Cold time, in these southern trees the sap is running now, so I cut bark for coolamons with my son. I’m working on a shield as I begin to prepare for the season of Law, ceremony and initiation, fast approaching in the next few months. It is a propitious time for me to view Aaron Petersen’s documentary Zach’s Ceremony, which follows the journey of a young Aboriginal boy and his father from 2005 to 2016, when the boy becomes a man and goes through ceremony, comes into Law.

I approach the film with trepidation, glimpsing on the internet excited claims of “never-before-seen footage of secret initiation ceremonies!” I worry that Men’s Business images will be shown to women and children, that our gendered controls of sacred knowledge, designed to protect the agency of both sexes, will be compromised. My fears are allayed as I find that only the pre-ceremony business involving the whole community is exposed. But the film opens another can of worms for me, in its exploration of the destructive intersections between Western masculinity and Aboriginal manhood.

Alec Doomadgee, Zachariah Doomadgee, Zach’s Ceremony, still courtesy Umbrella Entertainment

Alec Doomadgee, a Waanyi, Garawa and Gangalidda man from the Gulf country up north, culture man and role model, is attempting to act as a one-man-village raising his son, Zach. Struggling alone in the city to provide the nurturing support traditionally undertaken by multiple aunties, uncles, parents, grandparents and older siblings, Alec is confounded by a conflicting imperative to forge his son into a fine example of the contemporary ‘Indigenous success’ mythology — an enterprising, neoliberal individual who is equally at home in lap-lap or blazer. But this story is not about him — it is about a boy who longs to come into his own knowledge and identity from the unenviable position of being the son of a great man.

His father’s presence looms large both in Zach’s life and onscreen, in a struggle that is sometimes awkward, sometimes poignant. The film is not narrated, although often it feels like Alec is attempting narration in front of the camera, or to curate his family’s story in the public domain. It is difficult for any Aboriginal person, though, to avoid tour-guide registers when coming under the white gaze. That is how we survive in this colonial economy. An animated montage of the history of Indigenous dispossession in Australia would work as a standalone introduction to Indigenous issues for novices, but is an unobtrusive and unifying element of the film.

I wondered in the opening sequences how gender would be framed. I had a moment of worry when the first mention of a woman, Zach’s absent mother, is quite damning and followed instantly by a cut to images of simpering, bikini-clad models signalling the rounds at Alec’s boxing title match. Following his victory, Alec preaches a ‘you can do anything if you work hard enough message’ to young Zach. After this, the difference between this competitive Western masculinity and Aboriginal manhood is made shockingly clear when we see father and son on their traditional lands back up north.

Zachariah Doomadgee, Zach’s Ceremony, still courtesy Umbrella Entertainment

This monumental shift recurs whenever they return to that remote community. Alec’s code-switching to Aboriginal English always signals a reversal from masculine bravado to a humble gentleness grounded in connection to place and people. Zach’s own shrill adolescence flips over into a rumbling, steady repartee with his cousins. Powerful local matriarchs, unrestrained by the straitjacket of Western throw-like-a-girl femininity, fill the screen and the viewer’s heart with their enormous strength and wisdom. The ceremony the filmmakers are privy to involves these glorious old ladies leading a complex process of handing over the boys for their transition into Aboriginal manhood. Talking head shots of clan elders in a variety of locations maintain interest, while some occasional gritty hand-held realism is sensitively included without overuse.

We see the chasm between traditional roles and Western masculinity when Zach emerges transformed from ceremony and returns to his father’s house in Sydney. Having been through ceremony together, there is a loving and playful intimacy that he shares with his little brother, a softness and deep capacity for care that is what true manhood is all about. But Zach reverts during his 16th birthday party to that lawless, unaccountable maleness that Anglo modernity bestows on all young men, and the viewer is at once devastated as well as relieved not to be left with a simplistic, romanticised message of ‘walking in both worlds.’

Zach’s Ceremony is ultimately not as uplifting as the adults speaking for and through Zach try to make it. But there is a truth in Zach’s eyes and words (and even his sneaky Dave Chappelle references) that triumphantly subverts the powerful genres and agendas whirling around his image, making us connect with him intimately and care deeply about his fate.

The DVD of Zach’s Ceremony will be released by Umbrella Entertainment in July.

Zach’s Ceremony, director, editor Aaron Peterson, writer, producer Sarah Linton, cinematographer Robert C Morton, music Angela Little, art direction Brendan Cook, associate producer Alec Doomadgee, executive producer Mitzi Goldman, distributor Umbrella, 2016.

Dr Tyson Yunkaporta is a Bama fulla currently working as a senior lecturer at Monash University, with research interests in Aboriginal cognition, methodologies, memory and pedagogy.

Top image credit: Zachariah Doomadgee, Zach’s Ceremony, still courtesy Umbrella Entertainment

Our reviewer Tyson Yunkaporta was full of praise for Zach’s Ceremony, a coming-of-age story that follows for the first time onscreen a young Indigenous man from childhood to initiation into his society, while avoiding “a simplistic, romanticised message of ‘walking in both worlds.’” Aaron Peterson’s documentary speaks of “a boy who longs to come into his own knowledge and identity from the unenviable position of being the son of a great man… There is a truth in Zach’s eyes and words that triumphantly subverts the powerful genres and agendas whirling around his image, making us connect with him intimately and care deeply about his fate.”

 

3 DVDs courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment.

Email us at giveaways [at] realtimearts.net by 5pm 8 September with your name, postal address and phone number to be in the running.

Include ‘Giveaway’ and the name of the item in the subject line.

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Top image credit: Alex Doomadgee, Zachariah Doomadgee, Zach’s Ceremony

Goldstone

Goldstone

There’s a lot of dust in Ivan Sen’s Goldstone: literal dust in the desert terrain of the film’s titular town, as well as the metaphorical variety, heard from characters who talk about “cleaning the dust away.” This accretion brings to mind an image of historical detritus that cannot be brushed off, a cultural legacy that’s foregrounded during the film’s opening credits that feature a series of photographs from Australia’s Gold Rush era. Over a sweeping instrumental score, shackled Indigenous men appear with shocking clarity, followed by images of the Chinese community at work, and white Australians at afternoon tea.

The music ceases and historical pictures are replaced by a shot of a car driving through a yellow landscape, heralding the return to the screen and the arrival in Goldstone of Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), last seen in Sen’s 2013 thriller Mystery Road. Notably the worse for wear, he’s arrested by the makeshift town’s fresh-faced policeman, Josh (Alex Russell), for drink-driving, before being grudgingly released to begin investigating the disappearance of a young Chinese woman. Here as in Mystery Road, Swan’s inquiries start to expose something poisonous within the entire community. Goldstone might be small and relatively isolated, but the problems Swan must tackle, of exploitation and corruption stemming from postcolonialist greed and racism, are enormous and all too familiar in reality.

Goldstone

Goldstone

Sen is a versatile director who can move from the most meditative ‘art’ cinema (Beneath Clouds, 2002) through naturalism (Toomelah, 2011) to the skilled employment of suspense and action in his genre pieces featuring Jay Swan. But in all these films there’s a common socio-political thread of characters caught between worlds: a questioning of what it means to belong and whether it’s possible to escape your allotted place. In Goldstone, Sen takes Swan’s outsider status, as flawed but principled Indigenous lawman, and pushes it into mythic territory, intensified by his most explicit exploration of spirituality yet, centred on local elder Jimmy, played by David Gulpilil.

Perhaps this mythologising—though not a flaw in itself—and the number of problems Goldstone seeks to encompass makes the film’s approach to real victimisation seem at times superficial. For all the talk of dust, the film doesn’t feel viscerally dirty enough. The horror of sex trafficking is skirted around, while characters like David Wenham’s mine foreman and Jacki Weaver’s mayor, who with a penchant for baking and corruption is a cruder version of her truly frightening matriarch in Animal Kingdom (David Michôt, 2010), are too broadly drawn to be deeply menacing. Sen doesn’t utilise the intense close-ups of Mystery Road: that portrait-like scrutiny of faces behind which lurk potentially devastating secrets. The secrets in this mining town are fairly open ones. Swan and Josh know how the land lies; it’s largely a question of whether they can shift a few monoliths.

While Goldstone’s mythic quality might simplify some of its themes, it doesn’t reduce the impact of Jay Swan, whom Pedersen renders as layered and believable as he is archetypal. Along with ABC TV series Cleverman (2016), the Jay Swan films mark the long-overdue arrival of Indigenous (super) heroes, as well as narratives that grapple with contemporary injustices via the myth genre. Cleverman has been approved for a second series; I’m hoping Jay Swan will surface in another troubled town a few years hence.

Goldstone

Goldstone

Goldstone, writer-director Ivan Sen, cinematography, editing Ivan Sen, score Ivan Sen, Damien Lane, production design Matthew Putland; distributor Transmission Films, 2016

RealTime issue #133 June-July 2016

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Rowan McNamara as Samson, in Samson and Delilah

Rowan McNamara as Samson, in Samson and Delilah

Rowan McNamara as Samson, in Samson and Delilah

[This introduction was originally written in 2009 with some minor updates in 2012. Links will continue to be added to the list below. Eds.]

Thanks to an abundance of talent, inspired Aboriginal leadership and responsive film schools and government funding bodies, Australian Indigenous filmmaking has grown from of a handful of early works in the 1980s into a steady output of award winning short dramas and documentaries from the 1990s to the present.

Individual filmmakers have been aided in successive stages of their careers by the Indigenous Branch of the Australian Film Commission (now Screen Australia) with advice, workshops, funding and the regular release and marketing of clusters of short films, the Drama Initiative Series. More than a few filmmakers have gained experience and inspiration working with CAAMA Productions (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) in Alice Springs, one of several Aboriginal-led media organisations.

