Trusting Iran

I'm being asked to name my favourite of the 34 feature films I've just seen at the Sydney Film Festival. Normally it's hard to choose, but there is one that comes to mind.

It stands out not only because it is very different to any of the other films, but for the urgency of its simple message at this time and its invitation to me to act on a particular desire.

Rosie

The film is a beautiful Canadian feature length animation titled Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming. Its theme is the power of imagination to overcome the distrust and political intransigence that is bringing us closer to major military conflict.

The story is about a naïve mixed-race aspiring poet named Rosie. She travels from her home city of Vancouver to Shiraz, the Iranian cultural mecca where she has been invited to read her poem at a poetry festival.

She feels very awkward because of the cultural differences, but is overwhelmed by the graciousness of her Iranian hosts, for whom nothing is a problem. This contrasts with the attitude she receives from a fellow western guest named Dietmar, for whom everything is a problem.

Rosie becomes reacquainted with her Iranian father, who disappeared from her life when she was a young child. Her judgment of him dissolves and they embrace each other when she learns of the circumstances of his return to Iran. Ignorance and prejudice is defeated.

Rosie under the blossom tree

Perhaps part of its appeal to me is that for some time I've wanted to travel to Iran for an experience of breaking down barriers like Rosie's.

But the US Government won't have anything of it. About two years ago it introduced a new regulation denying those who've travelled to Iran since 2011 easy entry to the US under its visa waiver program.

Do I care about this? Not really. The US has its reasons for wanting to have the rest of the 'free' world join it in not trusting Iran. But I won't be bullied. I'd rather feel free to reach out to Iranians, learn from them, and enjoy their hospitality, just as Rosie did.


Link: Window Horses

Vanessa Redgrave and the Sydney Film Festival refugee advocates

I've spent the past eleven days at the Sydney Film Festival, at the famous State Theatre in the centre of the city. From 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning until mid afternoon or early evening.

I viewed the usual 34 feature films, in what has become an annual winter ritual. I haven't skipped or had to miss a film since I was teaching in 2008.

Vanessa Redgrave at State Theatre

I've sat in seat D36 on the Mezannine level alongside my friend Shirley, who has been my Daytime Subscriber companion in that space for the past 14 years. Sadly, we learned this year that another companion - Anne - was not in the seat D34 this year because she died in March.

Unlike most Festival filmgoers these days - the casuals - we do not pick the films we see. They are chosen for us by the curators. Many of the films I most appreciate are ones I would not have chosen from the hundreds screening at the various Festival venues each year.

I used to take annual leave from my job at this time of the year. Now I'm a retiree like most of the other daytime subscribers, except many are much older than me.

However it seems we share the same humanitarian values and enjoy similar art house and documentary films. Including the mix of drama and factual films, and indeed the combination of drama and fact in particular films, which tend to reflect the most pressing issues confronting humanity.

Vanessa Redgrave director of Sea Sorrow

This year it was refugees, and one of the festival guests was refugee advocate and veteran British actor Vanessa Redgrave. At 80, she has just made her directorial debut with her film Sea Sorrow, which combines a survey of the history of international refugee conventions with stories and recollections of past and present refugees.

It was not a surprise that she received a standing ovation as she stood on stage to introduce her film. It is clear that many in the adoring audience were also refugee advocates. In fact my companion Shirley is secretary of a local suburban refugee support group.

But I kept thinking about another octogenarian humanitarian, the veteran senior public servant and now blogger John Menadue, with whom I worked for a couple of years until a few months ago.

John is constantly frustrated by the single minded idealism of refugee advocates, whom he believes stand in the way of solutions, which must always be political. Politics is the art of the possible and must always involve compromise.

Sea Sorrow still

But I think John would agree that we owe a debt of gratitude to refugee advocates, to the extent that their activism helps to stem the tides of mass indifference to the plight of these people and right-wing political fear mongering.

Vanessa Redgrave talked about the 'field of energy' the advocates seek to generate around the world.

Noticeably short of breath after climbing on to the stage, she told her Daytime Subscriber friends that her message to refugees is: 'We will save you till our last breath'.

