SONS & Mothers – a documentary discussion we all need to have

Recently I told colleagues how pleased I was that the first feature film Christopher Houghton made after our documentary SONS & mothers included an actor with down syndrome. She wasn’t playing a disabled person, far from it; she was just an ordinary waitress. I shouldn’t say ordinary, she did share her scene with Matt Day.

A colleague turned around and said, ‘yeah, but some will say that’s tokenism.’ And so launched a tirade about it only being ‘tokenism’ because we as an industry refuse to embrace diversity. It as though writers, producers and directors strive to create a world they feel comfortable in or one that reflects themselves.

Disability on the big screen is explored so little in Australian film and when we do, we do so in a niche, specialised or condescending way.

When we set out to make SONS & mothers we started by watching other documentaries about disability, which would invariably focus on the carer, the family who struggled, or the disability itself. What was lost to all of these films was the person at the centre of it all. We started to refer to them as wheelchair docs because they forgot about the person in the seat.

So began our focus for our film. In SONS & mothers, the documentary, we’re just flies on the wall as we watch the world of No Strings Attached Men’s Ensemble unfold. There is no voice over, no talking heads just the men and their mothers as they explore their relationships for the sake of a theatre show.

If you look closely you’ll even notice we don’t mention what disabilities anyone has unless they say so themselves. For us that’s how it should be. So often the labels we force people to wear condition us to pre-judge everyone. By going out of our way to talk about the disabilities of the Men’s Ensemble we are forgetting what they are – artists.

The fact they have a disability brings richness to their work, just like all artists who bring life experience and circumstance to their art.

Sure at its core, the motivation for SONS & mothers is purely political; let people who normally don’t have a voice, speak for themselves. The secondary concern was that form had to follow content. 85% of SONS & mothers is shot in close up to offer an intimate experience of the process. The cameras are stable and the light is sublime. We don’t draw attention to disability, nor do we spoon-feed the audience the story. We believe the cast and the audience deserve more respect.

From the very first moment Alirio Zavarce introduced the idea of a theatre show by the same name, to the day they made it to the stage at the 2012 Fringe Festival, we were there. It was a journey that started with seven men but ended with only six making it to the stage. Mental illness is a strong theme in the film and for some it won’t make for easy viewing. But what it does is start a conversation we all need to have.

We have our World Premiere this coming Sunday at the Adelaide Film Festival. It will be a momentous occasion for us as after three years in the making, we finally get to share it with our family, friends and colleagues in the gorgeous Regal Theatre (ex-Chelsea).

This screening also has AUSLAN interpreters and live audio description, with wheelchair access. This full access screening means those who may not always have the chance to share such events with family and friends can too.

Straight after the screening we will, as we have done with the documentary, hand the discussion over to disabled artists to talk about their work. This panel will be led by Kelly Vincent MLC, who some of us know is also a writer.

Joining her is A2A’s own Gaelle Mellis, from the UK Julie McNamara and Kym Mackenzie, Duncan Luke and Ryan Rowland from NSA’s Men’s Ensemble.

We sincerely hope you can join us to watch what lengths the Men’s Ensemble will go to for their craft. Also for a hearty and well-deserved discussion about why disabled arts are still niche, when let’s face it; it is where some of the most groundbreaking work is created.

Excuse the cliché but – see you at the movies!

The screening on Sunday 20 October 2013 will be Auslan interpreted and Audio Described. Book now and don’t miss out on seeing the first fully accessible film ever to be screened at the Adelaide Film Festival.

SONS and Mothers and POP Pictures

Duncan

One day after our Men’s Ensemble workshop at No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability, Alirio Zavarce, our tutor, and Louise Pascale from POP pictures had a meeting with us and said ‘How would you like to make a film?’

We had already started working on a piece about our mothers with Alirio, because his mum had died in Venezuela. So Chris Houghton and the film crew started coming along and filming us.

Alirio asked us to write things about our mothers and then these became our lines in the play, Sons and Mothers, which we did last year and are doing again in October 2013. Alirio wrote some of our words into a script.

Then they asked our mothers to come along and be filmed.

