Australian Biography

Diane Cilento - full interview transcript

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What happened to take you on the journey to discovering some new way of looking at the world?

I think it's a very strange escalated coincidental world that you get into. And I think ... I don't think that I'm unique in this, I think it happens to a lot of people, where suddenly a whole lot of things happen which they can't ignore, because they're so odd. For instance, with me, after I'd got that book, and after I'd missed the ferry, I too threw this book across the room a few times, and I was caught in a place called Esbjerg, on the coast of Denmark. I had my car there and I had to put it on the ferry. And I thought I can't read this silly book any more, I'm going a bit cracked. In Denmark at that time, there wasn't anything except pornography in the shops, so I sort of bought the book, and then I threw a lot out the window of the hotel, and then when I got to England there was no car on the road and I was driving down to go to this film, having lost a few days. I had to start the next day, and I thought everyone's gone, where are they? Of course I didn't realise it was Cup Final day, and I was driving at about 106 miles an hour down the motorway, and when I got to my house in Coombe Springs, I took some photos out of my bathroom window. And this is true. When I'd bought ... I'd gone to this lecture and this man had been talking about this school, and actually I was sitting in the audience thinking thank god I don't have to go to anything like that. So as a sop to the thing that I wasn't going to do anything about it, I bought his book, which was a book called Witness, and when I got home I went to bed and I opened the book, and there was a picture of exactly what I'd taken out of my bathroom window. The same trees, except there was a building in it. And I knew it was, and then I looked at the book and it said Coombe Springs, and I realised that this book had been written about the place that I was actually living in. And that this house, which was called Ajamashantra had actually been there where I'd - just opposite where these trees were. So it was ... so I got very ... I remembered the number of the number to book the lecture, because it was exactly the same as my number except it had one number different. So I, on a whim, at about midnight I rang that number. And this philosopher, who was the man who'd given the lecture answered it straight away, and I think I said to him, 'This is getting beyond a coincidence'. And he said, 'What do you mean?' and I said, 'Well I seem to be living in a place that you've written this book from'. And he said, 'Yes, you live around the corner', because that's where I told him. And he said, 'What do you want to do?' He said, 'Do you want me to come round and see you?' So I said, 'Yes', and so in the middle of the night, this hugely tall man, about six foot six or something, walked in and said, 'What do you want to know?' So I said, 'Everything'. He said, 'Well that's a very good beginning'. And that's when I started taking these ... He said, 'Come tomorrow at seven-thirty', so I thought he meant seven-thirty in the evening, and so I went there at seven-thirty in the evening and he was having coffee with his wife, and he said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'You told me to come at seven-thirty'. He said, 'I meant seven-thirty in the morning'. I said, 'But I had to go to work then'. So I began to go and have coffee with him in the evenings, then began to go in the morning when I wasn't working. And I was extremely sceptical at first. And he kept talking about the school and everything and I - I thought I can't do this.

Who was he and what was he teaching?

