Michael’s Hunger Protest Article from The Callsheet
THE ACCIDENTAL HUNGER STRIKER
The first day without food is easy. The second day, to put it bluntly, sucks. I drank more than 2 litres of water but it wasn’t enough. I was dehydrated, tired, and cranky. Then I got lucky. Something happened to pull me beyond such selfish thoughts.
For those of you who might be reading this overseas, or otherwise don’t know, let me summarize. The SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation), our national public broadcaster, is currently in the spin of a financial meltdown, with a sudden, as yet unexplained deficit of nearly a billion rand, though nobody knows the exact amount. The TVIEC (Television Industry Emergency Coalition) was formed early this year to more effectively address the total lack of transparency in how the SABC was handling this crisis, and in early June, the TVIEC organized a march of nearly a thousand people outside the SABC to deliver an angry manifesto. This statement can be found on the SASFED website (www.sasfed.org)
We helped film that protest. In July, I directed a two week shoot at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) of our documentary in progress, State of Emergency? It’s a film about the past 30 years of South African cinematic voice’s struggle to break free of politics. During both research and shoots for the doccie, as well as the march, I came to understand the history of the SABC is riddled with these kinds of crises. I was also sick of being unhealthy, especially after a cocktail party at the DIFF, where a female friend poked me in my gut and smiled, “Hey chubby!”
So these two parallel frustrations were bubbling inside me. I’d heard about water fasting as a healthful experience, but me? Not eat? Right. Yet, just a week after I got back from Durban, in the late afternoon of Monday, August 10, I realized I hadn’t yet put food in my mouth that day, and wasn’t really hungry. So, I posted on my Facebook page as a joke: Day 1 of hunger strike in protest against SABC.
The next day, Aug 11, as if by design, the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) announced it was going to be forced to cut R500 million from next year’s local content budget – close to half the deficit, even though local content forms only about 10% of the SABC’s overall budget.
The TVIEC went on fast attack. And I updated my FB status: Day 2 of hunger strike against the SABC. And suddenly the comments poured in: Go for it! You show them!
On day three, I wouldn’t have believed I could last much longer. I had to work, raise money for our documentary, prepare a training course, no time to slow down, though I felt like sleeping the whole day. My stomach was in cramps. I knew it was just a slight taste of the suffering the majority of the world has faced, but knowing that didn’t help one bit.
I researched: on the first day, the body uses up all its glucose reserves, leaving nothing for energy. It begins to cannibalize itself on day 2, starting with the muscles. But there was hope. By day 4, the process shifts fully to using stored fat, a process called ketosis. Ketonins are proteins trapped in the fat, and when the body breaks them down they gather as toxins, and need to be flushed out. So now I was up to about 4 litres.
On day four, I did in fact feel stronger, though hungry as hell. Dan, my colleague on the board of SASFED (the South African Screen Federation), wrote me on FB – Let’s alert the media? Um, ok.
I woke on day five from an anxiety dream the depths of which I had never experienced, like all the anxiety from everything I have ever lived through rushing out at once, all very accurate in detail – getting lost on planes, cars, busses, trains, separated from my crew on at least three continents…
Reality was a relief. I drank a litre of water before I stood up. And when I sat at my computer to do emails, every online source about film and business in South Africa was plastered with news of my hunger strike. Eish. Game on, then. I set myself to go the distance – 21 days, the lower limit stated to be safe for any healthy adult.
Day six’s anxiety dream made last night’s look like a lullaby. But when I woke, the whole world was different. I was not hungry. I was calm like a monk. The franticness became clear, and ridiculous. I realized I simply stopped being frantic and got twice more done. I started moving meetings to my house. It was wonderful.
On day 8, the hunger came raging back again. Except I realized it was not in my belly but in my skull. Food smells attacked me from every direction. I craved everything I smelled. And man could I smell. Chips and pizzas and frying meat drove me nuts. For the next few days I wrestled with my deep desire to eat. I learned how I use food to distract myself from life. How angry I am at my daughter when she “wastes” food. How commercialized and aggressive the demand to eat eat eat has become. The colors, the spices, oh wow did I want to eat, even though my stomach was just fine, thanks.
On day ten the dreams stopped. And literally like magic, I passed into a whole different universe,. Everything before then fell away and I was totally present. I was no longer interested in food at all, and was boundless with energy. I understood, as if for the first time, my favorite line from the famous Eagles song from the 70s, “Just find a place to take your stand, and take it easy…”
I had taken my stand, and was taking it easy. Wondrous. But people around me were freaking out! Stop! Foolish! Dangerous! What are you trying to prove? You’ll be blackballed! No one will listen! You’ll have to starve to death before they pay attention!
I said even in the earliest interviews I never intended to starve myself to death. The hunger-strike-to-death is an invention of the 20th century. For at least 2000 years before that, the protest fast was used in many cultures to call attention to an unpaid debt or other perceived injustice and to highlight the INHUMANITY of the person being protested against. Sitting on a doorstep, refusing to eat or drink, was so HUMILIATING to the accused offender, the dispute would be settled within 24 hours.
So why bother with a hunger protest against people who can’t be humiliated? It is critical our industry understand, this is far bigger than just us. This is about the nation having a real public broadcaster, one that cares about the heritage, the citizens, and the country. And about shining a spotlight on those who wish to foil that. The SABC seems to have forgotten that the SABC belongs to the people. The people seem to have forgotten this as well. Maybe they just need some reminding, or waking up.
I got versatile with my water, adding cayenne pepper to hot water to give it spice, adding ice to cold water to give it texture. At three weeks I got hungry again. But media attention had started peaking, three other people had joined the protest, and I did not want to stop. Midway through week 4, as my energy faltered, I started to add a slice of lemon – the closest I’d come to real food in nearly a month. The vivid dreams started again, but now they were beautiful dreams, where everything worked out right. When finally, on day 30, I gave in and drank apple juice at a press conference, I wasn’t really that interested in the juice itself.
In short, this protest fast has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve emerged a kinder person, more focussed, in touch with my flow and creativity. My gut is gone, my chin is almost chiselled, and the tiniest healthy meal electrifies me with energy. I now can agree with Henry Miler that I am the happiest man alive. My soul and body glide me into action to solve any challenge. I am eating now, and others continue on their own fasts. Please support them however you can.