Reader Profile - Scars, the body, survival...love for life
Shelley Barry lives in Woodstock, Cape Town. She moved to the Mother City from PE when she was 17 and it is here that a shootout between rival minibus-taxis left her a T4 paraplegic with a permanent tracheostomy. A mechanical speaking valve enables her to speak and share her story.
"I was 24 years old and on my way for an interview at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology for the position of Communications Lecturer. Our minibus- taxi pulled up to a robot when another minibus-taxi pulled up alongside us. The next minute shots were fired from the other taxi, killing our driver who was hit by seven bullets. I was sitting next to the driver and was hit by one bullet which severed my spinal cord, punctured both my lungs, cut through several ribs."
"When I got to the hospital, the doctors told my family I would not make it and would die within three hours. The doctors still cannot believe that I am alive," she says as she recalls those dark hours. "But it was me! I did not want to die. I could feel the life force draining out ofme, but I fought and fought."
She was in hospital for about five months, leaving as soon as she could. "I found rehab boring and escaped as soon as I could. A month after I left the hospital I began working as a secretary." This, she says, was very depressing, given her qualifications. Shelley studied English and Drama at UCT, has a Higher Education Diploma (UCT), a Honours degree in English from theUniversity of the Western Cape (UWC) and a Master of Fine Arts degree in filmmaking from Tempe University, USA.
"But I was grateful for the job, despite knowing it was not what I wanted. I needed to adjust to the fact that my life had been changed completely and forever."
"I look back now and think: 'God grief girl, you had guts." I was so young but so determined to get on with it - to get a job and fix my life. She was also going through a depression and it took two years before she recovered. "Since then I have not looked back. In the end I would say love, guts and grit pulled me through as well as my insistence of life and living it."
Helping her through all of this was her family, without whom she says she would not have made it. "Besides my family the other big influencer on me was the disability rights movement. I got involved with Disabled People South Africa (DPSA) working as a parliamentary coordinator for them. I was thrust into the world of disability politics. I met disabled activists who were incredible - from driving their own cars to having children. I saw what was possible; these people were in the same position as me, but they lived extraordinary lives. My notions of disability were challenged and my eyes were opened to a new world in which life could be normal. My only limitation was that I could not walk, but nothing stopped me from living my life."
"From a young age I was a lover of the arts especially theatre and film, with film being my great love. However, film was not that readily available so I went to study drama, but I was bad at it," she laughs. "I was a hopeless actress and would forget my lines all the time. I hated standing up in front of an audience."
She taught theatre while writing and directing plays that were well received. This is the same area that she works in today, but in film. "I run a small production company, Two Spinning Wheels, making films and training people to make films."
Her first movie, Whole: A Trinity of Being is a docu-poem in three parts exploring the spiritual andpolitical journey of embracing the body after violence and disability. Pin Pricks revisits the momentswhen the fabric of a woman's life is torn and revelations take her beyond loss;while Voice/Overexploressilence, the ability to speak and speaking out about violence, trauma, love andsurvival. Entry explores the re-insertion of images into a media that does notreflect people with disabilities as passionate and sexual beings.
As one film festival programme describes it: "Shelley introducing her own painful experience and revealing her strong willpower to live which she illustrates with poetic touches. She explains that her scars deserve to be decorated and because she had almost lost her voice, that she had to speak of herself in any kind of language possible. An experimental film, which creates a beautiful resonance on scars, the body, survival, love for life, language and speech thatis as deep as her voice which narrates her story."
The film won eight international awards and has been screened on SABC a number of times. "I realised that, through film, I could raise awareness about disability and issues surrounding disability."
The huge response to her first film scared her. "I went underground. Since then I have made 10 films, but have not released any because I was scared of the attention. Today I have reached the point where I am ready and will be releasing all of them at once to online sites, film festivals and for public broadcast."
She says the films are not necessarily about disability, but do feature people with disabilities and represent disability. She films from her wheelchair which, she says, "fries people's minds" "I am trying to be out there in the world as much as anyone else doing their thing. Being a filmmaker is my passion and also a means of activism, which is quite unexplored and could be quite effective. I would really like to be able to do this fulltime, but it is difficult in this country to make a living in the Arts, as the Arts are not very high up on the agenda. It is my big dream to be able to make a sustainable living out of making films and that these films have an impact on the world, driving people to act and inspiring them, as well as taking them somewhere spiritually."
She makes independent, experimental films of all genres as well as documentary video art. "I don't produce run of the mill films and am not interested in making commercials about margarine so I don't fit into the commercial stream."
Shelley is proud that her company has survived its first year. "It is hard work and I actually need staff to assist me, but I cannot afford them, so it is extremely challenging, but it is what I love." She is also in desperate need of a new wheelchair as hers is, literally, falling apart, but she has no medical aid andcannot afford a new chair. "Chairman Industries donated a chair to me, but it was too big for me so I could not use it."
"Too often we complicate our lives. When something happens that changes your life, I believe you must work with your mind and spirit as your first port of call.Your internal dialogue must be positive and not destructive. Your thoughts can close your world or open your world, so don't put your head in a dire space, even when things are at their bleakest. Believe and open yourself up to the amazing things that may seem impossible. I am not saying it is easy, but it worked for me to be conscious of my thoughts. Words are powerful, and they can be destructive or uplifting, but you hold the power to decide which it will be."