Author Archives: clamorousvoice

About clamorousvoice

Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.

Went up to the Phoenix Picture House last night to see Gomorra, the film based on Roberto Saviano’s novel of the same title. I’d read in the Guardian that the film – which is based on the dealings of the real-life Camorra Neapolitan mafia – had earned him death threats, and see that he’s now decided to leave the country
It’s not a question of authority; my cinematic education started about ten years too late, and I can’t talk about film with the vocabulary or flexibility of my writing on theatre. I am still processing the film, but my eyes (trained by my father) can at least appreciate the stuntwork & camerawork – both are extraordinary, and the latter (in its treatment of Naples and Venice, to which the film briefly relocates) enjoyably perverse. We don’t see Vesuvius or the Bay of Naples; instead, there are endless shots of abandoned quarries & petrol stations around Scampia, and the stubborn eyelines of the Venice sequence mean that all we see is a lot of dirty water. The stunts are startling, and although the interwebs can’t give me any conclusive information about the age of Salvatore Abruzzese, the actor playing Toto, his repeated shinnings up drainpipes, over fences and railings convince me that the laws prohibiting stunts by minors have to be different in Italy. 
Another thing that struck me was the masculine aesthetic in the film – an unspoken, tantalising, even comic exploration of machismo. The film (backed by a pumping Eurotrash soundtrack that for UK ears is more commonly associated with gay clubs than gangsters) opens with closeups of middle-aged, overweight mafia men in sunbeds, and continues with endless shots of sagging male breasts, thick necks, and burnt, deeply freckled shoulders. There is a directorial obsession with the male flesh; the aging and the juvenile male body. In other words, a lot of sweat (and I mean a lot; so many greasy faces that even through 16mm and the dubious HD of the Phoenix, I was counting pores) and skin cancer. Depicting the bodies of the men, the camera’s gaze moves from the neo-realist to the fetishistic With all this (literally) oozing machismo, it’s not surprising that the central relationship between two young Neopolitan men is tinged with more than a hint of homoeroticism. The physical difference between Marco (Marco Marcor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) is strongly marked; Marco is strong, stocky and butch, while Ciro – nicknamed ‘Sweet Pea’ by his friend – has a gauntness that mingles comedy with vulnerability, and it is towards him – if anyone – that the viewer’s sympathies tend. Marco is a man, Ciro a boy. Their love for each other remains touchingly if tautly unchanged during their aborted rise from Camorra initiates to suicidally over-confident (and coked up) bosses. Every character in the film enacts or experiences betrayal; as the other four of the cinque storie brevi, with which the Italian documentary on the film is subtitled, end in bloodshed or abandonment, the viewer waits for something to go horribly wrong between the two boys whose intimacy highlights the dearth elsewhere. They are both horrific and endearing. They are eventually betrayed together, lured to their deaths by one of the Camorra whose boss they’ve annoyed. The wrong note, the clue to the betrayal lies in the proposition; the man they’re supposedly meant to be killing is a ‘traitor’ because ‘he stole my woman’. In Gomorra, this could never be true. Women don’t matter. They barely appear; the sole shot of Pasquale (a likeable tailor who betrays his boss with dreadful consequences)’s wife and baby sleeping peacefully in a double bed reminds us, through its unexpectedness, of the romanticised gangster-passion that the neo-realist Gomorra eschews. There are no priests. No churches. A wedding procession through a Scampia slum is observed by shrieking kids and mafia bosses (there is no participation by the main characters; no emotional engagement in the rite) and walked along a tatty blue carpet that abruptly runs out. One cross hangs above a dying man’s bed; a symbol of hypocrisy given the unChristian behaviour of everybody in the room. there are no funerals. The only ‘coffin’ we see is a ghastly metal container wheeled through to a hospital morgue (my God, the hospitals are disgusting. Although, having been there last week, I have to say that parts of the Churchill in Oxford aren’t much better). At the sliding doors that separate corridor from autopsy room, the motley band of young initiates who’ve accompanied their fallen comrade touch or kiss the gurney, and step back. I waited for one of them to cross themselves. They didn’t. 
Tonight I’m going to see The Vagina Monologues at the New Theatre (can’t believe it’s the New as opposed to the Playhouse or even the OFS – more standard fare for the New is the last show I saw there – Guys & Dolls).  Don’t recognise anyone from this cast, but one – Abi Roberts – has her own website describing her as ‘the British Bette Midler‘. We shall see. Tomorrow it’s back to the coalface, if by coalface you mean the Bodleian and the foulest book of critical theory anyone’s ever been unfortunate enough to see. I am presenting next week on Browning & the ‘Radical Aesthetic’. Not, as yet, sure what the radical aesthetic is. I seem to have spent a lot of this degree (‘this’ degree, ha) thus far googling the meanings of words. Browning is just as good as I remember. I’m using the Wordsworth edition of his Poems while my new one arrives & my GCSE notes are quite hilariously bad. Spending far too much money on books, as per. Meanwhile, the campaign has begun to get college to pay for myself and a friend to attend Between the Covers, a conference on women’s magazines from 1800 to the present day. The Women’s Library are hosting and the speakers sound pretty bloody exciting. Ironically, this is about the only time I’ll justifiably pester college for a travel grant… I’ve never needed £800 to go schlep round the Middle East, for example, but £30 to London and back would be very handy.

