Interview with Verity Healey of Ministry of Counterculture
– What drew you to making a piece about Syria’s civil war and its people, for Taking Part?
– Simple answer is that I was asked to. I was nervous about saying yes as I don’t speak Arabic and I have never been to Syria.I spoke to a wonderful Egyptian friend who has spent a long time in Syria and talked through my ideas. I wanted to think about how we receive global conflicts from within the UK. How can we stay human in response to political and social trauma that we usually witness only through the press?
– How did you find filmmaker Reem Karssli and what is it about her experience and the problems she and her family face in Damascus that informs the work and makes it seem so close and heartfelt?
– My collaborator May Abdalla showed me Reem’s film within our research period. I was completely blown away by the tone and pace of Reem’s film. Every Day Every Day is so quiet and yet full of acute restlessness and claustrophobia. It was about a family and about the conflict specifically through the eyes of a young woman. It was the most personal and heart breaking account I’d seen. There was no gore and no guts, just a family trying to normalise to a very not normal situation. This I think allows for the viewer to immediately relate; this could be your family, this could be your life.
– Your director’s note states you wanted to analyse “the semantics of the news and our relationships to screens”?
– I read Alain De Botton’s book The News, as well as returning to John Berger and Susan Sontag. The history of the photograph and moving image is something that’s always fascinated me. It is an inherent part of modern culture and what does it do to that culture? What does it mean to be able to capture an instance of drama or pain? Does it distance us when we watch those images outside of their context?
I’ve always remembered Dennis Potter talking about TV as the first form of democratic art. It was beamed into people’s homes and there is something wonderfully intimate and powerful about that. Before there were a million channels, the television could be a tool for true social engagement. If everyone in an entire country watched the same programme and discussed it the next day, how wonderful would that be? Perhaps that’s why I love Goggle Box so much!
The screen is a tool for poetic exploration. Filmmakers like Adam Curtis show how it can be utilised to great effect. I think, a tool is the right word, like words, images (screens) can be manipulated and used: whether that is for good or bad depends on who is doing the manipulating.
– At the post show discussion Charlotte Onslow (Gender and Peacekeeping at International Alert) underlined the significance of “institutions” and their ability to “amplify what we understand as important.” Can you talk about that in terms of Now Is The Time To Say Nothing and the significance of art/protest theatre and institutions in general? Should we, could we, be doing more protest/actions/campaigning?
– I thought that was a very honest thing for her to say and it made me think about the Young Vic and its power within this project. Would those young people have stood in Hyde Park protesting about Syria without knowing an institution they respect had organised it and more importantly, approved of it? When the power of ideas is strong enough, we don’t need institutions to force us into action- we become our own force. But perhaps, especially with young people, institutions can be useful: they can choose the flames they want to fan and often the fires burn brighter because of their networks of supporters.
– The talented young Londoners you worked with were given a slightly different from normal audition process. Can you explain how and why it was important to the piece? What did they bring?
– I knew that anyone who simply wanted to act would get bored. I didn’t even know when we began if there would be any acting in the piece. I needed a company who would devise together and who would be passionate about making the best piece of work we could make. I looked for intelligence, integrity and heart. I was constantly amazed by the young people. They were incredible thinkers, writers and artists. Even the most shy would prove pivotal at a moment where we needed to be provoked in a certain direction. I treated them like a company. Their ideas were as valid as mine. It took me a long time to tell them they didn’t have to put their hands up to speak. I wanted them to interrupt me! I wanted them to challenge me and ask questions.
– How do you think the experience has changed them and how they now think about and interact with the world?
– It’s very difficult to say. I know they have been changed in their own individual ways. I think just being shown you CAN make something, you CAN reach out to people, you CAN stand in a park and shout about what you believe in, is a valid experience to go through. My first political action was when I was 20 years old. Theirs’ has been at the age of 15. I hope I’ve empowered them not to toe the line. I am excited they got to see my collaborators Reem Karssli, May Abdalla (film artist) and Keir Vine (sound artist) at work. They’ve been around amazing artists who are at the top of their game. It’s a hard time to be an artist but maybe this experience will give them a little more grip on how to stick at it, if that’s what they want to do.
– How has this experience and the processes of working with Reem, informed your own work and changed how you may work in the future?
– I’ve been struggling the last few years with how to make theatre, when I don’t necessarily want to work with actors. I was an actor myself and I fell out of love with the idea of pretending to be other people. There is so much going on in the world that needs telling right now- real stories. And yet I believe in the power of stories and in the power of the imagination. How can these two things meet? Reem is a deeply poetic filmmaker who uses real life but also weaves her own imaginative perception of the world into the fabric of reality. She shared my artistic sensibility and gave me freedom to make something full of poetry and also real life. Reem has taught me that my ideas are communicable and that I need to continue following my gut to make work that speaks to me, rather than what the theatre world expects.
– What is the overall message, if there is one, you hope an audience will take away with them after watching Now Is The Time To Say Nothing?
– Try to remain human when consuming news of events far away. Remember it could be you. Try to use technology in a way that might make a positive impact. If we all skyped someone in Syria, rather than posting photos of ourselves, do you think the world might be a little bit of a better place? I think it was Berger who was asked what the one thing is that he thinks might help the world, and he said after all his reading, it was simply to be a little nicer to one another. I hope this piece reinforces that idea.
– Obviously, there was a relationship that was struck up between you and the young people with Reem. How can/will that continue and how much may this experience also have helped her and perhaps her family? Can it set some sort of precedent do you think?
– I hope it might. We are trying to organise for her to come to Edinburgh. We are also pushing to help her get her visa. It is very difficult to know how to help her family, other than by continuing to be a good friend. The problems in Syria can feel overwhelming. I aim to be a good friend and do anything in my power to hep her remain sane and safe.
– Lastly, for some people, especially in such war torn areas or going through other related crises brought on by civil distress, art may be the last thing on their minds. But, taking into account your experience here, how important is it as a healing and informative tool?
– This is a difficult question. In true times of trauma I don’t know if the direct activity of ‘watching’ art is useful. There were times when Reem felt unable to be involved because the experience felt too alienated from what she was experiencing in her own life. We were meant to end the show with a live Skype call to Reem, but she pulled out of it exactly because at that moment art didn’t feel important or real compared to the crises her life was in. Reem herself talks about it in the show (the moment projected on the wall) ‘if I can’t connect with myself how can I connect with other people?’ I would go on to say if one can’t connect with oneself, how can one connect with art? You can’t. But that can pass when things begin to get a little better and actually when things are a little better, art is important. It reminds us of what we love, what challenges us and what, essentially, we live for. It can help to heal, if the path to healing is ready to be trod and like any kind of healing, it can surprise us.