After viewing Sea Sorrow, I was sure that however many more breaths she has until her last, she has accomplished what she set out to do for refugees, with this film.


Links: Redgrave Menadue

How the Catholic Church came to embrace its enemy Anthony Foster

This morning a State Funeral will be held for Catholic Church child sexual abuse victims advocate Anthony Foster, who died suddenly on 26 May.

In her tribute to 'the man who was integrity personified', fellow campaigner and Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy says there wouldn't be a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse without Anthony and and his wife Chrissie.

Anthony and Chrissie Foster

'Anthony Foster's integrity left him devastated by the Catholic Church, but it also made him one of its most devastating and formidable foes.'

In earlier days I was not a fan of the Fosters. I did not like the way they treated the Church as the enemy. I was aware of the Church's often unsung role in standing up for victims of abuse in many other areas such as sexual slavery.

I knew that the Church was fundamentally on the side of victims of all sorts of injustice. So I did not understand why the Fosters couldn't work with the Church rather than against it in achieving justice for the victims of the rogue priests.

I was naive and wrong. Eventually I came to accept that sexual abuse was a sin of the Church itself more than the 'rogue priests', whom I believed were themselves victims.

I became convinced that the Church's culture stunted the priests' growth as sexual beings and that child sexual abuse was the result. The Church as an institution had to own responsibility for sexual abuse, and change its culture.

The Fosters were right. The Church could not be trusted to achieve justice for abuse victims using its own processes. The perpetrator of the evil of the abuse was the Church itself, rather than a few - or even more than a few - bad apples. Don't put Dracula in charge of the blood bank.

So I came to believe that the Church was indeed the enemy of the people, as it had been portrayed by the Fosters and the media. If it was really the champion of the poor and marginalised - as I'd previously believed - why was it using its considerable financial resources to engage the best lawyers to fight the hapless victims in court?

If the Church itself was taking an adversarial approach towards victims, why shouldn't victims' advocates like the Fosters take an adversarial approach towards the Church? I was fully on board with the Fosters.

Fortunately the Fosters and other victims' advocates had fellow travellers within the Church. Some were courageous and competent individuals in positions of influence such as Francis Sullivan of the Church's Truth, Justice and Healing Council. He was not afraid to slap down the Bishops - his employer - until they joined him in insisting that the Church's culture must change.

That is now happening, with some of the strongest and most moving statements and actions coming from bishops themselves. I think Parramatta Bishop Vincent Long's tribute to Anthony Foster must be the most notable. He reveals that he was quietly working with the Fosters to achieve justice for victims while some of his fellow bishops were fighting them in court.

Now others are joining him. These include Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, who personally castigated the Fosters during World Youth Day 2008 for 'dwelling crankily on old wounds'. These words of Bishop Long speak for themselves. The Church's own theological term metanoia (conversion of heart) comes to mind.

'At the end of the Royal Commission hearing of the five Metropolitans, the Fosters met with Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP. After he had left the meeting, Anthony [Foster] became very concerned how deeply affected Archbishop Fisher was. He contacted me and asked if I could check and make sure that the Archbishop was OK.'


Links: funeral McCarthy Long wounds

 

A place where I'm at home spiritually

Yesterday I received an email from a New Zealand friend who mentioned that he was in his 'spiritual home of Spain'. He didn't need to elaborate because I knew exactly what he meant.

Less than two weeks ago, I experienced something of this when I arrived in Bilbao on a late night flight from England. Spain is not my one and only spiritual home, as my friend had implied was the case for him. But I had the strong sense that my spirit had come to a congenial place from one that was less congenial.

Bilbao-Abando Railway Station

I breezed through immigration just in time to make it to the bus stop at midnight to catch the last bus into Plaza Moyúa for the 20 minute walk along Gran Vía to my small pension on the other side of the Nervión River.

Locals were still out enjoying the evening and they helped me with directions. My genial host had cheerfully stayed up to welcome me. Everything was right with the world.

It was not just that I had reached my destination without encountering obstacles. I felt that I was at one with this place and its people, even though it was a big city I'd never been to before. I knew no one but I knew everyone. I was at home spiritually.

