Thursday, 31 May 2012

Interview with Carl Puttnam of CUD, one of Leeds' shining lights.

CUD are not only known for the fact John Peel loved them, but also because they are one of those bands that deserved enormous commercial success, but due to dreadful handling of them by a mainly stupid music industry and despite extensive touring involving hundreds of live dates in the UK and abroad,  they never found it. But they have also never been forgotten by those people who loved and still love their music, like me.

The first time I heard Rich and Strange I nearly crapped myself with joy. Twenty years later I still think it's one of the most perfect pop songs ever. Everything works, melody, lyrics, performance, that fantastic guitar riff and Carl Puttnam's gorgeous, sonorous vocals which many compare quite justifiably to Tom Jones.

More CUD videos on the CUD YouTube channel.

Above: Carl in Andalucian port Cadiz.

To coincide with their 2012 Summer Tour, I recently spoke to Carl:

How did you feel when you got your first Peel session?

Carl: I was unexpectedly cool when John Walters rang me up to offer us a session. He said he needed to know within the hour and I said can I call you back? The band were all on their way round for a rehearsal in my cellar, and rather then tell them one at a time, I waited for them all to arrive, and then told them all at once. This sudden attack of "cool", was so uncharacteristic , they didn't believe me, and it was only when I rang John back to say we couldn't do it, that they figured I was telling the truth and relented.

From William Potter's CUD History1987:

16th June: Maida Vale, a maze of corridors, cheap BBC restaurants, and snobbish orchestras. The first Peel session with Dale (Mott the Hoople) Griffin producing. We have no cymbals. It's a basic set up of instruments that won't stay in tune, found drums and less than an album's worth of songs to choose from.
We go for 'You're The Boss', 'Mind the Gap' (about Carl's home of East London/Essex where Carl left and William would move to), 'Don't Bank On It' and crowd pleaser, 'You Sexy Thing', and why not!
Suddenly our basic sound wasmade to sound like a snow plough. Mike drove the van back to Leeds straight after. We got back at 3am, shattered but ecstatic.

We pestered Radio One to put the session out before the end of June so we could get PRS royalties in October. We wanted to spend them on a single.

Jude: What was John Peel like and what memories have you got from the sessions?

Carl: Loads of people ask what was it like meeting him when you play sessions, but the truth is that you record it at an empty Maida Vale on a Sunday afternoon, when John Peel is having a day off. I did meet him on a number of occasions though, and he was a funny sort. Very much the awe-struck fan on occasion and then sometimes cold and aloof. He was very kind to us. I'm not sure that I entirely agree with his "canonisation". The way the media ganged up on the musician who wasn't so besotted by his memory, despite that same media's ignorance of John while he was alive, and the way that the Beeb use his memory.(Jude: Whatever else, the Beeb John Peel page has not been updated since 2007.)

Jude: What inspired you to return to gigging in 2006 more than a decade after the band split up in '95?

Carl: Just the reissue projects that sprang up really, and then, of course, we realised how much we all enjoyed each other and playing.

Jude: The Rich and Strange cover was one of your pieces from your time on your uncompleted degree at Leeds Poly. How do you feel about the irony of that image then being plastered all over Leeds Poly on posters?

Carl: That is something I never thought about before, but will now be my number one gloat.

Jude: Why did you drop out of your fine art degree at Leeds Poly?

Carl: I met a woman who taught Fine Art at Bradford College, who convinced me that passing wasn't all that important. I had completed all my work, I just didnt get my thesis typed-up and handed in. I kind of wish I had these days. And, I'm sure that my inspiration got her degree.

Jude: Have Beefheart and Zappa influenced your work? And what about Serge Gainsbourg?

Carl: Neither Beefheart or Zappa exert an influence over Cud's music, though we all enjoyed Beefheart at the time and Zappa more recently. Serge used to provide intro music for a long time around 1990-1991. But my colleagues hated it in the tourbus. A lot of French literature and cinema makes it into my lyrics.
Isabelle Adjani obviously. Andre GideLeos Carax are all big influences. It's only while rehearsing for this tour that I realised how many songs nod to Gide.

Jude: CUD are renowned for their audience stage invasions. Can you tell us a bit about them?

Carl: We love them. We hate them.

Jude: Have increased security measures over the past decade or so put a damper on this?

Carl: It's all a little more ordinary, so yes. Funny though, we played in Bradford many moons ago and the security were wee fellows, so we gave them warnings about what to expect. "Don't worry about us" they said. Midway through the set and they were packing up, dismantling the monitors which they knew they couldn't protect. HaHa.

Jude: What was it like supporting The Pixies on tour?

Carl: A surprise firstly. They were very nice to us. Always watched us soundcheck and then watched us play from stageside, which felt very complementary. Each musician seemed to be checking out the moves and play of their peer.

Jude: The Pixies' Brixton Academy gig turned out to be their last gig for a decade. What are your memories of that night?

Carl:  We never played with them that night, but watched them as guests.

Back stage, lined up waiting for an audience with the Pixies was a huge queue of rather famous liggers. When some usher came out of the Pixies' dressing room to ask "Are the Cud here? The Pixies would like Cud to visit their dressing room" all the liggers turned towards us, sneering. So we were ushered in and enjoyed The Pixies' renewed girlfriend's brother was enjoying looking at Kim, when she came over and told him "You got a problem?" I had to intervene, telling her that he was with me.

Jude:What was recording the (never aired) pilot for the Vic and Bob show, ‘Popadoodledandy’ like?

Carl: William couldn't do it, so we drafted in a replacement; Jessica. Six foot tall half japanese and very attractive. Vic and Bob were "in character" all day, or at least that's how it seemed, which made them funny and infuriating by turns. I'm rubbish on telly, which they seemed to like. My woodenness was exactly what they were after. We often spent nights out with Bob. We'd bump into him at a club and share cabs. He is the "nicer one" by common wisdom.

Jude: You were writing a novel, did you ever finish it?

Carl: It is finished. A group of friends got together to write a series of Richard Allen style novels. Each novel revolving about a present day youth "cult" fictional or otherwise. Mine was set in Leeds 6 around the travails of a group of rather well-off students bent on a music career. Easy target really.

Jude: William writes on his history of CUD "2 Dec 1993 A&M Xmas party. Sting shows up but hides in the ‘Star Bar’, where we’re not invited." What do you think about that?

Carl: I think William's having a wee jest. The "Star Bar" was mostly empty but for Sting and Bryan Adams.

Jude: And what do you think about your time with A&M generally?

Carl: We were signed by the MD who promptly left for another company, leaving us with an A&R who hardly understood us and barely liked us both musically and personally, so, while I enjoyed most of our time with the major, it was often quite frustrating artistically and commercially.

Jude: What was it like working with the legendary Sandie Shaw?

Carl: Far from legendary. She is very nice, but a complete fruitcake. That will sound unkind and is unfair. She was fun and full of stories, which I oughtn't repeat and had an irreverent attitude to industry and management of which I was jealous as our bad didn't.

From William Potter's CUD History 1993:

10 Feb
We’re set up in Ray Davies’ Konk Studios, a bit of a maze, and chilly. We put on a loop of the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ then record Steve’s drums along with it. Then I put down a basic bass part to give it structure. It sounds terrible so we replace it with a guitar loop and guide vocal. Sandie arrives and is lively and fun, easy to get on with. Turns out she’s teaching now and asked her students if they’d heard of CUD. When she got a positive response, then she agreed to the session. Carl has a great time gassing with her between vocal takes.
The harmonies agreed on push Sandie into a higher range than she’s used to while Carl is singing lower.
It’s a very long, drawn-out day, with photos and video needing to be taken for the project’s publicity. At one point Sandie gets irritated by constant postponements and retreats for a 10-minute mantra meditation.

11 Feb
I lay down a superior bassline. More guitar and vocals are added before a mix we’re happy with is prepared in time for Sandie’s return, this time with her daughter. They try to work out which Monty Python member I resemble. (I fear it is Eric Idle.)