Sydney’s Metro Screen and FTI (Film and Television Institute, Fremantle, Western Australia) have, over many years, triggered filmmaking careers through training and mentoring. FTI, with the ABC, has produced several collections in their Deadly Yarns series of short films. State film bodies have contributed funds towards the making of numerous Indigenous films, while the Adelaide Film Festival invested in the making of Samson and Delilah.

Tracey Moffat (Bedevil, 1993), Rachel Perkins (Radiance, 1992) and Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds, 2002) made their acclaimed feature films across almost a decade; these few were precursors to what now seems likely to be a wave of features, four premiering in 2009 alone—Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah, Richard J Frankland’s Stone Bros and Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nu Dae and Ivan Sen’s Dreamland. 2011 saw the release of Beck Cole’s first feature film Here I Am premiering at the Adelaide Film Festival (which also featured Stop(the)Gap, an exhibition of international Indigenous art in motion) and also Ivan Sen’s Toomelah.

Not every filmmaker aspires to make narrative feature films: many will continue to focus on creating finely crafted, idiosyncratic short dramas and documentaries, and a small, but significant number, are now involved in exploring the potential of animation and digital media.

Dreaming in Motion

Dreaming in Motion

In 2007, RealTime edited and produced, Dreaming in Motion, A Celebration of Australian Indigenous Filmmakers. The book was published by the Australian Film Commission. It includes a brief history of Indigenous filmmaking and detailed profiles of 26 filmmakers along with production credits, festival screenings and awards. You can download the book as a PDF here. Alternatively, copies (including DVD) are available free of charge by emailing publications@screenaustralia.gov.au.

In OnScreen, our film and digital media supplement, RealTime has extensively reviewed Indigenous films and interviewed the filmmakers. The following is a selection going back to 2002.
Keith Gallasch

 

commentary

broken mothers in the blind spot
kathleen mary fallon: the blind side, jedda, night cries, blessed, australia
RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 p28

for and by the community
gem blackwood: u-matic to youtube: indigenous community filmmaking
RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 p32

Editorial: lessons from the indigenous sector
dan edwards
RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 p18

 

interviews

hope & survival in the back of a van
dan edwards: interview, warwick thornton, mother courage, acmi
RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 p22

a life retrieved
oliver downes: interview, beck cole & shai pittman, here i am
RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 p13

the making of samson & delilah
keith gallasch: warwick thornton interview
RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 p24

a filmmaking life
lisa stefanoff: interview with beck cole
RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 p19

what the listener sees
lisa stefanoff talks with sound recordist & director David Tranter
RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 p15

 

feature film

real life on the edge
oliver downes: ivan sen’s feature drama, toomelah
RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 35

dreaming unanimity
keith gallasch: rachel perkins’ bran nue dae
RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 p20

eddie & charlie, kings of the road
keith gallasch: richard j frankland’s stone bros
RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 p28

the seeing ear, the hearing eye
keith gallasch: warwick thornton’s samson and delilah
RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 p23

the story of a story
keith gallasch: beck cole, the making of samson and delilah
RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 p28

playing by the rules
sandy cameron: ten canoes
RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 p18

language as simple as a look
mike walsh: beneath clouds, ivan sen
RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 p13

 

adelaide film festival 2011

indigenous media art: complex visions
tom redwood: stop(the)gap, adelaide film festival, samstag museum
RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 p23

the magical meeting of cinema & media arts
keith gallasch: here i am, beck cole, tall man, vernon ah kee, tracey moffatt, stop(the)gap
RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 p21,22,25

living cultures, moving images
stop(the)gap: international indigenous art in motion
RealTime issue #101 Feb-March 2011 p30

 

message sticks festival

finding the words
jane mills: message sticks film festival
RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 p23

breaking the silence
dan edwards: message sticks
RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 p23

new blak films
dan edwards
RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 p18

 

colourised festival

the medium as the message stick
erik roberts: colourised festival 2005
RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 p20

mirrors on aboriginality
erik roberts: colourised festival 2003
RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 p18

 

caama

CAAMA: from the heart
lisa stefanoff
RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 p19

 

short film & animation reviews

animating dreaming into action
danni zuvela: big eye aboriginal animation from canada & australia
RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 p26

hybrid lives, hybrid dreams
keith gallasch sees some deadly yarns from fti
RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008

the art of the short short
keith gallasch looks into the AFC’s bit of black business
RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 p23

small tales and true
simon sellars asseses australian short film at the melbourne film festival
RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 p19

the art of 5-minute statements
sarah-jane norman: deadly yarns, abc-tv
RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 p23

life behind a curtain
keith gallasch: maya newell’s richard, angie abdilla’s wanja
RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008

films making culture
michelle moo
RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 p33

 

michael riley

michael riley: photographer & filmmaker – part 1: spirit, land, image
dan edwards takes in the NGA riley retrospective
RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 p20

michael riley part 2: the films—buried histories
dan edwards reflects on the NGA riley retrospective
RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 p15

obituary: michael riley
djon mundine oam
RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 p53

Frances Djulibing, River of No Return

Frances Djulibing, River of No Return

WHERE YOU SEE A FILM, HOW IT’S PROJECTED, THE CONTEXT IN WHICH YOU SEE IT, AND WHO YOU SEE IT WITH CAN OFFER NEW INSIGHTS NOT ONLY TO THE FILM ITSELF BUT TO CINEMA AS A WHOLE. WATCHING THE DOZEN FILMS IN THIS FESTIVAL JUST AFTER AN AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT HAD FINALLY SAID ‘SORRY’ TO THE STOLEN GENERATIONS REINFORCED THE SENSE THAT RECONCILIATION, IF NOT TOTAL LIBERATION FROM THE PREVIOUS GOVERNMENT’S HUMAN-RIGHTS DENYING INTERVENTIONIST POLICIES, WAS NOW WELL AND TRULY ON THE FILMIC AGENDA.

The feeling of liberation from the past was heightened by the mix of red carpet partying and self-congratulation along with self-criticism and some extraordinary films and very heated discussions. Then there were the Chooky dancers who threatened to upstage everything in sight. The cultural vectors of these young Elcho Islanders simultaneously performing homage and send-up of Theodorakis’s Zorba as they spilled over from screen (Frank Djirrimbilpilwy Garawirritja’s Yolngu Djamamirr/Aboriginal Fishermen) to live on stage and onto the Opera House forecourt, offered a vision of cultural transformation endorsed by many of the films.

As in previous years, curators Darren Dale and Rachel Perkins offered the chance to see films that might not otherwise be seen at all and in circumstances that made it possible to observe patterns and samenesses as well as disruptions and differences that might otherwise go ignored or unobserved. They included films by indigenous filmmakers from overseas, allowing us to explore the connections that do or don’t exist between Aboriginal cinema and other indigenous cinemas.

In fact, the overseas films forged links to other cinemas entirely. Kevin Burton’s experimental Nikamowin/Song (2007), for example, deconstructs and reconstructs the Cree language with such inventiveness that it seemed the productive outcome of a head-on clash with Derrida and the German-Australian experimentalist, Paul Winkler (see Alec Gerbaz, “Innovations in Australian Cinema: An Historical Outline of Australian Experimental Film”, NFSA Journal, Vol 3, No 1, 2008).

Sikumi/On the Ice (Andrew Okpeaha MacLean) initially seems to be indebted to Atanarjuat/The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk, 2001)—both are in a dialect of the Eskimo-Aleut languages group, both have a mise-en-scène dominated by wide, flat icy vistas, seal-skin encased bodies and whiskers with dangling icicles, and both tell a murder tale. At second sight Sikumi appears to be the offspring of an unruly union between indigenous, art and mainstream cinemas.

The boundaries between cinematic and other cultural categories proved even more porous with the Aboriginal films. A persistent theme was that of shifting ideas, images, sounds and other cultural material passing to and from Indigenous and mainstream cultures. As films such as Ten Canoes and Rabbit Proof Fence demonstrate, this is a two-way ticket.

In Darlene’s Johnson’s River of No Return, the captivating Frances Djulibing dreams of being Marilyn Monroe: sexy and a great comic actress with diamonds for a best friend. Frances’ long trudge along the dirt road between her home and Raminginging in north eastern Arnhem land becomes the symbol of the seemingly impermeable borders between Aboriginal and balanda (white) cultures that Frances must learn to cross.

The high walls white society has erected around its black members seen through Kelrick Martin’s unflinching lens in Mad Morro are too rigid for any productive interactions to take place. When released from jail after 13 years inside, there is no after care program available for 30-year old Morro to learn how to be an adult outside the prison walls; a lethal mixture of alcohol and his acquired helplessness lands him back where he started. But the film shows us what once might have been either dismissed—or hated—as a negative image of Aboriginal people. This documentary bravely crosses yet another border in search of a common humanity that knows no apartheid and shows us images that we’ve seldom seen on the screen.

Perhaps the most startling film of all is Debbie Carmody’s Courting with Justice which reconstructs an Indigenous Customary Law Court to ‘try’ the white pub manager cleared of charges of the manslaughter of Kevin Rule, a member of the Ngadju Nation. Fact and fiction, past and present, white and black truths all merge and inform each other in this outstandingly bold, intelligent film. The fear on the face of white actor Roy Billing playing the accused when confronted by the dead man’s family is as real as the grief of the family members. Like the classic Two Laws (Carolyn Strachan, Alessandro Cavadini, 1981) about the Borroloola people’s struggle for the recognition of Aboriginal law, Courting with Justice simultaneously builds and demolishes the boundaries between black and white film cultures and between black and white laws.