Went up to the Phoenix Picture House last night to see Gomorra, the film based on Roberto Saviano’s novel of the same title. I’d read in the Guardian that the film – which is based on the dealings of the real-life Camorra Neapolitan mafia – had earned him death threats, and see that he’s now decided to leave the country
It’s not a question of authority; my cinematic education started about ten years too late, and I can’t talk about film with the vocabulary or flexibility of my writing on theatre. I am still processing the film, but my eyes (trained by my father) can at least appreciate the stuntwork & camerawork – both are extraordinary, and the latter (in its treatment of Naples and Venice, to which the film briefly relocates) enjoyably perverse. We don’t see Vesuvius or the Bay of Naples; instead, there are endless shots of abandoned quarries & petrol stations around Scampia, and the stubborn eyelines of the Venice sequence mean that all we see is a lot of dirty water. The stunts are startling, and although the interwebs can’t give me any conclusive information about the age of Salvatore Abruzzese, the actor playing Toto, his repeated shinnings up drainpipes, over fences and railings convince me that the laws prohibiting stunts by minors have to be different in Italy. 
Another thing that struck me was the masculine aesthetic in the film – an unspoken, tantalising, even comic exploration of machismo. The film (backed by a pumping Eurotrash soundtrack that for UK ears is more commonly associated with gay clubs than gangsters) opens with closeups of middle-aged, overweight mafia men in sunbeds, and continues with endless shots of sagging male breasts, thick necks, and burnt, deeply freckled shoulders. There is a directorial obsession with the male flesh; the aging and the juvenile male body. In other words, a lot of sweat (and I mean a lot; so many greasy faces that even through 16mm and the dubious HD of the Phoenix, I was counting pores) and skin cancer. Depicting the bodies of the men, the camera’s gaze moves from the neo-realist to the fetishistic With all this (literally) oozing machismo, it’s not surprising that the central relationship between two young Neopolitan men is tinged with more than a hint of homoeroticism. The physical difference between Marco (Marco Marcor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) is strongly marked; Marco is strong, stocky and butch, while Ciro – nicknamed ‘Sweet Pea’ by his friend – has a gauntness that mingles comedy with vulnerability, and it is towards him – if anyone – that the viewer’s sympathies tend. Marco is a man, Ciro a boy. Their love for each other remains touchingly if tautly unchanged during their aborted rise from Camorra initiates to suicidally over-confident (and coked up) bosses. Every character in the film enacts or experiences betrayal; as the other four of the cinque storie brevi, with which the Italian documentary on the film is subtitled, end in bloodshed or abandonment, the viewer waits for something to go horribly wrong between the two boys whose intimacy highlights the dearth elsewhere. They are both horrific and endearing. They are eventually betrayed together, lured to their deaths by one of the Camorra whose boss they’ve annoyed. The wrong note, the clue to the betrayal lies in the proposition; the man they’re supposedly meant to be killing is a ‘traitor’ because ‘he stole my woman’. In Gomorra, this could never be true. Women don’t matter. They barely appear; the sole shot of Pasquale (a likeable tailor who betrays his boss with dreadful consequences)’s wife and baby sleeping peacefully in a double bed reminds us, through its unexpectedness, of the romanticised gangster-passion that the neo-realist Gomorra eschews. There are no priests. No churches. A wedding procession through a Scampia slum is observed by shrieking kids and mafia bosses (there is no participation by the main characters; no emotional engagement in the rite) and walked along a tatty blue carpet that abruptly runs out. One cross hangs above a dying man’s bed; a symbol of hypocrisy given the unChristian behaviour of everybody in the room. there are no funerals. The only ‘coffin’ we see is a ghastly metal container wheeled through to a hospital morgue (my God, the hospitals are disgusting. Although, having been there last week, I have to say that parts of the Churchill in Oxford aren’t much better). At the sliding doors that separate corridor from autopsy room, the motley band of young initiates who’ve accompanied their fallen comrade touch or kiss the gurney, and step back. I waited for one of them to cross themselves. They didn’t. 
Tonight I’m going to see The Vagina Monologues at the New Theatre (can’t believe it’s the New as opposed to the Playhouse or even the OFS – more standard fare for the New is the last show I saw there – Guys & Dolls).  Don’t recognise anyone from this cast, but one – Abi Roberts – has her own website describing her as ‘the British Bette Midler‘. We shall see. Tomorrow it’s back to the coalface, if by coalface you mean the Bodleian and the foulest book of critical theory anyone’s ever been unfortunate enough to see. I am presenting next week on Browning & the ‘Radical Aesthetic’. Not, as yet, sure what the radical aesthetic is. I seem to have spent a lot of this degree (‘this’ degree, ha) thus far googling the meanings of words. Browning is just as good as I remember. I’m using the Wordsworth edition of his Poems while my new one arrives & my GCSE notes are quite hilariously bad. Spending far too much money on books, as per. Meanwhile, the campaign has begun to get college to pay for myself and a friend to attend Between the Covers, a conference on women’s magazines from 1800 to the present day. The Women’s Library are hosting and the speakers sound pretty bloody exciting. Ironically, this is about the only time I’ll justifiably pester college for a travel grant… I’ve never needed £800 to go schlep round the Middle East, for example, but £30 to London and back would be very handy.

