Gatsby Dinner – November 1, 2013

Our annual get together for 2013 was a Gatsby themed dinner  held at the Apprentice Restaurant, Ultimo College, TAFE on 1 November.

The dinner was a lot of fun with guests dressed in their best Gatsby attire reliving all the fun of the Jazz Age! The dinner was also a successful fundraiser. Special thanks goes to Lucy for all of her work. The Apprentice Restaurant was great as always with a very friendly and accommodating staff.

The guest address in 2013 was given by Tom Zubrycki a documentary filmmaker of great renown. The full text of Tom’s Gatsby Dinner speech follows.

I got involved in this project mid last year after I was contacted by a friend of mine who worked with Zacharia. Suffice to say that he was very persuasive. After he told me his story it was very difficult to say ‘no’.

I couldn’t help being moved by the images of the village: kids being taught in the open under trees, no actual physical classroom etc. It occurred to me that the building of the school was a metaphor for the whole nation and the challenges it faces. So following this whole process – the struggles, the highs and the lows – was what the film was going to be about.

I didn’t know a lot about South Sudan. I had made one film in Africa before and that was in South Africa, so I thought I had a bit of a feel for the place. But South Sudan was something else again. The country – the youngest in the world – is really going through a tough time. Most of South Sudan’s small income is spent on defending its borders because there’s still a cold war with the North going on, with the occasional skirmish. The infrastructure is bad – the roads are a mess – there are few hospitals, the education system is less than basic. If kids are lucky enough to go to school, very few end up beyond year 10.

The trip to the village was eventful. I was going to take is a day and a half to get there. At the halfway point we arrived at a truck stop. Zac wanted to start telling his story, so I started to film. Almost immediately we were stopped by police and, security and ended up being detained for several hours. Zac was on the phone for about 3 hours to people in high places, and we got clearance to continue our journey. I realised that any westerner is looked at with deep suspicion, especially someone with a camera. I felt reassured, though, that Zac was very well connected.

Once we got to the village I felt completely safe. I had a bed in a mud-hut, a Mosquito net, and a place to put my bags. I fell asleep exhausted that first night, but when I woke up I realised there were at least 20 people who were sharing the hut with me – all sleeping on the floor – from old people to young children.

Well you can get used to anything, and I quickly made the adjustment. I’d bought a few luxuries from home – a couple of books (one of them was “Bringing Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel – what a contrast 16th century England makes with 21st century South Sudan), energy bars and some ground coffee. It must have been a strange sight to see me going through the ritual of taking out my little camping plunger and filling it up with coffee and hot water that the women were kind enough to provide me. Later I realized that anything hot was an indulgence. The only fuel was firewood and that meant a long daily trip into the bush for some of the young women in the family!

There were other things that one got used to as well – goat meat, a strange green vegetable (I think it was Okra), and ritual of greeting that I never quite mastered.It was all strange for me, but for Zacharia – well, it was completely the reverse. I’d never seem him like this. He was extremely happy and relaxed – at least for the first few days. But it didn’t take long for pressures and expectations to start mounting. From early dawn, (I was in one hut and he in another) a group of people began to gather in front of this hut. He sat on a chair – they sat opposite him – and they told him their problems. Here he was. He’d just arrived back, and not only was he supposed to organize the chiefs to get their support for the School, but he had to counsel the family and clan members about a whole range of personal issues. I really felt for him.

As a filmmaker it was hard keeping up with Zac’s every move. Living in the village wasn’t exactly a holiday, but I must say I experienced incredible warmth and hospitality. I had the feeling that people were really pleased that they had a westerner staying – especially given the unstable political situation.

And I’m now looking forward to my next trip – hopefully to record the building of the first block of classrooms. This time, however, I’m planning to bring a solar cooker. In the long run I think this will be a very valuable film, if only to encourage similar projects – though you may have to wait to 2015 to see it.

Tom Zubrycki is an accomplished filmmaker who began making films in the 1970s. His most recent film credits include “Temple of Dreams” (2007) documenting the Cronulla riots and “The Hungry Tide” (2011) dealing the threat of climate change and the attempt by a Kiribati woman to bring the plight of her Pacific Island homeland to the attention of the world. The list of Tom’s documentaries runs to over twenty works. The number of films that Tom has produced with others in the directorial role is similarly large. Tom says of his films that they represent a personal response to the big issues of the day.

The artist Geraldine Parsons provided several artworks for the 2013 silent auction. Of her watercolours she said, ‘”Trumper Park Swings” and “Inside Outside”, could also be called Home, as both are intimate views from my life and reflect my love of the natural world.’

Geraldine Parson’s art practice includes painting, print-making, mixed media, sculpture and drawing. Geraldine says the pieces on display at the SOES auction were “inspired by the particular fall of light, glow of colour, and built elements that provide a formal and personal context to the moments recorded in time”. “Inside Outside” was selected for exhibition in the Waverley Woollahra art prize. Geraldine was runner-up in recent art prizes: Harpers Mansion Still Life and Oxford Street Festival Art Prizes. She was guest artist at Sydney Tower from 2009 to 2012 where she painted and drew aerial perspective views of Sydney. During 2012 – 2013, she completed several commissions – oil and watercolour portraits of homesteads. Her work will be shown in several forthcoming exhibitions.