Rosemary

All the mothers who are still alive went along to the rehearsal place to be filmed. We were pretty nervous, because we aren’t used to performing like our sons. Without any preparation, and with the cameras rolling, Alirio asked us unusual questions like ‘When did you first meet your son?’ We all gave different answers and they now appear in the play and the film. In the play the mothers on film appear at the back of the set. With the film, it’s really strange watching and hearing yourself on a giant screen.

Duncan

Chris and Aaron came to my house and filmed me playing the Wii and having a cigarette outside, which you will see in the film. At the preview everyone laughed because I was hard to see in all the smoke. They also filmed my pet galah, Jasper, but he finished up on the cutting room floor, as they say. Chris came on the bus with me too; he had to get permission from the bus company. I don’t think the other passengers even noticed he was filming.

Duncan and Rosemary

The filming was interesting because it meant we could both say things that we like about each other and things about the other one that annoy us. In the play people always laugh when Duncan lists the things about Rosemary that annoy him. We have seen the film once and we both think it’s a great film, and everyone should go and see it on Sunday 20 October at 12 noon at the Regal Cinema, Kensington, then after that for three weeks at The Trak at Burnside.

Duncan Luke has been a member of No Strings Attached for almost 20 years. Since 2004, Duncan has been a core member of the Men’s Ensemble, performing annually in workshop productions. In 2007, with Julian Crotti, he co-created the roles of the original Toms and performed in Tom the loneliest in in the critically acclaimed seasons in Adelaide and Melbourne (2008 and 2009). In 2010 Duncan was nominated for a Melbourne Green Room Award for his work in Tom the Loneliest. He performed in the award-winning production of Sons and Mothers at the 2012 Adelaide Fringe, and is once again in the 2013 repeat season at the Adelaide Festival Centre.

Duncan is also one of the men featured in POP Production’s documentary film, SONS & mothers. In 2005, Duncan was an extra in Alex Frayne’s feature film Modern Love.

Rosemary Luke has spent most of her working in life in schools and universities, but she did run away to the theatre for a few years, working at, and later siting on the board of, Unley Youth Theatre, during the time at which it became Urban Myth. She is lost in admiration for Duncan’s capacities as a performer, but still wishes he would smoke fewer cigarettes.

Accessible Dreams

I’m an audio describer, which means I often have to explain to people just what it is that I do.

A really common question is “so, how long have you known sign language?”, in response to which, I’m compelled to explain that audio description is almost the opposite of signing. Audio description, or AD, is the activity of describing the visual elements of an artwork to people who are blind or vision impaired. It’s often used in theatre but AD is also available for visual art, dance and even public events.

Description is most commonly delivered via headphones, with useful words and phrases inserted between the dialogue of a performance to described the visual elements of the production.

I first came across audio description when I accidentally turned it on while watching a DVD of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. The main character, Esther, was walking through a garden as a kind of disembodied voice was saying things like “Esther walks down the hill”, “she looks over her shoulder” and so on.

It wasn’t until I heard about an AD training course in 2011 that I started to think about how description would really work and who would use it. Now, it’s one of the things that I think about the most.

AD is a fascinating process not least because it forces the describer to really question their own choice of words, tone and nuance. I seem to be constantly asking myself “is that the right word?”, “what does it really mean?” and “is there a better way to say it?”. As a visual artist, I’m used to writing and speaking about images, but always with a view to interpreting the content. In AD, I have to put interpretation aside and to only communicate objective information. This drilling down (or stripping away) and finding the most articulate and descriptive way to summarise what you can see is amazing because it forces you to actually see what is in-front of you.

In many ways, AD is still a growing craft in Australia which is why I’m so excited to make it into the Realise Your Dream finals. The UK is a hub of AD expertise and I’m crossing my fingers for the chance to learn from the very best.

Lara Torr is a visual artist, theatre worker and audio describer from Adelaide. Lara trained as an audio describer in 2011 and she has been combining her love of images and language with her passion for access ever since. Lara is in the finals of the British Council’s Realise Your Dream program for her work making the arts accessible to people who are blind or vision impaired.

You can support Lara and audio description by voting in the people’s choice category on facebook. Voting is open until 22 October, 2013.