NI students believe women rape victims cause their own attacks, says Amnesty

Another reason why extension of abortion rights to Northern Irish women is so important: the widespread, appalling attitude that NI rape victims (the ones who, you know, don’t have automatic access to abortion) can be responsible for their attacker forcing himself upon them
Last month (2008), Amnesty International interviewed 715 NI students across four Ulster campuses. The students were questioned on their attitudes to the treatment of women in dating, sexual relationships, and their attitudes to rape and sexual assault.
44% of students thought a woman who was drunk was partly or totally responsible for being raped.
46% of students thought that if a woman had been flirting, then she was partly or totally responsible for being raped.
– If a woman failed to say ‘no’ clearly enough to her attacker, then 48% of students thought that she was at least partly responsible for being raped.
30% of students thought that if a woman was wearing sexy or revealing clothing, then she was partly or totally responsible for being raped. 
33% of students thought that a woman known to have had (to have had!) multiple sexual partners was partly or totally responsible for being raped (this one really horrifies me… so because she’s had several, past, consensual relationships, if a man forces her to perform a sex act on him, or forces himself on her, it’s her own fault?).
47% of students thought that if a woman got raped while walking alone in a dark or dangerous area, she was partly or totally responsible.
All these figures are significantly higher than Amnesty’s 2006 poll of 16-18 year old UK mainland students, and to a 2005 poll of British adults. With such harsh attitudes to rape, with such endemic cultural hostility to victims of rape, it becomes even more important to ease the experience of NI women rape victims; some of whom will be pregnant and seeking abortion. Sarah Palin may attest that if her daughter was raped, she’d expect her to carry the baby to term, but her attitudes have no place in the UK. All women deserve better, but Britain has a chance to give these women – the women of Northern Ireland – the rights they deserve, now.

Give Northern Irish women the right to choose.

For some, 1967 was a great year in politics. But not for the women of Northern Ireland.
The women of Northern Ireland deserve to enjoy the same Abortion rights that UK women currently hold under the 1967 Abortion Act. Stand up for their rights by petitioning the Prime Minister to extend the Act to Northern Ireland. Sign the petition here. Currently, no Northern Irish woman has the automatic right to abotion. Not even if she’s the victim of rape or incest.
Every year, thousands of our NI sisters have to travel for the UK for abortions (costing up to £2,500 each), attempt illegal and unsafe home abortions, or face the sadness of carrying to term a baby that they know – every day of the nine months and beyond – that they simply do not want. In 2007, at least  1,343 fled to the UK from NI to get an abortion. In the absence of the 1967 Act, NI women are still subject to the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, passed a disgusting 147 years ago. You know, back before we had the vote. 
In the midst of the peace process, Northern Irish politicians remain willing to fight a war over women’s bodies, offering no solution to the violence of rape and the misery of unwanted pregnancy. 
Every woman deserves the right to choose.
The petition is submitted by Dr Audrey Simpson of the FPA (Family Planning Association). Many thanks to Laurie @ Penny Red for the heads-up (her article here on Liberal Conspiracy).