Anselmo Guinea Vuelta de la romera 1899

I was reminded of my strangely euphoric arrival ten years ago in the southern port city of Algeciras, after crossing the Strait of Gibraltar by ferry from Tangier in Morocco. Morocco is one of the most photogenic countries I've visited. But I did not feel that I belonged, even as a tourist.

The people were not friendly and it seemed they were only interested in my tourist dollar. At restaurants they only wanted to serve you their tourist menu, which was different to what they ate themselves.

Marrakech street scene

But most of all I found it alienating that everybody - men and women - was dressed in loose fitting gowns that prevented me from seeing their skin and the contours of their bodies. It should be obvious, but I'd never before considered that the way people cover their bodies plays a major part in the degree of our connection with them.

I told myself that this was a Muslim country and that's the way Muslims dress. But I found it very uplifting when I arrived in Algeciras and was able to enjoy the sight of skin and body countours, along with the warmth of people who were welcoming and spirited and knew how to smile and look me in the eye.

Margaret Court's narrow focus then and now

I remember growing up in Margaret Court's home town of Albury-Wodonga at the height of her success in the 1960s and 1970s. We'd drive past the lawn tennis courts where she'd honed her skills.

Her family lived opposite and she would crawl through a hole in the fence to practise, in her determination to succeed and be the best. She reminisces about growing up a tomboy in a neighbourhood full of sports mad boys with whom she would compete.

Margaret Court

My father would cite her example of working hard to achieve a goal. He even paid for me to take tennis lessons from her coach Wally Rutter.

Dedication to a specialised task inevitably involves a narrow focus. This does not have to be a bad thing. But if I had to sum up what I think of Margaret Court today, I would say that she is in a very narrow place, hopelessly deluded in a way that causes harm to young people.

She's a fundamentalist who focuses on a literal and narrow reading of the Bible. She says marriage is 'a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible'. But the Bible also sanctions practices she would disapprove of, such as polygamy and the use of slaves as sexual concubines.

Margaret Court in 1964

I was interested to read the conciliatory remarks of Court's nephew Phil Shanahan, who runs the Margaret Court Tennis Academy in Wodonga. He's suffered abusive 'bashing' on his door during the middle of the night, and there have been vitriolic attacks on the Academy's website and social media pages.

He distances himself from his aunt's remarks. He advocates a marriage equality conscience vote in parliament and affirms those involved in the academy who identify as gay. But he insists that she is entitled to express her opinion.

'Marg says that's what the Bible says and she's a pastor, she believes that and is committed to that'.

Margaret Court and Phil Shanahan - centre - at Margaret Court Tennis Academy

However insisting on her right to say what she thinks is in itself damaging to the self esteem of young people working out their sexuality. Why can't he just say that he loves his aunt but she should not express these opinions because they destroy young people's self esteem and cause them to self-harm?

After previous homophobic remarks made by Court in 2012, comedian Magda Szubanski spoke of having suicidal thoughts while struggling with her homosexuality as a teenager.

It seems that Court's Victory Life Church could be well on the way to becoming a local version of the proactively homophobic Westboro Baptist Church in the US. These churches actually advocate violence. Last week in North Carolina, a woman was found guilty of leading 30 parishioners to attack and beat a gay member of the church in order to 'expel his demons'.


Links: tomboy fundamentalism nephew wrong Magda demons

My favourite tourist attraction anywhere

I'm in Barcelona at the tail end of my five week trip. I spent most of it staying in the one location, with my sister in Kent, England. But I've been on the move for the past six days in the north of Spain, visiting Bilbao, Logroño, Vitoria and Barcelona.

When I'm moving, I tend not to have the time and presence of mind to write these reflections, so I'm pleased that I woke up at 4:00 this morning unable to sleep with time to fill in.

Being in Barcelona briefly reminds me of my first trip to Europe in 1993 when I visited five countries in five days (Frankfurt in Germany, Turin in Italy, Strasbourg in France, and then Barcelona and London). I was trying to visit as many countries as possible in the short time I had off work.

Torre Glries

In 1993 I visited Gaudi's Sagrada Familia Cathedral, which is possibly my favourite tourist attraction anywhere. I think it is a rare triumph of human art and endeavour and religious faith that both believers and non-believers alike find totally arresting.