There is no film in this well-curated festival that does not explore the productive outcomes of cultural clashes. Even the most conventional, When Colin Met Joyce (Rima Tamou), is ‘about’ the mixed race marriage of Colin and Joyce Clague and explores the hybridised race-and-politics cultural family environment that together they created. On the far side of convention is Cornel Ozies’s Bollywood Dreaming with its snapshot of 16-year-old African-American-Aboriginal Jedda Rae Hill who skates, boxes and adores to dance to Bollywood movies (RT85, p18).

Storytime (Jub Clerc) mixes fiction with autobiographical experience. Who Paintin’ Dis Wandjina? (Taryne Laffar) explores reactions to the white graffiti artist who paints the symbol of the creator of fertility and rain for the Mowanjum Aboriginal peoples in the Kimberley in the wrong place and without permission (RT85, p18). Even the films most specifically Aboriginal in terms of content, Alan Collins’ beautifully mesmeric Spirit Stones and Angie Abdilla’s artfully creative Wanja: Warrior Dog don’t hesitate to explore the flows between tradtional and modern, fact and fiction, mainstream and non-mainstream.

When cinematic genres and categories get as confused as this we need to consider what we mean by indigenous cinema. It’s a cinema relatively so new that it doesn’t yet have a commonly accepted name. Nor is there an established critical framework in which to theorise it. Is it a single cinema that straddles local, national and regional borders? Is it a number of individual cinemas that can be treated as a sort of national cinema? Or is it simply a number of films that can’t yet be considered to be a cinema at all?

The term ‘indigenous’ is not appropriate because it can refer to something that is ‘native’ to a particular area—Dr Who, for example, is indigenous to the UK. While ‘Aboriginal’ makes sense in the context of Australia, it can cause confusion among those in other nations unaware of the significance of the capital A. Scholars, meanwhile oscillate between Third World, Third Cinema, marginal, anti-racist, multicultural, hybrid, mestizo, postcolonial, transnational, imperfect cinema, cinema of hunger, minority, minor, accented, intercultural and transcultural. First Nation may overcome many of the problems because it explicitly recognises the original inhabitants of colonised territories, though it shows few signs of catching on.

This is more than an arcane debate because, despite considerable ethnic, racial, language and other cultural differences, the various names all tend to present a single homogenous cinema engaged in political and aesthetic opposition to mainstream cinema.

It tends to be treated as a minority cinema alongside other non-mainstream cinemas with which it’s widely thought to share a common experience of being dominated and excluded by mainstream commercial cinema. Or, within postcolonial discourse, it’s treated as a sub-genre of a national cinema. Either way, indigenous films carry a set of cultural baggage supposedly differentiating them from mainstream, commercial Anglo-American, white cinema. It is commonly regarded as mainstream’s indigenous other.

Every year, the Message Sticks films show the cinematic terrain to be more varied than widely imagined. The relationship between First Nation and dominant cinema is by no means one of perpetual opposition and assimilation: minor cinemas are not necessarily cultural losers and mainstream cinema does not necessarily and continuously absorb and destroy its First Nation others. But it should be acknowledged that First Nation films usually form a part of a national cinema, and because Hollywood is the dominant cinema in most of these nations, First Nation filmmakers can find themselves as Sally Riley, Director of the Australian Film Commission’s Indigenous Branch, once said, “on the fringe of the fringe of the mainstream” (Philippa Hawker, ‘Black Magic: Aboriginal films take off’, The Age, June 19, 2002).

First Nation cinema’s relationship to the mainstream is certainly not one of equality. But this does not mean that the indigenous cinema is inevitably and necessarily crushed, contained or cannibalised by an undeniably powerful dominant cinema. The productive outcomes of tensions in the globalising processes show that locating Hollywood and First Nation cinema within each other is not necessarily an indication of cultural cannibalisation and that much greater diversity exists in Hollywood’s First Nation ‘others’ than is commonly imagined.

Sydney Opera House in association with Screen Australia and Blackfella Films, Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival, Sydney Opera House, July 4-6; Tandanya, Adelaide, Aug 7-10; Deckchair Cinema, Darwin, Aug 21, Sir Robert Helpmann Theatrem Mt Gambier Aug 28-30

RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. 23

© Jane Mills; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Back Seat

Back Seat

IN THE WAKE OF TROPFEST, INCREASINGLY SHORT SHORT-FILMMAKING HAS BECOME A FECUND TRAINING GROUND FOR WOULD-BE FILMMAKERS AND OTHER FANTASISTS USING LOW COST, HIGH-TECH EQUIPMENT AND FILLING THE LISTS OF EVER PROLIFERATING SHORT FILM FESTIVALS OR BROADCASTING THEIR DIY ON YOUTUBE AND ELSEWHERE. WILL A VIABLE MARKET FOR SHORT FILM ONLINE, ON-PHONE, IN I-POD EMERGE IN TANDEM WITH THE RUSH OF SERIOUS NEW MAKERS? PERHAPS THE AUSTRALIAN FILM COMMISSION’S INDIGENOUS BRANCH THINKS SO.

The wonderful short films of 10-30 minutes (and several 50 minute features) that came out of the AFC Indigenous Branch’s Sand to Celluloid initiative over some 12 years provided evidence of a talented generation putting to good use the carefully constructed programs and partnerships available to it (involving the AFC, SBSi, FTO, Film Australia and other screen organisations and committed individual producers). The Indigenous Branch’s latest initiative, however, has gone with the trend, commissioning 13 five-minute films, offering more opportunities for a larger number of mostly emerging filmmakers than the three to six films made for each of the earlier programs.

Aptly titled Bit of Black Business, the films made for the initiative are precisely that, works tackling issues that continue to preoccupy Aboriginal people and their filmmakers. They attempt to sustain a collective sense of culture and individual dignity, often against great odds, but not without wry humour. In this collection, there’s a marked sense of the viewer engaging face to face with the characters. It’s as if, in grappling with limited duration, the makers have for the greater part decided to work intimately, creating brief narrative episodes from larger lives and shooting often in close-up and frequently with faces looking into the camera. The point of view of children, adolescents and young adults is recurrent as they admire or are mystified by or painfully detached from people much older than themselves.

In Michel Blanchard’s Custard, a young woman visits her home in beautiful waterside country to see her grandmother whom in the voiceover she recalls as tiny and unwell, but also how she made custard for the family. The house is not one she recalls lovingly, deploring the memory of a sick old grandfather shuffling about in the night. She sits with the grandmother in the kitchen and then by the water, the depressed older woman worrying at what killed her husband—alcohol, cancer, schizophrenia (“We’ll all get it now. Oh well, what’s one more thing?”). Back in the kitchen, the young woman pretends to read to her grandmother from the death certificate: “You know what killed him? Acute custardisation.” They laugh and, for a moment, the darkness is dispelled. It’s all that can be done and perhaps it’s enough. She leaves. Murray Lui’s cinematography glows with the glitter of sun on the water and there’s almost a sense of nostalgia in the warmth of the light on the greens and browns of the countryside. It’s just right in tempering the sadness the film generates, that sense of melancholy about the distance between the older and the younger woman. Wisely avoiding dramatic action and focussing on stillness and reflection, Custard makes its five minutes feel satisfyingly full.

Martin Leroy Adams’ Days Like These vividly portrays a growing sense of despair in the face of racism as a young black boxer, urged by his mother to find work as the household bills accumulate, barely gets to first base on most of his interviews despite looking good and behaving well. He has no criminal record but the fact that his father is in prison is enough to guarantee rejection. Beaten up by hostile white boys, he is found by cops, one of whom growls, “Hello, monkey.” It’s a brisk, blunt film, shot with a casual documentary feel. The opening, with the boy in a boxing ring, has him punching at us in extreme close-up. It’s a confronting image and the rest of the film suggests where his anger and strength might be coming from.

Back Seat by Pauline Whyman is one of the strongest films in the collection. It opens with us face to face with a 12-year-old girl in the back seat of a flash American car on her way with her white foster parents to see her Aboriginal mother, brothers and sisters. As in Custard, there’s a feeling of disconnection, again kept at a distance from melodrama and textured with a touch of nostalgia—the car, the stepmother’s hairstyle and the black mother’s home furnished with middleclass thoroughness, intriguing artworks and nicknacks and populated with neat children.

Back Seat deftly lets the story tell itself in close-ups of the girl. She doesn’t get to speak for herself—her stepmother over-eagerly listing the child’s school achievements, crowning it inadvertantly with “I don’t know where she gets it from”). The girl is too shy to communicate with her siblings who giggle at her, so she seeks refuge in the back seat of the car, winding up the window, shutting herself off from the mystery that is her life. A sister cajoles her to return for a group photo, a Polaroid shot which she fingers softly as, soon, the car pulls away and she looks longingly out the rear window. Back Seat implicates the viewer with a heightened subjectivity as we come face to face with an emotionally impossible situation, but at least there’s affection and yearning even if the distance between the child and her real family seems vast. It’s a very different account of a Stolen Generation life, but the same sad story nonetheless and based on the filmmaker’s own. (See also p19.)

Warwick Thorton is an experienced cinematographer (Radiance and many short films) and writer-director (Green Bush). Nana is his tribute to Aboriginal grandmothers. He said, on the opening night of 2007 Message Sticks Film Festival at the Sydney Opera House, venerable Nanas can do what they wish and they can be ‘wicked.’ Again, the point of view is a child’s, a five-year-old, the camera alternating between her and Nana, facing us as they see each other: Nana cooking, later Nana taking food to older people in the district, Nana conning white buyers of Indigenous art, Nana, rifle in hand, catching food (a volley of shots and a close-up of the bodies of wallabies and lizards slapped onto the bonnet of her car), Nana and an aunty on night patrol apprehending alcohol smugglers, throwing the booze into the bush and mercilessly beating up the offenders with big sticks. In a reverse shot the little girl, sitting in the car, looks on, bemused, admiring. The film is a little comic shocker made with electrifying assurance.