12 Feb
Does our version of ‘Gimme Shelter’ really sound like The Sisters of Mercy’s ‘This Corrosion’?!

24 Feb
Steve has to go to hospital with a pain in his lower leg. It turns out to be a tendon problem he has to rest for a week. And, so do the rest of us. (Well, I’m always working on the Space CUDet fanzines...)

3 Mar
London, ‘Gimme Shelter’ launch at Camden Parkway cinema. Sandie is there, in a shirt Morrissey gave her. There are lots of TV interviews to do, especially for Carl and Sandie. She says how much she enjoyed the recording and finished track. I declined the offer of joining her for a Buddhist Introductory session, opting for boozing at the Good Mixer.

Jude: A fan from Garforth invited you all to tea once, what was that like?

Carl: It was very nice and very strange. We were far from famous but being treated like Boys Inc or JLS or something. Incidentally, it was around that time that we recorded a message for a girl in a coma. She was about 14-16 and had meningitis. Obviously we weren't the reason she got better, I think modern medicine had a hand. I think Will still knows her.

Jude: Did any of you get some of the CUD embroidered boxers on the cover of Once Again?

Carl: Funny you should ask. I have no idea where they went. Steve most likely.

Jude: Would you think about putting CUD underpants into production for fans to buy?

Carl: We did socks, pillow cases and windscreen banners, so maybe.

Jude: You and William have both had Megablocks characters named after you in Judge Dredd. How did that come about?

Carl: I dont know, but it's good isn't it?

Jude:  You have a vineyard in France, how did you acquire it and are you producing wine from it?

Carl:  My Brother in law (sort of) and I own it. It cost us peanuts.We have vines on the lower parts and olives on the steeper slopes. The wine is red, we don't know what variety, but strong, dark and tannic with aroma of raspberry. It was all obsolete land before we got it. We just cleared it up and let whatever was growing there carry on growing. Grapes, olives, thyme and a whole load of fruit trees.

Jude: Do you speak French?

Carl:  Bonjour.I get by. And when I am around for a while get pretty comfortable.

Jude: You got into a spat with Primal Scream over a drum at Futurama...what happened? Is Bobbie Gillespie as much of an arse as he's often portrayed in the press?

Carl: We'd already had a number of unfortunate mishaps with "the Scream". Following one incident, a message arrived in Leeds telling me to hi-tail it out of town, cos "the Scream" were coming to get me.
I laughed.

At Futurama, it was another misunderstanding that escalated into anger, because of this ongoing thing. I'd like to say it was all their fault, but who knows? To be fair to Bobbie, it was always the rest of the band, "TH" Robert and the roadies, and their threats were as comic book as their music.

Jude: Have you ever met Martin Bedford, the Sheffield artist and legendary Leadmill poster designer who seems to have met every notable musician on the planet?

Carl: No. Who He? Maybe I'm just not that notable (well you never know.)

Jude: Yes you are. Anyway, he's the subject of my next Into View, he's got an exhibition on at the moment in Sheffield's Porter Brook Gallery.

Finally, a question from a recent live online interview by CUD with their fans on Facebook.

On the set of Rich and Strange video shoot

Mark Stubley: What's your views on the whole download culture for music these days? Is it making music a worthless disposable product? Or a great way to get new music to an audience?

Carl: It's a bit of both for me. I'm sad in some ways that your super rare record is just a download away. I used to enjoy the crazy collector's thrill of finding rare stuff. I dont believe it's killing the business though. The people who kill the music business are the business. They mostly hate music, hate musicians and hate punters. Just look at your 'Istory...

A final bit of trivia, CUD as footballers for NME's 70s themed Xmas 1992 issue. After the shoot all the NME journos ligged along with the band back to the Columbia Hotel, which is a bit like a London version of New York's Chelsea Hotel, where in the early 80s I used to hang out (in the Columbia, not the Chelsea) with my then boyfriend Roddy Frame.

CUD as footballers for NME's 70s themed Xmas 1992 issue. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Sean McAllister - The Reluctant Revolutionary

UPDATE 11th June 2015. Sean's Syrian film did get made and has just won the Grand Jury Prize at Sheffield Doc/Fest, as reported here by the Beeb. More photos of 2015 Doc/Fest here.

Executive Producer Hoshang Wasiri and Sean McAllister after winning the top prize at the internationally renowned Sheffield Doc/Fest.

On Sean's ongoing determination to get a documentary about Syria commissioned:  "I know the great British public are crying out to connect with these places through people instead of grainy you tube footage that just looks the same in the end."

 “Sean Mcallister he is one of the heroes in Yemen. Not just film maker. He is great film maker.” Kais, The Reluctant Revolutionary. 

Sean McAllister  is one of the most talented documentary filmmakers alive today. Winner of the 2005 Sundance World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Documentary for The Liberace of Baghdad, he continues to eschew mainstream high-budget documentary filmmaking and insists, with dogged determination, on following his own hunches and travelling the world alone in search of a good story built around a central figure battling for emotional and physical survival in unjust societies. If you want a quick taster of his filmmaking style, have a look at his Six Stories of Love and Hate, a short compliation of exerpts from some of his many award-winning films over the past 16 years.

Sean is currently touring film festivals worldwide with his film The Reluctant Revolutionary. This is his second interview with me; the first was an interview about his film Japan: A Story of Love and Hate.

Jude: Our last interview was about your film Japan: A Story of Love and Hate. Since then your documentary about the 2011 uprising in the Yemen, Yemen: Reluctant Revolutionary, which involved four trips to the country, has just been aired on BBC4's Storyville, and you've been to Syria ten times working on a documentary over there. When did your fascination with Syria begin?

Sean: It began at the Sheffield Documentary film festival just after my Japan film premiere three  years ago. At the time, I was making futile trips to Dubai looking for a film and wanted to find an alternative place to explore with more meaning.  A Syrian guy called Nizam, who was resident in Norway, asked me a question so I went for a drink with him. To cut a very long story short (almost 2 years I guess) I ended up accompanying Nizam on trips back to his homeland, Syria, trying to make a film with him about his lost and confused life in the West. Sadly neither his mother nor Norwegian wife wanted to be filmed so I pursued the project anyway filming his family in Syria (Aleppo) but he was never really confortable with the film, he was a film student at the time and much preferred being behind the camera with me I guess, so just as the BBC commissioned the film Nizam pulled out.

It was quite funny though because the BBC had wanted Dubai and I said no to it, then after 3 or 4 months of my looking in Syria they didn’t want Syria because they had done a 6 part series called “The Syrian School” and they didn’t think another Syrian film would grab a big enough audience.

But by then I had fallen in love with Damascus and was drawn back there. I remember getting a call and having Libya suggested randomly. Libya was far more difficult to enter at the time than Syria so I didn’t know what to do but fortunately Nizam was half Libyan (his dad was Libyan his mum Syrian) so when I went to pitch the Nizam film I told the commissioning editors that everyone was speaking in Libyan and the whole thing was shot in Libya – it was about telling them what they wanted to hear to get the commission I felt - I was pissed off that they wouldn’t commission Syria because it wasn’t in the news. They wanted Libya rather randomly because it had a sexier leader I guess.

Anyway after this fell through I went back to them with a great trailer to a film about a gay restaurant owner living just outside Homs in Syria – at this point (another 4/5 months later) they gave in I guess and just commissioned a film in Syria. He was a great fun character but on my first day back in Syria he pulled out on me, by which time I was desperate and could not afford to refuse the money so I never told the BBC.

Then one night in a famous Damascus park in the old city where young kids would gather to drink in the hot evenings (such was the openness of this attractive secular city) I met 45 year old Amer who was on the phone to his wife;  later he told me she was in prison and had a phone in there with her. I began filming Amer who was a Palestinian living with no passport or legal rights in Syria with his wife Ragda an Alawete (from the President’s sect) – they had both met in prison some 13 years ealier, fallen in love and married on release and had 2 boys. Amer had given up his politics but Ragda couldn’t – she had written a book about their love story that attacked the Assad regime and it had landed her straight back in prison without trial. So for 4 months I filmed Amer’s life looking after the 13 year and 4 year old boys and living a life kind of on the run in Syria as he had no rights to stay without his wife who was the only one with a passport. He was also vocal against the regime in a way no one dare then -  this was 9 months before any Arab spring.