I visited it again in 1997 and 2015 and I plan to go there today, especially as it's nearby. Interestingly the view of La Sagrada Familia from the window of my airbnb apartment is obscured by another beautiful building, the Torre Glòries (above). Unlike La Sagrada Familia, it is arguably not intended to give glory to God. In fact its French architect Jean Nouvel spoke of what he called its 'phallic character'.

Guggenheim Bilbao

The other cities I visited in Spain were all new to me. There was Bilbao, which I bypassed on my tour through northern Spain in 1996 because my guide book discounted it as a dull and declining industrial city. The city's transition to a major centre of art and culture did not begin until the renowned Guggenheim Bilbao building opened a year later. Indeed it also jump started the city economically, adding over three billion euros to Bilbao's economy since it opened. It was labelled the 'Bilbao effect'.

For me, the building upstaged the art. I thoroughly enjoyed it as a spectacle but I found Bilbao's Museum of Fine Arts a much more satisfying experience of individual art works. A few days later, I was surprised to see another Gehry creation in a hotel building at the Marqués de Riscal winery I visited near Logroño. No doubt hoping for the 'Bilbao effect'.

Marqus de Riscal winery hotel

I'd never heard of Logroño before and my purpose was to see a friend who lives in a village outside the city. It's the provincial capital of the wine growing province of La Rioja and is located just outside the Basque country. In some ways it was reminiscent of Nîmes in the Languedoc wine region in the south of France, near to the village I stayed in a couple of weeks ago.

My other destination in Spain was Vitoria (Gastiez in Basque). It is the capital of the Basque region where my niece is spending much of this year working as an au pair and learning Spanish. I was warned not to expect much in the way of spectacle, but I appreciated its fine gardens and public spaces and buildings. In the way that I always enjoy a visit to Canberra.

Town Square Vitoria

It seems a long time since I left England six days ago. My departure from there was memorable in that I took the opportunity to visit the Sidney Nolan exhibition in Chichester, as a detour on my way to Gatwick Airport.

The exhibition - and another that I saw in Australia House London at the beginning of May - were staged to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the artist the London Telegraph describes as both 'the Aussie modernist par excellence' and 'a central figure in British art' especially during the 1950s and 1960s.

Sidney Nolan Central Australia 1949 Ripolin on glass

He settled in the UK in 1953 and died there in 1992 as part of the Australia's cultural brain drain that saw some of the country's best and brightest move to the UK but retain their Australian identity as part of their personal brand.


Links: Glòries Fine Arts Marqués Nolan

Queer Art at Tate Britain

The exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967 has recently opened at Tate Britain, the original Tate Gallery in London that was renamed to distinguish it from the separate Tate Modern.

I went there on Friday with mixed feelings, sensing that it could be more of an ordeal than a pleasure to see a show designed to highlight acting on same sex attraction when it was a criminal and social taboo.

Sure enough, I was pleased to get out of there when I'd given it the once over.

I saw too much that was either troubling or confusing. There was photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden's turn of the 19th century portraits of naked Sicilian 10-20 year old boys posing as classical athletes. I wasn't sure how this was different from the kind of child pornography that exploits and damages minors and is now a serious offence to possess.

Wilhelm von Gloeden 1856-1931 Head of a Sicilian Boy

The exhibit's descriptive label refers to a writer who had a packet of van Gloeden's images and 'peeped at it again and again', but then provides context.

'To our eyes, there is a troubling power dynamic between the wealthy von Gloeden and the impoverished Sicilian community, and the uncertain age of some of his models gives an uncomfortable undercurrent to his work'.

If that was a bit edgy for me, the exhibition did include quite a few insights into aspects of social history that were new to me.

There was a painting of social reformer Henry Havelock Ellis, who spent his early adult years in Australia before returning to England to study to become a physician. He was also a writer and his most famous book Sexual Inversion (1897) was an objective study of homosexuality that did not present it as a disease, immoral, or a crime.

Henry Bishop 1868-1939 Henry Havelock Ellis

Currently Tate Britain also has a major David Hockney exhibition. I chose Queer Art because I'd seen the National Gallery of Victoria's Hockney show in Melbourne last November. But it occurred to me that a visit to the Tate's Hockney instead would have given me a much more grounded and celebratory experience of queer British art that was at the same time not lacking in edge.

