The day I interviewed Suzan and Jon Muir, co-directors with Ian Darling on Suzy & The Simple Man, I was at the Shark Island offices at Fox Studios in Sydney and they were at ‘Inanna’, their property in Victoria, preparing for a trip to the Kimberley’s in Western Australia. They don’t have reliable mobile reception at ‘Inanna’, nor a speakerphone, so I spoke with them on the land-line, one at a time, and planned to ask them the same questions with the intention of ‘merging’ the two interviews.
When I came to write and edit the interview, their personalities and points of view were better reflected, in my view, by the separate conversations we had about the film and their lives. I’m not sure it would have been the same if they’d been on the call together, and it doesn’t matter much, but the difference in tone and rhythm was a true representation of their unique voices within the structure of the interview, and perhaps their marriage.
There are three directors on this project and it has been a happy collaboration, I thought that was interesting too—it’s not always the case. Ian has spoken about the partnership from his point of view, and here I talk to Suzy about her experience not only with the film, but her life. Tomorrow, Jon is up. His analysis of “chicken world” is not to be missed.
Note: Spoiler Warning. If you have seen the film Suzy & The Simple Man or read the Sydney Film Festival synopsis—there are no spoilers in the interviews that follow but if not, you might want to hold off until you’ve seen the film. I have tried not to cover the same territory as the on-screen story but there are, inevitably, overlaps.
PJB: You did karate for eight years; I have to ask you about that because it’s something I wish I’d done as a teenage girl—how did you begin?
SM: When I was twelve-years-old, I was waiting in town for my parents to pick me up and I saw a boy walking down the street in his karate uniform with a belt wrapped around his waist—I was immediately fascinated. I followed him at a discreet distance to a hall; I popped my head in and saw all these young people standing in line, with their belts on and had the immediate feeling of: “I want to do that”.
PJB: Karate is about building strength and discipline, mental and physical, and this is a big jump sideways but looking at the way you handled your cancer, it occurred to me that you might have the warrior gene?
…Long pause on end of phone line.
PJB: Warrior—as in a fighter… not worrier, as in a fretter.
SM: Yes. I think when you grow up with people who have lived on marginal farming country, and with my grandparents who went through the depression and WW2, and had to provide for their own food needs, it creates a great hardiness of spirit… I think they passed that on to me. I watched them stoic when the crop failed, or when a whole lot of sheep died because there was a drought: I saw them deal with it and just keep on going. You can’t help but imbibe that.
PJB: It shines a new light on the current conversation around the millennial generation: the anxiety about not being to afford houses, university fees, career paths—every generation experiences struggles specific to their time. But there’s generations not that far removed who were coming of age in a depression when university wasn’t an option (or not accessible due to fees) and people ended up working in jobs their whole lives that didn’t allow them to explore or realise their potential… Or they were dying in wars and losing family and friends.
SM: Or just not having enough food or diversity of food.
PJB: There is a line of thinking that says the wars of the future will be fought over food and water supply—
SM: I think that’s one trajectory, and it’s looking increasingly likely but I hope it’s not how things pan out.
PJB: You mention in the film that you wanted to be a mid wife? Why that path?
SM: I was thinking about that yesterday. I remember going to the drive-in with my parents—I’m sure the film wasn’t G-rated—I was supposed to be asleep in the back seat. When it came to the scene when a woman in the film was giving birth—it was loud and obviously a difficult birth, but again like with the karate—I was fascinated; it was a very potent image and it stayed with me throughout my life. I did nursing and I was working in that hierarchical patriarchal environment and it really doesn’t allow a person to step outside their role. I found it very limiting because it was from a scientific reductionist viewpoint within the medical model. There was so much I wanted to do with people; and those limitations extended to me being a woman as well—typically they are not the people in charge… And going back to my agricultural farming history, the men were dominant, forceful people within that community and the family. The women were strong too but they had to move around the men rather than being overt with their power. So a lot came up for me in the nursing experience that I was uncomfortable with: I then trained as a midwife but didn’t pursue it.
PJB: Why not?
SM: I felt that I was stepping back into the hospital system and that I would be doing things to women that I didn’t feel were in their best interests; and being a home-birth mid-wife—the legalities limit that. I didn’t see a way forward.