Jacob Nash’s Bloodlines is a simple but effective account of a young man building up the courage to telephone the mother from whom he was separated as a child. But we don’t know that until the end of the film. He lives in a stylish, comfortable apartment. He’s naked except for shorts, amplifying his vulnerability, and nervous, the soundtrack beating like a heart. He puts off approaching or even picking up the phone. We look into his face and then, with him, at the photographs of the white family of which he is a part but, at the same time, not. Nash’s approach is simple but focused and intense.

In Kelli Cross’ The Turtle, a boy in early adolesence, withdrawn, baseball cap over his eyes, earphones plugged in, arrives in a remote coastal town where he’s picked up by an uncle who takes him to where his father lived. The lone possesion is a tortoise shell: “all he left behind.” The boy won’t budge. He’s here because he’s been in trouble, presumably with the law. When his uncle can’t start his boat, the boy starts it for him, is persuaded to go out on the water and then, astonished to suddenly find himself in the water at his uncle’s prompting, flips over a turtle, thus disabling it. In a mere moment he has reconnected, however tenuously, with his father and his culture. Like Custard and Back Seat, the mood is reflective and considered, although here there’s a sense of release despite the enormous distance between son and dead father.

Sharpeye by Aaron Fa’aaso is an intruiging tale of a 12-year-old Torres Strait Ilsander boy playing spy for the local army reservists when their island is invaded during a military exercise by Special Forces. The plot is slight and we learn little about the boy, but we do get a strong sense of the pride of these part-time soldiers (elaborately uniformed and equipped with the best) and especially of their joy in victory, which they dance like their warrior forbears.

Trisha Morton-Thomas’ Kwayte has its moments and again they’re built around a child, here a three-year-old. It’s her birthday and her father has arrived home in the morning with a hangover. His wife won’t speak to him and his little daughter supplies him with glasses of water, one after the other, which intially he needs and later feels obliged to accept and which it turns out she has taken from the toilet bowl. The apparently benign “little princess” with her crown and wand has punished her delinquent father—but will she transform him? The ending feels a little thin, but the film’s construction is tight, and the little girl is engaging.

Adrian Wills’ Jackie Jackie has the look of a John Waters movie. An Aboriginal girl, Jinaali, works on the checkout in a sleek supermarket, Sunnyshine, otherwise staffed with glam white checkout chicks in plastic wigs. She hangs up a cardboard sign over her cash register saying “Equal Opportunity Line” and accrues a long ultra-multicultural queue of customers. But our heroine’s appoach is too casual for the grumpy store manager, who would prefer “ladies’ best friend” to “tampon” for her amplified price check. After he castigates her in front of the customers, Jinaali unleashes an Anthony Mundine toy on the manager and then tackles him herself, joyfully denouncing him as racist. It’s light as a souffle and good to look at, but the dialogue is clunky and the film is not as funny or political as it could be, but Wills has a certain verve. (See also p19.)

Of the 10 films in this collection that particularly appealed to me (a high ratio for a 13-film set), some handled their five minutes better than others, but most avoided the temptation to make economy versions of feature films, still a common impulse in short filmmaking where the product is seen as a stepping stone to greater things. The directors were certainly blessed with the guidance of producer Kath Shelper and the mature artistry of the cinematographers, editors and sound staff who worked with them in generating spare narratives and strong images in mere screen minutes. Bit of Black Business does its emerging talent proud, doubtless encouraging the emergence of another generation of fine filmmakers.

AFC Indigenous Branch, Bit of Black Business, directors Martin Leroy Adams, Jon Bell, Michelle Blanchard, Kelli Cross, Dena Curtis, Aaron Fa’aoso, Debbie Gittens, Michael Longbottom, Jacob Nash, Trisha Morton-Thomas, Warwick Thornton, Pauline Whyman and Adrian Wills, producer Kath Shelper, Film Depot, Indigenous Branch of the Australian Film Commission, SBS Independent, New South Wales Film and Television Office and ScreenWest, 2007

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 23

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Michael Riley

Michael Riley

MICHAEL RILEY IS PRIMARILY KNOWN AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, SO IT’S NO SURPRISE THAT HIS BEST KNOWN FILM, EMPIRE (1997), IS ALSO THE ONE MOST OBVIOUSLY ALIGNED WITH THE STYLE OF HIS LATE STILL PHOTOGRAPHY. YET IT IS THE LESSER KNOWN HALF-HOUR DOCUMENTARIES RILEY MADE FOR SBS AND THE ABC THAT HAVE HAD THE MOST SIGNIFICANT IMPACT ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF AUSTRALIAN INDIGENOUS FILM.

The Australian National Gallery retrospective, Michael Riley: sights unseen, provides a rare opportunity to consider Riley’s screen work alongside his stills and brings to light some surprising correlations. Both his films and photographs employ a broad spectrum of styles, but the exhibition reveals no clear cut division between his work in the two mediums. Rather, it creates the impression of two distinct strains that cut right across Riley’s entire artistic output. On the one hand his portraiture and documentaries rely primarily on the camera’s relationship to the physical reality before the lens—the look in a subject’s eyes, the way they hold themselves, and the stories they relate to the camera. On the other hand, Riley’s more overtly abstract work relies heavily on the relationship between deliberately ambiguous images, the symbolic resonances of collected objects and the formations of the natural world.

Empire (1997) epitomises the latter strand of Riley’s oeuvre. Originally commissioned for the Festival of the Dreaming program in the lead up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the film went on to appear in exhibitions and arts festivals around the world. Opening with a giant eye superimposed on a cloud-specked sky, Empire unfolds as a series of images depicting the Australian landscape as a parched country devoid of human presence. Animal skeletons lie stripped and scattered on the ground; an echidna’s corpse is beset by swarming ants; a windmill spins forlornly beside two water tanks, incongruous in a land without moisture. Towards the end of the film remnants of a decaying colonial dream appear: a weather-beaten Union Jack flutters across a blue sky, a mirrored crucifix reflects passing cloud, and a burning cross evokes the dark side of the colonial project. Finally, the camera rests on a tacky ‘noble savage’ figurine of an Aboriginal man. A disembodied voice from a newsreel or ancient radio broadcast crackles in a polite British accent that belies the culturally genocidal implications of the words: “Keeping untouched natives away from white settlements where they would perish like moths in a light, replacing…their ancient beliefs…with a higher faith—the Christian faith. Training them in a benevolent segregation…gradually to make them fit into an Australian community.”

Like the concomitant photographic series, Flyblown, Empire explores the impact of European invasion on the Australian continent and its people, but unlike the photographic series, the film also illustrates the way in which Riley’s more symbolist tendencies could become heavy-handed when rendered on screen. A series of photographs can be viewed, digested and returned to in any order, creating between them a site of floating exchange crucially informed by the viewer. In Empire the images are inevitably fixed; their interpretive potential can feel foreclosed. However, it is the film’s overbearing and self-consciously ethereal music that does most to make Empire’s air of mystery feel laboured, reinforcing the sense that for all the images’ indeterminate nature, our reading is being firmly guided.

For me, Riley was more effective as a filmmaker when exploring his documentary bent in films like Blacktracker (1996), Tent Boxers (1998) and Quest for Country (1993). These typify the rehabilitative historical impulse underlying much of Riley’s documentary work. In different ways, they all seek to unearth the buried threads of Indigenous experience woven into Australia’s social, cultural and political history.

Blacktracker was made for ABC TV and examines the life of Riley’s grandfather, who served in the NSW police force from 1911 to 1950. Rising to the rank of sergeant, Alec Riley became one of the best known trackers in the country. He was instrumental in solving at least seven murders and located many people lost in the bush during his time on the force. Despite relying a little too heavily on re-enactments to make up for an absence of relevant historical footage, Blacktracker succeeds admirably in bringing Alec Riley’s story to life and portraying a warm and sensitive man who “achieved in a time of extreme adversity.” It is a positive story, but one tempered by the times in which Alec Riley lived. According to his descendants, for example, he was never awarded a police pension, despite making contributions to the pension fund throughout his working life.

The prejudices Tracker Riley encountered also adversely affected others, a point tragically illustrated by the case of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy named Desmond Clarke who went missing in the Pilliga scrub in the early 1930s. Riley was summoned to assist in tracking the boy down but his grandfather “didn’t want any blacks on his property.” Consequently the search party was unable to find the missing child. A year later the boy’s grandfather passed away and Riley returned to the area; within 12 hours he had located Desmond’s remains in a chalk pit 500 metres from the family homestead. This story later provided the inspiration for Rachel Perkins’ film One Night the Moon (2000).

Two years after Blacktracker, Michael Riley made Tent Boxers for the ABC, another film looking at Indigenous men working in a time of institutionalised racism. The boxers of the film’s title were amateur fighters who until the early 1970s toured with country fairs, slugging it out with any locals willing to take them on. Inevitably many of the boxers were Indigenous youths looking to make some money and escape highly segregated country towns. They were expected to participate in up to fifteen fights a day in large circus tents strewn with sawdust and jam-packed with onlookers. In return they received some money and the rare opportunity to travel Australia. As one pair of fighters fondly recall, there was also the attraction of ardent female fans. Riley interviews a range of former boxers, intercutting their recollections with archival footage of the fairs and the fights, creating a vivid portrait of a distinct social and historical milieu shot through with humorous tales and memorable characters. The film exemplifies documentary’s ability to bring to light prosaic, small scale stories bypassed in ‘big picture’ social histories, revealing much about the everyday minutiae of a particular period.

