Thursday, October 30, 2014


I am a big fan of the pleasures found in heist movies, though I like escape films better. Heist films tend to assume access to the best people and gadgets: "This here's Billy. He's the finest safe-cracker in seven counties!" - that kind of thing, which is to say they assume wealth. That wealth isn't always current, but it's at least anticipated. A heist movie tends to revolve around the idea that if a bunch of highly-skilled people either get paid by someone rich or work for free, they'll be repaid with a share of things that don't belong to them. Which, y'know, is an idea that hasn't exactly had wonderful results in our society JUST SAYIN.
Escape films offer the same pleasures but don't assume the same privilege. An escape film is like a heist film but the only resources are patience and careful observation and trust and collaboration and the ability to turn what one has into what one wants.
What are the pleasures they share? Finding the weak points in systems of control - gaps in routines, and the sleepiness those routines induce in the people - guards, say - who have to carry them out. The pleasures of MacGuyverism and bricolage, of seeing the new uses objects and surfaces can be put to - the way the leg of a prison bed can become a screwdriver if you take it off and squish the end flat and so on. The pleasure of being part of a gang, a secret society, of planning together. The pleasures of spectacle and diversion; the associated pleasures of choreography and theatre, of dressing up, of impersonating part of a system of control so as to subvert that system and escape its clutches, to seize something it prevents us from having.
So I like those things. I have a basic anxiety about film though, which is that so much of it is cathartic in the old-fashioned sense of the term. Old-fashioned catharsis is when a drama gives you the feeling of having done something when you have not - it's a discharge of energy. That's great when the energy being discharged is murderous or jealous or otherwise nasty, as in the old Greek tragedies. It's a problem when that energy is the energy required to challenge systems or escape systems of control. Like, watching a film I identify with the ones who resist, with the ones who plan, the ones who escape. I watch The Shawshank Redemption and I feel those feelings of planning and resisting and escaping. I watch Star Wars and I feel like I helped blow up the Death Star. Those feelings are, and that energy is, discharged. Do you, gentle reader, after watching these things, go on and resist and escape? Or do you, like me, feel happy and satisfied, like you've already participated in doing what needs doing? Yeah, that's what I thought.
With all that in mind, you can imagine what a good time I had last Wednesday.
I got up at 6 and put on a suit and went to an anonymous little bit of park near ANZ's international headquarters. There were about seventy other people there all dressed up in suits and frocks, laughing at each others' corporate disguises. Reader: we looked great. We planned the final details of how to drift in to the building in dribs and drabs, what the signals to converge would be, reminded everyone what would happen once we converged again, got the phone numbers to call in case of trouble. And we heard from Mikaele Maiava and Raedena Solomana, Pacific Islanders who'd come to Australia to confront the machine that threatened their homelands through sea level rise and drought. This was their day.
WAIT, DID YOU SAY ANZ BEFORE? I hear you ask, and I'm like YEAH, ANZ IS AUSTRALIA'S LARGEST LENDER TO COAL AND GAS PROJECTS, to the tune of $6.75 BILLION lo! these last few years. And you're like O RLY? and I'm like YES WHAT DO YOU THINK I KEEP BANGING ON ABOUT ALL THE TIME.
We split into groups of six or so, who'd look out for each other and converge together. We told each other why we were there that day. For most of us it was about justice. The idea that our rich country was helping dispossess the people of poorer countries because we weren't prepared to stand up to fossil fuel companies and the people who lend them money made us sick; the chance to create a space where people from those countries could speak to the power that was dispossessing them made us excited and we wanted to be a part of it.
We talked about whether we were prepared to get arrested or not. About three in my group were; I wasn't. That was all good: there was plenty of fun to be had by people who didn't want to get arrested.
Each small group had a key contact: we'd be watching them for the moment to mass together. That sorted, we left and sauntered in that morning light, under that pale blue sky, a sky gradually thickening with carbon. About a minute from the building we split into ones and twos and quit talking about climate change and started talking about television and renovations and such.
I walked in with Deborah Hart. We were like, "Let's get into some debt, baby!", and the machine that creates debt opened its doors and let us in. We'd made it hungry! I knew how it felt: I was hungry too. I bought a croissant from the staff cafe and put bits of it in my mouth. It was flaky and good.
People got coffees and sat around looking at their phones or reading the paper or having fake meetings. In time I saw my group's contact stand up and wander over to the centre of the lobby. Casually, but without wasting any time, a whole bunch of meetings around the lobby came to a natural end and people wandered over as well. There was a gradually thickening group of us, chatting and drinking coffees. I ambled in and stood there eating my croissant.
A minute later we sat down and got our signs out. Wouldn't you know it - we formed a stage. We were a thick circle, around a smaller circle of five people linked together with white PVC pipes they'd smuggled in in bags; they'd been locking themselves together while we'd stood around casually, providing cover. In the centre of that smaller circle were Mika and Aaron Packard. Their shirts were off and their chests were painted; Mika's paint made the point that ANZ IS FUNDING THE DESTRUCTION OF MY COUNTRY.
And then there we were. Mika did most of the talking after that, though the rest of us did a bit. His voice echoed through that vaulted space like it was a canyon. He thanked everyone. He apologised for the disruption, but made the point that it was tiny compared to the disruption caused to his homeland and culture by digging up and burning coal, and that ANZ was one of the more powerful forces in the country helping that happen. He invited the folks on the top floor to come and give him a hug.
Can I just say, gentle reader, what a joy and privilege it was to be that bit of political theatre? To turn the giant atrium of that headquarters into a machine for amplifying a voice? And to keep at the centre of our circle someone our current way of doing things would rather was on the periphery, always over the horizon and invisible so we can't see his homelands flood with the king tides, see the salting of their earth? To tear up that horizon for a few hours and unsettle the polite silence evil requires?
Because it was a joy. It changed me. I recommend it. X


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