He was a philosopher called John Godolphin Bennett, he was a physicist and a mathematician and he had, sort of had, the most extraordinary life. He'd been our man in Istanbul and he sort of learnt from all sorts of philosophers as well. And he was an extraordinarily terrific person to be with, very funny and very interesting. But I thought he was a bit nuts actually. But at that time it was almost as though it was a sort of toss up between whether I continued in my life, which was with that whole crowd of very druggie people and everything, or whether I began to take some sort of hold. I think nearly everybody at that time was sort of nibbling on little substances quite often, and you know, it got to be ... You knew that you mustn't be doing this any more, because it was getting a bit silly. So I then thought, well ... He then showed me this place which was going to be the school. He took me there, and it was a broken down school, where ... it was the school that If had been made about. It was that school. It had been empty for seven years. It was a total wreck, and I thought this is ridiculous. But I thought, I'll never be here, I've got two children, and a cat and a dog and a life and things. And so I accepted a film in Greece when I knew this film was ... this school was starting. And off I went to Greece, with my kid, and I put my cat - I gave my cat to a lady and put my dog in a kennel, and I rented my house to the Korean Ambassador. And I thought this is a very clever way of skipping out again, which is my pattern as I see from this interview really. And when I got to Greece, I met the director, who I knew, and he said, 'Well you're going to help me raise the money for the film'. I said, 'What?' He said, 'We haven't go the money'. And so it was a film with Christopher Plummer, and of course the film fell through. And I was left there, I went around, Greece quite a lot with my kids and sort of took photos of things and made tarot cards out of them, and ... but then came the time when I had to come back. And I went to stay with my agent and that was almost impossible with kids and things. And then one day I sort of surrendered and said, 'I'll go up there', and I took my cat and my dog and I rang him up and said, 'I think I might be coming up there to see you', and I thought, I'll write a book while I'm there, I won't take any notice of it - any of this stuff. I was still very much resistant to being a sort of disciple or acolyte or whatever. He wasn't a guru or anything, just a philosopher who had extremely good and very practical ideas. But I thought, well I'll go up there and stay in this place and see how everything is, and of course I went. I was writing away and thought I'd stayed away from all the lectures, and I had this mad dog, called Stella. And she kept running out and going into the lecture room, and then she'd sit at the feet of this man, and after about five times when I used to have go and get her, and all the students would laugh like anything, he sort of leaned down to me when I was pulling her out from under his legs and said, 'Don't you think your dog is trying to tell you something'. So I then threw myself into the whole thing, and really it was hugely difficult, but enormously rewarding, to have to work like that. I mean there were 120 people in that place. Twenty children and ... one of whom was mine, and my daughter by that time had got a scholarship to Millfield, so she was doing well. And my son went to the school there. And so for ... I lived there for a year, and in that time, he taught, and lots of people taught. He had lots of people in to teach and we did lots of movements and we did lots of practical work in the gardens, and we learnt how to make ... You were given decision exercises where you had to decide to do something off your own bat, something you'd never done before. I think mine was building a chicken house. Anyway, you had to go and find pieces and do it properly and all that changed my perspective about what people did in the world. They didn't just go to theatres and make up and go on the stage. They did a lot of other things that were in fact, very interesting. A lot of things I couldn't do. I mean there were people who taught you mechanical things, which sort of gave me a terrible headache. I couldn't cope with them. I'm not very mechanically minded. But I began to ... I mean I was a chief cook and you'd have to cook for 100 people. So you had to do it. You had helpers, and the next day you'd be a kitchen boy. So you always were doing something different.

What was the philosophy? How could you ... Is there some way you could describe the type of philosophy that he was teaching?

Well, it was, I suppose, the discipline of Sufism. But Sufism is a very peculiar philosophy in that it is itself in the time and the place in which it's ... in which it's appropriate. So it isn't as though it's a dogmatic anything. In fact it's quite the opposite. It's turning the world upside-down so that you do do an Edward de Bono, you do look at it in different ways. You don't just see things and say, 'Oh that's how it is'. You look at many different ... and you put yourself into that different perspective. And it sort of taught an enormous amount of self, of being able to in fact take on any job or any task without panicking and with a sort of clearer eye to what it was about, it is about. And it was a lot of meditational practices too, which were practical. Things with breathing. All the old, basic, esoteric ... if you'll forgive my using that very overworked and under-understood word. It was a basis in living really. And I was very interested in ... and of course living with that many people you become institutionalised. It took me a long time to do that, but I did. And then I took 14 people from the students who were nearly all Americans, or from somewhere else. I think there were a couple of Australians, some South Africans, some South Americans, Germans, Israelis, not very many English. The majority were Americans because this philosopher had been on a lecture tour in America. And we went ... and I'd bought a sort of farmhouse, a very rundown one, and we all went there and began to build it up, and reconditioned all the houses. But we were still very institutionalised in a way. We sort of had little bells going. [laughs] And when I think of it now, I resented it being institutionalised and it took me about a year to get out of being institutionalised. But in that time, I ... having to earn some money to keep this place up, I went and did a film, I did several films, I did Hitler, The Last 10 Days'. Can you imagine going from a school like that, into a bunker, which I was in with - Alec Guiness was in it - and quite a lot of people and I was playing this Nazi woman who was an aviatrix. So I suddenly went from this esoteric school into the bunker. And then I did a film in Scotland. Now, this writer of this film had come to visit me when all the people that I'd had there had gone and the place was virtually gutted, except for me and my son, who were sitting on a deck chair. And he came and had drinks with us, and asked me whether I'd do this film in Scotland. And that of course is my now husband, Antony Schaffer, who had written it. It was called The Wicker Man. And up I went to do that and that brought in a few bits of spangly money, which I ... We did things with, and I had a little herd of cows, Friesian cows, and I had pigs and I grew strawberries, and ... But I was sort of doing things in the theatre too. I directed a play at the East - Joan Littlewood's theatre. She was a great friend of mine.

Can I ask you, the group that you took off, after you'd finished this year at the official school, to set up your own thing, were they all like-minded people? In other words, was it a little bit like Blank House?

[laughs] Yes. They were all other students there. And some of them had kids. I had kids. And we were up in Wiltshire in this rather beautiful place. It only had ten acres. It was called Scott's Farm. Some people called it Rat Castle, because it had this very old house, walls were as thick as from you shoulder to the tips of your fingers. It was very old. And we reconverted this, made walls, did everything. And it was very good, with a work force like that you can get an awful lot done. And we had ... We converted barns into ... a barn into a meditation room, we had stables and we had beautiful courtyards, and we put up sort of greenhouses and all sorts of...