Both Tent Boxers and Blacktracker remain within well established television documentary forms, but the earlier Quest for Country (1993) provides a rare example of Riley pursuing a degree of formal experimentation in one of his documentaries. Quest for Country is structured around Riley’s journey to the areas his father and mother are from around Dubbo and Moree. Like Empire, the film explicitly explores an Indigenous way of viewing the land and the stories the land holds. It begins with Riley driving through and observing the streets of Sydney before he passes out of the city, over the Blue Mountains and across the western plains. His gaze is intercut with a jarring visual and aural montage of sirens, screams and photographs of smug colonial settlers staring resolutely from fading 19th century photographs. Paintings of massacres cut across apparently empty tracts of western NSW, short-circuiting whitewashed accounts of our colonial past. Interspersed with his historical ruminations, Riley presciently describes a country facing ecological disaster, explicitly linking environmental ruination with European denial of Indigenous knowledge. Throughout we constantly return to Riley’s gaze reflected in his car’s rear-vision mirror. It’s a gaze that looks both forward and back in time, anchoring the film’s perspective while also turning Riley’s stare back on the viewer. Through this subtly reflexive device, the filmmaker quietly but forcefully asserts his presence, and the presence of the stories he tells, in the country through which he passes.

The late Charles Perkins famously commented, “We know we cannot live in the past, but the past lives with us”, and it is Michael Riley’s pioneering exploration of this theme in documentaries like Quest for Country that is his most lasting influence on the current generation of Australian Indigenous filmmakers. Ivan Sen’s work in particular displays a strong thematic kinship with Riley’s films. It is through the work of artists like Riley and the filmmakers he has inspired that non-Indigenous Australians might begin to understand something of our country’s deeply repressed Indigenous history and what this history means for our contemporary situation. Until these stories are heard and acknowledged, and their implications understood, we’ll forever be like two-year-old Desmond Clarke stumbling around, lost in the Pilliga scrub, unable to make sense of the land in which we live.

Michael Riley: sights unseen, curated by Brenda L Croft, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, July 14-Oct 16; Monash Gallery of Art, Vic, Nov 16 2006-Feb 25 2007; Dubbo Regional Gallery May 12-July 8 2007; Moree Plains Gallery, May 19-July15 2007; Museum of Brisbane, July 27-Nov 19 2007; Art Gallery of NSW, 22 Feb 22-April 27 2008

Part 1 appears in RT76

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 15

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Jindabyne

Jindabyne

Jindabyne

I look at the creek. I’m right in it, eyes open, face down, staring at the moss on the bottom, dead.

Raymond Carver, “So Much Water So Close To Home”

WHEN CLAIRE, THE NARRATOR OF RAYMOND CARVER’S QUIETLY POWERFUL SHORT STORY, IMAGINES HERSELF TO BE THE DEAD WOMAN THAT HER HUSBAND HAS FOUND IN A RIVER, IT’S A MOMENT OF CONDEMNATION AND EMPATHY.

In Carver’s “So Much Water So Close To Home”, and in the recent film adaptation, Jindabyne (by Australian director Ray Lawrence) Claire’s husband chooses to continue fishing with his mates, despite having discovered the murdered woman floating downstream.

It’s this choice—to keep fishing—that provides the central ethical conundrum and terrific moral ambiguity in both story and film. But in Jindabyne the murdered girl is not just some young woman from out of town, she’s also Aboriginal. Lawrence, and screenwriter Beatrix Christian’s decision to include issues of race in this considerably extrapolated version of Carver’s story shifts the focus considerably. Several reviews have admired Jindabyne’s engagement with the theme of reconciliation, but few have examined precisely how this actually functions in the film.

Christian explores the fallout from the choice by the four men to “fish over a dead girl’s body” as the Jindabyne newspapers put it. For most of the film we closely follow the emotional and ethical struggles of our protagonists. Claire (Laura Linney) cannot come to terms with what her husband Stuart (Gabriel Byrne) has done. Much of this material—Claire’s secret, unwanted pregnancy; her past postnatal depression; Stuart’s midlife crisis (he dyes his greying hair, leers at young women, sympathises with some nearby blokes who call his wife “bitch”)—seems hackneyed (male sexual power and mateship versus female sensitivity). Yet, as many reviews have noted, Jindabyne skilfully avoids histrionics by sharply cauterising painful conversations at crucial points. But when the film broaches the huge and complicated matter of reconciliation, it falters, drawing a precarious bow from the collusion of the men (who lie to cover their negligence) to comment on Australia’s failure to confront and make amends for the suffering of its Indigenous people.

In Jindabyne we learn little about the murdered woman, Susan, or her family: the scenes dealing with their “sorry business” and their pain remain sketches. As the tensions build, the film seems at first to resist trite conclusions. Jude (Deborah Lee Furness) seethes with angry grief over her daughter’s death, withdrawing her love for the surviving grandchild (whose misbehaviour presumably stems from her own sorrow). Yet paradoxically, Jude is the least troubled by the fishing incident, despite (or because of) her husband’s involvement. “Move on”, she exhorts Claire; “let it heal over”, though her own brittle anger reveals she hasn’t managed this herself. This complexity is welcome, and true, for grief isn’t something we “get over.” Claire, the moral centre of this film, copes with her disquiet by frantically trying to make amends for her husband’s negligence. But the authenticity of her attempts at reparation are muddied by her own deception.

However this promise of complexity, confronting moral ambiguity and lack of closure is undermined by a hollow resolution. Once all the signposts about the conclusion begin to appear, the film loses its power. Having so far resisted neat homilies on personal conflict, the film invites the audience to contemplate the various human responses to an act that resists easy moral judgement. But this central conundrum is never fully realised, and when Claire and her friends gatecrash Susan’s memorial, all this good work goes to waste.

Psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva has contemplated the appropriate aesthetic response to events that overturn and tax our moral universe. She identifies, in some artistic responses to the Second World War and the Holocaust, “an aesthetics of awkwardness” and a “noncathartic representation” (Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia). Without comparing Aboriginal deaths and displacement with these events, it does seem that certain traumatic histories resist redemptive closure, and do not conform to Western (and Christian) notions of catharsis as resolution. Jindabyne suffers from trying to iron out all its awkwardness, from introducing a catharsis that doesn’t emerge organically from the central concerns of the film. What Jindabyne suggests in its penultimate scene—an Aboriginal funeral ritual—is that white people’s engagement with Indigenous culture might be a form of reconciliation. But let’s examine what really happens in this episode.

Undoubtedly, Aboriginal “sorry business”, like any community’s grieving, is an intensely private affair. But American Claire is undaunted, or ignorant of this. Impelled to make amends for her husband’s act, she arrives at the bushland memorial of the murdered girl and stands on its periphery. If Claire can just bear witness, it seems she might somehow right some of the wrong. The four men who went fishing have become town pariahs, accused of “white hate crimes”—graffiti that calls up a complex history of race relations barely touched on in the film. Three of these men have sudden, inexplicable changes of heart and also appear at the ceremony. (Given their previous reluctance to admit their wrongdoing we expect to be shown how they reached this decision, but we’re not.) Now all our central characters have invited themselves into what is presumably sacred space. Stuart is slapped and spat on by an insulted elder, but eventually stands by his wife and whispers, “I want you to come home Claire.” Her longing look suggests much is forgiven, but why? What has happened, apart from this Aboriginal ritual at which Claire and her friends are merely spectators? While the smoking ceremony proceeds, Jude arrives with her granddaughter. (Again we’re not shown why or how this came about.) They have their first moment of harmony, banishing their own “bad spirits”, saying, “be gone”.

There is something badly wrong with this scene: both as a resolution to Jindabyne’s many strands of considerable conflict and, as several reviewers see it, as a metaphor for reconciliation. As the white onlookers observe the ceremony, we sense their longing for a meaningful communal ritual of their own. Unable to gain solace from their previous attempts (a barbecue that descends into a fight, an Irish Catholic rite), these suffering characters hijack the Aboriginal ritual, which conveniently functions as the required ‘profound’ event to propel their catharses. At no point are we invited to understand the particular significance and meaning of this ritual for its black participants because we’re given little insight into the texture of their lives, or the particularity of their suffering. A syrupy English song, sung by the murdered girl’s relative is intentionally moving, but seems included for a (white) audience to better interpret the emotion of this scene. As viewers we are always positioned with the film’s central characters—as outsiders looking at a generalised scene of Aboriginality.

Because she was Aboriginal, Susan’s death has far greater symbolic meaning than the unknown victim does in Carver’s story. Her memorial offers us no genuine insight into how the film’s central characters have mysteriously resolved their considerable conflict. Consequently it seems a superficial display of Indigenous mysticism for the purpose of driving a formulaic white catharsis. If reconciliation is about adopting “colourful”, “mystical” or “deep” Aboriginal practices to provide meaning, profundity and healing for a spiritually bankrupt white culture then we have a long way to go. Unlike Carver’s narrator, who imagines herself in the murdered woman’s place, dead in the water, the characters in Jindabyne remain tourists on the edge of Aboriginal culture, too focused on their own concerns to get “right in it. Eyes open”, to wade in deep. In the most telling two lines, the film sums up its lost opportunities. Claire offers the grieving family money for the funeral, assuring them, “It’s not charity.” And they respond, “You buying something then?”

