John Palmer, Canadian playwright and filmmaker talks to Dibyajyoti Sarma
Is John Palmer a filmmaker or a playwright? It’s a difficult question to answer, Palmer confesses. “As I’m growing older, I prefer to write more than running around directing a film. Yet, I have not stopped making movies. Currently, I am working on a screenplay based on a novel by a Canadian author. So, probably, I’m both.”
You probe deeper and discover that John Palmer is not only a playwright and a filmmaker, he is also an activist, a voice of protest for change and a tireless worker for the cause of indigenous Canadian culture.
“I’ve been making films all my life,” declares Palmer. “There was a time when I did not have the access to editing machine. We used to cut the film reels with scissors and stick them with glue.” From those days to his latest production Sugar, which was completed in 2004, it’s a long, adventurous journey.
And a journey dictated by the desire to create new avenues. “I came to theatre because there was no theatre in Canada that I wanted to see. There was no theatre that we could call our own. As you know, in Canada, we look up to everything that is British. Theatre was no exception. Plays meant only the British masters, that too presented by the outsiders. Canadian experience was not good enough to put up on the stage. I was very angry about it, and still am…”
“No, no, I am not saying anything against the British theatre,” Palmer adds. “It’s only that we did not have our own.”
John Palmer was born in Ottawa, Ontario in 1943. He had a difficult childhood that even saw him living in the streets at times. In late ’60s, at the height of Vietnam War, he went to Ireland for one year to learn about theatre. “Once I was back, I began to initiate small theatres, mostly at the coffee houses. Even if it never existed before, we needed our own, indigenous theatre. But there was no such thing as Canadian play. That made me mental. Therefore, I wrote plays and directed them. Initially, there was no help from the authorities. Yet we continued as armatures. We did everything to get noticed.”
He narrates an experience at the Dominion Drama Festival, a now defunct drama festival held yearly in Canada, where he and his troupe, who was invited to perform, filled the lobby, even the seats with garbage, and when the audience arrived, dressed in their fineries, it was a scene. But why? Because the festival was headed by a French man. “I did not like that. Give the Canadians a change. Because, a country that doesn’t develop its own culture cannot sustain for long!”
John Palmer was in India last week as a part of the seminar on queer experiences in India and Canada held at the Department of English, University of Pune. He also had a screening of his film Sugar at the National Film Achieve of India. So how was the response from the Indian audience? Response? “The audience were stunned to have any discussions about the film,” informs Palmer about his film of a young boy’s love affair with a street hustler, which is infused with high doses of drug abuse and homosexually.
“And, I don’t blame them. I’m equally stunned about India. This is my first visit to India and this is an all together different world from where I live in Toronto, from the vegetation to the cars on the street.”
Whatever Palmer has done so far, be it plays and films there’s always a queer overtone about it. Is it because of his own sexuality? “I wouldn’t like to highlight the I’m gay. But then, whatever I do or say must be informed by whatever I have experienced (In face, his first film, made in 1975 was called Me). I have seen the high point of gay underworld in New York. I have experience of living on the streets. All these things would invariably appear in my work.”
But what about the politics of sexuality? “My point is, every person should have equal rights, in spite of race, class, creed and sexuality. And whenever I see inequality, I would raise my voice. If it’s a queer issue, it’s a queer issue.”
Then he pronounces thoughtfully, “The whole planet should stop this nonsense of persecuting each other, from the state level to the individual level. Gay is not problem, forgive me if it hurts anyone’s sentiments, it’s the god that’s a problem. We need to get rid of all religion.”
Though on the surface, things look better in Canada than in India, as far as queer issues are concerned, Palmer points out that the mainstream culture is the same everywhere. For example, Sugar was never released in mainstream theatres in Canada even though it was screened at various film festivals and won some awards as well. “And I am not a gay filmmaker. I am not averse to making a mainstream film if I get a good material. I made Sugar because I identified with the story.”
However, Palmer does not fail to point out that things are changing. For example, Sugar was supported by the film development programme in Canada. Even his trip to Indian was funded by the foreign affairs ministry.
So what’s next? “I’m 63 now. I have not done all the things I want to do. I’m not satisfied yet. I would certainly like to do another film. The core of making films is to entertain people. I like to entertain.” And what about aesthetics? “Whatever you do, it should be informed by life experience. You have to understand the human condition in order to create art.”
Apart from writing plays, and making films, John Palmer also works as a freelance teacher. “Yes, I do enjoy teaching,” he informs.
One last thing about India? “Oh, I would like a film in India. While coming to Pune from Mumbai airport, I had this extraordinary experience of seeing the traffic jam at three in the morning, with people everywhere on the road at that hour. This must go into a movie.”
Yes, Mr Palmer, looking forward to it.
A Touch of God in the Golden Age (1971)
The End (1972)
A Day at the Beach (1987)
The Archer (2005)