PJB: When did you begin to think about other options about what you would do with your life?
SM: When I was at university working with pen and paper, there was a turning point in my mid twenties when I realized I wanted to do things with my hands—express myself, build things, learn how to be practical. When I made that decision, I bought land and started building my own house and planting trees. I remember being overwhelmed by the amount of sheer physical work I had to do to make it happen. It wasn’t my habit, it wasn’t what I was used to. I was used to being in my head, doing research, writing essays and suddenly there was a physical practice I had to kick into. I’d had those teenage years doing karate but that was a sport I did a couple of hours a day where as this was an 8–10 hour daily activity. It was entirely different from being in my head. I think that shift from head to hands is what people find difficult.
PJB: Until you do it, you don’t know what is required—
SM: Even keeping trees alive, you have to water them every two days when they are small—it was a habitual routine of hard work and I resisted it. But as years went by, I became accustomed to doing it and it became really easy. My body wasn’t any stronger—it was my mental approach to the job I was doing.
PJB: What was the emotional result, for you, of all that physical work?
SM: You’d see a house being created from your own hands—the walls go up, the roof goes on; you see the space you’ve created. I experienced intense joy, satisfaction, contentment. I have an artistic side and I was able to build the dwelling in a way that I found beautiful. Harvesting the vegetables is exactly the same. In our garden now—pulling beetroots out of the ground and the pure aesthetic pleasure at seeing the vibrant maroon: the colour, the light you observe living outside.
PJB: When did you first meet Jon and where?
SM: 1990. Mount Arapiles, in the Wimmera—semi arid country in western Victoria; it was a rock climbing Mecca— both of us went there to climb the amazing cliffs.
PJB: So you met climbing mountains—
SM: There’s a tight-knit rock climbing community there. When Jon moved there—everyone lived in the mountain, in the free camp-grounds. Fifteen years later, when I moved there and lived in a tent under the mountains, Jon had already moved into town and bought a cheap little house in a farming community village that was dying because small agricultural farms weren’t viable. Jon’s house was ten minutes drive from the mountain. Through that community, I met Jon.
PJB: Do you remember what your gut reaction was to Jon on first meeting?
SM: Yeah…He’s a very strong man, he’s got a powerful feminine side as well but on first meeting he was expressing that loud masculine side… I didn’t really like that so it took a few meetings to see past the loud lad exterior. I was very interested in Jon when I first met him but we were both with other people.
PJB: When did you marry?
SM: Eleven years after first meeting. Jon rang me up for my birthday and said that he was a single man. I visited him at ‘Inanna’ a week later. He was living here by himself. We took long walks and talked about ideas, life, marriage, children, all of that sort of stuff. I came back a week later and he asked me to marry him. We had known each other for years and used to see each other at functions.
PJB: A lot of people talk about moving to land, growing their own food but they don’t really understand the work and hours involved—myself included. You see that in the film and while I’m sure there’s no such thing as a typical day, would you describe one for me.
SM: The typicality of the day depends on the season. The summer days are very long. We get up and when the sun comes over the mountain about 6.30 in the morning. We spend about half an hour having a cup of tea or coffee in bed: we get up and outside and do the chores: the chickens need to be fed, eggs collected. I’ll check the seedlings and do that every two or three hours through the day to see if they need more water and how they are coping with the heat; if they need terracotta pots put over them to shade them; Jon will be in the shed perhaps fixing something or getting everything together to guide a trip. We’ll have lunch together—something we’ve picked from the garden. What is in season determines what we will eat. After lunch we have a siesta for an hour. It’s a really warm time. I will do inside things generally—domestic chores— in the afternoon to stay out of the UV. At about 5 we’ll go outside again and weed, fertilise, mow, cut firewood until about 10 o’clock at night and then a late meal.
SM: It is my first film. Ian [Darling] and Sally [Fryer] talked to Jon about a film based around our garden… growing food, sustainability and structured around the four seasons at ‘Inanna’. We thought it would take a year to shoot it but it’s taken eight years.
PJB: It started as a film about your garden but evolved into something else.
