unheard of. Every morning I’d come out of my cell and look at my cell card, my name, crime and sentence – thirty-two years. I was going to get out when I was fifty-one. When you’re nineteen, that’s like a death sentence. I appealed and got one of the sentences reduced to eight years so I ended up doing seventeen years but when I was on appeal, I escaped from the court house. I’ve got a photo of me when I was on the run. It’s in a nightclub. I look like an office worker.

The next time I escaped, I faked a broken ankle, dropped my crutches and ran from the hospital. The time after that I turned a big garden sprinkler into a grappling hook, plaited sheets for a rope, jumped out of the yard and over the wall at Boggo Road. I escaped from maximum security three times.

Before that I escaped from police cells, and police cars, and I escaped from boys’ homes. There were a couple of attempted escapes too. One from Long Bay and one in Brisbane. I was working in the bake house in Boggo Road and watching their security when they send the bread out to the hospitals. They were slack. I got the blokes to pack me in the back of the truck with the loafs of bread. But the screws  did a random check in between gates and found me. I was laughing. If you’re busted, you’re busted.

Another time, it cost me a couple of grand but I got a little, diamond-tipped, flexible hacksaw smuggled in. I’d almost sawed through the top hinge of my door and was half way through the bottom hinge. I had no idea what I would do once I got out of my cell. Maybe I’d get out of the wing but then what? Hide somewhere until I figured out how to get out of the prison. But the guards came to do their usual check and one of them dragged his baton across the door. I was lying in bed and the door started wobbling. All hell broke loose. This was about two or three in the morning. They left me in the cell and cleared the rest of the wing out, tear-gassed it. Everyone was in the yards and it was cold. Then they came in armed, wearing their gas masks, the whole rigmarole.

I was put in the underground cells for that. They can only keep you underground for four days at a time because it’s brutally inhumane. They unscrew a big metal flap and lift it up then walk you down the stairs. There’s no light and hardly any air. Every day they give you a piece of bread and a jug of water but mix up the time so you are disoriented. Men go mad in those cells after two days and just start talking gibberish. They never came back from that. I knew some of those men. It broke them, I was afraid I might be next.

There was no bed in there just a toilet tub. I didn’t want to lay down because they don’t clean those places. People don’t always get the tub when they go to the toilet. I’d sleep sitting on top of the tub with my head against the wall. It stank and it was pitch black. If they wanted to keep me in longer than the four days, they’d wait until the middle of the day, run down, drag me up into the bright sunlight and order me to stand to attention and salute the Australian flag. I couldn’t. It was impossible. I was so disoriented and couldn’t handle the glare. So, then they picked me up, ran me over to the superintendent’s office, charge me with disobedience and took me for another four days down the hole. One time I was down there for almost twenty days.

GS: You’ve spoken about mental illness. How did you cope?

KC: I say to people, I went mad one hundred times but I came back ninety-nine times.

GS: One bit of madness is still hanging in there. When did you learn to read and write?

KC: Before I was in the cages, a whitefella, called Keith, who was in for fraud, taught me. He was a white-collar criminal but he gave the superintendent lip. One of the blokes who worked in the office told us. So, the super chucked him in our yard, Two Division, where all the ratbags were. The first day he walked in he had his hands behind his back. His hair was slicked down and he had an upper-class accent and he appeared arrogant. Normally a bloke like that would get slaughtered. It didn’t happen. There was something about the guy and people just left him alone.

One day he sat down and asked, ‘Anybody have trouble reading or writing?

A couple of blackfellas said, ’Yeah.’

He asked, ‘You want to learn?’

It ended up he was a good teacher. He taught Aboriginal prisoners because only white prisoners could go to the education courses. We were in the middle of a campaign to change that.  So, this old bloke put the word out that we need equipment. The whitefellas who were going to the courses started knocking stuff off. Bringing back stencils and rulers and pencils. But in max the prisoners are not the only ones with instincts. The screws have instincts too. When something is going on, they know it. They were running around checking the cells then they did a big bust on Keith Edwards’ cell. It was the biggest bust they’d done for a long time. They were upending everything looking for contraband. We laughed because all they found was educational material. He went to solitary for seven days because of that.

It took a lot of years before Aboriginal prisoners were allowed education in prison. I was writing poetry by then and short stories.

The screws came to my cell and said, “Poetry’s considered a hobby and to do a hobby you’ve got to have permission. You don’t have a permission slip. This is an illegal hobby.’

They gathered up all my writing, handcuffed me, took me down to the incinerator and burnt all my work. That hurt far more than the floggings they gave me. I retaliated that night. Some of the poems were in my memory. I had a spoon in the cell and the concrete walls were old and a bit damp and soft, so I engraved a poem on the wall.

GS: Sometime after you were released, you went to UTS. What did you study?

KC: Yes, I went to UTS and studied Communications and then Oral History. Oral history became a battle in the politics of history. I was fighting to do my master’s thesis orally. I wanted to carry on the traditions of oral history in my work. They didn’t recognise oral history as history unless whatever was said, was proven to be true by someone else. After that Social Sciences developed a new master’s degree that allowed students to incorporate their cultural and socio-economic experiences.

GS: You were one of the founding members of Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at UTS. Tell me about that.

KC: Franny Peters-Little, Uncle Norm Newlin and I were the founders. It was called the Aboriginal Education Centre then. We did a lot of other things at UTS. The appointment of Debbie Stoddard as the first overseas students officer was because of a campaign we initiated. She became human rights coordinator for the ALTSEAN, the regional human rights group. We campaigned hard for more people from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds to study at UTS as well as Aboriginal students. We were responsible for the first anti-racism policy at UTS. The first policy aimed at hiring Aboriginal staff was drawn up by me and a non-Aboriginal man called Michael Refshauge.

GS: Were you one of the first Aboriginal students to enroll at UTS?

KC: There were other Aboriginal students before us but they didn’t sit it out. I finished in 1987 and I was the first Aboriginal student to graduate. Francis Peters-Little was the second. She was the first Aboriginal woman to graduate.  I graduated in 1988 and I pulled out the Aboriginal flag, wrapped myself in it, ran up and gave the black power salute. There was shock horror. Everyone was disgusted in what I did. At the reception. It was like I had spiders all over me. People just kept away. Twenty years later the University has used footage they have of that graduation to celebrate diversity at UTS. I didn’t realise they had filmed it.

GS: You published your first collection of poems in 1990, Ngali Ngalga: Let’s Talk.

KC: Yes, it was published by Breakout Press. The first poem I ever wrote is in that book. I eventually got permission to write and I wrote down the poems I remembered, the ones the screws destroyed, and I wrote other poems. A lot of those poems were rubbish some were so romantic, they were sick but writing was important to me. It was my survival. One bloke told me I had to have rhythm and rhyming schemes and all that and I was doing it but driving myself a bit mad. Then I thought oh bugger this. I was looking for words at the expense of feeling and emotion so I decided to just write what I think. I started writing my own patterns. Long lines then bang, one word. I liked that style. Sometimes it’s a bit disjointed. I like that too. Visually my poems are not square or rectangular.

GS: What is your favourite poem in Ngali Ngalga?

KC: ‘Black Baby’ is my favourite in that collection.  ‘Small soft baby, thrust from the womb . . . ‘

GS: Your second collection, Yimbanna, was published by Vagabond Press in 2015.

KC: Yes, Yimbanna means to understand. So, we’ve already talked in the first collection and now it’s time to understand. One of my favourite poems in the collection is ‘We Said.’ It’s about listening and understanding, about relationships. It’s a simple poem but deeper than what I originally thought when I wrote it. If everyone lived by this poem, we’d have world peace. You’ve got to listen to each other.

. . . LISTEN – To what
You said, I said, you said.
We both said instead,
I did, you did, I did – you.
Neither of us did,
Understand –
A word.
A sentence.
A thought.
A feeling.
A rejection.
A misperception
Of
each other.

YimbamaIt’s not about blaming anyone. There’s a degree of fault all around. It’s about solving disagreements. You’ve got to sit back and look at each other, listen to each other. All parties need to engage. I’ve learnt to develop that skill of listening and talking with Cheryl, my wife. We have definite commonalities but we don’t always think alike. At times we are opposites. Our politics can be different but we have learnt how to co-exist. We have respect for each other.

I learnt about valuing other people’s opinions from my gran. She was really against putting people down because of their beliefs. She made that very clear to me. Once my cousin, Peter, called someone, I still can’t say the word, a W.O.G, she flogged him.

She said, ‘You don’t like people calling us bad names, you don’t call anybody bad names!’

GS: How would you describe the focus of your writing?

KC: I write about a diverse range of topics. I’m an Aboriginal man in my 60s who has seen a lot of oppression, my personal experiences and the experiences of my people. I write about the horror of these experiences, our strength and our survival, about the love of our culture and I write about our respect for mother earth.

GS: There are poems in Yimbama about mental distress. One is called ‘Psychotic Serenade.’ Why did you write that poem? What was going on in your life?

KC: I was living in Merrylands when I realised I had a serious mental health issue going on. It wasn’t just episodes where I was a bit off. The doctors had diagnosed PTSD, I wasn’t sleeping and I was a bit of a nervous wreck but I hadn’t been diagnosed with anything else. I was sitting on the veranda and I went straight inside and wrote that poem to describe what I was feeling.

Sing – high sing loud
the songs of the silent
musical mayhem,
suicidal symphonies.
Sprinkle sprinkle cyanide star
now I know how disturbed you are.

That’s the last stanza.

Realising I was experiencing some kind of mental distress was one thing but getting something done about it was another thing. I was picked up a lot in the Parramatta area. The police would take me in, give me the knuckle then let me go. It escalated and I got really disorientated.

One time the police took me in and where giving me a hiding in the cells. One copper came in and told them to stop. He realised I need help not a flogging. He had joined the police force in his thirties and worked as a plumber before that so he had a different perspective to the kid who came straight out of Goulburn Police Academy.

I was in hospital for a long time and I went in and out a few times after that. One of those times I was picked up by the police again and sitting in the back of the paddy van, handcuffed and one copper said, ‘You’ll have to wait a while, these other nut-jobs are getting booked in.”

I didn’t like that. That same copper who used to be a plumber heard him and saw my reaction. He intervened and told off the other copper.

The fact that someone who I saw as the enemy was understanding was a big part of my healing. Sometimes it just takes that one person.

I was diagnosed with Schizo-affective Disorder.  But if I allow the mental health diagnosis to define who I am, I’m allowing my life experiences of oppression and brutality to define me. I have always had very strong self-awareness. The psychiatrist who treated me was a wonderful woman. She said one of the saving graces was my awareness of my illness and where it came from. She believed I wouldn’t need to be on medication for the rest of my life.

At first the doctors at Rozelle told me I’d never be able to work again. When they let me out, I agreed to come back as an outpatient but made it clear that I fully intended going back into the workforce. I got my job back at UTS. I’m not saying it was easy but I got through it.

GS: You just said, ‘Sometimes it just takes that one person.’ Can you talk a bit more about that?

KC: Every other policeman was giving it to me, but that one policeman understood. In my journey since day one, there have been a lot of strange, undesirable people but I’ve also been fortunate enough to meet some of the most amazing people you’d ever want to know. Like the late Uncle Jimmy Little.  In his life time, he was called a Living National Treasure. He was Mr Smooth in his nice suits up on the stage but at home he’d be dressed in old ragged shorts and an old singlet, eating damper and because he couldn’t find a cup big enough to drink his tea. He was a big influence on me. Jimmy wasn’t as calm as everyone thought. He was radical in his way of thinking.

He said to me, ‘If you’re going to take a hard line, don’t take a backward step. Keep to that line. It’s your path.

GS: Do you see yourself as unflinching once you take a stand?

KC: Yes, and at the same time, I’m good at identifying the enemy. The enemy is not the woman next door, not the bloke who lives up the road, the enemy is bad government. The enemy is oppressive government and people who buy into racism like the United Patriots Front and groups like that. I don’t want to focus on the bloke who’s doing his job to earn a wage. I focus on the leadership, the heads of power. Even individual coppers, I’m not going to hate them. I don’t like coppers but I focus on the system that creates and uses them. There are some coppers out there saving people, running into house fires, things like that. I forged my political beliefs and direction in prison. I learnt a hard edge but a rational edge. I also developed a softness for people victimised by the system. In prison, we witnessed people being beaten to death. In my play, Mick hears Ray being beaten to death. I heard a very close friend of mine being beaten to death in the cell next to me. That experience has never left me. In those days when a prisoner was beaten to death, it didn’t require a coronial inquiry. All that was required was a doctor’s signature on the death certificate. Like I said before, the prison doctors were alcoholics who did whatever the jail wanted. The screws told the doctor the prisoner had a heart attack and that’s what the doctor signed. So, I was hardened by those experiences but sometimes I’d sit and cry. The authorities never succeeded in crushing my humanity. But jail does snuff out the humanity of some inmates. That’s sad too.

My saving grace was writing. I was so confused when I got out. Writing saved me.

GS: How do you define freedom?

KC: When they turn that key to let you out of prison, that’s not freedom. Cuz and I found the key to freedom. After we were brutalised and kept in institutions, from a young age, where within those mechanisms you had to be violent to survive, we didn’t continue to be violent. We didn’t go out of our way to hurt anyone. The very fact that I am not a violent person means I am free.

The authorities, the state, the society failed to turn me into a monster. I am a human being. That is freedom. If they turn me into a monster, I belong to them.

When Cuz and I got out, we talked about it a lot.

He said, ‘Now we’re out, we can’t afford to inflict our anger on those around us. I know there are times you feel like just giving it to everyone in the street.’

I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’

He said, ‘Well, we can’t cross that line. If we do the authorities, the screws, own our minds, our hearts and our souls.’

There are good white people. There are also a lot of white people who have a history of despicable behaviour against our people. For me, freedom is not allowing that to cloud my thinking, not to be pre-judgmental towards all white people. If I say to myself, every problem we have as Aboriginal people in this country has come at the hands of white invasion, so therefore every white person is the enemy, then I’m still in prison. Racism wants us to think that way. But once we think that way, we cannot have conversations. Once we cannot converse, we can’t learn what happened, how it happened, how it continues.

Freedom for me is my old gran telling me, ‘Think what you want.’

My freedom is writing. My freedom is my peace of mind. My freedom is building a good relationship.

Ken Canning was interviewed by Gaele Sobott in Glebe, Sydney, 22 April, 2017

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My freedom is writing. My freedom is my peace of mind. My freedom is building a good relationship – An Interview with Ken Canning by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

It’s important for me to make work that I want audiences to see rather than making work that audiences want to see: Interview with Dan Daw

Colour Photograph of Dan Daw performing. He is dressed in a flimsy, short white lace dress and wears black thigh-length stockings. He is partially sitting on a black stage with black background, leaning back, head turned looking at the floor, arms stretched out slight to the front of his body. His legs are raised off the floor. He has short, fair hair and tattoos on his arms.Dan Daw is an Australian-born artist, currently based in the UK. He collaborates with a growing network of companies and artists to develop new dance work for UK and international audiences. Among his most recent works are Beast and On One Condition. Beast is a 2015 Greenwich Dance and Trinity Laban Compass Commission, created in collaboration with choreographer Martin Forsberg, designer Jenny Nordberg and lighting designer Guy Hoare. On One Condition is directed by Graham Adey in collaboration with Dan Daw, and in partnership with Murmuration (AUS). Its world premiere was at Skånes Dansteater in Sweden in 2015.

Dan received the Dame Ruby Litchfield Scholarship, the Outlet Dance Award, the Russell Page Fellowship in Contemporary Dance and the Adelaide Fringe – Best Dance Award.