I guess part of my journey with Amer was trying to understand the mind of someone so paranoid by a regime like Syria, I discovered he had lied about a few things to me; his wider family not being in Syria, him being a Christian not Muslim – when I confronted him he told me he had 2 stories to protect himself in Syria. I was a little pissed and left the country, it was 4 months away from my own family anyway and I felt it was time to go home. I decided to abandon Amer for now and to return to film confronting him on camera. I told him that if I returned he must tell me the truth and he promised to do so.

I remember heading home for Christmas 2009 feeling like I had no film. I’d been away for 4 months and was heading home to a frosty response. These are the dulls in what I do I guess and are the hard bits where one sacrifices so much time away and forgets about the issue of bringing money into the home, all for a film which sometimes doesn’t work out.

Anyway in the previous year in Syria I’d met 2 different people who’d told me about this guy in Yemen called Kais who ran this hotel. I remember sending him an email over Christmas, kind of desperate and him replying by chance, also kind of desperate as his hotel had gone under and he had no work (by now the Arab Spring was under way in Egypt in Tunisia and I sensed that Yemen could be next.)

Yoshi and Naoki, Japan: A Story of Love and Hate

But it was a funny, like I’d encountered in Japan when filming Naoki. I’d given up on him a year before and gone looking for a ‘better story’ that suited the ‘brief’ and ended up back in Yamagata by chance with someone else I was filming who had insisted I go to the Yamagata Film Festival with him, then when I arrived I met Naoki who was working in the festival. Towards the end of the festival this guy that I’d just got commissioned by the BBC and NHK pulled out on me and I was lost confused and Naoki was there and picked me up and almost started filming me. If felt right and appropriate to film him, like the experience had defined what the film should finally be.

I guess my arrival in Yemen was the same feeling – I felt an instantaneous connection with Kais and the experience had defined what and where the film should be. But it did leave a nagging question inside me for some time that I’d spent so long in Syria and come out with nothing and that I had unfinished business with Amer – I had left in a rush discovering his lies and, I guess, frustrated that nothing ever seemed to be happening actually in Syria - it was every country around Syria except Syria itself, and this was my problem in attracting an audience.

Anyway after Christmas and back in the Yemen I didn’t tell the BBC anything. They thought I was still filming the gay restaurant owner just outside Homs in Syria. I always depart from the commissioned story but never before have also departed country without permission. It was a big gamble that paid off. Had something bad happened needless to say I wasn’t insured and had no BBC back up and truthfully, had I tried to get permission, I doubt the film would ever have been made. I don’t think people felt Yemen was sexy enough. And Health and Safety just would not have gone with it I think.

By March 2010 I remember watching the news from my hotel in Yemen and hearing that protests had begun in Syria and I couldn’t believe it. Yemen was already on fire and much of my film was already filmed and then I got an email saying that my Syrian friend Amer and his young son Kaka 13 had been arrested in a central Damascus souk after protesting with pictures of the kids’ mother. They were released after 14 hours and I remember then making a call and Amer saying “Sean please come back we need you now more than ever”. I left Yemen for a break and could not get back in when violence had escalated and so I returned to Syria to meet up again with Amer. 2010 was spent visiting Syria on two trips for Channel 4 news who paid me to make 10 minute films as I couldn’t get my Syria film commissioned.

I remember my first meeting with the BBC before I’d told them anything about my story/country switch from Syria to Yemen. Nick Fraser entered the BBC screening room where I was due to show them something as another deadline for delivery was looming and they wanted me to meet this one. He said “Normally I ask you which story you’ve changed to but now I believe I should ask which country you have switched to?” Fortunately he likes me and I can get away with this especially if you bring back something better than what he commissioned. But I still couldn’t get the Syria film commissioned until I had delivered the Yemen film and as I’d spent so much time finding it I had no budget left to pay for an edit so money made from my dangerous Channel 4 news films in Syria would pay for the Yemen edit. I couldn’t afford the great Ollie Huddleston whom I’d worked with on every film so far so this was the first departure working with a close friend who’d helped in the edit of Liberace of Baghdad and Japan (in fact he edited the Japan film in the end when I ran out of time and money for Ollie on this film.)

So I would climb into the crammed loft of Johnny Burke, a Tai Chi teacher living in North London who departs from his meditative life to edit only with me (he hates TV) we would cut on his iMac between his Tai Chi classes and between my flying off to now war torn Syria editing Yemen over 11 random months including my week in a Syrian prison for my sins.

On my release from prison I met with the BBC to show them a rough cut of Yemen and tried pushing my Syria film, (now Amer’s wife Ragda was out of prison and also in the film, added to which I’d gone to prison and entered the film) – Channel 4 had rejected the film as being too newsworthy (ironic after Syria being so un newsworthy) BBC2 had rejected it because it wasn’t newsy enough, Nick was my only chance but unfortunately BBC 4 Arab Spring season didn’t happen and Nick Fraser said he “couldn’t justify commissioning it without an Arab spring season.”

In the same week I was told that the material from my Syrian project had rated No1 in the USA ITVS call where film from 166 countries compete for completion money, so maybe I’m not going completely mad after all. I’m still waiting for final confirmation from ITVS and also have the PBS series called Frontline interested in the Syria film, fingers crossed. Amer and Ragda are now in Lebanon after my arrest from where I filmed them and their ongoing story. A twist in their twisted love story was that she recently left him and the family in the safety of Beirut to go back to Damascus and fight, feeling torn between her loyalties to the family and loyalties to the struggle. I hear now that she has returned home again though and I am overdue another visit but awaiting some funding really.

Jude: At one point you were encouraged by potential commissioning editors to go to Dubai with the possibility of making a documentary there. What were your impressions of Dubai and why were you not inspired to make a film there?

Sean: Nick Fraser had just returned from a lavish all paid business class trip to Dubai Film Festival, he’d witnessed the sheikh’s fruit juice reception where as soon as the formalities were over the booze and women were brought in and he thought this would be a great place for me to make a film. I went along with him but never really believed in it. I hated the place and the people that live like that. My work in the Arab world is to spread a positive vibe about Arab people who are so often misunderstood by the media. I felt that my making this film would be falling into the same trap as other foreign film-makers. In the end of course I found myself somewhere completely different; even in Dubai I ended up with the Indian slave workers on the outskirts of the city sleeping 10 to a room, but here I couldn’t get real access to their plight and felt like their lives there were almost pornographic, I wasn’t sure why I was there or what I was doing there and by now I’d seen something much more interesting in Damascus where my heart was set. Plus Dubai was impossibly expensive on a BBC slave budget - the cheapest hotel was like £60 a night and in Damascus I paid £5.

Jude: Did you envisage the strife that is now tearing Syria apart back when you first started spending time in Damascus?

Sean: No I didn’t imagine it, even when I was in Yemen filming there and seeing it happen there, I kept saying “This will never happen in Syria” then when it started I figured the president (Bashar al-Assad) would do a deal with the opposition. The most confusing aspect of my time in Syria was trying to gauge the people’s feelings about the regime and I concluded that the president had a great support in the country. Even in March, April, even May 2010 Syrians were not asking for Assad to go but to implement the reforms he had promised since 2000 when he took office.  Of course the carnage that we see today is the truth of the regime, now hanging the dirty -washing clear for the world to see. The well-groomed-western-educated-eye-doctor image is no more, now al-Assad is open and honest finally to the world, a monster like his father and brother and one hopes should meet the same destiny as Gadaffi.

Jude: Considering the fact that Syria is now in the news so much, why do you think you’re still finding it so hard to get your Syrian documentary commissioned?

