Paper Trails

Paper Trails
A race against time
8 February 2018

Anne Deveson was a writer, broadcaster, Royal Commissioner, filmmaker and journalist. When she was about my age, Anne was told she went after too many things – and rather than shy away from that instinct, she made a career out of it.

When I met Anne in 2014 I was 29 and she had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.  I suspect she had known something was wrong for some time.  Almost two decades earlier, Anne had written the following… 

“One day someone will find me out. That I have trouble remembering the budget, that I haven’t a clue how much equipment we have, that I forget half the names of the people around the joint and that my mind is about as unfocussed as the Milky Way. It’s interesting that once you acquire a certain reputation it sticks with you, so that unless you do something really AWFUL, like stealing the cafeteria custard tarts or calling the Prime Minister a ......., everyone assumes you are doing a splendid job.” 

This was one letter, amongst hundreds and thousands of papers, that we boxed up together for the National Library of Australia.

My documentary Paper Trails is the story of packing up Anne’s life, while she prepares for the time when she can no longer live independently.

Anne was part of the last generation in possession of a full set of papers to bequeath to the public record. Our greatest future thinkers and influencers will hand over hard-drives if they preserve them at all. 

Organising a paper archive is an extraordinary process of patience. There are no search terms in the mountains of boxes, and some mysteries will never be solved, let alone noticed.

Box 1 of 133 of the Papers of Anne Deveson, approximately 1950-2015, nla.cat-vn6929734

When I asked Anne if the archive tells the story she wants it to tell, she said “It will tell some of the story, but it won’t tell the whole story. None of us tell the whole story of our lives.” 

An archive has omissions. So does a film.  Moments Anne and I shared when my camera was off were missed, and are held only in memory.

Early one morning I awoke startled in Anne’s house. In her nightgown, Anne hovered over my bed. She was momentarily lost in her own home, perhaps forgetting who was sleeping in the guest bed.

There was the time when Anne thought she was having a heart-attack. She pulled my hand to her chest, all bones. “You feel that, is that a heart-attack?”  I stumbled, “I don’t know, I’m just a kid.” With her blue eyes, normally so warm and inviting, she looked unimpressed, as if to say ‘grow up and call the ambulance.’  

There were the times I helped her get dressed, fetched her coffee. The times I tucked her into bed, stuffing pillows behind her back to ease the pain of lying down. The times we discussed what day it was, what medication to take, when I would return. But it wasn’t all illness – we spoke of everything and nothing.

All that we did, all we talked about, we did over and over. For me, those memories of that time are so firmly entrenched precisely because her memories were haemorrhaging. We lived those months together on repeat. 

Anne Deveson with Ethiopian children, ca. 1975, Howard, Bruce, nla.obj-147729722

Alzheimer’s has no romance. It is cruel. At the end of my time filming, I felt that art played no part in trying to make sense of it. It took two years before I could look at the footage. And now we have a film.  

My friendship with Anne was always, and remains the most important thing to me. Not organising Anne’s beautiful chaotic archive, or making this film. The work gave us structure, and Anne purpose, but mostly it gave us the opportunity to be friends.

Anne was many things. She was not one thing that could be pinned down. At the end of life, we might all want to be seen like that. 

Her work and her archives tell some of the story; the film tells a story; my memory tells another. Each have their place, and their truth. What is left now is still loss, but also wonder at such an extraordinary lady – someone who was determined to reach out and be in the world, despite its horrors and disappointments. I have a tremendous amount of gratitude to someone who changed me, who pushed me, and taught me to stop being a kid.

The Library will be hosting a screening and Q&A session with Sari, Thursday 15 February. It will be preceded by a viewing of selected material from the Anne Deveson Collection. Info and bookings.