He is Associate Director of the Sydney-based, integrated performance company, Murmuration. He works closely with a collective of multi-disciplinary artists dedicated to creating innovative contemporary dance theatre.

Gaele Sobott: How do you describe yourself professionally?

Dan Daw: I’m a dance-maker and artist.

GS: I know you were born in South Australia but where?

DD: Whyalla. I was born and grew up there. A population of about 20 000 so it’s big enough to be called a city, a small city. I went to a mainstream school.

GS: Why do you say that?

DD: I say that because there was also a special school in Whyalla and my grandmother fought long and hard for me to be educated in a mainstream school. I recall my mother and grandmother standing in the headmaster’s office and refusing to leave until he agreed to allow me to enrol. They didn’t want me to be in the special education unit.

GS: You were close to your grandmother?

DD: Yes, very close.

GS: How did your interest in performance start as a child in Whyalla?

DD: Performance in my family goes way back. My grandmother choreographed for calisthenics and for graceful girl competitions. She choreographed a lot of routines, including routines for my mother. My mother was national ‘Most Graceful Girl’ champion. As a boy, I remember sitting on the sides watching them rehearse their routines. Going through my family history, I came to find out that my great uncle, my grandmother’s brother, was the dance critic for The Advertiser, The Australian and the magazine, Dance. So, there was a bit of a dance culture within my family.

I developed more of an interest in dance when I joined D’faces at Youth Arts in Whyalla when I was thirteen back in 1996.

GS: Tell me more about that organisation.

DD: It was and still is a youth theatre company. When I was involved, artists were flown from Adelaide to Whyalla to lead weekly dance and theatre workshops. The workshops were more rehearsals for developing new pieces of work which were staged at the Middleback Theatre in Whyalla. The director, James Winter, and choreographer, Ingrid Voorendt, had such a huge impact on me as a teenage boy. I knew I wanted to be a performer almost immediately, but still didn’t know how I could make that happen for myself.

GS: In 2002 you joined Restless Dance in Adelaide.  How did that come about?

DD:  Restless Dance came to Whyalla in the late 90’s and performed a work called Sex Juggling. I was really blown away by it. I hadn’t seen anything like it before.

GS: What was it that appealed to you?

DD: It was dance with an integrated ensemble and the work was of very high artistic quality. I’d been involved in D’faces and it was integrated but seeing Restless that afternoon was a light bulb moment. It was then that I understood my place in D’faces and that I could absolutely have a place within the sector as an artist. I understood that this was an ambition that could become real. An ambition that I could make happen.

GS: Had you previously thought that you may not have a place in the sector?

DD: I was told by my family several times that there may not be a place. Although they supported me in the beginning and in youth theatre, they kept saying, “Just remember it’s a hobby.” I was going to have none of that.

Restless helped me really come into my own. I began to think, actually there are things happening in Adelaide, in the city, that I need to find a way to access if I am going to begin the journey.

Read full interview

Access2Arts Making disability and art work

Time to Draw the Line: An Interview with Amanda King and Fabio Cavadini

 

mandyfabio2Amanda King and Fabio Cavadini have been collaborating since 1987 as a co-producer/co-director team, making documentaries in a non-observational style combining interviews, archival and contemporary footage. They have worked together for almost 30 years tackling stories based in Australia and the region, about the environment, Indigenous rights and the arts. 

Their latest films include, Time to Draw the Line (Frontyard Films 2017), A Thousand Different Angles (Frontyard Films 2010), Starting From Zero (Frontyard Films, 2002) and An Evergreen Island (Frontyard Films, 2000).

Gaele Sobott: We are going to talk about your new film, Time to Draw the Line, which focuses on the story of the maritime boundary dispute between Australia and Timor-Leste over an area rich in oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

But first, I would like ask you to speak about what led you to become film makers, and describe how your interest in East Timor developed.

Fabio Cavadini: You want the long version or the short one?

GS: The long version.

FC: I wasn’t a film maker when I came to Australia from Northern Italy, near Milan, in 1969. I grew up mainly in Switzerland. My father died when I was three. My mother was a waitress. In those days, waitresses had to live on tips. They didn’t get a wage. My mother needed to travel to wherever the tourists were. So, during summer she was at the lakes or the seaside. In winter, she would work in the mountains. We were jostled around all over the place. Staying with my grandparents in Italy was the best time I ever had. The worst time was when we were locked up in homes because she didn’t have any money. I was originally intending to go to New Zealand but my brother was already in Australia and he wrote to me encouraging me to go there.  I was a dental technician, specialising in making chrome cobalt plates. They were very thin and at that time there were not many people in Australia who could make them. I came as an assisted immigrant. I didn’t speak any English but it wasn’t a problem. I worked straight away.

I didn’t know anything about Aboriginal people or that they even existed in Australia until 1972. My brother, Alessandro Cavadini, was making a documentary film about the Left in Australia but the Left in this country was scattered all over the place, the in-fights, the ego-maniacs. Aboriginal people were very strong and unified in fighting for their rights. So he ended up making the film Ningla a-Na, about the first tent embassy in Canberra. I got involved. I liked still photography and I was happy doing odd jobs here and there. Subsequently I met some Aboriginal people who were involved in Basically Black, Bob Maza, Aileen Corpus, Zac Martin, Bindy Williams and Gary Foley. They were playing at the Nimrod Theatre at the top of Williams Street and were about to go on tour. They wanted somebody to take photographs and help with the lights so I stopped my work as a dental technician and went with them on the bus for six months. It was very exciting.

GS: Where did you tour?

FC: We went to Townsville and Innisfail. There was a festival on at the time. We also went to Yarrabah Mission up near Cairns. On the way, we met other people. In Townsville, people knew about Ningla a-Na. They said, “We want to tell our story too. Why don’t you come up?”

When I got back to Sydney I spoke to my brother and his then partner, Caroline Strachan, who managed to raise some money to make a film on Palm Island. I was earning a good income as a dental technician but it didn’t mean anything to me anymore so I didn’t go back to the job. Instead, I went to Palm Island. We made the film, Protected, in 1976. I was taking the photographs and generally helping. I’d never made a film in my life, and hadn’t touched a film camera. In those days, video was far lower quality than it is now so we were using 16mm film.

It became obvious that the project was going to take longer than we had originally thought. We were doing workshops so that the Aboriginal people there understood what film was. Plus, they were the ones telling the story. The story belonged to them. They had the connections, a cousin, a nephew, sons, daughters. They were acting in the film, controlling a lot of the process. They were intrinsic to the story telling so it was going to take  time. It’s always a collaboration.

GS: Can you talk a bit more about the importance of taking time when you are collaborating on creating a documentary?

FC: Whenever possible it’s important to allow people to fully participate in the project, in the creative process. Ultimately when you’re making a film, you are not making it by yourself. You make it with many other people who are bringing their private life, their lived experiences to the story so they should have a say. They should have a principal part in shaping the story. That takes time. Especially when you are working with people who may have no knowledge of what film making is. Sometimes in the film industry, film makers say, “Oh yeah, I’m making a film because such and such a film festival is coming up.” They want it ready by a certain deadline and rush everything. To me that doesn’t make any sense. You need to take time to make a film, especially documentaries. Sometimes they are quicker, sometimes they are slower depending on the location, the people you are dealing with. Things change because you’re dealing with real life. So, you must adapt.

GS: So, the project was going to take longer than originally planned.

FC: Yes, the cinematographer decided he couldn’t stay for the length of time necessary to do the project. It was difficult at that point to find somebody to replace him. I knew about lighting with my stills photography so he showed me how to use the camera. Then he left the camera with me and I shot my first film. I didn’t know how well I was shooting because we had to send the stock back to Sydney to be processed. The only reports we got from the lab were that there were no scratches, there was an image and it was in focus. We didn’t know anything else until we got back.

We made another film after that called, We Stop Here, because the people of Palm Island said, “Oh, you must go to Tully on the upper Murray river. The people there have a story to tell.” The Dyirbal Elders were directly connected to Palm Island. Their families were taken away from the land and put there. Palm Island was a penal colony, a jail. The government was putting people on there from Queensland and the Northern Territory.

That’s how I started making films.

GS: What do you think drew you to making documentaries on Aboriginal experiences?

FC: Possibly it was because of my upbringing. Living in homes like I did growing up, I learnt about injustice. In those circumstances you gain a perception of what society is really about, especially the way capitalism works. I’m not speaking from the point of view of a socialist or communist, in the sense that I have never belonged to any party. I’m more an anarchist. But I don’t like the way our society functions. I never liked it as a child, and I still don’t like it now. That is perhaps why I have a very strong interest in working with Aboriginal people to assist in telling their stories. When I came to this country I was given all sorts of information like don’t go into the sea because there are sharks, and be careful of spiders and snakes. Suddenly I saw another reality – the struggles of the Aboriginal people who own this land.

GS: When did you first become involved in making films about East Timor?

FC: I was part of the team that made, Buried Alive, the Story of East Timor, the first Australian film to examine the terrible death toll and the resistance of the Timorese people following the Indonesian invasion in 1975. I  co-directed with Gil Scrine and Rob Hibberd. I filmed José Ramos Horta, following him around in Australia, Mozambique, New York. There were only the two of us travelling. I had my own equipment. You could do a lot with very little money. That’s the way I’ve always operated.

Mandy and I make documentaries on low budgets. It used to be more difficult when the only option was to shoot on film. Now with modern technology you can do the production at home on your laptop.

GS: What about you Mandy? How did you start your film-making career?

AMANDA KING: A slightly different story. I went to art school in Newcastle to do training to become an art teacher. That was from 1973 to 1977 and film was the new big thing in art school. Film courses weren’t even established then so we were taught by the local ABC camera person how to operate a Bolex but basically, we were working with video.

It was while I was a student that I had my first contact with the politics of East Timor. In 1975 when Indonesia invaded East Timor and when the Australian journalists were killed there were a lot of protests. Newcastle was a strong unionist centre. It has a strong Workers’ Club, and the Communist Party. There were a lot of meetings, demonstrations on the street and that sort of thing. The killing of the five journalists affected people. It came a lot more real to Australians when Australian citizens became victims of that invasion. I took part in the demonstrations against the Australian government’s inaction to take up the case or do anything about the invasion.

So, I didn’t go into teaching because of my interest in film. I ended up in Sydney and around 1985 Martha Ansara, who is a well-established film maker herself, was approached by José Ramos Horta to make a documentary about East Timor. He obviously realised the value of films to inform people and the story was not being told. She was a bit busy at the time so James Kesteven and myself took on the project as directors. The film was The Shadow Over East Timor. We worked with Denis Freney, the journalist, who did a hell of a lot of research. He was a Communist Party member, an activist, who had very good relations with the Timorese community in Australia. He was an excellent journalist and researcher and had a lot of knowledge about the geopolitical aspects of the East Timor situation, the subtexts of what was going on politically.

GS: What were the subtexts?

AK: Well, the American and British involvement, the armaments industry, who were supplying the Indonesians with planes and armaments. Also, the background of what happened in the 1970s which included Gough Whitlam giving the nod from the Australian Government’s point of view. The Americans were well informed of the Indonesian army movements at the time and the invasion was okay by our government. This was one of the black marks against Whitlam. I’m a great admirer of a lot of things that he did but with Timor he had some sort of a rationalist attitude believing that small nations were not viable and East Timor was not going to be able to become a successful independent country.

We began work on The Shadow Over East Timor in 1985 and sent the finished version to SBS in the late ‘80s. We didn’t hear anything for a long time but then a producer at SBS, Barbara Mariotti, realised that actually this film was saying something that Australians probably would be interested in. There was a lot of Australian content in the story, Australia being such a near neighbour to East Timor. Then SBS came on board, in contrast to their response to our current film, and offered to purchase The Shadow Over East Timor. So, we said, “Why don’t we make it a proper television hour?” It was only about 38 minutes at that point. That would be adding another 20 minutes to the film and meant that we could contemporise it a bit. It allowed us to bring it up to date on the oil issue and interview some more Timorese people who could give eye-witness evidence of the level of oppression that was going on in a country. Timor was virtually blockaded from the world. Technically people could go there. Outsiders could visit but they tended not to because of the heavy vibe of intimidation. It was a neglected country with a strong military presence.

Fabio and I met because we were both concurrently working on documentaries about East Timor, and he came to watch our film. Then, because we got SBS interested in The Shadow Over East Timor and decided to expand the film, we decided to go to East Timor together to try to get new footage. That was the end of 1989. But unfortunately for us because everything had to be organised semi-clandestine in order to get in there and talk to people on the ground, it was quite an involved process. Unbeknown to us, José Ramos Horta had organised for Robert Domm to go in. So the week before we arrived in Timor, Robert had walked up into the mountains and got an interview with Xanana Gusmao. We had no idea.

FC: The ABC broadcast the interview with Xanana on the actual day we arrived in Timor so Indonesian intelligence were on high alert. We arrived by plane. There were four white people on the plane, Mandy and myself and another couple. The atmosphere was really tense. The country was occupied by Indonesia and a lot of killing was going on. Everyone was mistrusting everyone else. They didn’t know who was spying. A lot of people were forced to spy because their family was threatened and so on. We had the Indonesian secret service attached to us wherever we went. They were following us constantly.

AK: It was overt.

FC: They questioned us. What is your job? What are you really doing here? I had put my occupation down as house painter and Mandy had said she was a teacher. We said we were tourists, there on holiday. But they were obviously suspicious of us because we had a video camera and tourists were not going to Timor at that time. We had contacts and we had to wait there for them to come. We had to be patient. It was pretty full-on. Some students came to see us at night, talking to us, the next thing we heard a noise and the students disappeared.

AK: There was a curfew in Dili so truckloads of soldiers were patrolling the streets.

FC: With no lights on. Trucks full of Indonesian soldiers. It was quite freaky. It was a disastrous trip.

AK: We did get interviews with students in Jakarta, and we did finish the film.

FC: We had that footage with us in Timor because we had been to Jakarta first. We were in Timor for about three or four weeks so we thought in case the Indonesians search us we should do something about the footage. We opened the cassettes and cut the tape, rolled it on pencils and hid the pencils in various places. They didn’t search us in the end. When we got back to Australia we spliced it back together.

AK: The footage survived. That film was released on SBS months before the Dili massacre. It touched a nerve and got quite a lot of publicity. Buried Alive had been screened by the ABC the year before.

filmtimetodrawtheline

Time to Draw the Line cinema-on-Demand poster & DVD cover. Original artwork Tony Amaral

GS: What led you to make your latest film on Timor-Leste, Time to Draw the Line?

AK: We made another film, Starting from Zero. It came out in 2001. The story follows three people who had come to Australia as refugees in 1975 and went back to Timor during its transition into an independent country. We maintained connections with them. Most people in Australia think, well, East Timor is independent now. Everything’s ok. They are getting some money from the oil. They should just move forward and do the best they can. But it became clear to us through our continuing friendships with Timorese people that things were not quite right and Australia figured significantly in that story. It became much clearer to us through the process of making Starting from Zero that Australia is playing a big role in denying the Timorese their full sovereignty. It’s about the resources in the Timor Sea. This is the last hurdle that needs to be jumped. The Timorese are fighting for full sovereignty, full rights to their territory. They are fighting to define the borders, the maritime boundaries, as it’s vital to them achieving full sovereignty. We have been making these films over decades now in support of exactly this.

