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Rachael Romero on In the Shadow of Eden

Rachael Romero, Jay Arthur and Adele Chynoweth, 29 November 2011

JAY ARTHUR: Welcome to the National Museum and to the Australian premiere of this remarkable film In the Shadow of Eden by writer, photographer, film maker and artist Rachael Romero. I am Jay Arthur, and for the last two years I have been working on the project Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions. It was funded by Prime Minister Rudd in his National Apology to the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants in 2009 to tell the story of life inside children’s homes and institutions.

This project has manifested in two ways: in a blog, which some of you may have seen on our website, and an exhibition, which some of you have been to visit. But both these manifestations are doing the same thing: they are making a space in history for stories that our history has obscured, has hidden. It is making a space for the feelings of those who were children in homes and institutions to be felt by the rest of the community. It is making a listening space so we can hear those stories that have been disbelieved, ignored or silenced.

Tonight we are hearing one of those stories in this remarkable film. Shortly I will hand over to Adele Chynoweth, who has also been on the team for the Inside project. But first I would like to tell you that after seeing the film we will be crossing live to upstate New York to talk with Rachael Romero herself. She has most generously agreed to talk with us at this time, which is actually 2.30 a.m. American time. At that time you will be able to have an opportunity to talk with her about this film. Now I will hand over to Adele to introduce the film to you.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thank you, Jay. It’s a pleasure to present this film this evening which premiered at the Yale Center for British Art in September 2003 where it won a short film prize from Film Fest New Haven. Since then it has screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival; the Santa Fe Film Festival; Moondance, Boulder, Colorado where it won the Spirit Award for short documentary; and The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina where, with the help of the New York Times and a board of critics that included Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ken Burns and Barbara Kopple, it won the Critics Award for 2004. So it’s among six shorts chosen for 100 ground-breaking full frame documentary shorts available now on DVD. *In the Shadow of Eden is in volume four, but we are very pleased to be able to present it on the big screen tonight.

Ironically, given all these accolades in the United States, it has been consistently rejected for inclusion in film festivals in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne. So we can see the rationale for the term ‘forgotten Australians’. But it hasn’t escaped the attention of the National Museum of Australia which sees good social history. It is therefore with great pride and pleasure that we here at the National Museum of Australia present the first Australian screening of In the Shadow of Eden. Thank you. [applause]

[Film played]

ADELE CHYNOWETH: Hello Rachael.

RACHAEL ROMERO: Hi, Adele.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: What a very moving film it was. What struck me was that the Pines, Convent of the Good Shepherd, where Rachael was incarcerated as a teenager was at the end of my street. So as Rachael was incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundry I was growing up in a very different environment but in the same suburb. This is something that strikes us all and why the history of the forgotten Australians is important to all of us, because it happened in our streets and suburbs. Would you please give a very warm welcome to survivor and interdisciplinary artist Rachael Romero. [applause] Thanks for being with us, Rachael. Do you want to have a whinge first about the ungodly hour that we have got you up to be here this evening?

RACHAEL ROMERO: I have to say that my cat is very discombobulated.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: Is your cat there? Can you show us?

RACHAEL ROMERO: He will probably protest.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: You spoke a bit at the end of the film about what prompted you to make it. Do you want to talk more about why you chose to make In the Shadow of Eden?

RACHAEL ROMERO: I think it chose to make me because I didn’t really intend - when I went back to Australia I borrowed a video camera because I had a sense there were things I had to record. I was writing a book at the time so I thought I can do all this research and so forth. Then I got everything I needed and it was all so visual, including my own visual work that my father had squirrelled away from when I was a kid, I was winnowing through it and looking at the footage that he had shot and so forth. I still didn’t get it that I was making a movie. I really didn’t know how to make a movie actually. I was doing things with it and throwing out. I knew there was immense power in this stuff and there was something incorrect I had to figure out and understand. Over that process I started making a film for my own understanding, and then I started making it for others and thinking of myself as a young person what I would like to have known.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: What sort of responses did you get to the film?