SM: Right from the start it was about what we do here together. We did a test shoot so Ian and Sally could see if it was going to work with us shooting ourselves. Jon had a lot of experience making films and shooting himself but I didn’t. They looked at our footage and thought it was going to work. They sent us down a camera and Jon who’s had 20 years experience filming showed me how the camera worked. I took to it like a duck to water. I loved this technology that focused my vision on specific scenes and things and trying to get the aesthetic balance of the scene right, and work out when the light was beautiful.
PJB: Are you a film watcher? What I mean by that is, did you think about structuring a narrative from watching films?
SM: The story telling part of the film early on was due to Ian and Hilary [Balmond—the first editor on the film with Sally]. They crafted the story from the raw footage we sent them; it’s not a strong storyline—there’s not an arc….
PJB: I think what you put on camera is personal, direct and intimate—and you’re being yourself, you’re not “performing”; I’m interested in how you became comfortable with a camera being there. Did it take time to get used to it?
SM: I don’t think I had to get used to it. One of the strong parts of my character is that I like to be real. I’ve had to pull that back a bit and rein it in because I expose myself and it makes me brutally honest and not diplomatic. But with the breast cancer story that is perhaps the most personal part of the film, I thought I had a valuable viewpoint to offer that balances the current cancer industry.
PJB: What are your thoughts about that?
SM: I feel that cancer research is driven by big companies who make a lot of money coming up with the latest drugs that require only a small amount of success to be allowed on the market.
PJB: Did you have chemo and radiotherapy? [Suzy had had a full mastectomy when first diagnosed with breast cancer].
SM: No, I didn’t. I had a visit with my oncologist to make sure that I wasn’t having a knee jerk I’m-not-going-to-have-modern-medicine reaction; I wanted to make a considered choice so I had meetings with my GP, surgeon, oncologist and made my decision based on my own research and the information these people were giving me.
PJB: How did the doctors feel about what you chose?
SM: My GP was incredibly supportive because she believed in patients making informed choices about their own bodies and taking responsibility for their own health: she’s a supporter of integrative medicine which is a combination of traditional sciences and alternative medicine and using the best of both worlds to treat people so she was incredibly supportive. The women GPs were amazing throughout the entire journey and it would have been much more difficult without them. My surgeon who is deeply engrained in the western surgical tradition said, “You are free to have what you want.” So while he didn’t offer me any alternatives, he offered me the freedom to make my own decisions, which is what I wanted and what I expected.
PB: So no-one said to you, “If you don’t do X, you will die.”
SM: The oncologist didn’t understand why I didn’t come back for the chemotherapy, after the surgery, and chased me up via my GP and said, “Why isn’t she coming back? She has to come back, she has to see me.” My GP told her my decision.
PB: Doctors like Atul Gawande write that what is sometimes overlooked in modern medicine, and important to people dealing with life threatening illnesses, is that doctors and health professionals respect people’s need for control over the decision making process about their treatment and what matters to them in life—especially when their patients are looking at possible or certain death.
SM: Absolutely. This is the underlying ethos of modern day nursing and that’s what you are taught or I was, as a trained nurse; you give the patient the information they require to make an informed choice—but real life doesn’t play out like that. Once you get into the hospital system, doctors don’t always do that—some of them do, but generally speaking, what I observed was that it didn’t really matter what the patient thought or wanted. They encouraged them to do what they thought was best for them.
PJB: Doctors want to treat and cure, and cancer sets fear alight in people—
SM: It’s not cancer people fear—it’s death. And that’s an intrinsic part of life. When people come to terms with the fact that they are mortal and they are going to die then the cancer loses a lot of its power; it’s not an unnatural thing… Fear motivates people to make choices that are perhaps not in their best interests.
PB: I didn’t get the feeling that was how it was for you—correct me if I’m wrong, but watching the film, I got the sense that cancer transformed your life in a good way. Can you talk a little more about that?
SM: I was pretty down on my species….
PB: And why?
SM: Because I see us being in plague proportions. My science background is biology; even at a microscopic level a bacteria or any kind of colony or population will increase in size until either two things happen: the numbers are so great that they drown in their own faeces or they no longer have a food source to sustain themselves. I see us white Homo sapiens as being as unconscious as those really tiny microbes. We’re relating to our environment as if it’s infinite and it’s just not.