FC: We made films in Bougainville and Papua New Guinea that centre on the modus operandi of Australia in the region. It doesn’t matter which party is in power, Liberal or Labor. It’s the same. Australia is exploiting these countries. No respect. You see that in Timor, in Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea with the mining companies. BHP went to Papua New Guinea, opened a mine. Australia was happy. The company destroyed 700 kilometres of river. One of the biggest rivers in Papua New Guinea totally destroyed. Then they took off. That is what our film, Colour Change, is about.

AK: We made An Evergreen Island about the people of Bougainville under military blockade. In 1989 the land owners asked the company running the copper mine for proper compensation for damage to their land. These mines are massive and the impact on the local environment, in this case, 17 years of toxic waste and pollution, was horrific. People from many of the communities were living from the produce of the land. They were and still are catastrophically affected by the destruction. They had been negotiating with the company to get decent compensation and the company just said, No. We pay our royalties to the national government. End of story.

As the customary owners of the land, women were instrumental in setting up the Landowners’ Association, from which a core group of members formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and trained up in guerrilla tactics to defend their land. A number of local people were employed by the mine and they knew how it operated. They identified one weak point. It relied totally on one power source. Generators that were down at sea level. Power cables brought the power up the mountain to the mine. So, the landowners led by Francis Ona exploded a couple of power pylons and the mine was no longer functional. We heard that news report at the time. The brilliance of the tactic struck us but obviously, the consequences were severe bringing mayhem to the people because the army and police were brought in and almost a ten-year total sea and land blockade occurred on that island. We went there in 1997, towards the end of that blockade. We were attempting to do a character profile on Sam Kauona, general of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. He’d been trained by the Australian army. He was working at the ammunitions depot when there was a big increase in the ammunitions order. He was thinking, why? Why are we suddenly needing all these ammunitions? He put two and two together. There was trouble in Bougainville and that was where the extra ammunitions were destined. The ammunitions that he was going to be handing out were to be used against his own people. So, he effectively deserted. It was a powerful story. We spent quite a lot of time with him and his wife, Josie, in Bougainville. On the way in, we hung out waiting to be picked up by the BRA, then travelled across the ocean in a banana boat looking out for the patrol boats and helicopters. We crossed the blockade. Once again this was an Australian story because the Australian government had given the PNG government patrol boats and access to helicopters.

FC: And pilots.

AK: Yes, and they were enforcing this blockade.

FC: The PNG army was shooting people. When they captured some of the BRA they tortured them but also some were taken out to sea in the helicopters and dumped. These events were recorded. The Australian government was supplying armaments, equipment and pilots.

AK: There were no Australian soldiers on the ground but there were Australian and New Zealand pilots involved in flying the helicopters.

GS: In relation to your new film, Time to Draw the Line, you were saying it was through your continued contact with Timorese people you met in the 80s, that you became aware that the exploitation of oil resources in the Timor Sea. And this was central to the ongoing Timorese struggle for full sovereignty. Would you like to talk more about that?

AK: Yes, one of the most astounding things is that Australia has completed negotiations with every other neighbouring country for just over 98% of its whole maritime boundary. Large amounts of that boundary have been negotiated according to the principle of the median line under international law where both countries conform to a median line equidistant from their shores. The boundary between Timor-Leste and Australia is the 1.8% of Australia’s maritime boundary that remains unnegotiated. There is no maritime boundary here. Two months before East Timor’s independence, Australia withdrew from maritime boundary dispute resolution mechanisms of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Many commentators conclude it was a move to avoid involving the international umpire in any future discussions about boundaries.

timor-leste

Diagram showing the 1.8% of Australia’s maritime boundary that remains undefined – the boundary between Timor-Leste and Australia.

We know how powerful the argument of borders is, and how politicians like to refer to borders in relation to refugees who come by boat to this country. The poignant aspect of this story is Australia’s politicians are infatuated with borders but they do not have that same infatuation in relation to the 1.8% of our maritime border that relates to Timor-Leste. Why is that? Every Australian should be asking themselves, why is that? There is a huge anomaly there. What is the story?

FC: As Steve Bracks says in the film, we can’t criticise China’s stance on the South China Sea when we are acting this way in the Timor Sea. It’s hypocritical.

AK: We are a wealthy country and our neighbours are not. Particularly Timor-Leste. Maternal mortality is 83 times higher in East Timor than in Australia. Malaria and tuberculosis are widespread. Education is desperately needed for future development. The oil and gas fields are on Timor-Leste’s side of the median line. The country desperately needs this revenue.

FC: Well, I just want to add that we are a wealthy country for some people, not for everybody.

AK: That’s true.

GS: Tell me more about the process involved in making Time to Draw the Line. How did you begin?

FC: We formulated the idea with Janelle Saffin and Ines Almeida who came on board as associate producers. We’ve known them for many years. Janelle served in both the Federal and State parliaments as a member of the Labor Party. She’s a lawyer and was an official observer for the International Commission of Jurists at the 1999 independence referendum in East Timor.  Ines was one of the characters in our film, Starting from Zero, about the Timorese people going back to their country. She has been at the forefront of the struggle for Timor-Leste independence and now to secure their sovereignty with the marking of maritime boundaries. We decided to concentrate on the Australian angle of the story. It is a message for Australian people from Australian people. We only have a few Timorese people coming into the story.

AK: It was an organic process. Obviously, we had an outline. We contacted a lot of people who have been more deeply involved in the issue of full sovereignty and defining the borders, and what’s going on with the oil. We started filming in the street in Melbourne to get a sense of how well informed Australians were. So then it moved organically from there, talking to a very deliberate cross-section of people in terms of their political backgrounds. Most of them feel very passionately about the issue. That is what has given the film a lot of energy and life. As well as those perspectives on the current situation, we did some historical storytelling. From our previous films, we know that the 1943 involvement of Timor in the Second World War is such an important element in Timor-Leste – Australia relations.  Australian soldiers in the 2/2nd Australian independent company went to Portuguese Timor, as it was known then, a neutral country, and many of those men felt very passionately about the support they had been given by the Timorese people at the time. The Australian mission was unsuccessful and they withdrew but our soldiers saw with their own eyes the beginning of the Japanese retaliation against the young Timorese people who had been supporting and protecting them. As the Australian soldiers were rescued by boat, Japanese soldiers were coming down the hill and killing those young people. The veterans have maintained a campaign for over 50 years to get redress because the Timorese were promised, leaflets were dropped, saying, we will never forget you.  Australia showed no signs of acknowledgement or generosity towards the country after the war. Now that Timor-Leste is an independent country, it has been able to reach out to the Returned Services League in Australia. The Timorese are building very solid connections with the veterans. That’s been going on for a ten-year period. There are not many veterans alive now. It’s a very significant part of the historical aspect of the story about the connection between the two countries. Some of those veterans have spoken out so strongly, and have been involved for a long time, particularly since the 1975 invasion.

Black and white photograph of World War II veterans, Paddy Keneally and Rufinl Alves seated and holding hands.

Australian, Paddy Kenneally, WWII veteran, Sparrow Force, Timor campaign with Timorese veteran, Rufino Alves Coreia

FC: Paddy Kenneally was one of those veterans. He was a character in Mandy’s earlier film in the 1980s. The continuity is there. People involved in this kind of struggle are very committed. They don’t change. They firmly and staunchly keep fighting for what they believe and eventually they bring about change. There are many people like this in the film from varied political and religious backgrounds.

GS: You speak of the World War Two veterans and their support for full sovereignty where else does or will support come from within Australian society?

FC: It has to come from the people in the streets. It’s not going to come from the politicians. They play too many games. They always have and they always will.  When the time finally came for the Timorese people to vote for their independence, we were filming Timorese in Australia and Mandy was there filming just before, the killing had already started, we knew, everybody knew that there was going to be a massacre if the Timorese people voted yes. But our government didn’t move to protect the people. Following the vote for independence in 1999 there were huge demonstrations in Australian cities. Thousands and thousands of people marched through the street. The government was forced to send troops but it was too bloody late.

The problem with our media is that the reporting centers on sensationalism. Something sensational happens and it goes on the news. It comes and it goes. There is no analysis, no depth to the reporting, it doesn’t continue over time. It’s as if these things happen with no historical or political context. That is another reason we made this film because it is a way of letting Australia people know what is going on. The Timor story is continuing and there is a dark side. The Australian people have the right to know. When we finished the film, we approached SBS, they weren’t interested. We went to the ABC. Compass was interested but they wanted us to cut it to half an hour and take out the references to the oil. This is the ABC mind you, forget about the commercial channels.

AK: To give the ABC due credit, they have done some excellent Four Corners stories on this issue.

So, not only do you have the Second World War veterans who are very passionate about Timor-Leste but you also have the 1999 INTERFET peacekeeping veterans who are passionate about the country. They made connections and friendship during their time there. They have on-the-ground knowledge of life there.

GS: Why are they speaking out? Do they see a disconnect with their peace keeping activities?

AK: Well, yes. The exposés of Australian government behaviour regarding East Timor made them question Australia’s role in Timor. They were peacekeepers. Most of them believed they were on a positive mission and the time they spent in Timor had a lifetime effect on them. They feel that there is unfairness and injustice that has occurred on Australia’s part. They feel betrayed on the oil issue and speak up very strongly in the film about the need for a median line boundary with Timor-Leste.  In the early 2000s when the Timorese were negotiating to try to sort out what had been happening in the Timor Sea with the deals between Indonesia and Australia, they negotiated with John Howard and Alexander Downer, they managed to get what could be perceived as a reasonable percentage of the royalties and signed a treaty in 2002. But then after the discovery of the huge oil and gas field, ‘Greater Sunrise’, valued at 40 billion dollars, negotiations started again in 2004. Even though there is a strong case that these resources fall within Timor-Leste’s sovereign territory, the Timorese got tied up in knots and signed the 2006 treaty (CMATS).  Part of that treaty locked them into not having any maritime boundary discussions with Australia for 50 years. Even such a huge oil and gas field as Greater Sunrise would be depleted within 50 years. One aspect of the negotiation is that it must be done in good faith. So, when in 2013, it was alleged by a whistle blower that the Australian government had employed people to pose as renovators of the government palace and install listening devices so they could hear what the Timorese were going to pitch for the Treaty, there was clear evidence that good faith was well and truly out the window. There’s no good faith if spying allegations are proven when you are in the middle of a negotiation.

GS: Australia is negotiating boundaries in relation to the oil and gas fields but who is extracting the resources from these fields?

AK: Woodside Petroleum has teamed up in a joint venture with Conoco Phillips and Shell. The Australian government granted Woodside leases over the Sunrise and Troubadour gas fields in the Timor Sea in the early 1970s. Australia has always claimed that its boundary was 150 kilometres off the Timorese coast because of the continental shelf. This is based on the reasoning used by President Truman in 1945 when he extended United States control to all the natural resources of its continental shelf.  These laws were superseded in the 1980s by the UN and UNCLOS ruling which created the new international law of median line or equidistant boundaries. Australia is out of step with international law and as I said earlier, in 2002 just before Timor-Leste finally achieved its independence, the then Foreign Minister of Australia, Alexander Downer pulled Australia out of the compulsory jurisdiction of international courts and tribunals in relation to maritime boundary matters.  Timor-Leste had been unable to call on an independent umpire to decide the border. But as Timor-Leste, has claimed the treaty was invalid, given Australian intelligence operations in 2004, and taken Australia to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, they are now in Compulsory Conciliation hearings for the next 9 months. It is a result of these hearings that the recent 2006 CMATS treaty will be torn up.

FC: I just want to add that Downer was Foreign Minister when the INTERFET peace keepers went to Timor. When he left government, he became a consultant for Woodside Petroleum. That would make anyone question Australia’s role.

GS: Do you think people demonstrating in the street in Australian cities would be enough to create change in relation to Timor-Leste achieving its full sovereignty?

AK: There should be layers of activity. Public awareness does play a very significant role and influences the way politicians behave. The Labor Party is now saying it will certainly enter negotiations to discuss the boundary, which the current government said it wouldn’t do. We have yet to see what this recent news of the abandonment of the 2006 treaty, is going to mean. Is Australia going to step away from its claim to the continental shelf?

FC: Time to Draw the Line shows Australian people from all walks of life. Timor strikes a chord in the Australian population. I grew up with the Catholic religion and it goes very deep no matter how hard I try to wipe it from my brain. One character in the film, Sister Susan Connelly, tells the story of Jesus saying to Peter, “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” She feels Australia disowned Timor three times. The first time was during the Second World War, the second time was the invasion and 24-year occupation of Timor by Indonesia, and the third time is in relation to the oil. Australia has denied Timor access to these resources. We have been doing this for a long time and we are still doing it. That includes the business and industry that is created around the oil. You can see how Darwin has benefited since the exploitation of the oil fields in the Timor Sea. Billions and billions of dollars has just been ripped off. If they sought compensation for all that money, they wouldn’t even need to extract the oil and gas.

Timorese school children dressed in uniform - white shirts and grey shorts and skirts walkingand running along a road surrounded by greenery. They are having fun. Three Australian college students in their midst.

Radford College students from Canberra with Timorese school children

AK: The Timorese set up a sovereign wealth fund. Something that this country has not done. Our population has allowed the exploitation of our mineral resources with no thought what so ever to the rights of future generations. It’s mind boggling how irresponsible our politicians have been in this regard. The Timorese have done a brilliant job in this regard. Every country with large natural resources should be doing as they have done. Australia doesn’t. It highlights the weird hypocrisy going on regarding the Timor Sea. A few hundred kilometres south-west of the Timor Sea in the Indian Ocean we have Chevron and other multi-national companies extracting oil and gas in our territorial waters and the Australian people will not see any tax from these companies for up to 30 years. We are trying to grab resources that are entitled to another people, and in our own territory we are letting multinationals cream it off through tax cuts.

GS: Do you think the Australian government serves the demands of multi-national companies before anything else?

AK: Yes, it appears that way. Those companies should not be assisted by national governments. They are making huge profits as it is.

FC: Then the politicians get high-paying jobs with those big companies when they leave government.

GS: You have not had much interest in the film from the main television stations. Do you see this as a form of censorship? How will you get the film to the public?

AK: Back in 1989, 1990, SBS could see that the Timor story was something Australians would be interested in. How many years later, 26 years later there is a totally different attitude. SBS does deal with risky subjects sometimes but when it involves our own national government, there seems to be a whole lot more sensitivity around it.

FC: Distribution is very limited. Television is a problem. Look at what’s happened to SBS. When we were first associated with SBS you’d go into their offices and all the departments were run by Wogs. I can say ‘Wog’ because I am one. It was enlightening to be there. Hearing people in positions of power speaking with accents, people with different perspectives on life. That’s what SBS was created for. Over the years these people disappeared from their jobs and were replaced by Anglo-Saxon people.

AK: SBS told us, “Oh, it will do well in film festivals.” They were positive about their negative view of the film.

FC: SBS did get behind some good films but when it comes to deeper, more analytical films, they say they are  not interesting. They started doing all those cooking programs and now they’ve created a special channel dedicated to cooking programs. Don’t give the Australian public analysis, politics, history, give them cooking programs!  There was some hope with ABC international but that was cut when the Liberals got into power.

AK: NITV does some excellent current affairs.

FC: NITV is changing too. You watch. That’s what goes on in this country.

AK: Other alternatives do sprout up. Social media provides another platform. One of the new ways of getting around the kind of censorship we are talking about, is on-demand type screenings. It’s potentially democratising approach to getting a film out to the public. You can show a film in any cinema in Australia.

We have put Time to Draw the Line on the Demand Film Australia site. People in the community can organise their own film screenings. It’s user friendly with an easy step-by-step format. This company helped distribute Chasing Asylum, Eva Orner’s film. It was shown all over Australia in single-event cinema screenings. We are hoping, not perhaps for that scale of success, but we know that Timor does touch a chord with many Australians and this is a story they will relate to. Al Jazeera English contacted us this morning. They will feature excerpts from the film in a current affairs program. This is a national, regional and international issue.

