Recently on the set of The Flame Wars (a feature film I was shooting some stills for) I met a young girl Sarah, an acting extra, who at the tender age of 19 had lived such a tumultuous life that, in few words, I got the gravity of it. For most of the day she sat to the side and quietly watched.
She had sad but soulful eyes—a resonant presence so solid that at the same time could also make her invisible. Sarah doesn’t attract attention to herself, she sits equanimous and only talks when spoken to…and even then she dims the lights. —you’d never know just how much this girl had lived and suffered, and how right there, staring out at you, is a raw and tender grief…Naturally, I turned my lens to her—
Fostered at eleven years of age, for a while there she moved from house to house and in the disruption of those formative years found herself spiralling down a dark road of drugs and bad choice. Less than a year ago, at just 18 years old, her mother died from a rare form of MS. This was her first Christmas without her and the ache is there in that faintest of smiles.
Displaced in all that adolescent self-annihilating abuse, defending against the enormous pain of loss and being robbed of what you imagine is so normal in everyone else’s life—dinner at the table, Christmas at midnight, sharing the jitters of new love with your mum….—she managed, by some chain of events and in the absence of all that fantastical family stuff, to awaken, and to choose a different path. She chose acting. Even as an extra, it’s is her way of turning corners.
Flame Wars was shot just a week before Christmas 2013 and she told me this time of year was particularly hard. Tears welled for the both of us.
Her mother’s life was full of physical suffering and the outcome of her disease slow, painful and inevitable—Death has its diary marked for this young single mother alone in a country town, and it didn’t have a heart for the two daughters, barely teenagers, it left behind.
Sarah tells me her younger sister has now entered that sometimes-dark age of adolescence. That phase where we think we’re smart enough and the world is dumb and the way through all the rage is to slash at the injustice and give it the finger.
She now too is no longer a child, and the veil that separates the child from the young adult is often harsh, sometimes unforgiving…she too is spiralling angrily toward self-destruction in retaliation for all she has lost and can’t comprehend and cannot yet reconcile in her wounded heart. These two kids now barely have each other.
I praise Sarah for her own convictions—for ‘waking up’ so young and putting herself on a positive, constructive and even fantastic path through films—(which is truly about telling stories, entertaining as they may also be).
Anyone who knows about creative projects knows that there is downtime. A lot of downtime. But Sarah sat quietly and waited while scene after scene was shot before her. Her bit-part was somewhere at the end of the day’s filming but she waited. I guess waiting is something she knows well. That patience is probably now something of a friend. And grief? It too is like a ghostly family member that hangs around for the long haul.
For me, the observer, recording this moment with a couple of stills—tilting her shoulders this way, turning her hips that way—‘look down the lens for me’—I trust, should she pursue her acting, that she has such incredible resources of lived-experience to draw on, emotions that, given her resonant, soulful ability to sit in silence and wait, she can draw upon deeply and could so absolutely shine, like a beacon, to the rest of the world who think suffering in silence is the only way.
And that’s what films, books and music—all those powerful mediums do—they hold out a hand to the rest of us sitting in the shadows and not wanting to be a burden on our friends, family or society for all the hurt we’re feeling. They offer solace. We’re all the same you and I. And there’s joy in the connecting. And there’s transformation in the embracing of our powerful stories and the sharing of them through art—words, sound, pictures—. Find the form that calls you.
To Sarah I say—get whatever training is available and hone that interest through tapping the wellspring of emotion you possess—and seize it.
Your wounds are your wonderfulness.
In between scenes I get a few shots of this young lady and say, ‘Use them on your profile and may it lead you to more creative work and living a fabulous life’.
Somewhere in that little chat I also say, ‘You know, your life is your own. And I tip my hat to you for taking it up with both hands, still so young, just a teenager, and choosing to put a dark past behind you. There are so many people, more than twice your age who never own their own shadows, and never crawl from their darkness to their destiny. Your life is your own. You’re not even your poor mother’s story.’
There’s a milky sadness in this young girl’s eyes, and I figure she knows the blues like a lover knows a love song. And in my heart’s heart I pray that she puts herself in the path of acting classes and keeps tap, tap, tapping at all the abundance that lives in her cells and is raw and that, through nurturing and in honour to the craft, can become an incredible gift that gives her life—and in turn, a lifeline to others.
Go there. Do that. Be brave in your convictions. Yep, life won’t stop its shitty blows and its trip-ups, but you’re already pretty solid kid… Stare it in the face, even when it knocks you down…and get up on those solid inner legs that landed you the Flame Wars — let it be a metaphor for an eternal flame…
Sarah emailed me recently and it’s there that I learn her last name—Smiles.
And it’s as simple as that sometimes: ‘Act as if…’ until all you were meant to be, is all you truly are.
Blessings, from the heart of one artist to the next and all those you touch and are touched by you, along the way – AD