Sean: I don’t know, Nick Fraser turned it down a couple of weeks ago saying he ‘Could not justify it without an Arab Spring Season.’ A BBC2 series called ‘This World’ got close to commissioning it until they met me. Then they backed off saying Panorama were doing something, in fact Panorma have done 2 films on Syria in the last year or so, I have been filming this for over 2 years so far… it is a human story that has never been told yet since the Syria conflict began...maybe TV is changing but I know the great British public are crying out to connect with these places through people instead of grainy you tube footage that just looks the same in the end.

Jude: You were detained by the secret police in Syria, an event which was covered by news teams all over the world. Have you returned to Syria since?

Sean: No. I was deported from Syria which means I cannot return, not legally anyhow. I was in north Lebanon the other week up near the border with Syria and was offered safe passage to Homs with a couple of Syrians there. I wasn’t even tempted!

Jude: Has your detention and what you witnessed had any lasting effects on your state of mind? Does it haunt you?

Sean: I guess it haunts me more than witnessing the massacre in the Yemen film. That doesn’t haunt me, it leaves me saddened - seeing people die and losing their loved ones is horrific, I kind of hide behind the camera there also. In prison I was more shaken by the cries of people being beaten and then being befriended by the same guys who were doling out the punishment. They treated me well but I could not understand or accept the way they treated their own and the unbelievable instruments used in torture, including electricity. I befriended my chief interrogators as a way to protect myself but I never knew what new info they would find on me or whether I was really going to get out until I did, so it made a week a rather long time. I want to do a re-creation of it as a drama but when I sit down to write it something stops me going there. I do wake up thinking of incarceration a lot, I don’t like crowds or tight spaces anymore. I feel a little more prone to panic attacks and don’t like being blindfolded;  to have the sense of sight taken away is terrifying. I really don’t know how those brave Syrians do it.

Jude: How are the Syrians you befriended during your time in Damascus?

Sean: Some of my friends are still in Syria and others now live in Lebanon. The family I am filming now live in Beirut, where they feel lots safer and where I can visit to film them.

Jude: Are you tempted to go to Homs, where the government are assassinating scores of people as we speak?

Sean: I was in Homs before I left Syria but this was before it became a blood bath massacred town, it was known as the heartbeat of the revolution when I visited, where the protests where happening in a carnival-like atmosphere daily and nightly. The government used the idea of foreign fighters in the country as an excuse to make this disgusting attack.

Jude: Do you think Homs is going to be looked back on in years to come as Srebenica is now?

Sean: Yes or like Hama was viewed in the 80s - a place where a whole town was encircled and bombed to bits killing a reported 30,000 people – I can’t believe in this media age that we can stand by and allow it to happen in Homs. Well we already have I guess.

Jude: How long after visiting Yemen did you meet Kais?

Sean: He met me from the airport, I fell straight into his lap. It felt like the long road that started in Dubai in 2008 was finally coming to a close; the journey had meant something. My films are so fundamentally about character that there can be a revolution anywhere but without Kais or Naoki or Samir or Kev I have no film. In Dubai I watched the economy collapse, it was a great story but I had no character through which to tell it. So I don’t think I was waiting for a revolution but it certainly helped with Kais, it gave my smaller ‘character framed ‘ film a larger, more global framework, hence its place at Berlin film festival I believe.

Jude: Once the revolution got under way, were all the normal services open? Could you just go to a bank and draw money out for food or did you have to carry cash with you everywhere?

Sean: ATMs worked OK in Yemen funnily enough but not in Syria, there was a blockade put on all money transfers as part of the western sanctions, so I needed to carry bundles of cash around, which is fine in Arabic dictatorships as they are usually crime free, like Japan!

Jude: One of your quotes has always stuck with me, “The best way to get permission is not to ask for it.” In the hospital scenes in Yemen: Reluctant Revolutionary, did you not ask for permission to film in the hospital, did you just walk in? How did you get access?

Sean: I walked in with Kais, to be honest I hesitated and tried to retreat because I knew what was happening but a doctor pulled me over and asked what network I was. I said BBC, he pulled me in with Kais and took me through the hall and into intensive care where the dead and dying were being dragged, in this situation they want exposure – there is no asking. Then as the injured lay dying at first I felt terrible to film them but then I learned that it is what they want in their last moments of life. They don’t see you as an outsider, they see you as one of them taking the risks to tell their story. All the same I found it strange filming the young boy dying and the boy holding the hand of his brother. It isn’t easy and you cannot really ask in that situation either. You just respond.

Jude: How did witnessing so many deaths affect you afterwards?

Sean: I don’t know it is in me somehow and always will be, I was more shocked when coming out from the intensive care room to go to the toilet to discover they had dropped the bodies in this area and I needed to clamber over then to take a piss. Terrible.

Jude: In the film you were chewing the drug khat leaves in several shots, a social drug widely used amongst the Yemen but in segregated gender groups. Did you do this to fit in with the people you were filming or did you genuinely just fancy having some?

Sean at the British Independent Film Awards 

Sean: I chewed every day, it helped me get through the day there, life outside the camp in Yemen was quite boring for me so this helped, especially when sitting in a big room with men only. In the end I put vodka in my water bottle which gave an even bigger kick.

Jude: What is khat like? Did you ever do the full cheek-pouch job with the khat?

Sean: I would get mouth sores and swallow too much of it – it’s a real knack to keep it in your cheek, I never really got the knack of it and didn’t really miss it when I didn’t have it.

Jude: At one point, in Change Square in Sana’a as the protests escalated into revolution, you’re seen posing as a tourist, wearing a goofy grin and a silly hat, in order to protect your identity as a filmmaker. Despite this you attracted the attention of the secret police. Were you not frightened?

Sean: I got frightened after we filmed the massacre scene – by this time all foreign journalists were kicked out and I was the only witness to the massacre with a camera from foreign media so not only did it feel important for me to show it but I sensed it was as important for them to make sure it wasn’t seen; we didn’t know who was a spy and not in the camp. The first difficulty was getting out of the camp that night without losing the material (which we managed), the next was getting out of the country. To this day both my cameras are still in Yemen, it was just too dangerous to leave with them, anyway it is an excuse to go back (hopefully with my kids) to get them soon.

Jude: How did you feel about being told by the guy in the hotel that another cameraman had been killed in the camp and it was now very dangerous for you to go back into the camp?

Sean: This was a tense time but critical for the film, it is why I included the shot of my son talking to me on the phone, his words of wisdom stand out still, the most sensible words in the film many tell me - it is the critical point that anyone with a family feels, going into danger when you have kids at home. I don’t have an answer except that is what I am there to do. But I left pretty sharpish after it to be with my kids!

Jude: The subjects of many of your films have much in common – big hearted men with a great sense of humour in deep shit due to the environment and social situation in which they live; Kevin Rudeforth (now your webmaster) in Working for the Enemy, Samir Peter in The Liberace of Baghdad, Naoki Sato in Japan, A Story of Love and Hate, and now Kais in Yemen: Reluctant Revolutionary. You are under constant scrutiny for the fact that you don’t live your life in the traditional family man role, but instead spend months abroad searching for and making documentaries in countries facing bleak hardship. Is there a connection? Are these men you seek out, befriend and film, in some way surrogate Seans?

Sean: Yes they are all surrogate Seans I guess, I am working stuff out about myself in all my films as well as exploring themes and things I face in my everyday life so I can honestly connect with the people I film. I don’t really expose my issues to them until after the filming process I guess, but they feel an empathy and connection and know I am from a similar walk of life or at least mind set to them. It is a conscious choice in order to find people that connect with my target audience over in the West, people who wouldn’t normally connect with the Arab world but when they meet people like my subjects they do; open honest guys who share their feelings and fuckedupness; it makes the big messy world smaller somehow.

Final words from some of his documentary subjects on Sean:

Support Kais here to help him prepare the ground for one day getting his hotel back and seeing it flourish once again.