GS: How would you like Australian people to react to your film?

FC: Go to politicians and tell them what changes you would like to see happen. Protest the injustices, go out on the street if need be, and talk to other people. If you know something, talk to your friends, your neighbours, your work colleagues. Don’t just talk about the nice cooking program you saw last night. Tell others about Timor, about our role in Timor. People talking to each other about real issues is very powerful. Stop hiding behind life-style programs.

AK: Yes, we need to cut through the politicians. Australians are aware of what’s happening, they are concerned and they are watching to see how the politicians they voted for are going to respond. Politicians should not just be listening to the fossil fuel industry and prioritising the agendas of big companies over how ordinary Australians feel. Respect for our neighbours and their sovereignty is right up there.

GS: You have a history of collaboration and giving. You help people tell their stories, you help people who do not have the means to make films, you assist with advice, equipment, sharing skills. What advice would you like to give to young film makers?

FC: Don’t do what we did. No, I’m joking. The film industry is a strange animal. It encompasses a whole lot. There are people like us who work on political films but the majority of people may have different attitudes to film, to stardom, to money etc. We represent a very small slice of the film-industry cake but we are there. We were teaching film for over ten years, especially when there was not much money coming in. I always remember telling the students on the first day, “Don’t think that a documentary-film maker, especially one making social and political films, is going to make much money. You will be working bloody hard but you won’t be making much money.”

AK: There are all sorts of ways of telling stories. In Time to Draw the Line, Robert Connolly appears and speaks passionately about Timor. He’s a very successful feature film director, a tele-series director. There are all sorts of ways you can tell stories in this industry. But it is going to require persistence. If you feel passionate about using film to get stories out there that you don’t feel are getting the attention they deserve, stick with it. You will eventually succeed. The media is diversifying and changing. Often it is young people who are at the forefront working out creative ways to tell stories. They are always at the vanguard even though they probably don’t realise it. So, go for it!

Further Information:

Time to Draw the Line on-demand screenings

Time to Draw the Line Trailer

Time to Draw the Line Facebook

Frontyard Films website

Time to Draw the Line is distributed by Ronin Films

Amanda King and Fabio Cavadini were interviewed by Gaele Sobott in Sydney, 15 January 2017

Creative Commons License
Time to Draw the Line: an interview with Amanda King and Fabio Cavadini by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Dignity is essential. It means we are viewed by the other as a human being : an interview with Alice Cherki

A recent black and white photograph of Alice Cherki, sitting at a table, smiling.

Alice Cherki

ALICE CHERKI is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and author. Born in Algiers, 1936. She knew Frantz Fanon well, working by his side in Algeria and Tunisia as a psychiatrist, and sharing his political commitment during the war of independence in Algeria.

Alice Cherki has lived in France since 1965. She is co-author of the books, Retour à Lacan (Fayard, 1981) and Les Juifs d’Algérie (Editions du Scribe, 1987), and author of La frontière invisible (Editions des Crépuscules, 2009) Frantz Fanon, portrait (Seuil, 2000) translated into English by Nadia Benabid and published as Frantz Fanon: A Portrait (Cornell University Press, 2006) and Mémoire anachronique (Editions De L’aube, 2016).

Gaele Sobott: Can you talk a little about the history of your family, your place of birth and your childhood?

Alice Cherki: I was born in a family of Jewish Algerians who were in Algeria since the Romans or before the Romans. My parents were born in the small towns of Medea and Ksar Bukhari but they met in Algiers. I was born and I lived in Algiers. I am Algerian, voilà!

Some of my family are Jewish Berbers.

GS: Were there Jews in Algeria before the Arabs?

AC: Yes, the majority were there well before. Some came later in 1492 from Spain through Morocco, others from Italy, and then Alsatian Jews, but at that point it was already colonial Algeria.  Many of those left again and went elsewhere. But most of the Jews of Algeria had been there for a very, very, very long. Some of them were Berbers who converted to Judaism. I belong to that history.

GS: Did you speak Arabic?

AC: Very little. I’m not very good at languages. I come from the same environment as Derrida. at school, we learnt Latin and Greek.

GS: Did you know Derrida?

AC: I knew Derrida very well. He was eight or nine years older than me and that represents a big difference but yes I knew Derrida well.

Like Hélène Cixous and Derrida, my childhood was marked by the Vichy anti-Jewish legislation which excluded Jews born in Algeria, denied us French nationality, the right to go to school, the right for Jews to work in government administration. This was hugely traumatic for me as a child.

One Christmas, I was 4 or 5 years old, my teacher said, “Tell your mother that after the break you must not come to school anymore.”

When I asked her the reason, the only answer I got was, “It’s because you’re Jewish.”

I didn’t know what that meant.  So, I gathered my courage and asked, “What’s Jewish?”

She replied, “It’s you with your big eyes, big mouth and big ears.”

Each of us, as Derrida also relates, was excluded from school, our parents could no longer work.

GS: How has this experience affected your adult life?

AC: It opened my eyes to the injustices of the world in which we live; a world marked by colonial ideology.  In Algiers in the 1950s, there was no intersection between Europeans, the Jews and Arabs –  the so-called natives. I didn’t experience it at home but we were caught up in all that. I talk about it a little in my book, Mémoire anachronique.  Everyone lived in their own sphere. Some of us would meet each other outside these spheres.

During my early years at primary school there was no mixing at all. In Grade 6, there were some girls; Rachida, Malika.  For the whole of my secondary schooling I only knew of one Algerian woman student even though my school was not the most snobbish high school in Algiers.

GS: It was the same principle as Apartheid?

AC: The same principle except that it was more camouflaged. Algerians were contained in their own neighbourhoods. Even the bourgeois had their areas. The Algerians passed like shadows in the European neighbourhoods

GS: What area of Algiers did you live in?

AC: I first lived on the border of a working-class suburb, near the boys’ school, known then as Lycée Bugeaud, now it’s called Lycée Abdel Kader. Later, at the age of 17, we moved to Central Boulevard in Hydra. Our house was on a piece of land owned by my uncle –  my father’s brother, my father’s sister, and my father. After some years, they managed to build a three-storey house there for the three families.

GS: What did your father do for a living?

AC: My father traded in cereal. He carried out transactions with farmers for the export and import of chickpeas and lentils.

GS: How did your interest in psychiatry come about?

AC: Firstly, it was a struggle for me as a woman to study. After I passed my baccalaureate, even though I was from the middle-class, it was not usual for women to continue their education. Women were expected to marry and so on. I had an older brother and a younger brother and was the only girl. Neither of my parents continued their studies. My father, a brilliant student, was pulled out of school at age 16 by his father. He was the eldest of ten children There were two or three girls before him so he had to work. I believe my mother chose to leave school to get married. When she met my father, she dropped out.

My parents were both very intelligent and relatively progressive. My father spoke Arabic, but they did not have a higher education.

I already had a certain outlook on society and I was more inclined towards literature. I wasn’t a good student and had never received any awards for excellence. I was impertinent and people always told me I would make an excellent actress. With no one to advise me, in those days, if I had decided I wanted to be an actress, it would have been worse than deciding to be a prostitute. Having said that, I did later have the luck to meet many people who became involved in theatre.

So, I found myself first in hypokhâgne and then khâgne. You know what they are?

GS: No.

AC: Preparatory literary classes for the grandes écoles. The equivalent also exists in the scientific field. I was interested in studying philosophy but decided that would mean cutting myself off from the real world. I made up my mind that I wanted to be useful so I chose to study medicine. But very soon I realized medicine didn’t meet my needs. It was all about identifying symptoms and responding with treatments. I remember a teacher saying, “But Mademoiselle, you ask too many questions.”

We never say, “Why” in medicine. Instead we talk about, “How to fix it.”

So, I was part of two cultures; one of interest for human beings and their psyche, and the other a group culture which stemmed from my medical studies.

GS: Were there other women you knew of who were studying medicine then?

AC: There were a few, but they were a definite minority.

There was a saying that summarized the situation quite well. It relates to sitting the intern examination:

If you are white, European and male, you have an 80% chance of sitting the exam. If you are female and European, you have a 60% chance. If you are Jewish and male, you have a 50% chance. If you are female and Jewish, you have a 25% chance. If you are Muslim and male, you have a 10% chance. As for being Muslim and a woman, you are not even mentioned because you just don’t get the opportunity.

Some managed to study medicine or become trainees but none got to sit the intern examination, voilà!

GS: When did you meet Fanon for the first time?

AC: I was part of a youth movement called AJASS (Association of Algerian Youth for Social Action) and Fanon was invited to give a lecture by a friend of mine, Pierre Chaulet, who died recently. It was a lecture on fear and anxiety in 1955. I must have been 19 or 20 at the time and had to leave my parents’ home where I’d been living. Most of the interns at the hospital were French-Algerian and because of my opinions I faced all kinds of problems. My car tyres were punctured, my white doctor’s coat soiled, my files stolen. So, when Fanon found out I wanted to do psychiatry, he told Pierre Chaulet I should come and intern under him at Blida psychiatric hospital.

GS: So you lived at the hospital in Blida?

AC: Yes, as an intern. That’s where I met my husband, Charles Géronimi. He shared my ideas, but having Corsican parents, teachers but Corsicans, they had trouble accepting a little Jew in their family, especially my mother-in-law.

GS: What were your first impressions of Fanon?

AC: My first impressions, at 20, I found everything he had to say very interesting and didn’t think of him as black. He analysed the subjectivity of racism which was very different from the discourse of the time. On the one hand, we had Existentialism and on the other, Marxist materialism which didn’t include questions of subjectivity. It was the first time I’d met someone who was only 10 years older than me but had immense experience, and a developed understanding of these two worlds, of the two ‘ideologies’.  He was neither on one side nor the other which met my expectations, answered my questions.

GS: He had practical ideas?

AC: Yes, he was a hands-on kind of man.

GS: That’s to say, the development of his thought was founded not only on the theoretical but also on his lived-experience?

AC: On his experience, yes. And that also pleased me. It was from his lived-experience that he elaborated his ideas. But he also had very advanced psychiatric training.

GS: What were some of the work experiences during your time with Fanon in Blida that influenced your practice of psychiatry?

AC: Everything he brought to psychiatry, especially his critique of the School of Algiers’ theory of primitivism. He also introduced social therapy, institutional psychotherapy.

GS: How do you define institutional psychotherapy?

AC: Institutional psychotherapy, as developed by Tosquelles, took off in France with the support of Oury and Bonnafé. It encourages the residents of psychiatric institutions to share things with their caregivers. Through humanising the functions of these institutions, it allows understanding not only of patient symptoms but also the roots of these symptoms. There are still two or three people in France who are struggling to create places that foster institutional psychotherapy, but it is becoming more and more difficult.

GS: Why is it becoming more difficult?

AC: Because of the prevailing ideology. Now we have DCM 3, DCM 4, DCM 5. It is a performative ideology that absolutely bypasses all subjective aspects of alienation.

GS: Did you have any significant experiences in the hospital setting as a female doctor caring for patients in that historical and social context?

AC: What do you mean by significant experiences?

GS: For example, when you worked at Joinville-Blida Hospital, were there certain events that affected you?

AC: Yes, of course.

GS: What were they?

AC: So many things. For example, I saw women hospitalised after childbirth for postpartum, transitory delirium. Some doctors didn’t understand and sometimes even people in the women’s families said, “It’s the djnoun who came to inhabit her.”

It affected me deeply because  I wanted to ascertain their experience of the delivery because it influences their relationship to the newborn baby.  It’s a complicated relationship.

GS: Did you have your own children at that time?

AC: No, I had no children at the time. I now have a son who is 40 years old. He studied political science and then he got involved in theatre.

GS: So, he is fortunate?

AC: Well there you have it.

Black and white photograph of Alice Cherki as a young women. She has short, dark hair, is wearing a white, V-neck dress and a necklace, and she is smiling.

GS: As a female doctor, what were your professional relationships like with your colleagues at the hospital?

AC: Amongst us interns at the psychiatric hospital of Blida, I was considered an equal.

I married an intern from the hospital. No, I can’t say I had any problems. On the other hand, before that when I was at the Mustapha Hospital in Algiers, I was very young, I did my hair in a bun and put on big glasses to make myself look older so I’d be left in peace.

GS: Was your husband originally from Blida?

AC: No, he was also from Algiers but he was an intern with Fanon in Blida. They wrote a paper together on Algerian women and the cultural specificity of TATs (Thematic Apperception Tests).

GS: In your book, Fanon, Portrait, you mention a meeting between Fanon and Jeanson. (1)

AC: Yes.

GS: In that meeting Fanon expressed his wish to go beyond certain ideas so that readers can experience aspects of life that they could never know firsthand.  You talk about Fanon exploring the sensory dimension of language. Do you think that this approach to writing could enable us to communicate experiences around difference, to understand our differences from an egalitarian point of view – not superior or even inferior?

AC: Yes, I think this type of writing is essential. In my experience, sensory writing starts from perceptions, sensations to try to improve communication with the other, I think it is very, very necessary.

GS: Do you know any writers today who write like that?

AC: I’m not qualified to say. I don’t know today’s writers that well. But Kateb Yacine wrote like that.

GS: Do you see difference as a dialectical space that can trigger creativity and imagination?

AC: Yes, that’s what I call the relationship to the other, the recognition of the outside, the stranger. It is important. I wrote another book called La frontière invisible, in which I insist on the relationship to the other. This allows you to accept the outsider in yourself.

GS: In your book, La frontière invisible, you link psychoanalysis and politics. I understand colonial violence, violence of displacement, violence against the subject in the social context, the context of specific historical and political circumstances, for example, those of Algeria and France. But when I try to analyse this violence from a psychoanalytic point of view, I find it difficult to understand.

AC: It is complicated. But you have sought out strangers?

GS: Always, yes.

AC: Perhaps it’s not by chance.

GS: Perhaps not.

Did you know Fanon outside his work, in his family life? What kind of man was he as husband and father?

AC: Yes, of course I had the opportunity to know Fanon outside his work. I knew his wife well and I know his son very well. As a dedicated husband and father. At the same time, he was a very busy man. But he was very dedicated to his family. When his father left for Africa, Olivier didn’t see him that often only from time to time when Fanon came back from working there.  Olivier was only five when his father died.

Fanon loved life. He liked to go out to dinner, go dancing, things like that.

GS: What type of dancing did he like?

AC: All the dances of that time, le slow, the rhumba . . .

GS: Did you like to dance?

AC: It has been a long time since I really danced but yes at the time I loved it.

GS: At friends’ places?

AC: Yes.

GS: What type of music did Fanon like?

AC: He especially loved Caribbean music.

GS: And you?

AC: Back then my tastes were very eclectic. I liked the Arab-Andalusian, Jewish-Andalusian music right through to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and then Jean Ferrat, Barbara, Montand. More and more now I love Musique Concrète.

GS: Tell me more. 

AC: When I was a psychoanalyst, I was working very hard. In the evening, when I had finished working and my head was full of words, words, words, I’d play the likes of Kurtág and Blériot. The music is largely based on the sonority of the human body. It defies the normality of melody. It’s best to listen to it alone. There are not many people who love and desire that genre of music. It scares them.

GS: What kind of a sense of humour did Fanon have? What made him laugh?

AC: He had a great sense of humour, Fanon. It was humour that made him laugh.

