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Artist in focus - Naomi Chainey

AAV speaks with Lesley Hall Arts and Disability Scholarship recipient Naomi Chainey ahead of the announcement of this year's recipient. Naomi is a freelance writer and filmmaker who focuses on feminism and disability rights.

Thanks to the Lesley Hall Scholarship, she made the short film Gaslit, which premiered at The Other Film Festival in Melbourne in November 2018 and won the award for Best Emerging Australian Film. More recently, Gaslit has also screened internationally at the Directed by Women – NYC Shorts of all Sorts Festival, the Respect Belfast Human Rights Festival and the Superfest International Disability Film Festival in San Francisco and Berkeley where Gaslit won Best of Festival Short.

1. What led you to write Gaslit? 

When the opportunity came up to apply for the Leslie Hall Scholarship, I started thinking about the marginalisation of disabled women and how I might be able to represent that in a creative way.  In addition to my own experiences as a disabled woman, I’d been working in disability related media for almost a decade, and heard a lot of stories through interviews and conversations with women I was working with. I wanted to make something that would help able-bodied people to understand how certain kinds of comments, which in isolation may seem fairly innocuous, can ultimately lead to disadvantage and even violence perpetrated against women and disabled people. The original intent was actually a shorter, more surreal film, where the audience would experience the micro-aggressions, usually directed at disabled women, being directed at themselves in quick succession.

2. What did it mean to you to win the Lesley Hall Scholarship, and as a filmmaker with disability, how did it help you to make Gaslit?

Ultimately, without the Leslie Hall Scholarship, I might not have come up with the idea for Gaslit at all, as it was a case of being inspired by the opportunity. Lesley Hall was someone I greatly admired and shared ideals with regarding the disability and women’s rights movements, and when I saw that Arts Access Victoria was offering a scholarship in her name, I started to think about how I might create something to help people better understand the importance of those movements.

3. Before Gaslit was released, you contributed as a freelance writer to publications like The Huffington Post and The Sydney Morning Herald. Why were you drawn to film as the medium for this particular story?

I actually filmed Gaslit before I started freelance writing on a regular basis.  My disability is ME/CFS and I had a major flare up of symptoms during the shooting of Gaslit, which meant I wasn’t able to finish it for a few years after the initial filming. In the interim, I had to find work that I could do from bed, and freelance writing was something I had always wanted to do more of. Before that, I was working in community television on magazine style shows about disability rights and feminism, so being behind a camera was, in a way, my default. Before Gaslit, I hadn’t made a short film since uni though, so, for me, it was a chance to get back to that, and do something a bit more creative.

4. The protagonist of Gaslit speaks very few lines yet embodies a multitude of emotions — strength, desire, anger, pain, fear, resilience. How did you go about portraying such a complex character in less than 10 minutes, and with so few lines?

Part of it was having a very expressive lead actress who was able to get the complexity across with very little dialogue.  Nicole Smith did a really amazing job.  When writing the script though, my focus was less on character development and more on having the audience experience what it’s like to hear these kinds of comments directed at you in the most visceral way possible.  The original idea didn’t really involve a protagonist at all.  It was just going to be surreal imagery with the micro-aggressions happening in voice over.  Ultimately, I realised the whole idea would be more effective if we had a narrative and a relatable character to hang it on.  If the character is written as complex, I think it’s a result of trying to convey how micro-aggressions interact in complex ways.

5. Amongst the intensity of the film, there are also brief moments of wry humour, as the protagonist encounters characters who are increasingly brazen in their ignorance and discrimination. Has humour always played a part in the way you approach difficult topics?

The humour wasn’t necessarily intentional in this project, but I am definitely glad the absurdity of it gets a few laughs.  Gaslit is ultimately a lot darker that most things I’ve worked on, and there was that fear that it was too dark, too depressing, to really hit home. I like that some of the discrimination comes off as absurd though, because often the reality is absurd. There’s a sense of disbelief when you hear some of these things being said in real life, so it’s good to know that audiences find it ridiculous too. Before doing Gaslit, I wrote bits and pieces of sketch comedy for No Limits and The F-Word on C31. I think humour can be a really effective way approach difficult topics. 

6. How do you deal with writer's block? 

I’m lucky enough that I haven’t really struggled with writer’s block.  Due to my illness, I tend to need breaks to recover between projects, which gives me time to come up with the next idea. I also tend to pitch things before actually sitting down to write them, so by the time I’m at the keyboard the idea will have been percolating for a while and be ready to get itself on to the page. 

7. Are you working on any other creative project(s) at the moment?

At the moment, I’m working with Women with Disabilities Victoria (WDV) on a project called Do Your Thing. It’s a series of video vignettes featuring women with disabilities talking about the different ways they engage with their respective communities.  Able-bodied people don’t have to look far to find varied role-models for themselves in mainstream media. We are looking to create more media featuring women with disabilities, with a diverse range of experiences and achievements. They will be released in November via WDV’s social media if anyone would like to check them out.