 

Jindabyne, director Ray Lawrence, screenplay Beatrix Christian, April Films; DVD launch date to be annnounced

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 16

© Mireille Juchau; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Dayne Christian as Warren, Call Me Mum

Dayne Christian as Warren, Call Me Mum

Margot Nash’s new feature film, Call Me Mum, premiered at the 2006 Sydney Film Festival. Nash is one of the filmmakers who appears in Tina Kaufman’s contribution to our feature in this edition on the artist as educator (p17). She lectures in screenwriting at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

Nash started out as an actor in theatre and television, moved into photography and then cinematography and editing in the independent film sector. She’s made short films and documentaries and in 1994 she wrote and directed the feature film Vacant Possession. With Pamela Rabe in the lead role, this intense film about race and dispossession premiered at the 1995 Sydney Film Festival and was nominated for Best Directing and Best Original Screenplay in the AFI awards that year. From 1996 to 2001 Nash ran documentary workshops in the Pacific for Island women.

Engagingly intimate, Call Me Mum requires its audience to listen as attentively as it looks as a string of interlocking monologues addressed to camera unfold, alternating between locations: an aeroplane cabin, a hospital ward and a suburban home. The audience becomes confidante for the protagonists, but in discretely different ways for each of them.

Nash sticks adroitly to her formula—the protagonists never come face to face. We glean meaning from their recollections and expectations, overlapping narratives and symbolic parallels, for example around the word ‘mum.’ Even on the plane mother and stepson sit separately, occasionally glancing in each other’s direction, refusing to answer yelled slights.

Kate (Catherine McClements), white and formerly a nurse, and foster son, 18-year old Warren (Dayne Christian), are on a plane to Brisbane. He’s determined to be returned to his Torres Strait Island mother, Flo (Vicki Saylor), but risks being seized by the state and institutionalised. Kate rescued him from one such place when he was a child and condemned as irredeemably brain-damaged. She gives him a life for which, with his tunnel vision, wicked wit and abrasive sociability, he is never grateful, announcing to a TV news show that Kate stole him.

Kate addresses us frankly and assertively; she has nothing to hide, neither her love for Warren nor her anger at his betrayal. She is determined to keep him free. However, she is caught between Warren’s fantasy of reuniting with his real mother and her struggle with her own parents, Dellmay (Lynette Curran) and Keith (Ross Thompson), who live in a fantasy world of conservative righteousness (which has no place for familial loyalties).

If the aeroplane cabin looks real enough, Dellmay and Keith’s home is all floral prints and pastel lighting, cozy and self-contained, though there are moments of pained reflection and bickering over social class and bog Irish origins as well as dismay at their “mad” daughter’s adoption of Warren.

Meanwhile, Flo, propped up in a hospital bed gradually and quietly reveals to us the appalling story behind Warren’s condition, growing more honest as she goes, admitting guilt over years of alcoholism and sexual betrayal. There are moments of respite as she sings songs from her island home. She hopes to bond with Kate, to offer her a sea shell symbol of sisterhood, though she fears she will be once again be seen as ‘that rubbish.’ Finally, the hospital room around her turns lushly tropical as she yearns for her birthplace. But does the son she’s not seen since he was a baby have any place in this fantasy? Even if he does, we have just witnessed the conclusion to his journey, a nightmarish vision out of David Lynch, a cinematic jolt that removes us momentarily and shockingly from our intimate attentiveness and the pleasant cutaways to tropical island waters.

The writer of Call Me Mum is Kathleen Mary Fallon. An adventurous practitioner in experimental fiction and writing for performance, Fallon wrote the bracing, feminist novel Working Hot which won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for New Writing in 1989. Her opera, Matricide—the Musical, with composer Elena Kats Chernin, was produced by Chamber Made Opera in 1998 and in the same year a concert work for which she wrote the text, Laquiem—Tales from the Mourning of the Lac Women, was produced, composed and directed by Andrée Greenwell and performed at The Studio, Sydney Opera House. Fallon teaches writing in the Department of English at the University of Melbourne.

Fallon originally wrote Call Me Mum as a stage play, the much workshopped but unproduced Buy-back: Three Boongs in the Kitchen based on Fallon’s 30-year experience as the foster mother of a disabled Torres Strait Islander boy. The tough content and Fallon’s penchant for the surreal and the overtly political seemed to have scared off directors and producers. What was next intended as a set of 4 discrete monologues based on the same material for SBSi thankfully became a feature film in which Fallon’s vision has been subtly shaped by Nash’s own, closing in on the characters and defining their realities through Andrew de Groot’s camera and Patrick Reardon’s production design and their carefully scaled gradation of these worlds from the real to the almost illusory. This nuancing is inherent in the writing, in Kate and Warren’s stubborn directness, Flo’s lyrical, confessional musing and the bitterly and wickedly funny dueting of Dellmay and Keith.

The performers handle the language more than ably with Christian and Saylor excelling and Curran and Thompson capturing the curious poetry of righteousness with admirable restraint (Thompson’s “not sorry” tirade is both in writing and performance unnervingly beyond satire). McClements has the hardest job, the plainest and most expository text and, in delivery, sometimes borders on the theatrical. But eventually she draws us in, especially in the rare moments when her love is glimpsed and we learn how fighting for her foster son has made her “the monster Warren says I am today.”

Margot Nash is to be applauded for taking on Kathleen Mary Fallon’s unique story and giving it a very special life. The apparent simplicity of the multiple monologue structure belies many subtleties and transformations, most markedly in Flo’s growing revelations and DellMay and Keith’s developing motivation for their betrayal, while Kate and Warren appear the sorry if sometimes obtuse victims of others’ fantasies and failures. These complexities can be read in many ways. In a narrow, naturalistic feature film culture it’s critical that other voices be heard, other visions seen. Call Me Mum is a finely crafted and disturbing venture into the politics of race and the possibilties of filmmaking.

Call Me Mum, director Margot Nash, writer Kathleen Mary Fallon, producer Michael McMahon, director of photography Andrew de Groot, editor Denise Haratzis, production designer Patrick Reardon, composer David Bridie, Big and Little Films, 76 minutes.

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 23

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Ten Canoes

Ten Canoes

In an interview with RealTime during the principal photography of his Indigenous language cautionary fable, Ten Canoes, writer, director and producer Rolf de Heer revealed, “Ultimately, I wrote a script that conformed to the parameters that were set for me” (RT68, p22). The finished film is proof that de Heer is adroit at turning constraints to advantage in a fine tragicomedy not only of considerable historical significance, but also containing its own distinctive narrative and production elements. There is little doubt that Ten Canoes will be fittingly recognised in Australia and internationally. It has already won the Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section.

The intrinsic rules placed on de Heer included the desire of his collaborators, the Yolngu people of Ramingining (local elder Peter Djigirr is co-director), to include certain ethnographic details so the film could also serve as an object of historical posterity for the community. To this end, one layer of the narrative centres on canoe building and goose egg gathering, significant rites and activities that the Yolngu wished to record as a capsule of traditional activities. De Heer uses this action as the platform for the main narrative; set centuries ago against the backdrop of these daily hunter-gatherer tasks, a Yolngu elder, Minygululu, imparts an instructional tale to his younger sibling Dayindi who lusts after the elder man’s wife. The mythic tale told by Minygululu is expressed in a sequence of flashbacks and forms the chief action of the film, and is brimming with dramatic tension including instances of mistaken identity, forbidden love and violence.

In entwining these 2 narrative strands, the film cleverly echoes the episodic and elliptical storytelling patterns of some Australian Indigenous cultures. There are discursive diversions, explorations of alternate versions of the events, and the plot’s pacing is punctuated by ruminative breaks: several times Minygululu’s story halts for a moment and the perspective returns to the goose egg gatherers. As they set camp or cook some food, Minygululu chides his brother for his impatience to hear the end of the story. A further story strand is layered in by way of a friendly omniscient narration, spoken in English with the distinctive voice of David Gulpilil giving the on screen action an easy accessibility.

From the very first diegetic exchange in the film, a variation on the ‘silent but deadly’ fart gag, it is plain that de Heer is reaching for universal resonance through breadth of humour. On the whole he is successful: it is very enjoyable to see the group of canoe-builders verbally needling young Dayindi because of his crush, and scenes involving the corpulent elder Birrinbirrin build an easy bridge between Arnhem Land of a thousand years ago and contemporary mores. Counterbalancing the moments of near slapstick is a more lugubrious tone provided by occasional reminders of the cheapness of life. Perhaps most representative of this mix is the film’s denouement which manages to match the amusing aphorism “be careful what you wish for,” with sorrowful circumstances.

Ten Canoes was partly inspired by the research and photography of anthropologist Donald Thomson, and the visual style of the film certainly is informed by his 1930s work. The goose egg scenes are shot in pristine black and white, often with a locked-off camera and are highly reminiscent of classical landscape portraiture, even the figures move minimally and slowly. Great assistance is provided by the hauntingly photogenic Arafura swamp. Contrastingly, Minygululu’s story is shot in colour with more dynamic movement within the frame, often encircling smooth steadicam shots. It is rare to see such an articulated stylistic division within an Australian film, and director of photography Ian Jones and his department are to be commended for its precise execution.

To return to de Heer’s production parameters, it was the exclusive and necessary use of non-actors that posed the biggest risk of diminishing the impact of the film, and the term non-actors here means a cast with only the most rudimentary conceptual handle on fictionalised performance. However, the cast is almost uniformly outstanding. Of particular excellence is Crusoe Kurrdal, who plays the central warrior in Minygululu’s tale with a sense of powerful fatalism, Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu in a dual role as confused apprentices, and Richard Birrinbirrin in a natural comic turn as a greedy honeyeater. These performances are also attributable to de Heer’s directorial skill and his rich association with the Ramingining community.

Much will be made—as it should be—of the status of Ten Canoes as an Indigenous language film, and as an historical marker with an Indigenous perspective. But this is far more than a curiosity piece—it is a well-nuanced and strikingly designed film deserving of wide attention.