RACHAEL ROMERO: I have gotten a lot of responses from that audience of those people who were younger, who had had that experience and had never told anybody and never acknowledged even to themselves until the film broke that open. And of course there are many, whether or not they were incarcerated, and including those who were incarcerated.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: How do you account for the wonderful accolades you have got in the United States for the film, yet being ignored by Australian film festivals? Did you have any insight as to why that difference in response?

RACHAEL ROMERO: I was expecting to be rejected by everybody because I was a novice and that’s the way it is. You are an independent film maker and you put in your film and you are lucky if you even get it into a film festival. The first film festival that it was in, it won a prize, and that absolutely amazed me. I knew that sending it to Adelaide was a little close to home and that I was going to hit a few notes there. But I didn’t expect complete and utter nothing - this complete rejection. I don’t know why. Perhaps there was a more timid attitude perhaps.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: Perhaps it’s an extroverted culture versus an introverted culture but also we know through our own research doing this exhibition the anecdotal evidence shows there is an understanding in our culture of members of the stolen generations and to a certain extent former child migrants but there seems to be less of an understanding of those Australian non-Indigenous children that were in homes. Thank you for letting us show it here at least.

Now you spend your time in the Catskill Mountains in your studio and also teaching in New York. Do you want to tell us more about your artwork generally and your other films specifically?

RACHAEL ROMERO: I have made films since then about artists who were living with autism and who are homeless. I worked for many years with artists who were homeless and still doing their work into their 80s. I photograph, I draw and I paint, but it all seems to end up in the visual story which is where I am most comfortable.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: We could say, if you would permit, that you are one of the diaspora of those Australians who were institutionalised as children and as a result of that lack of care have decided to leave Australia. But since your leaving the Pines and leaving Australia the Australian government has apologised to forgotten Australians and former child migrants. Do you think as a result of that you would ever return to Australia? Has that changed your view of Australia given that apology?

RACHAEL ROMERO: The apology was quite a surprise, I must say, and a shock to those of us who have lived in so many years and decades of denial from our families and everyone else. In my case my grandmother was told that I was in a boarding school. But no Granny, you just leave it like that and just keep going.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: For her to be lied to like that, it’s awful.

RACHAEL ROMERO: Being here I lived upstairs from somebody who was in a Magdalene Laundry in Queens at one point in New York. I went to see the Mullan film The Magdalene Sisters a decade ago and I was riveted. I was there at the premiere at the Lincoln Film Festival. I just had to see that it was happening and I spoke afterwards. It was a very big audience, and there were about five people who had been in the laundries in that audience. That was amazing for me because I hadn’t known. Nobody had even known until that film came out that the Magdalene Laundries were such a worldwide institution in 47 countries.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: As you might be aware, Rachael is talking about the film The Magdalene Sisters, the feature film set in Ireland, but it was the same system that was imported to Australia and that Rachael found herself in in South Australia. Can you tell us a bit more about the Justice for Magdalenes movement because I understand that for former inmates of Magdalene Laundries there is a movement to try to get justice?

RACHAEL ROMERO: There is a website in the US. People from around the world are contributing to it - from Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland. It has got more publicity in Ireland because of the film and there is the misconception that it was just in Ireland. But of course, as you know, it was right down your street and in Abbotsford and in Hobart. As I learn more and meet others from the diaspora, that our stories, when it comes to the institution themselves, there was a kind of a cookie cutter institution, everything was the same. The days were the same; the bells were the same; our experience of being rebellious and then suddenly shocked into kind of dumb terror that in many ways never left us in some aspects.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: What needs to be done, do you think, to right the wrongs that were done in the past and that still live, as you describe in the films, with survivors? We are aware here at the Museum that this is not just about telling the story, the social history, there is a sense for people who endured this of a need for justice. What can be done to right those wrongs? What can people in the audience do to help to get justice?