Kais Ahmed (The Reluctant Revolutionary): This is from my heart. I met this gentle man Sean McAllister firstly via internet by emails and chatting via Facebook via friends in Syria - they told him about me and they told me that he wanted to film my story with my old hotel, Sanaa Nights,  then we met I believe December 2010.

My first impression was scared - what and who is this person Sean? Will it be good for me to get filmed by him? I had many fears but when I met him and I get to know him I felt he is not just film maker, he is an angel. I mean it, he is, he lived with me filming me what I do where we go and when you get to know Sean McAllister you find out he is great man with great feelings he is not just film maker he is a hero too because he pushed me to the Youth Revolution in my country Yemen and he opened my eyes to freedom and true life. I will never ever forget this person the one who changed my negative life into positive life. Sean suffered a lot of being chased by intelligence in Yemen, me too I got bad experience with them, but Sean McAllister he is one of the heroes in Yemen. Not just film maker. He is great film maker.

After the film I feel like new person really I was reluctant but not any more the film that Sean made in Yemen made me feel that the life and the change will never come by sitting at home but by moving ahead with everybody to the right path and freedom. My feelings is great and I hope the film will be seen in all over the world. Sean Mcallister I'm saying you are great man keep on filming you are the right man. Thank you my friend and God BlessYou.

Naoki Sato (Japan: A Story of Love and Hate): Sean is my most important friend that I've had, the most reliable in the world.

As for the Japanese, they see Westerners as having no modesty, and yet for the first time I saw foreigners being polite about Sean.

Sean is more of a conservative character than the Japanese even, I thought he had a Japanese temperament, more so even than Japanese people.

He was a silent and reliable personality. Gradually I was more open-minded but it took time.

Kevin Rudeforth (Working for the Enemy):  Sean made us feel like we were in a gang, conspiring, making the film together, but he never let us see what he had filmed in case it turned us into performers.

It was just us and him, talking about stuff, secrets, just us and that bloody camera, probing, provoking, devouring, he made us question ourselves; we made him question himself.

Only the lone camera man can do what he does - a fully armed crew with boxes and lights and bags and cases wouldn't have got through my front door, literally and metaphorically.

And from his kids, talking about how they feel about his work:

Kate (Ruth and Sean’s daughter, aged 9): I think it’s cool because he has adventures and he brings me and my brothers presents from the country.

Harry (Ruth and Sean’s son, aged 11): I think it’s wicked but I get a bit scared when he’s in these dangerous places. Because anything can happen to him but the good thing is he always comes back safely.

George (Ruth and Sean’s son, aged 13): I don’t really mind, I knew when he was in prison that they would not do anything because he was British, so I wasn’t really scared, but it is annoying when he goes away because everyone needs to be there and Mummy cannot do it all alone.

Commissioning editors: Sean is currently working on a commissioned film in Greece but is still looking for a commission for his Syrian film. Get in touch with him here.

TenFoot Films on Vimeo

Interact with Sean on Twitter

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Sean's regularly updated Blog

Friday, 29 January 2010

Interview with Al DuVernay of The Age of Stupid

On watching Alvin DuVernay in the documentary The Age of Stupid, I realised that this was an exceptional human being whose voice should be heard. And my gut instinct kept telling me "This man can write." My gut instinct was correct as I saw when he sent me his account of what happened when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. Subsequently I interviewed him, below. Not many men can charm a jaded cynic like me, but Al managed to. What a guy.

In the documentary "The Making of The Age of Stupid", director Franny Armstrong and  co-producer Lizzie Gillett expressed worry about your taking part in the documentary due to the possible negative psychological effect of making you relive your experiences. Franny agreed, but said you'd be great for the film. In the end you did appear, and the film was titled after one of your quotes.

"In my opinion our use or misuse of resources the last   100 years or so, I'd probably rename that age, something like Th  Age of Ignorance, The Age of Stupid."

Indeed, I was being kind by injecting the word "ignorance". That implies that we didn't know any better.

Did appearing cause you psychological trauma as Lizzie had feared?

Quite the contrary. Spending hours in front of a camera was unfamiliar and a bit unnerving for me but expounding at length about my experiences, thoughts and feelings was actually therapeutic. Fran that ruthless... Lizzie was my guardian angel but never mind all that. Unbeknown to me, they both staged a covert rendezvous at a bar (pub) with a local shrink. We all talked and drank and laughed and the diagnosis, still unbeknown to me, was that my psych trauma could only benefit from the probing. And did. I was a mess plagued with sleeplessness, facial tics and periodic tremors (obvious in the film whilst trying to roll a smoke). By the end of the process, I had stopped taking antidepressants, all the physical manifestations had faded, and in general felt humanoid again. Thanks Frannie! Thanks Lizzie!

Or had the fact that you'd previously written about your experiences in Katrina (read here) already exorcised some of the ghosts?

Writing was one of many things that collaborated in my healing - drugs, physical labor, volunteering, friends, family, motorcycle, boat, etc. In retrospect, I can't point at any one thing. As for the ghosts, I fear they will never be exorcised and perhaps never should. The neighbors who died in their attics that I could have saved had I not been so otherwise focused; some of the people in my boat that I was short with and even cruel to because for some reason my compassion and humanity had evaporated for a few dayz. Those regrets will (and should) stay with me forever. Those are teaching ghosts. I shall do better next time because of them.

Why didn't you talk about this in your written piece about Katrina?

Those ghosts and my subsequent meltdown didn't happen until after I wrote that piece I think.

Are you glad you contributed to the film?

Yes. It was a unique experience for me and I made some friendships that will endure. I also think the film has taken on a life of its own and could be a catalyst for positive change. For that I am proud to have made a small contribution.

Have you spoken to any of the people you rescued since?

No I haven't. I find it so bizarre that in four and a half years, in a place as small as New Orleans, that I wouldn't run into at least one of them. My conclusion is that all of our souls and synapses were on overload those dayz and subsequently wouldn't even recognize each other. Having said that, I have the advantage of multiple photo images. I confess that I often look the pics over and spend considerable energy searching for faces in crowds - Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, grocery stores, nightclubs, etc. I would like to make some contact. Some just to see how they are doing like the gal who went into insulin shock in my boat. Some to caress and offer a mea culpa like the gal I made cry by assuring her that the dog she had left in her home a few blocks away had certainly drowned and we'd have no time to search for the animal. Damn it. I would like to weep with her. I can do that now.  No luck yet.

Alvin rescuing Rusty © Chris Graythen Photography

Indeed, have you stayed in touch with any of the people you rescued?

Thanks Jude - I love the closed focus questions. No. I have however, stayed in touch with Chris Graythen. He's the guy that I met the day of the flood. He's a professional photographer and could have been traversing the city capturing award winning images. He chose otherwise and will be forever in my heart for his help.

You say in The Age of Stupid, "A year or so later, after the event, and not a whole lot has changed."  What is the atmosphere in New Orleans now? How has "not a whole lot" changed?

At the time, I was referring mostly to the physical and political aspects of the city. Demolition, waste removal, rebuilding and the like was going very slowly. The city stunk and the policy makers couldn't have been more ineffectual. The political posturing and personal agendas was abundantly obvious and obscene. The local, state and federal leaders could not get together on anything and their inability to agree on who was going to do what and how was enormously counterproductive. That was then.

How is the rebuilding of the city progressing?

Since then, the citizens have taken charge. Our city is world famous for its laissez faire attitude. We are called the Big Easy or the City that Care Forgot and other such nick names. Well, once the residents realized that those with the wherewithal for recovery were virtually impotent, i.e., government entities with heavy equipment, manpower, money and other resources, that's when we mobilized at the neighborhood level. Neighborhood associations sprouted up all over town and bulldozed thru the log jams of recovery. Additionally, I've never seen my citizenry more politically engaged. We are quite literally calling our policy makers out. We show up in numbers at council meetings and political rallies. We mobilize call-ins and write-ins to shit-can certain legislations and legislators. I myself write no fewer than three or four letters to editors and politicians per week. The numb-nuts politicians for the first time are looking over their shoulders and it's very exciting.

