The Spirit of Things, ABC-Radio National (Australia)
Dr. Rachael Kohn talks with Mairéid
about the award-winning film
Time after Time
Listen to this interview here
Opening song: Mairéid singing “Feeling Wings”
Rachael Kohn: Mairéid Sullivan is one of Australia’s Celtic treasures, a voice like a trilling bird, she’s also a songwriter of rare talent, and now a filmmaker. Time After Time is an extended hymn to nature and indigenous traditions, across three continents. It’s been selected for many international film festivals, and it’s just been awarded Best Documentary Film at the 7th International Panorama of Independent Filmmakers held in Athens.
Songs and words of wisdom weave through the film, like this excerpt from the historic speech by one of America’s native sons, Chief Seattle.
We have taught our children the Earth is their Mother. Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons of Earth. This we know. The Earth does not belong to man. The man belongs to Earth. This we know. All things are connected, like the blood which unites our family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons of Earth.
Rachael Kohn: Mairéid Sullivan, welcome to The Spirit of Things.
Mairéid Sullivan: Thank you for having me, Rachael.
Rachael Kohn: Mairéid, you’re well known as a singer, especially of Celtic folksongs. When did you become a filmmaker?
Mairéid Sullivan: About four years ago. Actually more than that, about seven years ago I discovered binoculars, and got addicted to seeing things magnified. And the binoculars were very heavy, so we bought a film camera, because I wanted to capture the scenes of nature that we often went out to visit. We have a habit of going out at dawn to land in beautiful wilderness places. That’s when we got the camera and the tripod that meant that I didn’t have to hold heavy binoculars, and then we just pressed ‘Record’ and there we had it.
Rachael Kohn: Well your film, Time After Time, certainly is an evocation and elegy, to nature, and to the earth, but it starts out with that famous shot of the earth from the Apollo spacecraft in 1972. Do you think that was a turning point in the way we understood the earth, and our lives on the earth.
Mairéid Sullivan: I think so, and I think it will take a long time before we realise what an impact that has had on us. That was the very first time that human beings saw the earth in the same way that they see the moon or the sun up in the sky. And we’re used to seeing the sun and the moon as multifaceted servers of our every need. From photosynthesis through to warmth, but we still don’t know what the earth is doing in the universe, what the purpose of it is, so it puts us back to our deep questions of purpose, sense of purpose, I think.
Rachael Kohn: Is that what motivated you to make this film? To find out what is the purpose of the earth and our lives on it?
Mairéid Sullivan: Well I’ve been asking that question since I was a very little girl, and I’m finding every tool I can to help me never stop asking those questions. Basically that’s what it’s all about, it’s about finding ways to keep that wonder and that questioning alive in my own life, through every medium that I can, whether it’s singing a song, or whether it’s trying to write a poem, trying to capture thoughts and words, or in the magic of actually seeing it in images.
I like to paint watercolours, and Ben my partner is an oil painter, and he loves large canvases, and so for both of us it was just like being children again, having this ability to edit film and also the fact that we’re musicians and that we’re used to working with multi-tracking instruments, we feel that was a very important part in our contribution to this film, because we’ve brought all sorts of layering in to the film, and that’s a little bit unusual in film.
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Rachael Kohn: Well that layering in the film includes quite a strong theme of indigenous traditions. What made you choose the three that you focused on.
Mairéid Sullivan: The answer must come from the soles of my feet. Because I have such really strong, I call them indigenous, memories of my childhood on the farm on the hill where we grew up in Ireland, and my whole visceral reality is bound up in that long-term memory.
In 1991, I became what my former producer jokingly called a Mel-born again Celt, (in Mlbourne) when I discovered that there was such a thing as 'ancient' Celtic history. I didn’t know about that before. I’d studied American history and I’d studied Chinese history, but I didn’t know about the ancient Celts, and the thing that absolutely blew me off my chair were a couple of the old concepts. Such as Anam Cara, which means soul friend, and I’ve grown up in a generation that’s always looking for soul mates. Well it was so liberating to think that everybody can be a soul friend, instead of the exclusive nature of the soul mate.