Van Gogh Self Portrait with a Damaged Ear

A suprise later in the day was The Courtauld Gallery near Australia House in the Strand. I'd never heard of it before, but my sister had recommended it.

The Courtauld has a large collection on four levels, ranging from Medieval and Renaissance to 20th Century Modernist. These included many classics such as Van Gogh's 1889 Self Portrait with a Damaged Ear. A painting with huge appeal to the mainstream that would have once been regarded as quite challenging.


Links: Queer von Gloeden Ellis Courtauld

Rudyard Kipling and the crimes of Britain's inglorious empire

Yesterday I drove with my sister to the southern Kent coastal city of Folkstone, where she had a work commitment. I remember Folkstone as the entry point on my first visit to England in 1993 after taking the ferry from France.

With ferry traffic having quickly declined after the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, Folkstone ceased to be a significant port. The locals have been trying to regenerate the city as an arts hub, but it was Sunday morning and there was little going on as I walked through its slowly expanding Creative Quarter.

Folkstones Creative Quarter

We drove west along the coast through Romney Marsh, a sparsely populated wetland area which was formerly known as a smuggler's paradise. This took us into East Sussex and the historic towns of Rye and Winchelsea, being directed by our GPS along quite a number of narrow country roads framed by beautiful thick canopies of green vegetation.

The most memorable of these, at least for its name, was Dumb Woman's Lane. I looked it up afterwards and - as expected - the naming has nothing to do with diminishing women. The legendary dumb woman was in fact mute, with the possibility that her tongue was cut out by smugglers she witnessed in order to prevent her from reporting their actions.

Dumb Womans Lane

Our next destination was the small village of Burwash, which I knew was close to the former family home of a friend from Sydney. A further two miles down the road was Bateman's, Rudyard Kipling's home from 1902 until his death in 1936. It is now a National Trust property and we enjoyed the rest of the surprisingly sunny afternoon looking at the house and its interiors and walking in the large garden.

My friend told me that his family's home - an iron master's residence - was built with stone from the same quarry as Kipling's. Knowing him, I don't think he meant that as a claim to fame. In my eyes, it would be the opposite, for Kipling is one of those figures that I love to dislike.

20170521_152242_HDR

I find it easy enough to be seduced by his genius for phrase making. But I'm much more mindful of his role as a triumphant champion of British colonialism, particularly in his birthplace India.

Earlier this year I'd been shocked when I listened to an interview that touched on some of the details of how the Britain trashed India's economy and cruelly exploited its people for its own economic and political advantage. It was with the Indian writer and politican Shashi Tharoor, who was promoting his new book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India.

Kiplings writing desk

Elsewhere Tharoor summarises his opinion of Kipling: 'Fine words strung together in praise of the morally indefensible'. This is a variation on George Orwell's criticism - 'He dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks' - which we see echoed in today's politics.


Links: Creative Dumb Batemans Inglorious Tharoor Orwell

Fortifications in wine and cheese heaven in the south of France

On Monday my sister and I took the train from Kent to Nîmes in the south of France to stay with a friend and former work colleague, in his home in a village about 15 minutes drive from the relatively small provincial capital with around 146,000 inhabitants.

Nimes canal

It's nearly three decades since we worked together and seven or eight years since he moved here to his wife's native region after their marriage seven or eight years ago. Life is good when you're in wine and cheese heaven and we've felt especially privileged that they've shared theirs with us.

Aside from the heavy duty hospitality, we've had the unseasonal warmth and sun of a successive pre-summer 29 degree days. Weather is like a game of chance but if it's good it always puts a stamp of satisfaction on a travel experience.

Village rooftops

We've acquired a good sense of family life and village life. It's a sleepy but vibrant village with a population of around 600 in a setting that is dominated by small vineyards. Every village has a wine co-op which has usually been set up more than a century ago to make and distribute wine.

The economics of winemaking has changed a lot and these days some co-ops are viable and some are not. On our first day we took a ten litre plastic container to a local co-op and paid 14 euros for the attendant to fill it with what seemed a very good rosé.