You've said you're in the process of rebuilding your house.Are you having to rebuild it from the foundations up?

My house soaked for three weeks in that disgusting mess from floor to ceiling. I couldn't see trying to salvage any of it so had it demolished down to and including the foundation. We broke ground on the new construction a month or so ago - yes, foundation up.

Who's designed the new house?

I designed the house and hired a draftsmen and engineer to draw it all up according to local codes and such. It's a simple design very typical to old New Orleans called a raised basement home and suits my simple life style. Basically, you raise the whole thing up about ten feet off the ground, enclose the area underneath and use that for garage, storage, workshop, etc. The old timers new what they were doing by building up high on piers in case of flooding. Imagine that.

Are you doing all the building work yourself?

No, I've hired a professional builder to deal with all the headaches and subcontractors and such. I did all the research on hi-performance and energy efficiency, and simply point the builders in the right direction. My goal is to eventually be energy independent.

Your temporary house, is that the camp you've mentioned? 

I'm living in a house that I bought a few months after the storm, not the camp. The intent was for it to be temporary while I rebuild. I did all the renovations and energy efficient upgrades in this temporary house since the storm and that has been good practice. With a few simple upgrades, I've reduced my energy consumption by two thirds. That's the sort of stuff that blows my skirt up. I know. I'm truly a geek. When the new house is complete, I will sell this one and someone is going to get a great deal with all the work I've put into it.

Al and friend Diana Shaw at the camp.

The word camp is a very local reference and has nothing to do with camping. When a South Louisiana person uses it, they mean a permanent structure, a cabin in a remote area usually used for pleasure boating, fishing, and hunting and such. My camp is on Bayou Des Allemands - an ancient crevasse splay/distributary channel of the Mississippi River. There are no roads so access is by boat only - about a half hour truck ride from my house to the launch then twenty minute ride in my boat. A buddy and I hauled everything out there in our little boats and built it in the summer of 1972 with hand tools. Since then the power company ran electricity down the bayou so we are wired and have all the conveniences of home - TV, microwave, A/C, refrigerator, freezer, radio, ceiling fans. We haul propane out there to fire our stove and the water is captured in a cistern with rain run-off from the roof.

Bayou country around here has a very rich history. The Native American Indians built up shell middens on the banks while collecting clams. You can see me in the film walking on one of the middens fingering some of the pottery shards that they left behind so many centuries ago. The bayous were also the highways and hideouts for the pirates that used to do their thing around here.

Al's friend Bruce Gebhart
Is there more of an atmosphere of co-operation and help since Katrina with neighbours and friends who went through the hurricane too?
On a daily basis, cooperation and tolerance has improved by orders of magnitude (if such a thing can me measured). There is a spoken and an unspoken sense of camaraderie; a shared feeling of loss, survival and conquest. We volunteer cleaning up green spaces and planting trees. We volunteer our time demolishing and re-building houses. We cook for each other, dance longer, sing out loud and hug with passion - then we hug som'mo. We will never again take for granted the stuff of life.

What is the most memorable thing that has happened as a result of rescuing people?

I gained a personal sense of mortality and appreciation for psychological trauma. I used to feel quite indestructible. I also used to think that I had great powers of empathy. Not so. Until I had my own meltdown, there's no way I could appreciate the debilitating effect.

What is the most humorous thing that has happened as a result of your experience in Katrina?

In the film, the word hero is used. I've heard that a few times from other sources as well. I think that is literally hilarious. A hero is one who puts him or herself in harms way on purpose - think military, police, firemen, educators. I on the other hand, am a dumb fuck that had two dayz to get out of the way of impending danger, and didn't. Here's some humor:  I'd do it again.

What is the most humorous thing that has happened as a result of your appearing in The Age of Stupid?

Well, I find that a crusty old Creole from South Louisiana being on a British Blog kinda funny.

Did you attend any of the Age of Stupid screenings and speak at Q & As?

I was talked into attending the global premier in New York and was glad that the girls brow beat me into doing so. It was so kool to observe all the inner workings of such a thing. The Stupid team pulled off a Herculean event. Inspirational. I was scheduled for some Q & A and interviews but they never materialized. To many moving parts and pieces to fit it all in.

If so, were you ever challenged about the irony of your appearing in a film about climate change, having previously been employed as a paleontologist  by Shell?

I've been asked that and don't find it ironic. Paleontology by definition is a very holistic discipline. You must be a student of physics, biology, climatology, chemistry, philosophy, astronomy, and planet history to name a few. We are charged with integrating all of that in order to unravel and reconstruct Earth changes through time. Many of the geo-sciences, ergo, my colleagues, are the same. We are a planet friendly lot. Corporations (not just oil) on the other hand are in the business of making money within the confines of government rules and regulations. If we make the governments behave, the corporations will be required to behave and we will pay for the consequences and/or reap the benefits. I did what I did and am proud of my professional and environmental accomplishments from the inside.

What's the most stupid thing you've been asked about The Age of Stupid?

The above question is about the only thing that I've been asked so by default...but seriously, if I were to set out to cure, for example, Nigeria's ills exposed in the film, I would be looking down the government's throat, not the corporations. Shell Nigeria is majority owned by the Nigerian government. Not exactly the Shell that I worked for.

What are your feelings about the film and Franny's campaigning for people to recognise the seriousness of climate change?

I love Franny. I find her energy and passion contagious and think the momentum she has created will have real impact. She is indeed fo' real. But Franny n dem left some huge gaps in the cause and effect issues around the Nigerian scenes. No worries from my side - to be completely objective and pose all the info would take a twenty hour film.

When making a documentary you put stuff in there that supports your message and leave stuff out that contradicts it. E.g., Layefa in Nigeria bless her heart - isn't she a doll. She talks about the pollution and oil spills and fish kills and such and eventually goes into the black market fuel business to make a living. What you will never see in a film like Stupid is that the pirates that raid the oil facilities in order to feed the black market are huge contributors to the spills. Their modus operandi and equipment as you can imagine are not exactly environment friendly. Your everyday tree hugger watching the film would never get that. A tree hugger like me with experience in fuel theft would. The film is not lying, it's simply not documenting all the information.

As for climate change, it is indeed very serious and it is equally and simply what's so. By that I mean geologically speaking (the last thousand years or so) we have been in a warming cycle (inter-glacial, high stand system tract, transgression, bla, bla, bla). The debate raging in the political arena however, is about anthropogenic global climate change. Personally, I think the debate is sophomoric at best and only feeds the illusion that leaders are doing something. The only substance that I get from the debate is how important it is for their respective sides to be right at the expense of the other being wrong. Are we causing climate change? WHO CARES!!! How can anybody be against reducing emissions and pollution, and moving toward energy efficiency/independence? Could it be money? Winning? Power? Ego??? Sorry, what was the question?

You say, "If you multiply what happened to a million people living in this area by the billions on this's gonna be ugly".
Can you elucidate  this point?

In that context I was referring to the inability of our elected officials to react to disasters of that magnitude. Hurricane Katrina was a natural event but the destruction after the storm was a man made, civil engineering disaster caused by poorly designed, constructed and maintained levees compliments of the US Army Corps of Engineers. So here is a perfect example of an unaccountable government agency creating a disaster and the same ineffectual government unable to react to it. Now we add the multiplier of the globe because I'm fairly certain that ours is not the only government that thrives on the indulgence of people's tolerances. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, fires, droughts, floods, famines, freezes... Whether these things can be correlated with human activity or not, I don't see our global leaders having the capacity or will to manage effectively. If further, the incidence rate of these disasters increase because of human activity, that looks very ugly in my minds eye. I could quote some Old Testament here for effect.

 Devil Horse Locust at Al's camp.
We are a resilient species. The Earth is also resilient and historically very patient. Resilience and patience like resources are finite. If we ignore our own power to upset the balance of things, some or all components of life as we know it (physical, political, social, environmental) could experience a step change in the wrong direction. We've seen it happen on a small scale e.g., Katrina, Haiti, and there's no reason to believe that it couldn't happen on a global scale. Again.