GS: People who are very involved in revolutionary struggle often dedicate huge amounts of time and energy to the cause, and I suppose that doesn’t allow them to be very good parents.

AC: That’s true, yes. Especially at the time because the people involved in the struggle were very young.

GS: Have you met children whose parents were not only very involved but who were tortured, wounded or killed as part of the struggle?

AC: Yes, children who became orphans.

GS: Regarding the children of revolutionaries, what observations have you made?

AC: It was very variable. For example, Fatma Oussedic, her father was a great militant and she has good memories of her relationship with him. In addition, many families did not only consist of the father and mother, there were, aunts, uncles, cousins etc. They weren’t nuclear families. If we’re talking about orphans this helps a little. But when you see your parents killed before your eyes, that’s not the same thing. As for the children of the surviving revolutionaries following independence, the notion that their fathers are heroes has weighed heavily on many of them.

GS: Would you mind giving me a brief definition of your concept of alienation and the ways it may be experienced in countries marked by colonisation.

AC: That’s a big question. Both the coloniser and countries who achieved their independence, like Algeria, deny in various ways the colonial wars that have taken place. Algeria swept a large part of the past away by claiming the national story begins at the time of Independence. Generations have been taught that they have one history, one language, one origin. This kind of discourse has done a lot of damage. There are many young people who now don’t know who they are.

GS: How does that manifest psychologically?

AC: It varies considerably and is different in Algeria and in France. Here in France these young people are excluded from participating in the inner circle, In Algeria they are divided. There is group of social conformists who represent the youth, and another group of which no one ever speaks but which gnaws away at the heart and soul of the country.  Young people are suffering a great deal, even those who are socially successful. Many young people ask, “What was Algeria like before 1962?” Many are Berbers. The heterogeneity of their roots has been hidden from them. It is as if these roots don’t exist but they are longing for what I call multiple identification … not to be cast in a single mould.

In France there are many young people who describe their lives very well and write novels. Some are very interesting, written in the language of the suburbs. For example, Sabri Louatah, Les Sauvages.

GS: What is your definition of dignity, especially the dignity of colonised people, people considered mentally ill or disabled?

AC: Dignity is essential. Dignity means we are viewed by the other as a human being.

GS: In revolutionary situations, when a group of people can no longer withstand massive pressure and extreme violence, they react violently to create a change in the power structure. This changeover is often quick, lasts for a moment, the objective is specific: to get rid of the immediate cause of the violence that oppresses them. Beyond this moment of revolutionary violence, what measures do you think people can use to get rid of the everyday violence that continues?

AC: Firstly, to speak.

GS: To whom?

AC: Speak, tell, write. . . I think there are many forms of expression, of creation. Because we must get by. We must get out of the stupor. The essential thing is to get out of it, including through collective struggle.

GS: What for you is the most urgent task required to change human relations in the future? What needs to be done to update and develop new definitions of power?

AC: We need to do work in many areas if we are going to change human relations and bring about new definitions of power. Each person should focus on their own domain, the place where they live. It’s true, like many people, I feel I am very active and committed. At the same time, I denounce all modes of liberalism and things like that.

GS: How do you define liberalism?

AC: It is being governed by financial capitalism which transforms the subject into an object.

GS: Is it enough to denounce? Sometimes I get the impression that it is useless.

AC: I know it well. Organisations are important. There are organisations, people who are militant. I am fortunate to have a son, and nephews who are politically engaged in their fields. Me, everyone knows my positions, my writings. My son works in theatre. They go to schools, to high schools. I am not against the revolution.

GS: Do you think that as individuals, we are afraid of revolutionary violence, afraid of revolutionary confrontation?

AC: It depends. There are many people who are afraid of violence. In my case, I’m not afraid. Many French people want to stay in their little cocoons. In Europe, the French are very much like that, withdrawn on their plots of land, and yet they made a revolution.

But I believe violence is . . . for example, what happened in 2005 in the housing estates, with Sarkozy insulting everyone. People called them riots but I called them revolts. Those young people were not afraid.

GS: It is temporary, a moment?

AC: Revolution is always like that. It’s a moment. But moments that produce difference. Every revolutionary moment must be seen as the introduction of change.

GS: Even if it takes a long time to get to that point.

AC: Yes, like psychoanalysis.

GS: Why did you choose to become a psychoanalyst?

AC: Because I found it was the best way to understand the psyche and help people. It’s exciting, I love it, yes, I like it very much.

GS: You must undergo psychoanalysis for several years to be a psychoanalyst?

AC: Yes, you do. It’s experience. You see, even you talk to an 80-year-old woman who is a psychoanalyst and it’s fine.

GS: Yes, it’s been good.

AC: I have lots of stories to tell. I am attentive to other human beings.

GS: Ah yes, but not all psychoanalysts are like you.

AC: That’s true.

GS: Did you have any conversations with Fanon about the ‘Jewish question’ or the events that led to the establishment of the State of Israel?

AC: Of course, Algerian Jews, like myself and Jacques Azoulay, worked with Fanon in Blida. Fanon had very close Jewish friends in Tunis. The subject of the establishment of the State of Israel was far from our concerns. Fanon was profoundly atheist. I, too, am an atheist. We were part of the struggle for Algerian independence, there was never any conversation about the existence of God for example. Those questions and discussions were not on our radar.

GS: But religious discourse was there nonetheless with Messali . . .

AC: Oh, yes. Those discussions took place within the independence movement. It was very heterogeneous. There were plenty of different poles of thought, different ideas. For example, Fanon, returning from sub-Saharan Africa, jokingly said to his colleagues, to the revolutionary friends of the mujahidin, that they should follow the example of Islamic Africans, their wives can walk topless. He said that jokingly. I mean the issue of Islam as a fundamental direction was probably underestimated, but religion was not ubiquitous in our workplace. I think, even Messali, he was for independence from France, he was married to a French woman, he wasn’t a religious Iman.

GS: When and why did you leave Algeria? Do you consider yourself a woman in exile?

AC: I did not really leave Algeria. I settled in Paris but with frequent trips to Algeria and back. I’m not in national exile and I think exile of the psyche is the hallmark of any successful human life.

Notes:

1. Alice Cherki refers to a meeting  between Fanon and Jeanson in her book, Fanon, portrait (Seuil, 2000), however the English translation, Fanon: A Portrait, (Cornell University Press, 2006) refers to a letter.

Alice Cherki was interviewed by Gaele Sobott in Paris, 26 September 2015 and by email between 18 and 20 November 2016.

Translated from French by Gaele Sobott

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“Dignity is essential. Dignity means we are viewed by the other as a human being”: an interview with Alice Cherki by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

La dignité est essentielle. C’est être regardé par l’autre comme un être humain : un entretien avec Alice Cherki

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAALICE CHERKI est psychiatre, psychanalyste et auteure.  Née à Alger, 1936.  Elle a bien connu Frantz Fanon, en travaillant à ses côtés, en Algérie et en Tunisie dans son service psychiatrique, et elle a partagé son engagement politique durant la guerre de l’Independence d’Algérie. Elle vit en France depuis 1965.  Elle est coauteur des livres, Retour à Lacan (Fayard, 1981) et Les juifs d’Algérie (Éditions du Scribe, 1987), et auteur de La frontière invisible, (Editions des crépuscules, 2009) Fanon, portrait (Seuil, 2011), et Mémoire anachronique (Editions De L’aube, 2016)

Gaele Sobott: Pouvez-vous m’en dire un peu sur l’histoire de votre famille, votre lieu de naissance et votre enfance ?

Alice Cherki : Je suis née dans une famille de juifs d’Algérie qui était installée là depuis les Romains ou avant les Romains. Mes parents sont nés dans les petites villes de Médéa et Ksar Boukhari. Mais ils se sont rencontres à Alger. Je suis née et j’ai vécu à Alger. Je suis Algéroise, voilà ! Une partie de cette famille est juive berbère.

GS : Y avait-il  des Juifs en Algérie  avant les Arabes ?

AC : Oui bien avant, majoritairement.  Quelques uns sont arrivés d’Espagne en 1492 par le Maroc, d’autres d’Italie, et ensuite des Juif alsaciens, mais c’était déjà l’Algérie coloniale, beaucoup d’entre eux sont repartis d’ailleurs. Mais la plupart des Juifs d’Algérie étaient là depuis très, très, très longtemps. Certains d’entre eux étaient des Berbères judaïsés. Moi j’appartiens à cette histoire-là.

GS : Est-ce que vous avez parlé l’arabe ?

AC : Très peu. Je ne suis pas très douée pour les langues. Et en plus, je suis un peu comme Derrida. On a vécu certainement dans le même milieu et puis à l’école, on apprenait le latin et le grec.

GS : Vous avez connu Derrida ?

AC : J’ai très bien connu Derrida. Il avait huit ou neuf ans de plus que moi et ce qui représente une grande différence mais oui j’ai bien connu Derrida.

Mon enfance a été marquée tout comme Hélène Cixous et  Derrida par les lois de Vichy qui excluaient les Juifs nés en Algérie, les destituaient de la nationalité française, du droit à fréquenter les écoles et à exercer dans les administrations. Vous voyez, cela a été un grand traumatisme d’enfance.

A 4 ou 5 ans, à Noël mon institutrice m’a dit,  « Tu diras à ta mère qu’à la rentrée, tu ne viens plus à l’école. » 

Lorsque je lui ai demandé la raison, j’obtiens pour seule réponse, «  C’est parce que tu es juive. » 

Moi, je ne savais même pas ce que ça voulait dire. J’ai pris mon courage à trois mains et je lui ai demandé, « Etre juive c’est quoi ? » 

Elle m’a répondu, « C’est être comme toi avec des grands yeux, une grande bouche et des grandes oreilles. »

Chacun d’entre nous, comme le raconte Derrida, a été exclu de l’école, nos parents ne pouvaient plus travailler.

GS : Comment est-ce que cela a marqué votre vie d’adulte ?

AC : Cela m’a ouvert les yeux sur l’injustice, sur le monde dans lequel on vivait, un monde marqué par l’idéologie coloniale, pas chez mes parents, mais on était pris dans ce mouvement-là. A Alger dans les années 50, il n’y avait pas d’intersection entre les différentes sphères. Il y avait les Européens, les Juifs et ceux qu’on appelait les Arabes, les indigènes. Il n’y avait pas d’interpénétration. J’en parle un peu dans mon livre, Mémoire anachronique. Chacun vivait dans sa sphère. Les rencontres se faisaient à l’extérieur.

Quand j’étais dans les petites classes où la mixité n’existait pas à l’époque, il y avait quelque filles qui s’appelaient Rachida ou Malika, mais dès que je suis rentrée en 6e, dans ma classe il n’y avait qu’une seule Algérienne pendant toute ma scolarité secondaire et pourtant j’étais dans un lycée qui n’était pas le lycée le plus snob d’Alger.

GS : C’était le même principe que l’Apartheid ?

AC : Le même principe sauf que c’était plus camouflé. Les Algériens étaient contenus dans certains quartiers. Même les bourgeois avaient leurs quartiers. Les Algériens passaient comme des ombres dans les quartiers Européens.

GS : Vous habitiez quel quartier d’Alger ?

AC : J’ai d’abord vécu près du lycée de garçons, le lycée Bugeaud, devenu maintenant le lycée Abdel Kader, à la frontière du quartier populaire. Plus tard, à l’âge de 17 ans, nous avons emménagé sur le boulevard central, à Hydra, dans une maison sur un terrain qui était une copropriété appartenant à mon oncle, le frère de mon père, la sœur de mon père, et mon père. Ce n’est qu’au bout d’un grand nombre d’années qu’ils sont parvenus à y construire une maison à trois étages pour y abriter les trois familles.

GS : Quel métier exerçait votre père ?

AC : Mon père était céréalier. Il faisait les transactions avec les agriculteurs pour l’exportation et l’importation de pois chiches et de lentilles.

GS : A quand remonte votre intérêt pour la psychiatrie ?

AC : J’ai d’abord beaucoup lutté pour faire des études. Quand J’ai passé mon bac, même si je venais de la moyenne bourgeoisie, ce n’était pas classique que les femmes continuent leurs études. Pour eux, c’était le mariage et cetera. J’étais la seule fille. J’avais un frère ainé et un frère cadet mais mes parents n’avaient pas fait d’études. Ils avaient été tous les deux retirés de l’école.

Mon père, un brillant élève, a été retiré du lycée à 16 ans par son propre père parce que c’était une famille de dix enfants et qu’il était l’aîné. Il y avait deux ou trois filles avant lui et il fallait qu’il travaille. Ma mère a choisi de quitter sa classe de première, je crois, au lycée pour se marier. Quand elle a rencontré mon père elle a abandonné ses études.

Mes parents étaient tous les deux étaient très intelligents et plutôt progressistes. Mon père parlait l’arabe, mais ils n’avaient pas fait des études supérieures comme on dit à l’époque.

J’avais déjà un regard sur la société. J’étais plutôt littéraire. Je n’ai jamais eu de prix d’excellence parce que je n’étais pas une bonne élève. J’étais plutôt impertinente. On me disait toujours que j’aurais pu être une excellente comédienne. Il n’y avait personne pour  vous conseiller. Si j’avais dit je voulais être comédienne, cela aurait été pire que prostituée à l’époque. Mais J’ai eu la chance de rencontrer beaucoup de gens qui sont devenus des gens du théâtre ensuite.

Je me suis retrouvée d’abord en hypokhâgne et khâgne. Vous savez ce que c’est ?

GS : Non.

AC : Ce sont des classes préparatoires littéraires pour intégrer les grandes écoles. Elles ont leur équivalent dans le domaine scientifique. Mais je me suis mise en tête que je voulais être utile et que si je me mettais à faire de la philosophie je me couperais de la vraie vie si vous voulez. J’ai donc obliqué vers la médecine. Mais très vite en médecine, je me suis rendue compte que ça ne répondait pas du tout à mon interrogation. C’était une médecine des symptômes auxquels on répondait par des traitements. Je me souviens d’un prof qui me disait,  « Mais Mademoiselle vous posez trop de questions. »   On ne dit jamais,  « Pourquoi  » en médecine. On dit toujours,  « Comment faire. » 

 Donc j’avais cette double culture de l’intérêt pour l’humain et son psychisme et puis une culture de groupe seulement parce que j’ai fait mes études de médecine.

GS : Est-ce qu’il y avait d’autres femmes qui faisaient des études de médecine ?

AC : Il y en avait quelques unes mais elles étaient très minoritaires.

Il y avait un dicton qui résumait assez bien la situation pour passer le concours d’internat qui était assez prestigieux :

Quand on est blanc et européen et garçon on a 80% de chance d’avoir le concours, quand on est fille et européenne on a 60% de chance, quand on est juif et garçon on a 50% de chance, quand on est fille et juive on a 25% de chance, quand on est musulman et garçon 10% de chance et quant aux filles musulmanes le dicton ne mentionnait rien parce que il n’y en avait pas.

Certaines parvenaient à devenir externes ou stagiaires mais aucune n’obtenait le concours d’internat, voilà.

GS : Quand avez-vous rencontré Frantz Fanon pour la première fois ?

AC : Je faisais partie d’un mouvement de jeunes qui s’appelait AJASS (Association de la Jeunesse Algérienne pour l’Action Sociale) et Fanon était venu faire une conférence par l’intermédiaire d’un ami à moi, Pierre Chaulet, décédé récemment. C’était une conférence sur la peur et l’angoisse en 1955. A cette période-là,  j’ai dû quitter mes parents chez qui je vivais encore à l’époque. Je devais avoir dix-neuf, vingt ans. A l’hôpital, compte tenu de mes opinions, comme la majorité des étudiants et des internes en médecine qui étaient plutôt Algérie-Française, j’y avais beaucoup d’ennuis.  On nous crevait des pneus de voiture, on me salissait mes blouses, on volait mes dossiers et quand Fanon avait su que je voulais faire de la psychiatrie, il a dit à Pierre Chaulet et bien qu’elle vienne comme interne chez moi à l’hôpital psychiatrique de Blida.