And you entrepreneured it, really, in the sense that you kind of gathered, you were the driving force?

Yes. And then I had this weird thing, I had a sort of a desire that came into me. I don't know how. I'd met ... I'd never seen whirling dervishes in my life. But I had this sort of dream and I wrote to a sheikh that I knew who'd been a teacher there at ... and a friend, called Bulentin Raaf, who was an extraordinary man. He again was a great big huge man, very ... and a philosopher, and an archaeologist. And I said, 'I would like to make this film'. I'd made a film with the BBC called One Pair of Eyes, for BBC 2. They'd done the thing on Scott's Farm, and I thought I'd have that director, who'd directed the One Pair of Eyes. So we had to do this huge thing of going to the embassy, and going to the embassy, and getting permissions to do this, because Turkey at that time was suffering from Midnight Express. Everybody had seen that film and was terrified. So it had no tourists hardly because everybody thought they were going to be put in gaol or rushed away to something - it was very frightening. But it wasn't. I went there and then this silly director from the BBC hadn't put his name down in the embassy, so suddenly I found myself with this crew of nine, and no director. He couldn't get into the country. So I had to do it. And I was taking in ... The whirling dervishes are extraordinary turners, you go to Qonya. They are a group of people called the Mevlevi, and they are outlawed in Turkey, but they're allowed to perform in the week of Rumi, Jalal al-Din Rumi's death day. So off I went to Qonya, and filmed solidly for a week. They all looked after me because of course I had that connection, because they're Sufis. And I was allowed to film the innermost and most extraordinary things, like their private parties. And I came back from there having seen a completely working philosophical, practical lifestyle, let's say, and I set to work to edit it - which took me forever. And then I got Bulentin. Bulentin and I both did the voice overs. And it was put on and won a couple of prizes. And was at the ... it was put on on BBC 2. I think Australia put it on too, and I think they bought a copy of it for their archives at the ABC. And it was really, I thought now, I know what I want to do: I want to direct films and be in that side of things. But I really, I suppose, as I always do, had too many fingers in too many pies. I had Scott's Farm there and I'd ... My dad got sick so I came back to Australia and I bought this piece of land here and I didn't know what to do with it, and so I really, by 1976, I had ... I decided to show this film and another film I made in Florence, at the New Age Conference, where I had Buckminster Fuller and all sorts of people in it, which was very fascinating. I decided to go on a lecture tour of Australia. And I'd use this place as a sort of, a school, and try to bring out these ideas from all that I had worked on. So I went on a lecture tour here.

Before we get to that, can I take a step back, because there are a few things I'd like to clear up about Sufism, and your relationship to it ... because you know, of the fact that most people aren't terribly clued about it. Could you tell me what ... tell me a little bit about Sufism, because all that I know about it, officially, is that it's -or that most people know about it - is that it is the mysticism, the form of mysticism that comes from Islam. So what I'd really like you to do is to just tell us very quickly and simply what Sufism is and how it relates to Islam, and how it relates to you and your thinking.

Well, if you are really truthful, yes, it is related to mystical Islam, except that Islam really is the most recent religion brought by a prophet, let's say. But there can be ... and the purists will perhaps argue, except that I can show you many books in which this is written ... you can have mystical Christianity, mystical Judaism, which is probably called the Kabbala, mystical anything. It really is the inner octave of man's journey. It's not the outer one, two, three, four, five, six going along like that. It is the discovery by - I suppose you could call it hermeneutics - your own observation of the way in which the world really is. Not what you are fed by spinners and doctors of various different professions, including the medical one, the whole of our ... This philosophy is really centred on your own journey, where you've got to be in that journey, because everyone is at different places in it, and how it can be, as it were, made for you to have the full flavour of life, rather than not see things. There are three journeys in Sufism. One is the first journey, which is where you don't know, you're totally bewildered and bemused. The next ... and then getting here to be where you are as a human being. The next journey is when you suddenly say, 'I've got to know things, I want to be educated'. And that doesn't mean ... although in my case it did mean going back to school for a time, but then the ball passes to you. The rest of your life is that. But then there's a sort of, a sort of separation, where you know that you're not your body. And you know ... Some people know it when they're four, some people don't ever know it, but you know that in fact there is ... there is the reality of you, the essential 'I', and then there's the other part which is the one that you want to show to the world, and you make it up and tizz it about. But interiorly you know who you are, or you start to learn who you are. And then, once you've made that separation and you believe that there is ... that in fact you are not the instigator of all your actions, then you hopefully make a place for other people to begin to be aware of that. Not that you're trying to really teach them anything because you can't teach people anything. They're going to go their own speed anyway, and they're going to go their own direction. But you just make things available so that people see things in a different way, or maybe not. And if they don't, then tonpu. What does it mean? It wasn't anything too drastic.

