Critical Animals – Talking Prison At The Lock Up

What do you think of when you read the word PRISON? A choir? Artist studios? A writer’s group? Cultural festivals? A band? Isn’t prison meant to be a punishment? People on the outside often don’t get access to these things. What’s even the point in giving this stuff to inmates? Do criminals have the ability to change? And do I want my taxes spent on them singing Les Miserables?

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These are just some of the points that came up during our workshop at the Critical Animals research symposium as a part of The Is Not Art in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago. Continuing on from our work at Junee Correctional Centre we focused the workshop on the issue of creative and cultural programming in prisons. It’s a divisive topic so we built the session on binaries, getting our willing participants to brainstorm the FOR’S and AGAINST’S. Simple, yes but as we delved further into the murky mess of corrections and the penal system it became clear that binaries suck and spontaneous discussion and debate emerged (like we hadn’t even planned it!)

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The theme of the symposium, Possible Futures, fit perfectly with this  what we aimed to do here.  Following on from our multi-platform project Beauty And The Grey Beast: Surprising Tales From Prison we wanted to take this opportunity to get the audience to imagine life on the inside as well as a reality where recidivism was actually reducing rather than climbing. The idea was to get the audience to record their reactions and for us to take their scribblings in order to develop an online, interactive experience to accompany the release of the documentary arm of the project. The interactive part would act as a tool of provocation around the public’s views on inmates and serve as a repository of opinion that could maybe paint a picture of how we see those that have ended up in jail. Ideally it would ALSO serve as a means to connect the outside world to what’s going on inside jails and help humanise a diverse group of people labelled ‘inmates’.

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So how did it go you ask? Pretty damn well we’d say. First of all we were we in the most perfect venue, The Lock Up, a historic jail now repurposed as a contemporary art space. Second of all we had a kick ass crowd turn up who kept us on our toes. And number three has to go to the Critical Animals team who got us up and running and even took photos for us whilst we did our thing.

Photos courtesy of the lovely Patric Kelly!


 

Islam and Homosexuality

Islam and homosexuality may strike many Muslims and even non-Muslims as an oxymoron, an impossible identity. How can one reconcile the Islamic faith with an orientation that continues to be viewed by the majority of Muslims today as a “disease” from the West, a form of cultural imperialism and the epitome of decadence and immorality? “A Jihad for Love,” a 2007 documentary by Parvez Sharma and the fifth film in the Queer Arab Film Festival, tackles this highly controversial, taboo, and thorny topic.

This film portrays the personal, social, and spiritual challenges that Muslim gays and lesbians face when trying to reconcile their faith with their sexuality.  It also tells the story of the first openly gay Imam in the world, Muhsin Hendricks from South Africa, who struggled for many years to accept his homosexuality and see it as compatible with his religious and spiritual calling. His moving story shows us that the biggest struggle of all is the struggle within the self to be the best person possible, true to one’s religion and to one’s sexuality. Through this documentary, one learns that it is indeed quite possible to be both gay and still remain a devout Muslim.

– Professor Sahar Amer
Chair, Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Sydney

This is the second video in a series promoting the Queer Arab Film Festival at the University of Sydney, curated by Professor Sahar Amer and supported by The Project A Continuing Spring: Arab and Australian views on social justice, equal economic development and cultures of freedom. The Project A Continuing Spring is sponsored by the Council for Australian Arab Relations.

Watch an interview with Parvez Sharma here.

Human Rights and Culture, guest post from Dr. Demelza Marlin

Dr. Demelza Marlin is a lecturer in sociology at UNSW. She recently invited me (Jordan) to give a short guest lecture to her second year sociology students, so we invited her to tell us about what they’re exploring in class:

How does witnessing connect us to the suffering of others?

I teach an undergraduate course on Human Rights and Culture. One of the key themes of the course is witnessing: how we bear witness to injustice, and what responsibilities this entails. Academics writing in this field describe our public spaces as theatres for the production and consumption of testimonies of suffering. Our nightly news, current affairs, political commentary, our documentaries and even our artistic culture are full of the testimonies of survivors and witnessing to atrocities, often taking place in places (conceptually and experientially, if not) geographically distant from us. [Examples]

For many of us bearing witness may be the only form of political engagement we take. But exposure to stories of suffering doesn’t necessarily translate into comprehension, compassion or even sustained engagement. Last week I asked my students to think about the forms of listening, watching and engaging that allow us to recognise the validity of someone’s claim to be heard. To help us understand this question, I asked Jordan Bryon to come in and speak to us about the ethical issues involved in the type of witnessing her work does: producing documentary films about socially marginalised and vulnerable people.

First some background. The theorists we were studying this week argued that recognising your connection with, and responsibility for, others, requires both distance and proximity: both a sense of your shared humanity, however basic that sense may be, and also, an acknowledgment that the other person is genuinely different from you. They have had experiences you cannot cognitively or even imaginatively understand. Professional witnesses (documentary filmmakers, campaigners, advocates) are often tempted to translate extreme circumstances of suffering it into more familiar terms; to make the experiences of victims comprehensible to us. This seems to be the logic behind fundraising campaigns like the 40 hour famine, or the Winter Sleep Out.

They do this because they believe that empathy requires understanding, familiarity, a sense of ‘yes, I know what you are going through’. While this can provide the basis for a connection, it will not be a connection to what really sets the other apart: the circumstances that make their suffering so different from your own experiences. In other words, we don’t see the person for who they are, or the situation for what it is, but, instead, understand their story in terms of familiar coordinates and preconceived ideas that are cognitively easier to manage (and control).

My students were interested, but not entirely convinced, by this conception of empathy and response. However, something that Jordan said about the way she chooses her projects brought the point home. Jordan had shown us parts of a film about inmates at the Junee Correction Centre, and another, about people living with schizophrenia. The students were amazed at how candid the participants in Jordan’s films were about their lives, experiences, dreams and fears. I guess they were surprised to see the humanity – vulnerable, sometimes broken, sometimes courageous – of people they had only experienced through well-worn stereotypes.

One of my students asked Jordan how she made her participants comfortable enough to open up to her, and how she decided what kinds of projects to explore. They wanted to know if her relationship to the people she filmed was based on empathy. Jordan’s response stuck with me. She said that while she did form intense and empathetic relationships with her participants, this relationship wasn’t based on knowledge or understanding. As a filmmaker she is often talking to people whose circumstances are beyond her understanding. But this lack of shared experience doesn’t prevent her from connecting, rather, it draws her into the relationship, makes her want to ask questions. And because she doesn’t presume to already know the answers to her questions, she is able to really listen to what her participants have to say, to let them reveal themselves to her.

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Jordan’s approach reminded me of the dictionary definition of witnessing. A witness is someone whose       existence testifies to something. Simply being present to someone’s story, listening without judgment,         without getting distracted by your desire to ‘fix’ the problem, can be one of the most profound ways we         bear witness to others because it gives people the space to be themselves.

We were able to see this in practice when Jordan showed us Reality Check. What surprised the students      was that the film didn’t present schizophrenia as a merely disease, but also as a unique way of facing and    experiencing the world; a way of being that can be positive as well as agonising. And because the film    presented us with first-hand accounts from people living with schizophrenia, without first giving us any  background information – stats, context, the usual sorts of information we use to map out and pin down unfamiliar territory – we were forced to simply listen, without judgment and evaluation. It is a very powerful way to allow an audience to access the humanity of another; revealing both the things that we share and the experiences we have no way of fully understanding.

Some excerpts from the lecture.

Dr. Demelza Marlin
https://vimeo.com/105562153

Jordan Bryon
https://vimeo.com/105559958

 

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