PJB: So that’s why you were down in your species, what changed your mind?
SM: The healing work I did, when I was diagnosed with cancer, convinced me that it was OK to have a life… I didn’t have to condemn myself for being here, for being a Homo sapien and that I could look at what made me happy and focus on that rather than my species being a plague and looking at the repercussions of our interactions with the planet – I was overwhelmed by that. Letting go of that negative focus and having awareness about enjoying my life.
PJB: Do you have any confidence that humans can change how they operate in the world?
SM: As animals, I think we are hard wired to make hay while the sun shines so… coming from a millennia of being a species of hunter gatherers: we store fat while the going is good and then when we get to the lean times that fat is used up. But as animals, I suspect we’re not going to make the changes that require more self–control and less grasping of material objects to try and make ourselves feel safe.
PJB: But the life you and Jon are living at ‘Inanna’ is the life you believe is good for the planet, people and other creatures. It’s outside the mainstream but your way of life offers a way forward. According to a UN report, in 2030 two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities. We need creative practical solutions about how to live differently and quickly.
SM: It has been done before—
PJB: And you’re doing it now. Not everyone can live on the land but but I watch the film and I don’t feel hopeless: yours and Jon’s way of life is very inspiring.
SM: Great. That makes me feel the film was worth making.
PJB: What would you like the film to do for people?
SM: Perhaps change the narrative. Help people to see they can make changes for themselves, that can live more simply, invite people to see the beauty of the natural world so they might think: “Ah, I’d like to engage more with that.” That’s a big one for me I think. To wake up that love of the natural world in people—it’s there in everyone but it gets dampened living in an urban environment.
PJB: In the film we see you work with kids building vegetable gardens—and it’s impossible not to think, What if every child had that opportunity and learned how to grow food and value water, they would have a different relationship to the earth as adults. They’d understand how to look after it—they’d know what to do. It’s society-changing especially if it happened in cities all over the world.
SM: It is on the increase, and our film is just feeding into what is already happening in terms of kitchen school gardens. I hope it becomes a part of the mainstream curricula.
PJB: Watching the film, I was interested not only in yours and Jon’s relationship to nature and your choices about how to live, but also the way you love each other—how respectful Jon was of your decisions about how you treated your cancer and what you wanted to do. Any apprehensions he had of losing you, didn’t get in the way of supporting what you wanted.
SM: Jon gave me the greatest gift a person can give to another person. I was at a point during the cancer journey that I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to live; I was feeling very unhappy. In a difficult and almost hysterical moment when I was in tears, I said to Jon: “I don’t know if I want to be here.” But coming to that point and expressing it was part of my healing. He said to me: “Look, my preference would really be that you are around for many years to come but if you feel like you need to go now, you can do that. Let yourself go, you don’t have to keep going if that’s what you feel need to do. ” And that was a turning point for me.
PB: It’s being given the permission to go to the end point without going there. It makes a difference.
SM: I came to terms with what that end point would be and thought: I’m OK with that. There is a book that had a big impact on me and it’s called Dying to be me by Anita Moorjani. She had a near-death experience through lymphatic cancer—she was a skeleton and all her organs had shut down. But she came back—and when she did, she realised she no longer feared death, or the cancer. She believes the emotion underlying her physical fear was driving the cancer and when she let go of that, her physical body responded by becoming well again… I wanted to stay outside the fear and angst that I think the cancer industry fuels and just deal with it on my own terms. What really changed things for me was awareness, through meditation, that all my cells have consciousness and they are all cooperating together to make this body work. It’s amazing what those cells do together. My consciousness isn’t residing only in my brain, it’s in my entire body. Most of my cells were healthy and I felt that my body needed the support of my emotional and mental state to combat the unhealthy cells.
Suzan has also worked in adventure tourism and writing remains a passion. She has written articles for publications such as Australian Geographic, Wild, Cruising Helmsman and contributed to books such as Modern Day Explorers. She has recently completed a manuscript Serafiphine Snuperson, an adventure tale for 8–12 year-olds about how children deal with grief and loss, told from the point of view of a dog.Tags: Ian Darling, John Muir, Sally Fryer, Suzy & The Simple Man