RACHAEL ROMERO: Certainly education, which is what you have been tasked to do at the Museum and have done very well. I haven’t been able to see the exhibit because I am so far away, although I have seen the video. Those of us who are elsewhere and have looked at it and wept - I didn’t expect to but I did. It still carries that with us. It is sort of like breaking the bubble of denial to have that. My own family wouldn’t acknowledge it, even now. I wonder if that group of people that are in such denial will ever see or hear of the show at all or just keep their hands over their ears and eyes for the rest of their lives. The human rights laws have been put in place now but, as long as there is this denial, I am not sure that we can rest assured that children are not experiencing another form of denial about bad behaviour on the part of their caregivers, and wrong policy. So we have to keep educating and look closely at that.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: Point taken, Rachael, thank you. I will hand it over to the audience, if you like to ask some questions. I would ask that you use the microphone because we are recording this. We need to use the microphone so that your question will be heard. Before we do I would like to let you know if you would like to read more about Rachael’s personal history and see more of her art and the testimonies of other forgotten Australians and former child migrants, you can log on to our Inside exhibition website.

RACHAEL ROMERO: I would like to say something to that if I might: that blog for Inside was such an amazing thing for thousands of us because we could read each other’s life histories and contribute and talk backwards and forwards to one another. I know that I am not alone in my gratitude to you, Adele, for being the curator of that. We also were aghast and alarmed that that blog has now been frozen and is now a relic of the exhibit. Just when the show opened and so many people will be coming and wanting to participate in it and wanting to deal with their very big emotions on the subject, those who experienced it and those who are just beginning to understand that it happened. I would hope that somebody in the funding zone would pick that up and resuscitate it so that it would continue at least for another few years, because I think it made an extraordinary impact internationally.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thanks, Rachael. Does anyone have any questions?

QUESTION: My name is Wilma Robb and I am a forgotten Australian. I suffer with dissociative disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder through child abuse. You said that you step out of your body. Can you tell me: are you scared of stepping out of that body in what will come up for you? Do you understand what I am saying?

RACHAEL ROMERO: No, I am not scared any more. If I hadn’t swum around in my fear for decades and confronted it, I would probably be extremely shattered by it, if I had suppressed it. One of my Internet friends who was in the convent as well saw the ABC footage that we sent one another and she said, ‘I was shaken and I wept also. But at least I am not numb. I used to be numb and now I am not numb.’ I can say that I still get scared but I am not afraid of confronting my own fear.

QUESTION: Hello Rachael, do you know anything of the blood sister that was shown in your film and is depicted in the exhibition here from the laundry days?

ADELE CHYNOWETH: Lily.

QUESTION: Have you ever had any contact since?

RACHAEL ROMERO: I wish. What happened was that we had our names changed. We lived under the rule of silence and we didn’t know where we were going when we left. We all left at different times because we had to be in there at least a year, but each one came at a different time. There was this constant coming and going that was unacknowledged in the institution itself. We of course wanted to see one another but at the same time had no way of getting in touch with one another in those days. I was always hoping to find various people and I tried, but being so far away since I left as still a teenager - we didn’t have Google in those days – and of course women very often changed their surnames. We didn’t know each other’s surnames necessarily either in the Pines. I know Lily’s surname but I haven’t found her. Maybe now there will be somebody who knows her and I will.

QUESTION: Hello. You mentioned earlier that your own family was in denial. I presume by that you meant your Australian family who went through the same childhood as you did. How were they in denial?

ADELE CHYNOWETH: The question is: how could your family be in denial of what happened to you when they were in the same house and the same family?

RACHAEL ROMERO: Families can be very dysfunctional. I have a brother who is six years younger who had no idea. I was close to him and then I was gone. He was quite young and he somehow - I am going to speculate here - felt that I had abandoned him. We have never lived together since so he has just put me aside in terms of his feelings. And as an adult seeing him years and years later as my father was dying and so forth, there was no opening in his emotional life for my suffering.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: So we can see how the damage is done to all the families that you were seen as abandoning him when you had no choice?

RACHAEL ROMERO: Yes, exactly. My experience was that I was basically kidnapped and taken into a page out of Dickens and then spat back out again in the sixties in another world which had accrued more freedom while I was gone in a place of no freedom of all.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: Culture shock, I am sure.