...and to finish, here's Al's Gumbo recipe. As he says, "Most of the population eat to live, we live to eat." You can buy Gumbo file on eBay international from the USA...

DuV's Gumbo

About Gumbo – It is the quintessential New Orleans food incorporating the rich diversity of cultures in our area. Indeed, the word has become to mean ‘a mix’ of things. Gumbo is an African word for okra. It kills me when people ask if I’d made an ‘okra’ gumbo or if I use okra in my Gumbo. The short answer is that it ain’t Gumbo if there ain’t okra. Other inputs include but are not limited to:  the roux from the French, Tomatoes from the Spanish, seafood from the Eastern Europeans that settled down River, sausage from the Germans (Des Allemandes), and of course, file’ (Sassafras) from the Native American Indians. The lore in my family is that with each additional vege or spice, you will gain a new friend that year.


Roux - 4 oz butter, 1T olive oil, flour (qty is texture dependant)

Gumbo - 2#'s coarse chop onions, 2 large bell peppers coarse chop, 2 1/2 #'s okra coarse chop, 3/4 head celery (chop leaf & stalk), 1 1/2 bunch green onion, 1 head garlic, 2 - 14oz cans whole tomatoes, 2 whole crabs (clean & break in halves or quarters), 5 - pt jars oysters, 4 #'s peeled shrimp; also may add sausage, crawfish, crab meat, boiled egg, weenies, chicken, duck, nutria, gator, wombat, etc...

Seasoning - 1/3 bottle (~1/2oz) gumbo file (fine ground sassafras)*, 3t basil, 1t thyme, 1t rosemary, 1 1/2t salt, 2t ground red pepper; also may add to taste sage, Tabasco, Tony's (Creole seasoning), etc...


Roux - Heat butter and oil in sauce pan; add flour while stirring until consistency is that of thin pancake mix. Stir roux periodically on very low fire until dark vanilla wafer brown. Your roux should smell as rich as it looks. If you burn it start over or your gumbo will taste like burnt toast.

Rope - Fry onions on medium to hi heat (dash of oil for sticking) stirring often for approx 15 min. Add okra, stir violently until slimy texture.

Gumbo - Add canned tomatoes and fluid, add all juice from oyster jars, add roux very slowly while stirring, add fluid if necessary (beer, wine, stock or water), add crabs, seasoning, garlic, celery, bell peppers & green onion. By now you should need 1 or 2 bottles of beer to make it soupy. Add 2t vinegar if you want to cut the slime. Let cook till desired texture (approx 2 hrs), add shrimp & oysters and let cook 15 min after oyster gills curl or approx 30 min.

– Use fresh veges and spices for some or all above when possible. This gumbo should be prepared the day before you want to eat it so that all the flavors can spamodulate properly. Serve over white rice.

Note – The file is a very powerful spice, compliments of our Native American brethren. It will darken the brew and is the distinguishing flavor of Gumbo. The quantity used however, is typically according to your taste. Many will use none or a small amount when cooking and garnish with it upon serving.

Also – Be gentle with salt and or Tony’s if you’ll have sausage. Depending on the sausage, that can add plenty salt to the mix. Better to let it cook and wait to add salt at the end if needed.

Friday, 22 January 2010

John Redhead - A Cathar Forensic and Dead Room Chiseller Exhibitions

Introduction from "For whom The Bells, The Bells toll; a meeting with John Redhead" by Brian Trevelyan.

To most people in the climbing world, John Redhead was best known as arguably the finest rock climber of his day. Some of his routes had to wait for up to ten years before a second ascentionist had sufficient madness or bottle (not to mention ability) to repeat them, and were characterised by lethal seriousness combined with cutting-edge technical difficulty. Many have had no third ascent and Margins of the Mind remains unrepeated, eighteen years on (“What does that say about the youth of today?”, says Redhead). However, his primary means of self expression was his painting; big canvases which mattered more to him than his climbing did, and which was a side of him hardly revealed to the often un-artistically minded climbing public.

 The Mary Station © John Redhead

 John Redhead is currently touring internationally with his multi media intervention - Remains of Languedoc. I interviewed him recently about his work.

The Cathar Forensic series - when did you create these?
Little more than a year ago I recorded some sounds at Montsegur (the last stronghold of the Cathars) - and took these raw sounds to the studio where I started to sketch - after three months I found the 'intent' needed to work the images into the sounds, evoking something of the energy needed to realise the paintings. From the start I have known that there are only about twenty works before the energy fails. It's limiting stuff! It's draining. Some artists play a style out and keep churning out, but that would make me ill - so that will be the sum lot! I will then involve myself with some other theme.

 God will recognise his own © John Redhead

How did you come to find out about the Cathars?
I have known something of the cathar situation for a while - I have a friend in the village who was the president of the Scottish Theosophical Society who is well versed in the 'Mary'/St John stuff and he introduced me to a book - The Blood of Toulouse by Maurice Magre (in French) - and I edited a section of this for an English translation - enthralling stuff and a better read than The DaVinci Code! This was only on paper though. Only recently did the landscape hit me. It's pretty obvious that something went on in the area...not just by travelling through it, walking the hills and seeing the sites - but the geometry and energy of the landscape - physical! I did a similar intervention in the slate quarries of Llanberis - again, the landscape having absorbed what went on there - Soft Explosive hard Embrace. Again, images conjoured up by the textural sounds found there.
One of the pieces is entitled 'rape - a catholic tool' Why?
 The Cathars or rather 'The Pure Ones' (Cathar being a derogatory term coined by the catholics meaning heretic) believed in transcendance from the physical - they were trans-material. As such, the body, the earth, procreation were the result of the Devil. As there was no omnipotent God, they needed to free themselves (their soul) from this prison. For the Cathars, homosexual sex (non procreative sex) was preferred to marital sex. At that time the Roman Catholic church was the opposite and procreative sex (rape etc) preferred over non procreative sex.
 Cake or Death © John Redhead

Another is entitled 'God will recognise his own' - what is the religious significance of this body of work?
On the seize of Beziers a crusader asked the commander Papel Legate Arnaud- Amaury how to tell a Cathar from a catholic, the abbot replied "Kill them all, God will know his own". I keep my own feelings out of my work for the intent to work. However, if I were to take a personal approach, this saying sums up much of the problems that religion causes - and causes to this day.  Seven centuries later, what have we learned? Bullying a belief system onto others that are just 'other' still orders the world! 
 Rape - a catholic tool © John Redhead

 What are your own feelings about god?
I have a spiritual 'other' energy in all I have ever done! I am aware that a part of me is a microscopic part of the whole of creation and beyond - and connects me with everything else...this has nothing to do with god or religion. I don't have to have a belief system to understand a wrongness! The Kaballah makes sense to me - and other pre Christian gnostic stuff - the Uphanishads Hindu scriptures also, Buddism, The tao etc...Pagan ideologies! The shamanic influence is strong in my work. But I don't need any of it to make me aware of who I am and what to do - the spacecraft will appear soon enough!

Is there still strong feeling in the region where you live in the south of France about the The anti-Cathar Albigensian Crusade?

I say that the Cathar forensic searches for fragments as much in the future as in the past. This area of Languedoc was the civilised, tolerant, educated part of what was to become France. The Cathars mixed with the muslims and jews to have discourse and share mutual source material. This ended with the crusade - and the fuedal lords of the north and King of france helped the Pope in disposing the Cathars of their land. French was only imposed on the region in 1700. All other tongues where expunged violently. Anyone who spoke Occitan was burned (remember that Richard the Lionheart King of England spoke Occitan as his common language). When genocide hits the land, the land does not forget..and more importantly with the soul of the people. Civility and chivalry died in this part of the world! Among the French they say this area of France is the 'arsehole of France. The French being generally intolerant and in my opinion openly racist this may have more to do with the Catalans - another race under the subterfuge of the French. The area where I live is historically and culturally Spanish (Catalunya) and now traditionally communist - from the Franco days over the border - Picasso stayed here! The Nazis were embraced here however as the mountain people adapted yet again to change. There is a strong Pagan element in the old folks here. Mary and John the Baptist are worshipped above jesus and the witches (the Bruixa) have their ceremonies. Some houses have larger facing stones on the walls to attract a witch to 'sit down'...and some have trident shaped forks on the apex to stop them (espanta bruixa). I have the exhibition showing in my village at the moment...the mountain folk are not used to art!

