Shooting from the hip
“After I was shot and paralysed in Cape Town I had to go through a spiritual rediscovery because for so long I had identified myself in a particular way—as a certain body. When such a traumatic event happens, however, it really cuts you down and you’re forced to look deeper into yourself—into your essence,” says activist Shelley Barry, who will be celebrating five years as a filmmaker with a retrospective of her work at this year’s Artscape Women’s Arts Week.
“You then have to ask yourself: ‘What are you going to be doing with the rest of your time now that you have been given some more?’ For me, the answer was simple: I wanted to use myself as a conduit for stories,” says Barry, who was injured while travelling in a taxi in Cape Town.
Her first foray into being this conduit was Whole—A Trinity of Being, which she shot in 2003 while on a Ford Foundation scholarship to study film at Philadelphia’s Temple University. “A professor there told us that the first film we shoot is the one that we feel we have to tell,” she says.
It was then that Barry initiated her now-trademark style of shooting from her wheelchair-bound vantage point (“or as high as my arms can reach,” she laughs) to share with the world her experience of coming to terms with her “wounded body”. The result is a film that is deeply affecting and poignant, yet ultimately celebratory.
Though she maintains the film, which garnered no less than eight awards internationally, “made me no real money, what was so enriching for me was how so many people came up to me after seeing it and told me how it had provided them with some healing in their own lives”.
This she ascribes not so much to her skill as an auteur, but rather to the power inherent in the telling of one’s own stories. “We all carry stories, yet it is only when you tell those stories that others can relate to it and see in it a representation of their own experiences. It becomes a healing process for so many people.”
It is with this retrospective of 11 short films that Barry hopes to share more of her experiences with local audiences, who, she is the first to admit, have not had much access to her body of work (which includes experimental and narrative documentaries, video art, performance poetry and, “one of my favourites”, observational documentaries).
“Because I had been living in-between Philadelphia and New York for so long before returning home, people in the States and other parts of the world got to see a lot of my work, but people at home not ... and that’s just not right,” she laughs.
Not only will the retrospective hopefully redress this situation, but it also looks set to introduce audiences to different facets of Barry the filmmaker and consummate storyteller. Though still deeply personal, the issues are much broader than those she dealt with in her debut short film.
Digging into her “colourful” family’s history, Where We Planted Trees looks at how her Port Elizabeth-based family were forcefully removed from their home as part of the Group Areas Act and what that loss has meant for them.
“My family were very attached to this house. Every time we would drive past the house the stories would come out thick and fast and this always fascinated me; the stories behind this attachment.
“One day I found a photograph in my granny’s house and at the back of it was written: “Fairview—the happiest days of our lives”. My grandpa died shortly after this eviction at the young age of forty-something. They always said he died of a broken heart.”
The National Film and Video Foundation-funded New York/New Brighton, which was shot in the New York Bronx and New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, on the other hand looks at the different dreams held by two young girls with disabilities living indifferent parts of the world (the Bronx, New York Bronx and New Brighton, Port Elizabeth).
“The girl from New Brighton’s dream is to meet Mandela, while the girl from the Bronx dreams of meeting Yemaya, an African goddess who lives in the sea.”
Barry’s efforts at getting young, aspirant filmmakers to “tell their own stories” goes further than mere lip service. In addition to hosting weekly workshop sessions with young aspirant filmmakers (under the guise of the Fabulous Woodstock Film Club), she also works as head of programming at the recently launched community channel, Cape Town Television (CTTV). This, she says, “helps [her] to shape the content of the channel. There is so much rubbish on our televisions these days, but this is television with a social conscience.” And, despite having, “zero rand in our acquisitions budget, we are really growing. It is for me the most exciting place to be right now.”
It is this passion and dedication to her cause which has seen to it that, despite the many challenges thrown her way, Barry has stayed true to her words in Whole: “I have chosen not to wear that garment of bitterness so easily fitted to the wounded body. I chose to cut other patterns; to sew garments and stitch and thread a place of my own; a canvas of colours with which to create a different way of being in this world.”
Shelley Barry: Shorts—A 5-Year Retrospective screens at Artscape Theatre’s Women’s Arts Week Festival on August 7 and 8.