RACHAEL ROMERO: The rest of my family had never wanted me to even bring it up. I tried to bring it up with my mother, and she threatened a heart attack just discussing it.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: That helps us perhaps understand the courage to make that film and to speak out in that way. Other questions?

QUESTION: Hello Rachael. Your film was very moving. Thinking about the courage that you showed in leaving Australia and going to all the places that you did, I wonder if you feel that the love and the compassion that you so obviously have showed to people throughout your life have helped you overcome a lot of the despair that you would otherwise be feeling at this stage in your life that many other people feel - that you have turned a lot of the inside trauma and shown all that love to other people? Does that make sense to you? It came across very strongly how much you have given to others. Despite the fact that you weren’t given anything really yourself as a young person, you have been able to give so much to other people. Do you think that what you have shown to other people has helped you to overcome and become the person you are now?

RACHAEL ROMERO: I think that other people have helped me to overcome and were part of my healing process. I could love others before I could love myself way before I could love myself. It was having compassion for myself which helped me be able to really love other people. That was a lifetime work.

I was quite numb as a young woman and into my adulthood. Even as I was trying to help others, I don’t think I was as helpful as I could have been if I had had compassion for myself earlier. I had a lot of anger at an injustice that propelled me. As my dear husband, who is no living, would say when I would get feisty, ‘Well, you wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for that feistiness.’

ADELE CHYNOWETH: Wonderful observation.

QUESTION: Hi Rachael, I am Melissa and very much appreciate you sharing your story with us. What bothered me most about the film is the fact that I could very easily have put a different narration over your childhood films and said, ‘This is me having a wonderful happy time,’ because it feels so hidden to me. It just seemed that, if there hadn’t been such a sorry tale over the top of it, you could have put an equally happy tale over the top of it, with the greatest respect. My question is: how do you unearth this sort of thing because to the outside world that viewing could have just been seen as a happy childhood?

RACHAEL ROMERO: It’s true, and we can look back on our lives and fantasise about what we would have liked. A lot of that goes on in families, I think. If you can’t acknowledge the things that have gone radically wrong and you put them under the rug, they are going to bulge up and you are going to trip on them throughout your life. These things will emerge and show themselves. Some of us clamp down hard on that fantasy and grit our teeth and smile inside of screaming.

QUESTION: Thanks for sharing your strength.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: I have noticed the drawing in the background there, Rachael, can you tell us about that?

RACHAEL ROMERO: It’s a drawing of the mangle, and that was a product of meeting others who are perhaps not so visual in their expression as I am and realising that people didn’t really know what it was like to be inside that very loud laundry.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: Can you explain what a mangle is, Rachael?

RACHAEL ROMERO: The mangle is this great big machine that we had to feed the hot sheets into. It was roaring, it was loud, women had their hands mangled by these mangles by getting caught on the sheets. That was the daily life in the laundry - extremely loud inside a tin shed in the heat. So I started to make a whole series of drawings of what happened. It came out in almost a child-like way these drawings, they are kind of primitive, and that was the age, I suppose, of my memory.

At this moment I am working on making an animated film on this subject because I want to deal with what the audience has been talking about tonight that, while we who saw ourselves as rebel children were suddenly stunned into working in a place like this and became very deadpan in our emotions and internalised, we also had an imaginative life, we had dreams still. As an artist I can show what we experienced on the outer life and the inner life in an animated film. I have to learn how to do it yet but I will.

ADELE CHYNOWETH: I am sure you will, and we look forward to that. Just to remind you about Inside: Life in Children’s Homes if you want to read more. Also Rachael Romero’s website and also the website of the Justice for former inmates of Magdalene Laundries movement. Thank you very much for coming tonight and sharing more. Would you please join me in thanking Rachael Romero for being here this evening. [applause] And thank you so much for coming, good night.

RACHAEL ROMERO: Thank you Adele. Thank you to the Museum, too.

Date published: 16 March 2012