It was much better for me to contemplate what soul friendship is, and then I spent years analysing that, and I came to understand through traditional Irish dance, and comparing it to yoga or tai chi, and slowed down. It’s in the tradition of body consciousness, because if you are very still and make yourself light, like in Irish dancing, you’re leaping up into the air and you barely touch down before you’re leaping up again, so you’re actually aiming for levitation so that you can feel the lightness of your body and then focus on the energy around your body.
And so Anam Cara then to me is the meeting of two people who are very in touch with their bodies and the energy around their bodies and within themselves. So when you come to meet, you can perceive the touching of energy before you physically touch. It is the etheric body, if you like, that extends around us, the energy that extends around us. So you have that interaction between people that’s so visceral and so meaningful, and it’s got nothing to do with controlling each other, it gives complete freedom, and that’s Anam Cara, soul friendship.
Rachael Kohn: And that plays quite an important part in the film. The first part of the film actually focuses on the Irish Celtic tradition, but then it moves into America with the Native Americans.
Mairéid Sullivan: Yes. Well my partner Ben is of Scottish Cherokee tradition, and his great-great ancestor, Flora White, who came from Scotland in 1663 with seven sons. She was a lawyer, and she moved into North Carolina one year after that territory was ‘opened up’ by a very feudal system. But they were Quakers, and they escaped Scotland because of the religious persecutions.
So having moved into the new territory and living amongst the Cherokees, and of course coming in that peaceful tradition, they brought that and engaged with the native people in that same serious beautiful tradition that the Quakers have. They don’t impose a dogma, they wait for inspiration and they meet each other with that very same ancient respect that I find in the ancient Celtic roots. So you have two realities in America, you have the meeting of people who have profound respect for life and the wonder of the magnitude of infinity, and infinite intelligence, and then you have the other side of it, which is the feudal structures that bind and oppress. And of course there is the vastness of America.
You know, Ireland is such a tiny little place, it’s only 300 miles long and 200 miles wide, and it’s very moist, and so everything, the mountains, seem close in that moist air. Whereas, in America, and in Australia too, the distances are vast, and of course the continents are vast.
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Rachael Kohn: Australia is where you also focus on the third indigenous tradition, the Aboriginal people. So you have that continuity through the film.
Mairéid Sullivan: Well I’m very aware of the wonderful reality that nowhere else on the planet do we have living links to ancient mythologies that the Aboriginal people still visualise in their dreaming, in their personal dreamings. Donny Woolagoodja, whose paintings are featured in our film, in the Australian section, he’s from the Kimberley area. He talks about the Wandjina, those are the spirits of painted rocks in the Kimberley areas, and he’s taken on the job of repainting those. He feels that the job of every generation is to maintain the link with the ancient cultures. And he says that they have to be looked at, and the spirit is in them, he even says that if white people had a Wandjina, I love this quote from him, that “they should look at it, because the spirit is in there”.
And you know, we do have Wandjina, we have beautiful sacred images all the way through our heritage and they’re still giving us the energy that they’ve come with from their original meaning. So we have an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the wisdom and the beauty of our ancestors that’s still alive, and it also comes through with the poetry and the songs.
Rachael Kohn: Speaking of songs, your music weaves through the film, Time After Time, and your song, 'Colour Me' actually draws that out, it’s a beautiful juxtaposition.
Mairéid Sullivan: I wrote that song in tandem with Steve Wilson here in Melbourne back in 1992, just after I’d begun to write songs, and my first song was called ‘Dreaming the Dreaming’, and in order to get myself to be able to put words down for the first time in my life, I had to go deep into memory, and knowing what I knew then of the Aboriginal culture, helped me to trace my lineage deep into history. I love the urban life. I love being close to people, but I think we have to bond with nature and it really helps us if we do.