Ten Canoes, director Rolf de Heer, co-director: Peter Djigirr, producers Rolf de Heer, Julie Ryan. National release June 29.

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 18

© Sandy Cameron; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Myrtle (Louise Taylor, standing) chooses<BR /> a mother for her baby, RAN

Myrtle (Louise Taylor, standing) chooses a mother for her baby, RAN

So often in film and and on television, colonial and post-colonial empathy for Indigenous cultures has been framed in terms of the experience of a white outsider whose subjectivity inevitably tyrannises ours, leaving the majority white audience wondering what those others, Indigenous people, are really like. In Australia, SBS TV has allowed glimpses, although with less and less frequency, of lives in other cultures. ABC TV has restricted us to mostly British fare and less and less of what comprises the Australian present and past. Much of the world speaks English, not just the British, so where are their films and television series? Where is Canada on our screens, New Zealand (beyond a peek), the other USA (bizarrely the ABC has now taken on The West Wing), Ireland or beyond? We occasionally experience on cable another English speaking culture. The Comedy Channel, for instance, started out with some unique and very dark Canadian comedy (featuring faces from the Atom Egoyan ensemble). The Newsroom can still be seen; a more sardonic, less ‘funny’ precursor to Australia’s own Frontline. But the pickings are thin.

In a breakthrough series, RAN (Remote Area Nurse), producer Jan Chapman and SBS have walked the sometimes barbed line between white and Indigenous subjectivities, dextrously deploying collaborators on both sides and in between, and creating a rich 6-part series which I devoured in 2 sittings. RAN is spoken in Australian English and Torres Strait Islander Creole, the subtitles unobtrusively amplifying what we can already half understand. For the engaged viewer, RAN is a cross-cultural adventure, but one which clearly expresses the limits of the journey.

The old dilemma appears to persist. The narrative is framed by Helen (Susie Porter), a white, mainland regional area nurse. It’s her voice-over (if rarely used) and it’s largely her experience of the people and events that we witness, sharing her outsider’s view. However, the condition of being the outsider is driven home with force: as much as Helen would like to be part of the community she has to acknowledge that she is not only just another nurse, but that the locals will eventually take over the services she has managed. She is not indispensable.

 

Helen Tremain (Susie Porter) with<br /> Russ Gaibui (Charles Passi), RAN

Helen Tremain (Susie Porter) with Russ Gaibui (Charles Passi), RAN

What RAN manages to convey through its large cast is a sense of the complexities of community life on a small Torres Strait island, one in which there is joy and celebration, beauty and serenity (each episode has its quota of lingering views, calms between emotional storms) but also the pain wrought by supersitition, alcoholism, domestic violence (inflicted by both husbands and wives), male loss of traditional status and, at the centre of the series, the limits of the local medical centre. While Helen is central to the narrative, she shares the screen with mostly Indigenous performers whose characters’ lives are carefully delineated. Some are well-known professionals (Margaret Harvey, Luke Carroll), many are first-time actors from the region including Charles Passi as Russ Gaibui, the pragmatic, charismatic chairman of the island community and father of a troubled and contested dynasty. The almost romantic encounter between Helen and Russ provides an overarching if distanced framework for the series’ narrative but is quite secondary to the counterpointing of the nurse’s view of things with the focus in each episode on Russ, his wife and 4 adult children whose dramas unfold and overlap in turn. There are many scenes which Helen does not witness, or only fleetingly and does not understand. Her white friend, and later lover, Robert (a kind of RAN Diver Dan, played by Billy Mitchell), suggests, with his cruel mix of insight and cynicism, that all Helen knows of the community is what she glimpses through windows on her evening walks.

If you only read a precis of the series, you’d suspect RAN was inclined to soap opera as the gossip, misunderstandings, superstition, jealousies and outbreaks of violence, dengue fever and struggles for power rapidly accumulate. But moment by moment, RAN is often reflective, its rhythms carefully paced so that we never forget that we’re in a small community on a remote island. Each episode offers aerial shots of the island, a coral cay, wide shots of the palm-lined streets, views through windows, and closeups in the congested interior of the medical centre. The attractiveness of beach walks and swimming find their opposites in a ‘walk against diabetes’ or the drowning of the policeman’s son as he smuggles alcohol onto the island, or the poaching of local lobster by white fishermen.

The pleasures of the island have their limits, and so do the characters in RAN and those limitations are central to its thematic thrust. Chairman Russ Guibai is a clan leader, but living in a democracy he is subject to an election, and his pragmatism will lose his office to his sons. Solomon (JIm Gela), one of those sons, is a ranger who, although married to a white woman, is otherwise intolerant of whites and limits his wife’s sense of herself. He viciously spears a pirate fisherman. Paul (Luke Carroll), the youngest brother, has been the acting head of the medical centre until Helen’s return. He has barely coped with the job but is ambitious to take it over. Paul is inadequate to the demands of his partner, Bernadette (Merwez Whaleboat) who finds the island culture stifling, the living conditions appalling and has just overcome a bout of alcoholism. The tension between the 2 results in terrible domestic violence. Later, counselled and married, Paul looks set to take over the medical centre, but RAN leaves that tale unfinished. The eldest son, Eddie (Aaron Fa’aoso), gone from the island for a decade, returns to win power through faith (he offers a kind of fundamentalist alternative to the local church run by the policeman) and the vote, appealing to a sense of self-sufficiency and idealism, taking Solomon with him as electoral partner. Unlike Solomon and Paul, Eddie is not inclined to violence. He is a dancer and an eloquent speaker and, unlike his brothers, no longer in awe of his father, no longer destructively bitter, but simply determined to supplant him. Their sister Nancy (Margaret Harvey) has reached her own limits, dropping out of medical training because of the stress, but she has an eye on the outside world and the capacity to confront her father and to challenge Helen. Nonetheless, the father’s quiet strength and his grip on power in the family and the community seems to have yielded a grim heritage compounded by the complexities of postcolonialism. The passing of his power and the departure of the nurse could signal new challenges to the limitations inherited from a colonial and Indigenous past.

RAN is in part based on the experiences of Jan Chapman’s sister as a regional nurse working on Masig (Yorke Island) where the series was filmed. The white writers, John Alsop and Sue Smith, visited Masig and Iama islands to research the series, drawing on local lives. Alice Addison joined the writing team. Torres Strait elder statesman George Mye was cultural consultant, nurse Robyn White consulted on remote area health management, actor Charles Passi gave additional advice on culture and language, and casting director Greg Apps spent 3 months in Queensland and the Torres Strait auditioning by videotaping conversations rather than by screen testing. The series was shot over 4 months on high definition tape and in terms required by the community, including no alcohol. The episode directors were David Caesar and Catriona Mackenzie (a young Indigenous filmmaker with impressive short film credits) who, with the help of a fine script, have secured excellent, intimate performances (with harrowing, explosive moments) from a uniformly strong cast. Ian Jones’ cinematography is immersive and David Bridie’s bringing together of music from the Melanesian region frames the action without resorting to melodramatic underscoring. RAN is a wonderfully sustained series that sets a new benchmark for cross-cultural collaboration and for Australian television series.

RAN (Remote Area Nurse), directors David Caesar, Catriona Mackenzie, producer Jan Chapman, co-producer Helen Panckhurst, writers John Alsop, Sue Smith, Alison Addison; A Chapman Pictures Production. Shown on SBS TV, Jan-Feb

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 19

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Rolf de Heer

Rolf de Heer

Rolf de Heer

To sustain an art cinema career in an Australian context demands an ingenious balancing act. It is necessary to judiciously work to a low budget, create innovative content and style that will attract the international marketplace, and maintain a sensibility that appeals to an Australian audience who display, at best, a distinct indifference to their local industry. It takes a consummate risk-taker, problem-solver and troubleshooter to fulfill this formula.

One filmmaker, of a precious few, who has successfully endured calculated risk-taking is Rolf de Heer. The only Australian director to have been in competition in all 3 major European festivals, he has commenced production of his eleventh and most logistically challenging feature to date. Ten Canoes the first Australian feature film to be spoken entirely in an Indigenous language, is set centuries before white contact with the continent, and utilises an entirely non-professional cast. The shoot’s location is on the edge of the Arafura Swamp, near the Ramingining community in North East Arnhem Land. Within this primordial landscape resides the largest concentrated mass of crocodiles in the world. From the film’s base at a local cattle station, De Heer explained the shifting nature of the project and the ways he dealt with significant production challenges, from the story itself to his stylistic approach.

“Ultimately, I wrote a script that conformed to the parameters that were set for me,” he explains. De Heer’s premise was to use the local Yolngu people as actors, but to come up with a story that they wanted and were able to perform. Quite a traditional group, not only were they non-actors but the concept of pretence was fairly new to them. “Here there’s no such thing as fiction; [stories are] all real in some way.” As a result, he incorporated familiar local history into the script. In particular, he sought inspiration in the photographic work of Donald Thomson, an anthropologist who did extensive work in Arnhem Land, North Queensland and the central desert in the 1930s. Thomson is remembered so fondly by the Yolngu that they refer to an epoch as “Thomson Time” and have songs about him that they hand down to the new generations. “It fits completely into their mythology now…and it’s because of those photographs that have made their way back here and their identification with their relatives in them.

“In particular there’s a sequence of photographs about goose egg gathering…It was something that hadn’t been done properly for decades and they’ve been talking for years now about restarting it….I learnt pretty quickly that that’s what they wanted to do…[a practice] that’s terribly important to recreate.” Thomson’s photographs also formed a visual guide for this section of the film. Most notably, de Heer maintains the pristine black and white and formal composition of the original stills. “I was very much drawn to shooting in black and white because I wanted to preserve the Yolngu’s vision of that past…most of the shots are still-framed, a number of them very directly inspired by the Thomson photographs.”