Where do the whirling dervishes fit in to Sufism?

Well, there was an incredible Persian poet, who came to Qonya, called Jalal ad-Din al-Rumi. And all Sufism mostly took ... most Sufi poets and most ... they're generally writers of beautiful poetry. Jalal al-Din Rumi came and lived in Qonya. [INTERRUPTION] Jalal al-Din Rumi was a wonderful and extraordinary poet, who instigated, through the loss of his great friend, Shams al-Din Tabriz ... And nobody quite knows what [happened to] Shams al-Din Tabriz. Some people think he was thrown down a well because Rumi's followers were envious of him. But he began to write, and he began - because these people were so phlegmatic - to teach them how to turn on their own spot. Now it's very difficult to explain this to you, but they called the place where they taught them the kitchen as the whole of this philosophy is based a lot on food: how wonderfully prepared it is and what an art it is, and also upon you being cooked: you are food as it were.

So what comes from the whirling? How does the whirling work?

Well the whirling is a meditation. There is the sheikh, who takes the position of the axis of the world. Then all ... there's a dance master who cunningly has white shoes on. The other ones used to whirl in bare feet, until 1957. But he has little white shoes on, and he put his foot out if they're to go that way. And if he doesn't show, they go that way. So they form a large circle with the sheikh sitting there. That's the sort of axis of the world. And he sits on a sheepskin. I don't know what the significance of that is exactly, but he does. And then they do what is called the Sema. And they whirl, and each one unfolds into a sort of sphere. The right hand is raised to receive Rachma, which is the blessing or the spirit of ... I don't know what you'd call it ... Prana or whatever they call it - I don't know. Anyway, then it passes through their heart and they look through the finger and the thumb of that hand and that attractors, let's call it. But that is how they whirl, and then they cross their heart at the end. And they're never, ever, ever giddy. It's the most amazing thing. But it takes a long time to learn. When I shot film on a guy doing it, I wanted to put him into a square to make a sort of circle within the square. So I went to a night club that had a square and put him in the middle and said, 'Turn', and he couldn't do it, because he had to go through the ritual beforehand. And then he could do it. I mean actually it's a very ... it's so beautifully crafted, the whole ceremony. It is only the Mevlevi that do it, although there are many other sects of Sufism, many, throughout the whole of Morocco, Ceylon, it goes right through to Damascus. And the teacher through whom I came was the teacher who is called the Sheikh, the Great Teacher. And when I was with Bulent, who was the person who did the film with me - he had a place in Turkey at a place called Bodrum, and we went down there, and all of us, the students around him, would translate the works of this man, the Great Teacher, and that's what his life work was. But it was done in the most peculiar way, because we all sat there very early in the morning with lots of black coffee, Turkish coffee, when our brains were supposed to be sharp, and we all wrote down what he said, and then we went away in the afternoon and obviously got our notes together. And the next day we came back and started the day's translation by trying to work it into a cohesive thing of what it was. And that was a very wonderful time, going down to Turkey to do that. I lived in a mandarin grove on the sea, and we all were down there. I mean when I do look back on my life, I do see that it is very bizarre. But all these things have happened and they have been part of my own journey, which I know is not ordinary, but to me it seems to have flowed along in a completely right way, a completely cohesive way. And this was part of that discovery of the whole of where you go next. And I didn't want to repeat myself with the theatre and ... although here I am in the theatre. But I didn't want to keep going and spending six days a week in the theatre and doing eight performances a week. I didn't really see that that was my future. But I am quite bold as far as trying things. So that's why, when I came here, I started this place as a model of that. And people did movements, and we did philosophy and we did practical work, and we build houses and we looked after animals, and we had our own bees and we had goats. And really it was an experiment to see if it all worked. And it did. What I think has happened in the world now is that people are so worried and pragmatic, they wouldn't think of taking a year off, or six months off, to do something like that at the moment. I don't see it. It changed. I was giving ten day courses after a while, but I knew that was just a sort of a little flash in the pan. It was much better if they came for ten months or a year. Because that way it becomes part of you. You live it. Otherwise it's like these very quick ... and I don't like to mention names, but all those very quick transformation courses that you do over a weekend. Many's the time I've had big arguments about that because I think it will last you for a little while, but then it goes away. Your understanding hasn't really entered into the fibre of your bones. It's there as a concept, but you haven't actually suffered with it. Does that make sense?

[end of tape]

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