There are no shops in the village but regular visits from various small business people such as the butcher and the baker. On our first morning we met the Lyne the baker.

Lyne the baker

There's always politics to be talked about, and I was interested to hear that the elections to the village council had been quite hotly contested with some unexpected candidates putting their hats into the ring and doing well.

But not surprisingly, most of the talk was about the recent national elections and the success of the new president Emmanuel Macron. When we had guests, I was not anticipating a variety of opinions.

I'd assumed there would be overwhelming relief that France had rejected Marine Le Pen and dodged the chaos and bad energy of a government playing to fear with promises to fortify borders. But there was also cynicism about Macron's winning the day with his consummate ability as a political chess player.

Pont du Gard

Yesterday we enjoyed a leisurely walk around the UNESCO World Heritage listed Pont du Gard ancient 50 kilometre Roman aqueduct. We were lucky to have the peak tourist season weather without the peak tourist season numbers.

The same was true on Tuesday when we walked around Nîmes, which was the destination for the water flowing through the first century aqueduct.

Nîmes has a lot of constructions surviving from Roman and later times. Many of them are fortifications, some built or adapted by Napoleon.

University of Nmes constructed in an old fort built by Vauban - Louis XIVs military architect - in 17th century

I was struck by the need to fortify cities and villages to protect their populations from outside threats, from ancient times until the present, with the current day prevalence of terrorism.

Our friend took us to the gate of a campus of the University of Nîmes. It is located in an old fort built in the 17th century by Louis XIV's military architect Vauban, who is best known for his advice on how to consolidate France's borders to make them more defensible.

In what is quite a recently imposed restriction, we were not allowed inside the university compound. At the gate there is now a presence of officers in military uniform using Vauban's fortifications to protect students from the present day terrorist threat.

Random selection and the good food travel experience

Food is one of the highlights of travel for many people including myself. Some travellers meticulously research and plan where they will dine. Others simply choose where to eat at random according to what is available at the location they're in when they feel hungry.

Nearly always I'm in the latter 'hit or miss' category. Some might consider this lazy. But I'm pleased to say that in my experience, eating randomly usually makes for a more satisfying experience than faithfully submitting to the recommendation of a guide book.

Shellfish stall Brighton beachfront

Frequently those who plan will discover that the restaurant they've spent an hour or more trying to locate is simply not what they'd hoped for. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. In other words, it's every bit as hit or miss as my random selection approach.

These travellers are trying to replicate the experience of somebody else. That could be the author of the guide book or travel article, or perhaps another traveller who had a very satisfying meal at the particular restaurant at some other time. Travel is about your own experience of the moment.

For example, I was walking along the Brighton beachfront yesterday and came upon a shellfish stall selling cockles, whelks, mussels, prawns and jellied eels. I always love eel but have mostly had it smoked. The 'jellied' aspect seemed like a leap into the unknown. But I took the plunge and found that the jelly was every bit as flavoursome and satisfying as the eel itself.

Jellied eel Brighton beachfront

However I don't always stick to my principle. A few minutes earlier I missed an opportunity to experience fish and chips with 'mushy peas'. I'd never heard of mushy peas and assumed that it was just another of the trashy British comfort foods that I sneer at and condescendingly dismiss.

That is because I pay more attention to received wisdom of what good food is rather than my own curiosity,  judgment and pleasure on the spot. This morning I did some reading and learned that mushy peas is quite a thing in British regional cuisine.

Fish Chips with Mushy Peas hoarding Brighton

For Wednesday evening in Brighton, I'd received a restaurant recommendation but decided to take my chances and select something at random. I discovered another traditional dish that I'd never heard of and probably wouldn't have sought out.

Gammon steak. It was served with pineapple and we'd probably just call it ham steak. But it is not simply a thick slice cut from a whole or half ham, which I understand is how ham steaks are produced in the US and Australia. It is cured like bacon and has to be cooked.

I saw 'gammon steak' on the menu. I didn't know what it was but I ordered it anyway, trusting in fate and hoping for the best. That is the way to experience the best as a traveller.


Links: shellfish mushy gammon