GS : Alors, vous avez habité à l’hôpital de Blida ?

AC : Oui comme interne. C’est là où j’ai rencontré d’ailleurs mon mari, Charles Géronimi. Il partageait mes idées, mais ayant des parents Corses, instituteurs mais Corses, ils ont eu du mal à accepter une petite juive dans leur famille, plus particulièrement ma belle-mère.

GS : Quelles ont été vos premières impressions de Fanon ?

AC : Mes premières impressions, à vingt ans, j’ai trouvé ses propos très intéressants et je ne me suis pas rendue compte qu’il était noir. Il analysait la subjectivité du racisme ce qui était très différent du discours de l’époque. Il y avait d’un côté l’existentialisme et de l’autre le matérialisme marxiste pour qui les questions de subjectivité n’étaient pas à l’ordre du jour.

C’était la première fois que je rencontrais quelqu’un qui avait 10 ans de plus que moi avec un immense vécu et une grande expérience de la rencontre de ces deux mondes, des deux idéologies entre guillemets. Il  n’était pas d’un côté ou de l’autre et cela a répondu à mes attentes et mon interrogation.

 GS : Il avait des idées pratiques ?

AC : Oui, c’était un homme de terrain.

GS : C’est-à-dire que le développement de sa pensée était fondé non seulement sur le théorique mais aussi sur le vécu ?

AC : Sur le vécu, oui.  Et cela aussi me plaisait. C’était à partir de l’expérience vécue qu’il a élaboré une pensée. Mais il avait une formation psychiatrique très poussée.

GS : Quels événements vécus lors de votre travail avec Fanon à Blida ont influencé votre pratique de la psychiatrie?

 AC : C’est tout ce qu’il a apporté par rapport à la psychiatrie et la théorie du primitivisme de l’école d’Alger, et il a introduit la thérapie sociale, la psychothérapie institutionnelle.

GS : Qu’est-ce que c’est la psychothérapie institutionnelle ?

AC : Voilà, dans la psychothérapie institutionnelle, que Tosquelles a développée, et qui a trouvé d’ailleurs un grand essor en France avec Oury et Bonnafé, il s’agit de permettre aux pensionnaires des institutions psychiatriques de partager des choses avec leurs soignants, d’humaniser le fonctionnement de ces établissements, et que de là puisse émerger si vous voulez non seulement une compréhension des symptômes mais aussi des racines. Il y a encore deux ou trois personnes en France qui se battent pour créer les lieux de psychothérapie institutionnelle mais c’est de plus en plus difficile.

GS : Pourquoi plus difficile ?

 AC : A cause de l’idéologie ambiante. Maintenant on en est au DCM 3, DCM 4, DCM 5. C’est l’idéologie performative qui court-circuite absolument tous les aspects subjectifs de l’aliénation.

GS : Avez-vous eu des expériences significatives dans le milieu hospitalier en tant que femme médecin soignant des patientes dans ce contexte historique et social ?

AC : Qu’est que vous entendez des expériences significatives ?

GS : Par exemple, quand vous avez travaillé à l’hôpital Joinville-Blida, est-ce que certains événements vous ont affectée ?

AC : Bien sûr que oui

GS : Lesquels ?

AC : Tellement des choses. J’ai vu par exemple, des femmes hospitalisées pour des post-partum, après l’accouchement, avec un délire transitoire. Certains médecins ne comprenaient pas et parfois même des gens de sa famille disaient,  «C’est les djnouns qui sont venus l’habiter.»

Cela m’affectait beaucoup parce que ce qui m’intéressait vraiment était tout ce qui concernait la manière dont elles avaient vécu cet accouchement, ce qui avait infiltré leur rapport à ce nouveau-né qui est toujours un rapport compliqué.

GS : Est-ce que vous aviez des enfants vous-même à cette époque ?

AC : Non, je n’avais pas d’enfant à l’époque. J’ai actuellement un fils qui a 40 ans. Il a fait des études de sciences politiques et est ensuite devenu un homme de théâtre.

GS : Alors il y a de la chance ?

AC : Bon ben . . . voilà.

alicecherki

GS : Quelles étaient vos relations professionnelles en tant que femme médecins avec vos collègues à l’hôpital ?

AC : Dans le milieu de l’internat de l’hôpital psychiatrique de Blida, j’étais considérée comme leur égale.

Je me suis mariée avec un interne de l’hôpital. Non, là je ne peux pas dire que j’avais des problèmes. En revanche dans un milieu Algérois de l’hôpital de Mustapha quand j’étais très jeune, je me faisais un chignon et mettais des grosses lunettes pour paraître plus vielle, pour qu’on me fiche la paix.

GS : Votre mari était originaire de Blida ?

AC : Non il était d’Alger aussi mais il était interne en psychiatrie à Blida avec Fanon. Ils ont écrit un article ensemble sur les femmes Algériennes et la spécificité culturelle de T.A.T.
(Thematic Apperception Tests)

GS : Dans votre livre, Fanon, Portrait, vous évoquez la rencontre de Fanon avec Jeanson.

AC: Oui

GS : Il y exprime le fait qu’il aimerait dépasser certaines idées afin que le lecteur puisse expérimenter des aspects de la vie qu’il ne pourrait pas capter dans un premier temps. Vous parlez aussi de la dimension sensorielle du langage. Pensez-vous qu’une telle conception de l’écriture peut nous permettre de communiquer des expériences autour de la différence,  de comprendre nos différences d’un point de vue égalitaire  –  non supérieur voire inférieur ?

AC : Oui je pense que ce type d’écriture est essentielle. Mon expérience avec l’écriture sensorielle qui part des perceptions, des sensations pour essayer d’améliorer la communication avec l’autre, moi je pense que c’est très, très nécessaire.

GS : Vous connaissez des écrivains d’aujourd’hui qui écrivent comme ça ?

AC : Je ne suis pas qualifiée pour en parler. Je ne connais pas aussi intimement les écrivains d’aujourd’hui mais je sais que Kateb Yacine écrivait comme ça.

GS : Envisagez-vous la différence comme un espace dialectique déclencheur de créativité et d’imagination?

AC : Oui c’est ce que j’appelle le rapport à l’autre, le fait de reconnaitre l’étranger. C’est important. J’ai écrit un autre livre qui s’appelait,  La Frontière Invisible, dans lequel j’insiste sur le rapport à l’autre et qui vous permet d’accepter l’étranger en soi.

GS : Dans ce livre La Frontière Invisible il y a un lien entre la psychanalyse et la politique.

Moi, je comprends la violence coloniale, la violence de déplacement, la violence faite au sujet dans le contexte social, le contexte des circonstances historiques et politiques précises, par exemple, ceux de l’Algérie et la France. Mais quand j’essaye d’analyser cette violence d’un point de vue psychanalytique, je trouve que c’est difficile à comprendre à mon niveau.

AC : C’est compliqué. Pourtant vous avez été cherché des étrangers ?

GS : Toujours, oui.

AC : Ce n’est peut-être pas par hasard.

GS : Peut-être pas.

Avez-vous eu l’occasion de connaître Fanon en dehors de son travail, dans sa vie familiale ?

Quel genre d’homme était-il en tant que mari et père?

AC : Oui, bien sûr j’ai eu l’occasion de connaître Fanon en dehors de son travail. J’ai bien connu sa femme et je connais très bien son fils. En tant que mari et père, il était très présent. En même temps il avait beaucoup à faire. Mais il était très présent. Bon, Olivier, quand son père est parti en Afrique, il ne l’a plus beaucoup vu à ce moment-là sauf si Fanon venait de temps en temps. Olivier n’avait que cinq ans quand son père est mort.

Il aimait bien vivre Fanon. Il aimait aller dîner, aller danser, les choses comme ça.

GS : Il aimait quelles danses ?

AC : Toutes les danses de l’époque, le slow, la rumba . . .

GS : Et vous aimiez la danse ?

AC : Ça fait longtemps que je ne danse plus vraiment mais oui à l’époque je l’aimais.

GS : C’était chez des amis ?

AC : Oui.

GS : Fanon aimait quel genre de musique?

AC : Il aimait surtout la musique antillaise.

GS : Et vous ?

AC : A l’époque j’étais très éclectique. J’aimais la musique arabo andalouse, judéo andalouse jusqu’à Bach, Beethoven, Mozart et puis Jean Ferrat, Barbara, Montand. J’aime de plus en plus la musique concrète.

GS : Dites-m’en plus.

 AC : Quand j’étais psychanalyste, je travaillais beaucoup. Le soir, lorsque j’avais fini de travailler et j’avais la tête remplie de mots, de mots, de mots, je mettais des choses comme Kurtág et Blériot, et c’est uniquement la sonorité qui vient du corps et qui s’échappe de la normalité de la mélodie. Il faut écouter seul parce qu’il y a peu de gens qui aiment et envient cela.  Cela leur fait peur.

GS : Quelle sorte d’humour avait Fanon ? Qu’est ce qui le faisait rire ?

AC : Il avait beaucoup d’humour, Fanon. C’était l’humour qui le faisait rire.

GS : Les personnes très impliquées dans la lutte y consacrent souvent beaucoup de temps et j’imagine que cela ne leur permet pas d’être de très bons parents.

AC : C’est vrai, oui. Surtout à l’époque car les personnes impliquées dans la lutte étaient très jeunes.

GS : Avez-vous rencontré des enfants ayant eu de tels parents, non seulement très impliqués mais qui ont pu aussi être torturés, blessés ou tués dans le cadre de leur combat?

AC : Mais oui les enfants qui devenaient orphelins.

GS : Concernant les enfants de révolutionnaires, quelles observations avez-vous pu faire ?

AC : C’était très variable. Pour Fatma Oussedic, son père était un grand militant et elle garde un bon souvenir de sa relation avec lui. En plus et dans beaucoup de familles il n’y avait pas que le père et la mère à l’époque, il y avait tout un environnement, les tantes, les oncles, les cousins, les cousines, etcetera, pas de famille nucléaire. Si on parle des orphelins ça aide un peu. Mais quand on voit leurs parents tués sous leurs yeux, ce n’est pas la même chose. Quant aux enfants des révolutionnaires survivants après l’indépendance, le caractère de héros de leur père a pesé lourdement chez beaucoup d’entre eux.

GS : J’aimerais que vous me donniez une brève définition de votre conception de l’aliénation sous toutes les formes où elle peut être vécue dans les pays marqués par la colonisation.

AC : C’est une grande question. Il y a eu  les dénis qui ont porté sur les guerres coloniales d’un côté et puis sur les pays nouvellement indépendants, notamment l’Algérie. On a fait table rase de ce qu’ils  avaient avant en disant que l’histoire commençait au moment de l’Independence. On a enseigné aux générations ce type d’histoire en leur disant vous avez une histoire unique, une langue unique, une origine unique. Ca a fait beaucoup de dégâts. Il y a beaucoup de jeunes qui savent plus  où ils en sont.

GS : Comment est-ce que ça se manifeste psychiquement ?

AC : C’est très variable. Ce n’est pas pareil en Algérie et en France. Ici, ils sont exclus de l’intérieur si vous voulez. En Algérie ils sont clivés.  Il y a une partie sociale conformée et puis une partie intérieure dont ils ne parlent jamais mais qui les rongent. Les jeunes vivent une grande souffrance, même ceux qui ont réussi socialement. Et puis beaucoup d’entre eux demandent, « Avant 62 c’était comment l’Algérie ? »   Beaucoup sont des berbères. Il y a tout une hétérogénéité de racines qu’on leur a cachée. On leur a dit que ça n’existait pas. Eux ils ont envie d’avoir ce que j’appelle des identification multiples… ne pas d’être assignés à un moule.

En France il y’a beaucoup de jeunes qui racontent très bien leur vie. Ils écrivent des romans, et quelques-uns sont écrits dans le langage des banlieues et sont très intéressants. Par exemple, Sabri Louatah, Les Sauvages.

GS : Quelle est votre définition de la dignité et plus particulièrement la dignité des personnes colonisées, des personnes considérées malades mentales ou handicapées ?

AC : La dignité est essentielle. C’est être regardé par l’autre comme un être humain.

GS : Dans les situations révolutionnaires, lorsqu’un groupe de personnes ne peut plus supporter la pression massive et l’extrême violence, sa réaction est violente afin de créer un changement dans la structure du pouvoir. Cela est rapide, dure un moment, l’objectif est spécifique : se débarrasser de la cause immédiate de la violence qui les opprime. Au-delà de ce moment de violence révolutionnaire, quelles mesures pensez-vous que les gens peuvent utiliser pour se débarrasser de la violence quotidienne qui continue ?

AC : D’abord parler.

 GS : A qui ?

 AC : Parler, dire, écrire . . . voilà je pense qu’il y a beaucoup de formes d’expression, de création. Parce qu’il faut s’en sortir. Il faut sortir de la sidération. L’essentiel est d’en sortir y compris par la lutte collective.

GS : Qu’est ce qui reste le plus urgent pour vous aujourd’hui à comprendre afin de changer les relations humaines dans le futur ? Que devons faire pour mettre à jour et développer de nouvelles définitions du pouvoir ?

AC : C’est dans beaucoup de domaines, changer les relations humaines dans le futur pour mettre à jour les nouvelles définitions du pouvoir, chacun dans son domaine, chacun dans le lieu où il vit. Moi, c’est vrai comme beaucoup de gens, je me sens très engagée. En même temps je dénonce tous les modes du libéralisme et les trucs comme ça.

GS : C’est quoi pour vous le libéralisme ?

AC : C’est être régi par le capitalisme financier qui transforme le sujet en objet.

GS : Est-ce qu’on se contente de dénoncer ? Quelque fois j’ai l’impression que cela ne sert à rien.

AC : Je sais bien. Les organisations sont importantes, il y a des organisations, des gens qui militent. J’ai la chance d’avoir un fils, et des neveux qui sont engagés politiquement dans leurs domaines. Moi, tout le monde connait mes positions, mes écrits, mon fils dans le domaine du théâtre, il fait  justement du théâtre vivant. Ils vont dans les écoles, dans les lycées. Moi je ne suis pas contre la révolution.

GS : Pensez-vous que nous, en tant qu’individus, avons peur de la violence révolutionnaire, peur de la confrontation révolutionnaire ?

AC : Ça dépend. Il y a beaucoup de gens qui ont peur de la violence. Ce n’est pas mon cas. Beaucoup de Français veulent rester dans leurs petits cocons. En Europe, les Français sont très comme ça, très repliés sur leurs lopins de terre et pourtant c’est eux qui ont fait une révolution.

Mais, moi, je crois que la violence elle est . . ., par exemple, ce qui s’est passe en 2005 dans les cités, avec quelqu’un comme Sarkozy qui avait été insultant et tout, les gens appellent ça les émeutes, moi, j’appelle ça des révoltes et ces jeunes-là n’avaient pas peur.

GS : C’est temporaire, un moment ?

AC : La révolution est toujours comme ça. C’est un moment. Mais les moments qui produisent les différences. Chaque moment révolutionnaire doit être vu comme l’introduction d’une différence.

GS : Même si ça prend beaucoup de temps.

AC : Oui, comme en psychanalyse.

GS : Pourquoi avez-vous choisi de devenir une psychanalyste ?