Do you really believe that the divine message originally came from Zarathustra and was kidnapped by the church?
At the time we are talking about there were three strands of 'Christianity' - The Jew Jesus line, the Paulicians and the gnostic stuff. To me there is nothing 'divine' with Roman Catholism and the Jesus story is well dodgy! The gnostics travel way back beyond time and possibly hold the most of what was the essence of Christianity. The Cathars were certainly heretic because Catholism wasn't their Christianity! There is something to grasp with the Essenes, the Manicheans, Bogomils...ancient manuscripts for the church to die for! Religion holds no power for me... there is more power in a dog turd on the pavement! However, one must always read between the lines!

The Devil Seeks a Shoulder © John Redhead
Were you brought up a catholic and does this bear any relation to the work you're now producing?

My work is merely a response to where I find myself - I think the primary role of art is that of engagement with the community - not in a local sense but offer the potential of a wider, alternative offering a chariot to a stranger place! Having no 'axe to grind' or no picture to paint means that I am not fudged in the personal!  I am not an artist in the sense that I 'produce' paintings. It is an organic process, often slow and spasmodic, which I hope creates the potential for possibilities, dialogue and latitude. Is it a religious tenet to make the effort to understand oneself in the cosmos? In Hindu scriptures, it is one's duty to connect 'The city of Brahman' in one's heart to the cosmos. Is this religion or a way of life? I think religion can take you away from this goal...communication other than the literal is poetic - transformative. In Thailand it is considered  a duty to learn something new from a stranger every day! Anyone can make pictures to sell and the art galleries are full of style and products and concepts that are displayed like labels in the high street. Not my deal. There is no religious motive in this latest work, but being a religious subject with implication for today, religion informs it.
Ships of Bugaresh © John Redhead

Do you still climb?
The physical act of movement on rock is still important to me. Bouldering mostly on warm rock near the Med. The sangria is good for my old injuries!
The Mary Station © John Redhead

Was there any religious significance in any of your route names?

All my route names where significant! The religious aspect is in the eye of the beholder!  Religious in the sense that they were meaningful and thought out and related to the worship of a divine being? Hmm! Devotion to the superhuman? Religious in the sense of being a football supporter? Employing a certain poetic, some route names certainly had a divine quality! For instance, Margins of the Mind or Rite of Spring. Others were just pure filth! All is sacred.

What are your feelings about Llanberris? It seems to be a place to which you return time and again. Do you still consider it home?
Yep, Llanberis and its mountains are still home! When the evening sun reaches under the black clouds and spreads its luminous green light for all to bathe in - yes - you are home - and the sun embraces the Welsh hills every evening to die! As Augustus John said, "The changing skies reflect our temperament more so than a perpetual blue". It's also nice being in the perpetual blue on the Med, but after a little while I need to play with it and mix a little black reality in there! I'm not a tourist.
God Will Recognise His Own © John Redhead

How do you feel about living in France, up in the Pyrenees? Is it inspiring, artistically?
I'm in the process of writing a book called 'Colonists Out' - (from the political graffiti around Llanberis) exploring what exactly a 'home' is. This was inspired from moving out of Wales into the unknown and realising that we are all 'colonists'. As such our duty is to protect and nourish the land we find ourselves in. I am working in the Pyrenees much the same as I have always worked - be it living in Leeds or Liverpool or the Welsh hills. I don't portray the landscape in a romantic, wooly way - more inspired to interview that lone soul stumbling down the street or take recordings from a heroin addict in a doorway, or construct huge panels of painting and obstruct pathways in the hills! The only art this region of France recognises is that of hunting wild boar! The hunters are the artists! I came around a corner on a piste the other day and there on a stool slept a hunter with his finger on the rifle's trigger pointing my way...I stopped the van and approached him cautiously...he awoke with glee thrusting a bottle of pastis in my face! The church in my village is at an altitude of 666m - this attracts a few alternative types! 200 years ago the church steeple colapsed killing some of the congrigation...on the French side you have Ceret where Picasso lived and on the Spanish side you have Figueres where Salvador Dali lived - Franco woz ere, Pan's Labyrinth was filmed here, Naploeon fought wars here, the Nazis were welcomed here - the Jews escaped into the hills here - this is all history. This does not inspire me as an artist, but informs me - possibly creating a template to work with and reach into and draw a body of work out. I am mostly working with sound here - the area has a musical tradition. I feel my next work will be on the Spanish side (who are more tolerant and engaged with the arts at every level) for a 'bruixa' (witch) theme! Perhaps barcelona which is only one and a half hours away.

Death To Civility © John Redhead

Tell us about the soundscape 'dead room chiseller'

Dead Room Chiseller. My new project! A sonic exploration in loss and suffering.

 Five tracks taken from recordings of the homes and from the voices of those in  suffering from loss.  For some, a loss can become unbearable, and the living space a torture cell of times and moments and actions of the past. It seems a ‘sticky’ land of hauntings and negative thoughts, where one is unable to travel through to new possibilities. This land is entered and life stops.

 All buildings have a presence, and for me the hauntings are part of a sculptural sound that has dialogue with a mythological landscape. This ‘virtual’ land has its origins in the very heart of the home and through visualisation and intent its auditory aura can be meaningful. Giving ‘tongue’ to this skirmishing connects beyond the subjective and personal. I believe such a manifestation can help dissolve the torment and ablate the woeful state of loss.

 This mapping of souls is a kind of sonic mourning, a digital keening that can evoke a unique sense of perception, not only of the world but of your immediate environment and living space.

 For me these ‘songs’ have a certain musical imagery and may be familiar or suggestive. Death and the field of parting is certainly a subject for the ‘banshee’ to enter and pull out some meaning and hope and renewal.

 This canvas is not just a song, but a song sung before the mystery of time.

Did you see The Culture Show special about John Lydon? In it John talks about composing music through the grief he was experiencing. Have you ever felt any kindred feeling with John Lydon or his work?

Don't see the culture show - I don't watch TV - no time and no reception!
Would you ever consider working with other musicians? Musicians like John Lydon or Jah Wobble, say? Or do you prefer to work alone as a musician?

I am not very good at working with others! Something about me. I have tried and will continue to collaborate if it suits. Certainly the soundtracks that I do have an interesting place on the musical energy spectrum but perhaps need to be brought into the wider arena - this is where working with others helps...I tend to 'tangent' my energies to work on other projects...I have five or six at any time! I lack organisational skills and have a poor memory! My big truck that moved me to the Pyrenees has gone back to Earth after having been parked up on some land belonging to a friend (Gilad Atzmon from the Blockheads!) I finished a series of huge paintings in it as part of the 'Interview with the Streets' project and finished the soundtrack (using Gilad's sax sounds), 'Hero Gone Bent' a textural city soundscape with the transcripts from girls working the streets (two have since died) - this was four years ago...and I haven't been in the truck since!

Dead Room Chiseller - A sonic exploration of loss and bereavement - five tracks of recordings from the homes and lives of those in suffering...sonic mourning...

A Cathar Forensic - Words, images & sounds from Montsegur to Rosslyn - “Kill them all, God will recognise his own.”

Exhibition Dates:

Sunday, 15 February 2009, Tuesday, 17 February 2009 at Galeria Kokopelli, Placeta Sant Antoni, Sant Lorenc de Cerdans, France 66260

LLAMFF 2010,  5th to 7th March, Llanberis, Wales