MOTHERLAND

On Sunday night (Mothers’ Day), my mum and I went to see Motherland, the most moving piece of political theatre I’ve ever seen. Directed by Juliet Stevenson, the piece was intended to be a one-off: Stevenson spoke at the beginning of how she and fellow actors Harriet Walter and Paola Dionisotti (and co-creator Natasha Walter) had expected to play to “60 people at most”. The packed Young Vic audience, which included theatrical intelligensia Alan Rickman and Corin Redgrave (a lifelong activist with sister Vanessa, with particular interest in Romani rights), as well as playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, ended the evening in a standing ovation, and Motherland will happen again on 15th March. Anyone who cares about asylum rights, or simply the rights of women and children, should be there.

The government has an exemption on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (a “universally agreed set of non-negociable standards”) with regard to asylum seekers. The human rights of asylum seekers’ children do not matter. THE LABOUR GOVERNMENT DELIBERATELY WROTE THIS IN SO THEY WOULD NOT HAVE TO CARE ABOUT THESE CHILDREN. Oh dear, were those allcaps? Every year, 2000 children living in the UK are locked up without having committed any crime. They can have been living in the UK for years, attending school, speaking English and making British friends. They often feel and identify as British. They may even have been born here, but as the children of (sometimes failed) asylum seekers, they can be forced out of their beds at dawn, shoved into a van and driven for hours to one of three detention centres, where they live behind barbed wire and in the presence of security guards. These three centres are Dungavel House in Lanarkshire, Tinsley House near Gatwick airport, and Yarl’s Wood, the largest of the centres, near Bedford. It is on Yarl’s Wood that Motherland focuses.

How can we live in a world where the response to these women and children – victims of rape and torture, women who have been driven from their homelands – how can we live in a world where the response to them, in our fat spoilt privileged country, is anything other than I’m so sorry this has happened to you, come in and sit down and tell us how to help (or even, my god, thank you for believing in Britain and that you’ll be safe here, it’s a faith we don’t deserve)? What is wrong with us that we cannot see that this is the ONLY safe, legitimate, reasonable, sane, moral response to these women and their children?

The evening told the stories of five families, interspersed with voiceovers telling the stories of more women, from Cameroon; from Nigeria; from Uganda. Cennet Avcil (Stevenson) brought her daughter Meltem (Rosalind Brody) and younger son to England from Turkey. She had been raped repeatedly by her husband’s political opponents. After several years in Swansea (during which time her husband left her), she and her children were arrested at dawn by Yarl’s Wood detention officers, and imprisoned. In Yarl’s Wood, Meltem formed a bond with Jasmine, the daughter of Celeste. Also in Yarl’s Wood was Janipher Maseko (Noma Dumezweni), who came from Uganda with her daughter. She became pregnant with another child, born 14 months later; her daughter was removed from her and taken into care while her mother was in labour. She was detained at first without her children, while still breastfeeding. For THREE DAYS, this woman was left in a police cell with no shower, no change of clothes, and no idea where her children were. Her befriender, Morgan Gallagher (Dionisotti) described how Maseko had endured the following —

  • Police officers refused to give her sanitary towels despite her heavy bleeding from the birth. She sat in a pool of blood while being interviewed.
  • Her breasts were excruciatingly painful; she was told to take drugs to dry up her milk.
  • Uncertainty as to where her children were; refusal on the part of the authorities to give her a pump that would allow her to lactate. When Gallagher brought her an electrical pump, she was not allowed to use it. When Gallagher returned with a hand pump, they were only allowed to meet in a room full of cameras and two-way mirrors, despite both women having to bear their breasts to practise using the pump. Gallagher and her two-year-old son were BOTH body searched before being allowed into the camp.
  • The developmental difficulties of her children (returned to her in Yarl’s Wood): her baby son was suffering from skin contact deprivation, while her toddler daughter became depressed and withdrawn.
  • Like many asylum seekers, Janipher received insufficent legal representation. Many law firms have stopped providing legal aid because it just isn’t lucrative anymore.
Speakers during the evening included Helena Kennedy QC, Helen Bamber, and two women called Angela and Trudie (not their real names). Both were beautiful Ugandan women, well-dressed and devastatingly articulate. Both were mothers, and both were asylum seekers.