AC : Parce que j’ai trouvé que c’était la meilleure façon de comprendre le psychisme et d’aider les gens et c’est passionnant, j’adore, oui, j’aime beaucoup.

GS : On doit faire une psychanalyse de plusieurs années pour être une psychanalyste ?

AC : Oui. Il faut en faire une. C’est une expérience. Même vous, voyez, vous parlez à une femme de 80 ans qui est psychanalyste et ça va.

GS : Ça va.

AC : Je raconte beaucoup de choses. Je suis attentive aux autres d’êtres humains.

GS : Ah oui, mais tous les psychanalystes ne sont pas comme vous.

AC : Ça c’est vrai.

GS : Avez-vous eu des conversations avec Fanon au sujet de « la question juive » et des événements qui ont conduit à l’établissement de l’Etat d’Israël?

AC : Bien sur des juifs Algériens, comme moi et Jacques Azoulay, ont travaillé avec Fanon à Blida. Fanon avait des amis juifs très proches à Tunis. Le sujet de l’établissement de l’Etat d’Israël, c’était loin de nos préoccupations.  Fanon était profondément athée. Moi aussi je suis athée. Nous étions dans le combat de l’Indépendance de l’Algérie, on n’avait jamais de conversation sur l’existence de Dieu par exemple. Ce n’était pas du tout dans les champs de nos interrogations, de nos conversations.

GS : Mais le discours religieux était là quand même avec Messali . . .

AC : Ah oui. Il y avait ce discours dans le mouvement indépendantiste. C’était très hétérogène.  Il y avait plein de gens qui étaient dans des pôles différents, des idées différentes. Par exemple, Fanon, qui en revenant de l’Afrique noire, disait en plaisantant aux collègues, aux amis révolutionnaires de moudjahid, qu’ils devraient prendre l’exemple de l’Islam des Africains, leurs femmes elles peuvent se balader les seins nus. Il leur disait ça en plaisantant. Je veux dire que la question de l’Islam comme direction fondamentale était probablement sous-estimée mais la religion n’était pas omniprésente dans le milieu de travail dans lequel on se trouvait. Je crois que même Messali, était un indépendantiste, il était marié avec une française, Il n’était pas un iman religieux.

GS : Quand et pourquoi avez-vous quitté l’Algérie ? Considérez-vous comme une femme en exil ?

AC : Je n’ai pas vraiment quitté l’Algérie. Je me suis installée à Paris mais avec de fréquents allers-retours. Vous savez, je ne suis pas dans l’exil territorial et je pense que l’exil psychique est le propre de toute vie d’humain réussie.

Alice Cherki a été interviewée en direct par Gaele Sobott à Paris le 26 septembre 2015 et par courriel entre le 18 et le 20 novembre 2016.

Remerciements à Martine Cassagne et Karima Mezoughem pour leur assistance dans la transcription de cet entretien.

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La dignité est essentielle. C’est être regardé par l’autre comme un être humain : un entretien avec Alice  by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

“I Think of Dance as My Most Honest and Purest Form of Expression . . .” An interview with Christelle Dreyer

Christelle Dreyer1

Credit: Marike Van Wyk

Christelle Dreyer is a freelance graphic designer and dancer who lives in Brackenfell, Cape Town.  She took up competitive ballroom and Latin dancing in 2004, then moved onto contemporary dance in 2010, performing in Dance Joint produced by Jazzart Dance Theatre and choreographed by Jackie Manyaapelo,  Infecting the City, choreographed by Tebogo Munyai, and Unmute Project, choreographed by Andile Vellum. She has worked on projects with various dance companies, including Jazzart Dance Theatre, Remix and Unmute. She recently performed in No Fun ction alL anguage, at South Africa’s National Arts Festival 2016 in Grahamstown.

Gaele Sobott: How did your passion for ballroom and Latin dancing initially develop?

Christelle Dreyer: As a child I loved listening to all kinds of music and watching people dance. I can`t really recall exact dates, but Jazzart Dance Theatre came to my school and I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the kids to be part of a performance. It opened me up to realising that I actually could move and not just be on the side admiring people as they danced. After that I started Ballroom and Latin dancing.

GS: What then led you to contemporary dance?

CD: I started taking open dance classes as a way to keep fit and do something different. I enjoyed it so much I never stopped.

GS: How did you become involved in No Fun ction al Language?

CD: I received a phone call from Danieyella Rodin who works at The Chaeli Campaign, the organisation that produced No Fun ction al Language. She asked me if I’d like to audition for the show and then emailed me all the relevant information. I contacted Jayne Batzofin, the director, who was conducting the auditioning process over a two week period. So I auditioned and got a part in the show.

GS: Who are the other performers in the show?

CD: Andile Vellem Daniel Mpilo Richards, and Iman Isaacs are the other dancers. Dave Knowles is the musician.

GS: Tell me about your experience of working on the show.

CD: No Fun ction alL anguage has been an exceptional experience and an amazing opportunity. From the start of the creation process to the final production and the moments in between it’s been an incredible process of growth and discovery.

Jayne Batzofin and the cast, everyone involved, have been so open-hearted and open-minded. Some of them, before meeting me, hadn’t had any interaction with a disabled person but the way they approached the idea of disability is no less than amazing. I would like to think that we have become a little No Fun ction alL anguage family. I feel blessed to be part of the team. Together we created a work that has stimulated discussion around what happens if we don’t have the right words or any words to share our thoughts, discussion about our desperate search for meaning and about inclusivity for all members of our society. Each chapter of No Fun ction alL anguage encouraged different thought processes and emotional dialog within me. It was great being in a position to explore these things through performance. The response from audiences has been more than overwhelming.

GS: How did you contribute to the choreography of the piece?

CD:  When Jayne choreographs she uses a theme then allows us to improvise our body movements in relation to the theme. So we generated new movements and material. These were then incorporated into duets or into the larger choreography.  In chapter five of No Fun ction alL anguage, for example, that entire solo was created by me, and Jayne refined and detailed some moments.

GS: Please describe what Chapter Five is about.

CD: Chapter Five was about deception. How you experience deception, what it means to us. I looked at the emotions we feel when we are deceived and when we deceive and worked on translating that into movement. So Daniel explored the act of deceiving someone. His character was saying, “I love you” but not meaning it. Andile and Iman looked at how you can deceive yourself, and I worked on how sometimes you want to believe the deception. You know you are being deceived but you want to go ahead, for example, you believe that person loves you. So the choreography I developed was communicating that process of trying to hold on to what you know is not true but what somehow is pleasurable. Well it would be pleasurable if it was true. You try to hold onto that pleasurable non-reality for as long as you can. So my choreography was very quiet.

GS: How did you translate quiet into movement?

CD: Slow and controlled, under the radar.

GS: I think it was Silence, the chapter where you were on your back and moved your leg up very, very slowly.  That was a powerful moment.

CD: Yes that took extreme concentration, and the right breathing.

GS: Do you have control over your safety during the creative process?

CD: Complete control. If my body doesn’t want to do something, I don’t. But I try new moves. If that doesn’t suit me, I say so. I know what my body is capable of. Anyone who works with a disabled dancer knows that there are certain traditional ways of dancing that may be impossible. It’s a fine line between a director knowing when to push and when not to push you. At the same time you don’t want a director to be patronising and not get you to push boundaries.

From left to right, two male dancers, one standing facing audience, the second lifting his arms and one leg high over the third dancer who is seated in a wheelchair. She leans away from him and holds her hands on her head. The last dancer, a woman, stands facing the away from the other dancers. They are all dressed in casual pants and tee shirts in various shades of grey.

 

GS: How do the themes of language and communication addressed in No Fun ction al Language relate to you personally?

CD: For me communication takes on many different forms. I think of dance as my most honest and purest form of expression and communication. In those moments of dance, the movement and the spaces between movement, I find what I really want to say to the world. I also communicate as a graphic designer. My work tends to be minimalist, which I feel expresses my easy-going personality.

I think the way I communicate with others is largely determined by the circumstances I’m presented with. For example, the way I communicate with Andile Vellem, who is Deaf, is different to how I communicate with the rest of the cast. My sign language is very bad, but somehow it’s often easier to convey information to him than to someone who can hear, other times we have big gaps in communication. I really need to work on my SASL (South African Sign Language). As far as spoken language goes I am fluent in English and Afrikaans. Not really sure about fluent as my vocabulary is not that large, in my mind at least. I find it difficult to learn new languages. But also I realise the value of discovering new forms of communication and maybe just maybe, I will be putting pen to paper more often.

GS: Afrikaans and English. How do these languages figure in your life? Do you consider either of these languages as your first language or mother tongue?

CD: Both languages are equally as strong as each other in my life. My parents raised me speaking English and I went to an English-speaking school but my family, my parents, aunts and uncles, also speak Afrikaans, and my community.

 GS: Afrikaans has historical significance in the context of the ant-Apartheid struggles and the 1976 student uprisings against the Afrikaans Medium Decree. Do you think the language still represents an oppressive force for some people? Tell me more about what the language means to you.

CD: I was a bit too young to fully understand what it was like during Apartheid. I don’t really have the experience. My parents are the ones who know about what happened then. But from what I observe now Afrikaans is becoming a more general language in Cape Town. There are a lot of Coloured people who speak Afrikaans but it’s a bit different to the way White people speak the language, not pure like in the text books.  Coloured people have their own slang, and it’s more musical. Also the humour in the way Coloureds speak the language is different. I enjoy that humour.

GS: What are the elements of your identity that have remained steadfast over the years, what has changed?

CD: Well my identity is not something I really think about in great depth. Apart from the more obvious things like the fact that I am a Coloured disabled artist. I think I have always been open to experiencing different things. Perseverance and persistence is something I’ve always had and I have a feeling that will not change anytime soon.

I never understood myself as unique. That was partly to do with me being a twin. I am a twin but actually my sister and I are completely different.  My immersion in creative processes demanded that I explore my sense of self. So that definitely helped me realise and embrace my uniqueness.

GS: I was recently at an event where the writer and journalist, Sylvia Vollenhoven was talking about her book, The Keeper of the Kumm. She said, you can be Zulu or Xhosa and it defines to some extent your history but Coloured is a more general term. She feels that people who identify as Coloured are largely excluded from the narratives of nationhood that South Africa is now constructing. What does this part of your identity mean to you?

CD: There are lots of divisions and classes in the Coloured community. The way you live as a Coloured person, where you live, the way you identify, the way you’re brought up. Generally yes, a Black person has a very strong sense of identity. The backstory of being Black or the backstory of being White is usually solid where they know their granny’s granny’s granny.  Many Coloured people haven’t answered the questions, Who am I? What is my history? Where do I belong? Like what exactly is a Coloured person? Yeah, it’s complex. I don’t think Coloureds really know how to define themselves. They don’t have resources to draw on. Like me, I don’t know the history of my grandparents or beyond them.

GS: Why do you think that is? The reasons why you don’t know?

CD: Maybe because the past has been painful and people haven’t wanted to talk about it. But I’m lucky at least I knew all my grandparents. I only have my grandfather left. He has dementia now so I can’t really ask him about our family history. My father’s parents died many years ago. My mother’s mother, Ma Yvonne Lopes, played a big role in encouraging me to be confident and proud of who I am. She was an amazing grandmother. My mother too, she instilled certain values in me and I don’t give her enough credit for all my successes. I am content with who I am and where I am in my life. My friends and family keep me grounded.

GS: Elaborate a little on your identity as a disabled artist?

CD: I was diagnosed with OI (Osteogenesis Imperfecta) when I was a baby. My sister also has OI, I mention this because I always get asked since we’re twins. Because of my OI I spent many of my childhood years with broken bones or in hospital. My mother has lost count of the number of operations I’ve had, at least twenty.  The amount of times I’ve broken my bones seems endless. My tolerance to pain has become so high that most of the time I don’t realise I have a broken bone and in some cases more than one.  I was born and grew up in Cape Town with my parents. I’ve always been surrounded by family and friends so apart from OI issues I’ve had a very normal childhood.  OI is one of the many layers that shapes who I am. I Matriculated in 2004 and started studying Graphic Design at Cape Peninsula University of Technology in 2006. I graduated with a Baccalaureus Technologie in 2011. During my years as a university student I never stopped working on my dance goals and dreams.

GS: Can you describe any barriers you have encountered as an artist with OI?

CD: The strangest thing to me is that artists are generally more open to individuality and people expressing their uniqueness. But somehow when people see disabled artists they have this preset idea that disabled people cannot produce the same high quality as them. I am not saying it is all arts practitioners and audiences but that bias is there. Yet in many cases the standard of work produced is of equal quality or even better.

I have experiences where I would go for graphic designer interview and I’d be told they could not hire me because I was not what they expected but I have a very good CV and portfolio. I don’t put the fact that I am disabled in my CV as that should not be the measure as to whether I get the job or not. Of course they know they can`t say to my face it is because I am disabled that they will not hire me, so they come up with polite and creative ways to tell me. It really is not fair.

It’s very satisfying when I get to prove people wrong and exceed their expectations of me as an artist. Like after performances of No Fun ction al Language when audiences are left not only in awe but with different perspectives of disability.

GS:  How did you find disability access at Grahamstown National Arts Festival 2016? What changes would you like to see?

CD: I feel that disability access was not taken into consideration at the Festival. This is really disappointing as there where disabled artists on the festival program. There is so much said in South Africa about human rights and treating people as equals, yet the basic needs of people using wheelchairs, deaf people, blind people are not being considered. I’m blessed to be able to walk for short periods of time, but what about disabled people who can`t walk at all and need their wheelchairs to get around? Access is not just needed for artists but also people attending the festival, audience members. It’s a national festival, disabled artists and audiences should be welcomed, not excluded.

I think disabled people are standing up for themselves more than in the past and that they are being integrated as part of their communities so much better. There is still however a long way to go.

Grahamstown National Arts Festival 2016 – No Fun ction alL anguage Trailer

This interview was conducted 21st July 2016

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“I Think of Dance as My Most Honest and Purest Form of Expression . . .” An interview with Christelle Dreyer by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

People love stories: An interview with Amit Sharma

A young woman wearing a blue singlet lying on a bed with an anxious expression on her face. Next to her is a young man also lying on his back. He is only wearing black shorts.

GENEVIEVE BARR AND ARTHUR HUGHES AS ALICE AND PHIL IN THE SOLID LIFE OF SUGAR WATER BY JACK THORNE CREDIT: PATRICK BALDWIN

 

Amit Sharma 2Credit-Matt Cetti-RobertsAmit Sharma has been the Associate Director of Graeae Theatre Company, London, since 2011. He recently directed The Solid Life of Sugar Water, a Graeae Theatre Company and Theatre Royal Plymouth production, gaining unanimous acclaim at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, leading to a 2016 UK tour including a run at the National Theatre.

Amit is a graduate from Graeae’s Missing Piece actor training course. In 2012, he co-directed the outdoor spectacle Prometheus Awakes (with La Fura dels Baus/co-commissioned by GDIF and SIRF), marking the first large-scale outdoor production to be artistically led by Deaf and disabled people in the UK. Also for Graeae, he directed Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, which toured both nationally and internationally and co-directed Graeae’s Rhinestone Rollers in Sequins and Snowballs with Jenny Sealey at the Southbank Centre. As Assistant Director, he has worked on Graeae’s productions of The Threepenny Opera, The Changeling and on The Four Fridas for Greenwich and Docklands International Festival 2015. Amit currently leads on Write to Play, Graeae’s flagship new-writing programme in partnership with venues across the UK.