Rachael Kohn: The song ‘Colour Me’ by my guest Mairéid Sullivan, who together with her partner, musician and composer Ben Kettlewell, produced the film Time After Time. The excerpt of Chief Seattle’s speech, which we heard earlier, was read by Ben Kettlewell, who is himself of Native American Cherokee heritage.
Rachael Kohn: The colours of the continents are so different. Australia’s so bright, Ireland is so green, and wet, and America has this sort of sepia brown colour that has a lot to do with the portraits you show of the Native Americans. They were especially beautiful and Chief Seattle figures pretty prominently there. As well as his speech, which is quite well known. What does his speech mean to you?
Mairéid Sullivan: It shows to me that he saw the newcomers as not having a heart. The city of Seattle, Washington, was named after Chief Seattle. He’s from the Puget Sound of Washington State, and the sepia pictures you saw, were taken by Edward Curtis. Curtis gave 30 years of his life, from 1900 to 1930, photographing the Western United States, just at the time when the culture was being overridden by the rush for gold and the population rush to take land in the West.
Seattle he was a great leader amongst his people. His speech is now known universally. He spoke to the white man. He tried to appeal to the heart of the white man. He wanted them to understand that his people, his laughing children, the young, happy maidens whose pictures you see in the film, they’re beautiful people who live a bright life and a beautiful culture, and they’re suddenly being taken over by a virus of a new culture that has no pity on them, and no interest in their humanity, and is ready to wipe them out for the sake of taking over their lands, and that’s what he was up against.
Rachael Kohn: I think he says in the film something like ‘Much trouble and death would be avoided if we opened our hearts more. Love your life’, he says, ‘beautify all things in your life.’
Mairéid Sullivan: So perfect. That’s what we should be doing.
Rachael Kohn: Well it’s interesting too that the Aboriginal elder who is quoted in the film, Time After Time --
Mairéid Sullivan: Bobby Bunnungurr.
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Rachael Kohn: He says ‘Two people living together black and white, we are one red blood’. How important is that message for you, that mixing up of peoples?
Mairéid Sullivan: Well, bringing us right back to your original question - how do we see ourselves in the universe? Our borders, and our nationalities mean nothing to us. We are humanity, all of us, and it’s a miracle that we are able to understand each other, from ancient cultures that are so diverse, we meet in a multicultural context and we have the same human heart, and we have the same red blood and we have the same everything, except the colour of our skin which is so superficial. And we should just get on with the joy, the joy that is our inheritance.
You know, the ancient Irish… I actually had a major epiphany in Ireland, and one of the reasons why I go back and forth through all these cultures is because that’s how it is in my mind. I put my forehead to a rock in the great stone circle of Grange up in Limerick, just near the Tipperary border, and I had a major epiphany. When I saw -- and this is in the daytime when we were filming there -- I saw a night-time scene of people in front of me, and on my right shoulder facing me but looking up at the moonlight, was a face, I don’t know whether it was a man or woman, but I could read their mind psychically. And this person was saying that he would passionately live to see the day when human beings would embrace their heritage of joy. So even the rocks speak.
Rachael Kohn: Well that’s exactly what you manage to do in Time After Time, you’ve woven together three very different indigenous traditions from three different continents and yet they sort of all melt in together, they all speak to each other. There’s a consciousness that is shared.
Mairéid Sullivan: Yes, there’s a delight, you know that raw delight that human beings have when they’re happy and they’re not being oppressed.
Rachael Kohn: Now does this have something to do with the fact that you’re a singer?
Mairéid Sullivan: Well you know, I believe that the best education a child can have is to rote learn, and to learn a song is one of the best trainings for the mind, because when you memorise poetry or songs, you can forget about the words and you can allow the meaning of the song to come through you, and that takes you into a deeper space, which is timeless and has got nothing to do with place.
Rachael Kohn: Well the Irish have some great songs. You sing 'The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry', a song that I used to sing since my childhood. It’s full of mythical allusions.