How to speak of these women? Angela was at pains to stress that she had come from a good family; she had had a wonderful childhood. She was, she said, her father’s princess – not the sort of person who “ever expected to beg for anything”. But her father had political enemies, and one evening those enemies arrived at their home, to beat the father and rape the daughter, holding his head so that he was forced to watch. She spoke clearly and confidently as she described her father’s experiences; his imprisonment, and how it forced her to seek help from a neighbour, a family friend who took her into his home. “This was,” she said, “the second rapist that I encountered”. She too was in Yarl’s Wood after coming to this country. Her university, thank God, enrolled her despite her uncertain asylum status, and she graduates this summer. What struck me above all was how much she smiled, laughing and raising her fist in a self-mocking gesture of triumph when she mentioned the completion of her criminology degree. She looked into the audience’s eyes, and her voice never faltered. “We have dreams, like you,” she said, “and those dreams have not died. We have the same desires and the same wishes, but where is the opportunity?”. It wasn’t a plea or a complaint, it was a challenge.

Trudi’s story was almost more harrowing. Her father had tried to force her into marriage with a man from the Sebei culture, practitioners of female circumcision. Trudi’s refusal led her father to start beating, imprisoning and ultimately raping her. Her first child is her father’s, and her father tried to kill the child. Her maternal aunt sheltered mother and daughter; her father subsequently burnt down the house. Her aunt somehow managed to find the money to fly Trudi and her daughter to England.

Her asylum claim was refused when she was 18. She appealed, but before the appeal was over, Home Office men arrived at dawn. By now she had a baby son as well, sick with asthma. She was arrested and spent six weeks in Yarl’s Wood, where she became suicidal (who’s surprised), terrified for her family’s future. Her mental health remained poor during her six months on the streets after being released; at the start of 2006, she was detained again. Her children were taken into foster care, and she was told she’d see them again when she was deported. Ten days later, she was at Gatwick, handcuffed and screaming, physically assaulted by escorts who pushed on her head and back. Her children saw everything.

Trudi still doesn’t know why she wasn’t deported that day, but she was dragged off the flight and spent another four months in Yarl’s Wood before being released.

Get involved

The evening was hosted by Women For Refugee Women. If you too are appalled by the detention of children and the plight of women asylum seekers in the UK (for which I can only add “read: if you have a shred of common decency in you”), feel free to do, read, visit and contemplate any of the following. You can do things. You can do them now.

  • SIGN THIS petition, to be taken to Harriet Harman, “Minister for Women and Equality”:

    We call on the UK govenment to ensure that the persecution women face, including rape, honour crimes and female genital mutilation, is taken seriously in asylum claims; we call on the government not to make destitute, detain or deport women who are at risk of gender-related persecution.

  • WRITE TO THE HOME SECRETARY. Jacqui Smith (she’s a woman, she’s a woman, what’s the matter with her) can be reached at the following address: Rt Hon Jacqui Smith MP, Secretary of State for the Home Office, 3rd Floor, Peel Building, 2 Marsham Street, London SW1.
  • BE A BEFRIENDER. Befrienders like Morgan Gallagher visit women and children in detention. Find a list of Befrienders’ Groups at http://www.aviddetention.org.uk.
  • DONATE time, money or resources to groups which support asylum seekers. Requested goods include toys, clothes, toiletries and non-perishable foods. The following groups exist in London:
  • SUPPORT any of the following organisations working to challenge immigration detention;
    • Refugee Women’s Resource Project @ Asylum Aid [providing support, protection and security for women asylum seekers, since 2000]
    • Bail for Immigration Detainees [independent charity working to challenge detentions in removal centres and prisons]
    • Medical Justice [network of doctors and asylum seekers with two aims. ONE: to end the poor healthcare of detainees, and TWO: to end the detention of torture survivors]

The survivors
Meltem, Celeste, Anna, Jasmine and the other women portrayed onstage were all in the audience, and at the end of the evening they joined Stevenson, Walter, Dionisotti and Dumezweni onstage. The Helen Bamber Foundation music group played on drums and guitars; I saw Walter’s eyes fill with tears as she stood silently on one side of the stage. Bamber was one of the first people to enter Bergen-Belsen in 1945; I wonder what parallels she draws now.

MOTHERLAND will happen again at the Young Vic on 15th March. Tickets are £10, free to asylum seekers. Seating is unreserved. Tube stop: Southwark.