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Thursday 10 November 2016


Untold stories of war, pt1

Posted in: Entertainment
By - 13th August 2016

The latest project, Sparrow, from filmmaker Welby Ings, is based on the true story of a gay soldier in the Second World War who was shot for desertion and locked up in a psychiatric institution for the remainder of his life. In the first of our two-part interview, we chat to Welby about the importance of telling queer stories.
 
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Why do you feel it is important to tell the story of a gay soldier?

Our gay ancestors are largely erased from New Zealand’s stories of war. They do not appear in the history books and if they do, their sexuality is studiously ignored. In the flurry of television, film and books surfacing from the centenary of World War One, LGBT men and woman and their stories still remain largely invisible. Yet we represented a significant part of the population that fought in Europe, Africa and in World War 2, in the Pacific. What we are fed is a continuously rotated view of a heroic, heterosexual, self sacrificing soldier. Anything that breaks or questions this is either not mentioned or at best briefly tokenised. Thus, the men who were gay, who protested in the field, who committed suicide, who deserted, or espoused difficult political views, continue to largely have their stories edited or expunged.

However, in researching the short film Sparrow I constantly came across recollections of gay men in both World Wars. There were heartbreaking stories about guys who lost their cobbers and blamed themselves, about men who returned to a world where marriage was the only option and they were forced to live parallel lives, of men who were blackmailed right up until the 1980s. There were also terrible stories of the psychological fall out and the unwillingness of the New Zealand government and general population to recognise psychologically ravaged men as victims of war.

Do you think our perception of war changes when we recognise ourselves in the stories of those who served and if so, how?

I think that the only way we can as a nation, come to understand the nature of war as the failure of civilized culture is to understand the breadth of the human cost. I am not talking here about Rolls of Honour listing names of soldiers who were killed, but also the names that never appear on these cenotaphs. This includes those who protested against war and paid terrible costs, the diplomats who stopped wars, and the men and women whose stories were cloaked in shame and whose families felt so vulnerable that they hid, for generations the truth of what happened.

When we keep recycling a limited number of carefully edited stories and trot them out every year at ANZAC, we incrementally kill off those last vestiges of other truths. These men and women are dying now or they have already passed. If they left no record the complexity of their lives and their contributions become invisible. When researching Sparrow I sat at dining tables in the houses of ordinary New Zealanders and heard difficult stories told in careful confidence. There were men who refused to march in the Dawn Parades for very visceral reasons. There were families who sheltered secrets or were torn apart coping with the aftermaths of deeply damaged soldiers. If we knew more about the reality of war, our remembrance of it would be less about red poppies and heroic rushes into enemy gunfire, and more about humanity and manipulation and the ‘wrongness’ of killing people who you don’t know.

Sparrow is based on three true stories, how did you learn of these stories?

Two of these stories came from my immediate family. The incident of the white feather came from my grandfather. His family lived in fear of the local women giving him one publicly because he did not enlist. Although we know of these public shamings in World War 1, they also existed in World War 2, especially in smaller communities.

The story about the small boy who thinks he can fly and confronts bullies in his school by taking off his shirt and showing them where they can hit him is autobiographical.

These two stories weave through and tie into a true account of a gay soldier in WW2 who in disgust at the futility of war and the shooting of his gay lover, tore off his uniform in the dugouts of Egypt and carried the man’s body out into the enemy gunfire. Technically his act was described as an attempted suicide and he was incarcerated in a mental asylum in New Zealand when he was brought home. That was where he died. He wrote letters to his family every week asking them to come and visit him, but he never opened them.

They are the saddest things I have ever read.

Were you influenced by any stories you heard as a child?

In the 1970s my twin sister and I were expelled from secondary school for refusing to attend a compulsory ANZAC service, but our protest wasn’t related to specific stories.

We were brought up not to harm people so I guess we were always suspicious of the heroic rhetoric of conflict, especially when such things are understood as a ‘theatre of war’ or some kind of national adventure.

Why did you decide to tell the story through the eyes of the grandson?

I had to protect the family who gave me the story. They were not prepared to have it released as a documentary so I wove it with fictional elements to protect them. They agreed to the script and to what we have done with it. I chose the grandson to tell the story because every year I worry about lines of Kiwi school children loyally marching in parades based on edited stories. I asked my self “What if such a man’s grandson was very much like him? What would it mean to find out the truth when you had been fed a myth of a heroic death … when you had been brought up to believe a lie?

I think when we tell stories through the eyes of children we can touch something very universal and profound in audiences because we have all experienced innocence and its compromise.

- 13th August 2016

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