Mairéid Sullivan: What about that line, when she tells the silkie off for begetting a child by her, when she says "It was na weel indeed" quo' she,
"that the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry should come and aught a bairn to me" “ought” means “without meaning”. Isn’t that fascinating?
Rachael Kohn: Yes, because the silkie is a seal, he comes up from the deep, and when he’s on land he becomes a man.
Mairéid Sullivan: A shapeshifter.
Rachael Kohn: A shapeshifter?
Mairéid Sullivan: Yes, definitely he’s referring to that view that people had in the Western Islands, that the animals, well the animals have life. I mean, that’s actually quite an interesting thing to talk about you know, because you look around at any animal today and if you look at it long enough and care for it enough, you see it has a being, and so of course those people who lived with those seals and sea creatures, they looked out to the West and there was the land Tir Na nOg, of eternal life. And the spirits came and went, they were able to move through multiple dimensions. You know, through quantum physics, we’re beginning to realise that idea of multiple dimensions, it’s tangible.
Rachael Kohn: There’s also I think a connection here in that all three Aboriginal traditions have a profound relationship to the natural world, to the animal world.
Mairéid Sullivan: Well, yes. Anybody who works in a garden or who has been raised in the country knows how they’re imbued with the spirit of the ground they work in. And they love it. Now that’s the thing. You know, you look at the full moon, and you look at it long enough, you’re just filled with love for it. And I think that love, that’s where love grew, I think love grows out of our respect and wonder, and it’s with our environment; it’s with the land. And I think remembering that is a good thing, because we’ll take care of that which we love.
Rachael Kohn: Do you hope your film will instil this reverence, or reconnect human beings to nature?
Mairéid Sullivan: Yes, I do. I hope that it will make people feel that lovely softness, that big-hearted feeling of joy and thankfulness for the life we have, and the wonder and all the mysteries we’re faced with daily.
Rachael Kohn: Well there’s certainly some whimsy in the film, and in your life I suppose, with the Irish beliefs in fairies.
Mairéid Sullivan: I wanted to show that multidimensional nature of nature, and I looked through all my libraries and I looked through friends’ libraries, and one day, of course you’ll find something in the last place you look. Right there on my bookshelf, was William Butler Yeats’ Fairy Folk Tales of Ireland, first published in 1892. And it was the introduction to the chapter on the Trooping Fairies.
I read it, and it was just ‘Oh my God, he’s said it perfectly’. Yeats, the Magus of the 20th century, according to many people, described perfectly the relationship between nature and humanity and the possible -- he describes how our lineage, the ancient Irish lineage has been transformed into fairy stories, when in actual fact they are the gods, the pantheon of gods and the ancestors of the Celtic and Irish people, all the Celtic people of the Western European area. They’ve now become diminutive, and little fairies a few spans high, you know.
Rachael Kohn: Well I must say I learned a lot about fairies in the film.
Mairéid Sullivan: That’s good.
Rachael Kohn: Now your film ends as it began, in the heavens, with some of the most beautiful shots of the Milky Way and the Nebulae, the Moon the stars, the words of the song that you sing at the end reminded me a bit of the Song of Solomon, which is read as a love poem to another human being, as well as to God.
Mairéid Sullivan: Well there you are, that’s exactly right. That song, I wrote that for Ben, it’s my love song to Ben, and it’s to the universe, not a word needs to be changed. You know, when you love people like that, it’s universal, it’s infinite, it’s unending. It’s all-embracing.
Rachael Kohn: Well Mairéid, may the fairies watch over you.
Mairéid Sullivan: And you, Rachael. Thank you so much, lovely to talk with you.
Rachael Kohn: Mairéid Sullivan was my guest today. She’s well-known as a singer, and is now a film maker. Time After Time has just won an international film award for Best Documentary Film, and to find out more about it, just go to her website lyrebirdmedia.com. The details will also be on our website.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s change of pace on The Spirit of Things. It was produced by none other than Geoff Wood and myself, with technical production by Angus Kingston.
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