Life after Mercy

Angus Smith

It’s just after midnight in New York. Matthew Sleeth, a Melbourne artist who divides his time between the two cities, is wide awake.

‘At first I just wanted it to go away.’ The crackle isn’t the Skype connection. Sleeth has had some time to grieve and reflect, but his voice is still troubled, his words haunted. 

In April 2005, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan were arrested, along with the seven other members of the ‘Bali 9’, for attempting to smuggle heroin from Indonesia to Australia. 

Sleeth made many trips to Kerobokan prison, first as an art and theatre instructor, organised by the ‘Mercy’ support campaign. Later, he just visited as Myuran and Andrew’s friend. 

‘People say “they were drug dealers” well yes they were, that’s the point, rehabilitation doesn’t mean starting out perfect and ending perfect, it means starting out flawed … insight only comes after you have fucked up really badly, unfortunately it doesn’t come sitting in a lounge chair at home.’

Brigid Delaney is an author and journalist who writes for The Guardian. In 2009, she was volunteering for anti-death penalty group Reprieve when she co-founded the Mercy campaign, specifically tasked with the plight of Myuran and Andrew. Delaney believes that the Mercy campaign’s efforts to highlight their steps towards reformation helped humanise them.

‘Originally many newspapers were scathing about the Bali 9. But once you humanise people who are in these terrible situations, it then becomes hard for people to be cold or unsupportive.’

‘More stories started appearing in the media in 2015 talking about, for example Myuran and his artwork, or Andrew and his religious faith and people connected with them more as human beings.’

Sleeth supports Delaney’s view and believes people were really moved by the sincerity of their rehabilitation. ‘I know how art has transformed me and I have seen how it can transform people. Art’s as much about the person you become as the work you make. You can’t separate the two.’

‘Nobody goes to prison and says “ok, fair play you got me, I will start rehabilitating right away”. It’s always someone else’s fault first, “the judge had it in for me”, “someone told the cops”, “someone double crossed me” — you know, there’s always a reason why it’s not your fault.’

‘And that’s a long process, very few people get to the point where they say “I want to be someone else”, not just fiddle around the edges and change a little, but actually say “I want to become a different person”, it’s a really hard thing to do; very few people do it, nobody does it on their own, and it takes a long time and a lot of support.’

‘Indonesia almost created the perfect argument against the death penalty, they allowed Andrew and Myuran the space, the time and the opportunity to rehabilitate, they allowed it to be public, and then they killed them. And made that very public too.’

In April 2015, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan were executed by firing squad. After the executions, Sleeth threw himself into his work; he even wrote and directed an opera. 

Sleeth soon realised his feelings were not going to subside and decided to make a film. The process of the film has given him a lot time to think about why Australians came to care so much for his friends. 

‘It was always Myuran and Andrew’s wish that the people [who] fought for them in the campaign would carry on and fight against the death penalty. There was a part of me that really didn’t want to. I didn’t sign up to be an activist, I signed up to do art workshops.’

Sleeth’s film will explore the last days of Myuran and Andrew and what it feels like ‘to know the date of your death and watch people slowly and carefully prepare for that, and then go through with the execution’. He says that after people watch the film hopefully ‘you don’t need to have any more arguments about why the death penalty is wrong’. 

‘The film is about the punishment, not the crime. It’s not arguing about whether I support drug dealers or not; it is [about] why execution is wrong, no matter what the crime is.’

‘I would hope, over time, the way the Indonesian government would look at this is [that] tying people to a post in the middle of the night, and shooting them is weakness, and mercy and rehabilitation is strength’. 

Sleeth is currently finalising the script with co-writer and producer Maggie Miles. He will start filming early next year. The film will premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in October 2017 and then be shown on the ABC.

ANGUS SMITH is a Master of Journalism student at Monash University.

© 2016 Angus Smith

Twitter: @angussmithh

(2016) 41(3) AltLJ 220
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