 

GaeleSobott: Can we start by talking about the set design in The Solid Life of Sugar Water. The bed is central, upstage, vertical with the actors standing against it. From the audience perspective it is as if they are looking down on the characters lying on the bed.

Amit Sharma: The thing about Sugar Water and the aspect that I was really interested in was the relationship between the two characters, Alice and Phil, how much they were or weren’t communicating. The style, as it was written by Jack Thorne, consists of two monologues essentially inter-dispersed with both the characters’ dialogue. Well it is much more intricate and clever than how I’ve just described it to you, but the nature of them not talking to each other and addressing the audience set up something which is immediately striking, irrespective of the subject matter. There is some form of subtext that is going on between the two characters, which is very exciting. When we did our original set design it was very abstract, very sparse actually. Then we did a reading of it and the designer said to me, ‘I think we’ve got this wrong. I think the audience needs to be placed in the bedroom. The bed is missing.’

She was absolutely right. The bed was like the third element of the relationship within the text. So then we needed to decide how to be artistic about it. We didn’t want the bed to be literal. The piece isn’t naturalistic. We jump from the past to the present and then back again. So we developed the idea of looking down into the couple’s bedroom.

GS: What is that perspective? What does it give to the play?

AS: I really wanted the audience to feel that they couldn’t get away from being privy to and a part of the couple’s life. I don’t know about you, but when I visit a friend’s house the bedroom is always the last place I look. It would be a bit weird to go and look in their bedroom. That’s because it’s private and you’d feel as if you were prying into someone’s very personal space, even if they’re not in the room. I wanted the audience to feel like they were able to be in that space.

GS: How does this position the audience? Are they voyeurs or perhaps fly on the wall?

AS: I think more fly on the wall. I think voyeurism has an element of choice about it. Maybe fly on the wall does too. I just wanted the audience to really feel the pressure cooker of the couple’s relationship and be a part of that. Not able to separate themselves from it. That’s what the play does. You fall into it and by the end you’re feeling all kinds of emotions because of the performances but also because of Jack’s writing. The writing and the set. That’s why I wanted the audience to be together in the bedroom with the couple. I wanted them to be with them in their private moments without feeling they were intruding. At the end I wanted the audience to feel they have been through so much with this couple. It’s actually about healing both for the couple and also for the audience.

GS: The audience are looking down on the bed but they are also being spoken to directly by the characters. It is not possible for the audience to position themselves as just observers. They have to participate. What are your thoughts on this?

AS: That’s the good thing about theatre. You can set up a convention and then just totally break it. So whenever the characters were on the floor, that was like the wall of their bedroom but it became less about the bedroom, it was the post office, the bridge, even though the bed was always present. As a creative team we wanted it to be subtle, so yes the bed was always in the background because there was always that big question of them trying to have sex.

GS: There are many disabled artists and directors who feel there is a need to explore sex and disability, for various reasons including societal attitudes, the infantilisation of disabled people. What is the importance of sex in disabled art? What is the relation of this play to the exploration of sex and disability?

AS: The most interesting thing coming out of Sugar Water is that question has not been asked. It has not been unpacked. What the play does is almost normalise that very question of sex and disability. It is such a huge topic for so many different reasons. Perhaps it is because of the performers, one performer is Deaf and one performer has a physical impairment, but not to the extent where it impacts on their sex lives. What I mean by that is that if, say, one of the characters was a wheelchair user who had 24 hour personal care then that dynamic shifts. I was reading an article today about the Independent Living Fund and this guy saying how it can be difficult to live independently for example to go out and chat up girls because you’ve got someone else there all the time. So you have to negotiate that relationship. This play doesn’t go there. People have picked up on the element of communication between the couple, but the sex element not so. I also think it is because of how Jack as a writer was playing with the idea of sex. There’s a lot of comedy with some really graphic descriptions.

GS: Well yes there is comedy and there are very serious moments, a fine line.

AS: Yes, Jack Thorne gets that fine line absolutely right. In rehearsals we spoke about how graphic we should get or if we should get graphic at all. If we were brave enough to show our naked bodies and those kinds of discussions. It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t about that. It would have become alienating, as opposed to the audiences going: ‘Come on, we’re theatre audiences. We’re pretty smart. We can go whichever way you want us to go. We don’t have to see nudity to get what you’re talking about.’

It felt like we could just tell the story. The most interesting thing is the intricacy of communication between the audience and the performers. The couple think they are talking to each other and they’re not really, and they do the direct address where there is a conceit between each character and the audience. There are many different levels of communication.

A close up of a man's head, profile looking down with streams of water flowing over his head and face.

GS: Can you talk a little about the quality of the reviews the play has received?

AS: Well I think the journey of journalism and the way this show, and other shows at the Edinburgh Fringe by Deaf and disabled artists, have been reviewed has really shifted. It’s really come a long way. The art is now being reviewed as opposed to the performers and their physical shapes and sizes and what have you. It is really refreshing to see the work being reviewed in this way.

Talking about Sugar Water the reviews spoke about the subject matter as happening to two human beings not to two disabled people. In relation to Genevieve, being a Deaf performer, the discourse was quite intelligent as opposed to talking about a Deaf person blah blah blah, it was more sophisticated in both the reviewing and the conversation around it. That hasn’t always been the case.

GS: What comments did reviewers make in relation to Genevieve being a Deaf performer and character?

AS: The discussions were linked to the idea of communication. Naturally if your partner doesn’t sign then you have to rely on lip reading and you may not catch all the communication. Phil can’t sign so he is not able to get what he feels across all the time. The scene when he’s on the bridge and he tries to sign and gets it completely wrong really resonated and got the biggest laugh every time. By that point the audience realises Alice and Phil are not communicating on a number of levels. It was about them as individuals and what they felt for each other, what they wanted and needed from each other. Phil had never had a huge number of relationships before hand. Alice had just come out of a very difficult relationship. So that makes two very vulnerable people in a position where they are wondering if the relationship can work, can they get along. Can they get married and try to have a baby. Is their relationship driven by their love and passion for each other or by their insecurities? Sometimes the best art doesn’t answer the questions it poses. It poses the questions for the audience to consider.

GS: Do you think Alice and Phil’s relationship is resolved in the end?

AS: I don’t want to say. Some people are unsure whether they continue or they don’t and I intended for that to happen. In my head they do, yeah. But I didn’t want to answer that. I spoke to Jack about it. He really wanted a happy ending and I really didn’t want a happy ending. I said, “Ok if we’re going to have a happy ending we have to hint and suggest the possibility.”

GS: I do think the play ends with them understanding and respecting each other.

AS: It’s only at the end that they actually say, ‘I love you’ to each other. Having been through the trauma of losing a baby. Jack’s a smart dude!

GS: There seems to be some relationship and similarities between The Solid Life of Sugar Water and Lungs, which also played at 2015 Edinburgh Fringe. Can you explain this?

AS: We had read the script about three or four years ago. When we got the script we were really interested. Duncan Macmillan is a great writer. We were thinking of doing a double bill but then Paines Plough went ahead with the commission so we didn’t.

GS: I found the story quite similar.

AS: Yes that’s why we had the idea that the two plays could work together.

GS: Where are you taking the play next?

AS: We’re putting a tour together. We’re going to be at the National Theatre for three weeks, which is superb. It’s the first time Graeae has been there and we’re incredibly proud. We hope the momentum builds from there.

It’s one of those plays. I remember reading it for the first time, here as a company, and the kind of silence at the end of the reading, everyone taking deep breaths. We knew it was a huge impact type of play. Audience reactions to the play have been emotional and deep. One woman stopped watching half way through. She sat there with her head down and just wouldn’t watch. There was obviously something that really connected with her. She started watching again a bit later. She was with a group of her friends and I saw her at the end. She was just in complete floods of tears. I don’t really feel bad about too many things but I did then.

GS: Why did you feel bad?

AS: I felt for her because I didn’t know her story and didn’t know what it was that she was relating to. I went over and asked her and her friends if they were alright and did as much as I could, offered her a gin and tonic. Theatre is such a powerful thing. I think people sometimes forget the impact theatre can have.

GS: Why do you think theatre powerful as opposed to other mediums of storytelling?

AS: It’s so immediate. You’re there. You can connect, relate to the work. You are immersed in the play for the length of the piece. People love stories.

GS: You can watch a series on TV and experience stories. What is it specifically about theatre?

AS: The craft of theatre is important, the putting together of the story although you can also do that with film and TV. There is something unique about theatre in showing that passage of time. I think the immediacy of you as a member of the audience and your relationship with the performers is so unique to you in an environment where there are other people as well. That is very special. You can watch television or a film in a cinema however the screen allows you to be one step removed from it. You can’t really do that with theatre. It is more interactive. It’s more immediate.

The question in theatre is – Why now? What’s important about telling the story now? With TV and film you can go back to it again and those performances won’t change but with theatre they will. You can go one night and the next night there will be subtle differences, something may have shifted – become more superficial, something may have become deeper. There’s an unknown quality. There’s that thing also where if something ‘goes wrong’ the performers just have to pick up the baton and carry on and audiences love those moments when it doesn’t all go to plan. Film and TV are created where it all goes to plan so with theatre there’s a different type of freedom and an improvisational quality.

It’s about creating the story. The performers grab the audience very quickly, in a vital and stark way, asking them to empathise with them.

GS: Did the actors contribute to Jack Thorne’s script during rehearsal. Were changes made for any reason?

AS: Well the actors didn’t really suggest changes but we did shift the script around them. We didn’t have any idea who we wanted to work with so in the beginning in Jack’s script the character, Alice, wasn’t Deaf. When we cast Genevieve as the actor for that part, Jenny Sealey, the Artistic Director of Graeae, and I had a conversation and we gave notes to Jack saying there are elements relating to Genevieve that should have some representation in the script. But in contrast, the Post Office scene about Phil not being very strong wasn’t adapted for him because of Arthur’s arm or anything. That was the original script.

GS: I didn’t take that scene as being about his arm.

AS: Well some people do you see. They think that was where his impairment was being referenced because he had this big box that he couldn’t quite carry. That was always there. But Phil signing on the bridge wasn’t there before we cast the actors. Jack did a couple of rewrites based on Jenny’s and my notes.

The stuff that happens behind the scenes may change according to the actor you cast. At the beginning we had created a soundscape and every now and then there’d be a heartbeat noise as a cue for the actors to shift position. There was also a sound cue for the actors to know the audience was seated and we’d got clearance from front of house. It was a dog bark. Genevieve has hearing aids so she could feel the vibrations of the heartbeats, the shift and the change, because there was a speaker close to her. What became slightly tricky was her trying to listen to the dog barking because of the frequency and because there were so many people in the room all making noise. So we discussed a better way of cueing and her feeling comfortable within the cueing system.

Also because there is so much direct address, I said, ‘You have permission to look at Arthur whenever you want. We’re not asking you to play hearing.’ But Genevieve got around that by learning Arthur’s script as well and picked up on his rhythms, picked up on how he delivered the text. That was her process. She wanted the same access and freedom as him and decided on her own cues. That didn’t mean Arthur had to do it exactly the same way each time. So there was that kind of negotiation going on during rehearsal.

GS: How do you cast at Graeae? How did you cast the actors for this play?

AS: For this play I got a casting director in. We work with some amazing performers and some amazing actors. I just felt this time round it would be really healthy for the Company to audition new people and add to our expanding pool of performers.

GS: Do you specifically cast disabled actors?

AS: For this play I decided the casting breakdown. Irrespective of impairment this is what I’m looking for. Just by the nature of the play we needed people who would be good at delivering text. I don’t mean in the classical sense, I mean it’s such a wordy play. There is a demand that Jack’s writing presents itself. That doesn’t mean being quick or slow or whatever. That’s what Graeae does – we say this is the play and this is what we are looking for. Let’s see who we can get through the door.

GS: I believe Graeae practises some form of affirmative action in casting performers and actors who identify as Deaf and disabled. How does this work?

AS: Yeah in our plays we’ve got at least fifty percent actors who identify as Deaf or disabled. For the two-hander I thought we had to have two performers who identify. We couldn’t have one. It just didn’t feel right. It was such a small company. But when we did the Threepenny Opera there were something like twenty performers so ten were disabled and ten were non-disabled. As it transpired, we got to the end of rehearsals and three of the people who previously didn’t identify said, Oh yeah, I’m deaf in this ear or I’ve got this impairment. So the Deaf and disabled were staring to outnumber the non-disabled. It was interesting. One of the reasons is that if people declare their impairment jobs shut down.

GS: But not here at Graeae?

AS: Yeah exactly, absolutely not at Graeae. For Sugar Water we were conscious we wanted new blood and we found it. The other thing is that we will use some of the people who auditioned but didn’t get involved in Sugar Water for other projects. So we did pull in a new pool of actors. We are good at that.

GS: What’s the next project?

AS: At the moment we’ve got the Write to Play initiative, nurturing new writing talent. We’re also developing a new adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame for production in 2017. There is also a verbatim play around the Incapacity Benefit, the Employment and Support Allowance, that’s under commission.

GS: Whose voices are represented? Those who apply for or receive the benefit, or those in the bureaucracy who assess people, hand out the benefit.

AS: A bit of both but mostly people on the receiving end of decisions. We’ve got a doctor. We’ve got a legal aid person, a variety. We’re doing a taster session at the moment in aerial training building up to a project with war veterans in 2018 – an outdoor piece I think. It’s linked into the recent 1914-1918 reflections on the First World War. There’s a big artistic element to it all. We are very fortunate to be working in this profession on great projects with wonderful people. It’s a really odd time because for a lot of Deaf and disabled people at the moment they don’t know whether they’re coming or going.

GS: Are you referring to government austerity measures?

AS: Yeah but the profile of Graeae is really accelerating. The Company is being recognised for the work that we’re doing. We’ve got Ensemble starting next week. It’s an eight-month, work-based, professional-development programme for six young artists. They’re nineteen to twenty-five year olds and we’re training them as theatre makers. Jodi Alissa Bickerton is our Creative Learning Director. She’s running that programme. It’s in response to barriers faced by many Deaf and disabled artists, as well as a lack of diversity within the current theatre climate.

GS: How do you choose the participants?

AS: We get the information out there. There’s an application process. We audition, then we interview them and go from there.It’s difficult at the moment because the austerity drive is seriously impacting disabled people on a number of levels, work, living, health.

GS: Do you think disabled artists have a responsibility to reflect this in their art?

AS: I think disabled artists have a responsibility to their art. It’s a tricky one. I think it’s about choice. Some artists are deciding to reflect in their work what’s happening socially, economically in our society. Other artists feel that the art itself, no matter what it’s about, will create the shift, create the change. It’s a difficult choice but I don’t begrudge anyone for whatever the choice is that they make. I really resist the idea of hierarchical disability. Disability includes such a wide range of circumstances. It can mean so many different things to people. The wider the experience and the subject matter of our art, the better it is for changing perspectives. Graeae does a lot of advocacy work but it can be really relentless. The cuts are creating a lot of insecurity.

GS: How important do you feel disability-led writing and directing is to changing public perceptions around disability?

AS: I think everything needs to be driven by the story that the writer or the director is trying to convey. Sometimes that feeling of importance can be restricting and uncreative. Audiences are smart, open and intelligent. If you take them on a journey then they’ll go with it. If everything about a play or a show becomes agenda driven then it can fail in changing those perceptions. The story is the thing.

Further Information:

Interview with Genevieve Barr & Arthur Hughes

Information on Graeae and the tour of The Solid Life of Sugar Water  or

The interview was conducted by Gaele Sobott on 28th September 2015 at Graeae Theatre Company in London

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People Love Stories – an Interview with Amit Sharma by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.