The canoeists leisurely drifting though the swamp, searching for nests, in striking black and white panoramic long shots certainly makes a strong image but cannot sustain a feature narrative. De Heer decided upon a second dramatic line to weave into the narrative, but encountered a problem. “The past, or ‘Old Time’ as the locals call it, has been idealised to such a degree that everything good happened in the past and nothing bad ever happened…this formed part of what I had to put into the film. There was nothing allowed that had the remotest thing to do with dramatic conflict… So I had a real problem creating a film around the ethnographic details the cast wanted, and what I knew cinema could and should be doing.”

To get around this, de Heer sets his second narrative strand in the mythical past because, as the Yolngu explained, there anything can happen. So one of the canoeists in the Thomson-inspired segment tells a younger gatherer a story set in a Dreaming-like scenario, and that forms the primary on-screen action. This tale is shot in colour not only for the rationalist reason that it’s “becoming harder and harder to sell a black and white film”, but as a stylistic contrast to the main narrative. Rather than static framed compositions, the mythical section frames a larger cast, contains constant movement, and makes prolific use of steadicam to go with the vibrant colouration. “The idea was to have a shot for each scene…each shot taking some hours to do but each with a lot of inherent internal interest”, de Heer explains.

So, there was a script and a methodology. But there were other problems. “It became clear in pre-production that there was no way we could pull this off”, de Heer recalls. “We were in deep, deep trouble if we tried to shoot the script the way it was.” Amongst the difficulties was communication. David Gulpilil, who was an inspiration behind the project (“He rocked up with a photo of Thomson’s one day and said ‘Look, we need 10 canoes!’”), was to be co-director but withdrew for various reasons. “I had no one who could straddle the film world and also speak the language.” Not only was speaking to the actors made more difficult, but constructing an appropriate cast proved a challenge. “We had trouble getting 10 canoeists in the first place, let alone cast for large camp scenes.” These problems were further compounded by the pitfalls of directing non-actors; “to get them to do things like repeat action; to get continuity between cuts: forget it.”

Directors have to be able think on their feet, re-strategise and prioritise, and fortunately these are de Heer’s strengths. There was no time to rewrite the script, so he decided to use the same mythical story as a basis, but “stylise it, surrealise it, shift its tone from cinema reality to a more heightened, exaggerated way of doing it…this was done so we could patch holes more easily.” De Heer elaborates on his shift in method:

“What I decided to do, was leave the black and white section the way I planned it, make it the most difficult part of the shoot and make it happen some way. It took a disproportionate time in the schedule for the amount of the screen time it takes because some of that stuff was incredibly difficult to set up. Then the other section…there’s just a lot of little vignettes in a way. There’s very little cutting in a scene, there’s a bit, but not much at all… [I would] get what dialogue I could from it, but I was planning to have some sort of first-person narration anyway…to tell the story where it needed to be told, and illustrate that with these vignettes. For example, yesterday we had this situation where it was meant to be a vignette without dialogue but I couldn’t get it to work, added some dialogue, and then it did work so I won’t have to put some narration into that one. But today we had one where the dialogue didn’t work at all, in fact the actor involved couldn’t do it. But once I got rid of the dialogue and made it almost pantomime, it was fine. So we can use narration where we need to when it’s not clear in the story.”

The film is currently in postproduction and is scheduled to premiere in March, 2006. Ten Canoes, director Rolf de Heer, co-director Peter Djigirr, producers Rolf de Heer, Julie Ryan.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 22

© Sandy Cameron; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

David Page, Green Bush

David Page, Green Bush

25 years of Indigenous media production and broadcasting at CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) began with a second-hand car, some donated equipment, a typewriter, rent-free office space, and some very ambitious dreams. Out of these dreams has come CAAMA Productions, the film and television branch of the CAAMA group of companies, one of Australia’s most abundant and groundbreaking well-springs of national screen culture. Indigenous filmmakers affiliated with CAAMA are now at the forefront of Australia’s presence at prestigious film festivals around the world.

The appearance of Rachel Perkins’ first feature Radiance in 1997 and Ivan Sen’s acclaimed Beneath Clouds in 2002 (which won 2 AFI awards, including Best Cinematography for long-term CAAMA Director of Photography Allan Collins) drew media attention to Indigenous filmmaking and the emergence of a generation of Indigenous auteurs. While a dozen or so individual names have rightfully risen to prominence through this kind of exposure, many audiences remain unfamiliar with the fundamental role CAAMA has played in the development of Australian screen culture, through the creation of a distinctively Central Australian Aboriginal-controlled working base and founding commitment to the preservation and promotion of Aboriginal languages and cultures.

Recent CAAMA documentaries including Dhakiyarr vs The King (2004), Beyond Sorry (2003) and Rosalie’s Journey (2003) interrupt and revise non-Aboriginal narratives of Australian political, social and cultural history with an acumen, and a sensitive empirical humanism, that is very hard for conservative contributors to the ‘history wars’ to challenge. The confidence of CAAMA documentaries is grounded in the self-conscious ethos of the company’s long-running Nganampa Anwernekenhe television series: to foreground the film subject’s voice, in his or her original language, and allow this voice to shape the film.

The language and culture preservation and promotion project underpinning the Nganampa Anwernekenhe (‘Ours’ in the Pitjantjatjara and Arrernte languages) project is unique in Australia and all CAAMA filmmakers have gained practical experience through this series. Early episodes focused on traditional law and culture stories and many of these are no longer available for public viewing. Social issues including women’s welfare, health management and language change became central after about 5 years, followed in subsequent series by individual meditations on different Aboriginal identities. Contemporary historical accounts have come to prominence in the most recent instalments. Nganampa Anwernekenhe programs are delivered in Aboriginal languages and thus made available to specific Aboriginal audiences. They are also available to literate non-speakers through subtitles. The challenge inherent in the Nganampa Anwernekenhe ethos of balancing the subjects’ and filmmakers’ voices has produced innovative and beautiful resolutions. Subtitled Aboriginal voiceovers taken from interviews with the films subjects’ are, for example, both lyrical and arresting in their capacity to frame and reframe stories by focusing viewers’ attention on interpretive Aboriginal perspectives that can surpass the filmmakers’ knowledge.

Underpinning this ethos is CAAMA Productions’ highly trained skills base; most of the film personnel have AFTRS diplomas or degrees. This is matched by the practical experience of making tight budgets cover a lot of ground in physically, economically and politically challenging environments.

CAAMA Productions also invites some of the industry’s most sought after non-Aboriginal writers, editors, designers, composers and sound artists to collaborate on projects. Aboriginal authority is ensured by assigning Aboriginal people to key creative roles in production crews. Documentary and drama production at CAAMA also involves complex intercultural relationships between people of different Aboriginalities. With very few exceptions, Aboriginal control of story form and content remains primary, concerted and definitive. The making of films at CAAMA is a social experience in which creative collaboration and cooperation is key.

Film Australia’s decision to present CAAMA with the 2005 Stanley Hawes Award for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Documentary has proved timely; in January Dhakiyarr vs The King featured at the Sundance Film Festival alongside new Indigenous short dramas Plains Empty (director Beck Cole) and Green Bush (director Warwick Thornton). Thornton’s story of a night in the life of an Aboriginal radio broadcaster at a community station went on from Sundance to win the Best Short Film at the 2005 Berlinale Panorama. It will also screen at this year’s Message Sticks and Sydney Film Festival (see p22).

Alongside Thornton’s film, the Sydney Film Festival will be showcasing 7 other CAAMA documentaries in a special retrospective, and hosting a forum looking at CAAMA’s cultivation of black screen voices. The 1990 documentary on CAAMA and Imparja Television, Satellite Dreaming, will introduce festival audiences to the first phase of Indigenous media production and broadcasting.

Ivan Sen’s Yellow Fella (2005) has just screened in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and will have its Australian premiere at Sydney’s Message Sticks festival. The film is a road movie connecting national cinema history to the personal challenges of mixed identity. Tom E Lewis, the Aboriginal anti-hero of Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), and director Ivan Sen are equally involved in a journey to find the resting place of Tom’s white father. Tom’s mother Angelina is brought to the edge of her comfort zone as a passenger on, and an authority for, her son’s quest but the film never once pushes its subjects to reveal private anguish.

Steven McGregor’s 5 Seasons is an observational documentary focused on Numburindi man Moses Numumurdirdi and his living relationship to the cycle of 5 weather seasons affecting his country in South East Arnhem Land every year. Moses’ extended family use modern technologies to hold onto their traditional way of life. Exquisitely shot by Allan Collins and Warwick Thornton, 5 Seasons moves effortlessly between environmental detail and human responsibilities.

Karli Jalangu (Boomerang Today) (2004) is a short documentary by long-term CAAMA sound recordist and first-time director David Tranter. Karli Jalangu exemplifies the Nganampa Anwernekenhe mandate of preserving specialist, rare or unique traditional Aboriginal knowledge in language. Four senior Warlpiri/Anmatyerr men teach how to make a “Number 7” or “Killer” boomerang. We watch the men select the right wood, then shape and paint it, all the while listening to the intimate dialogue of master craftsmen working together. This film has brought David Tranter to the attention of Canadian Indigenous film festival programmers, resulting in invitations to the ImageNation festival in Vancouver and Terres En Vue in Montreal.

Beck Cole’s Wirriya Small Boy (2004) is an observational documentary that presents an ordinary day in the life of 8 year old Ricco Japaljarri Martin, as he moves between his home in a town camp on the outskirts of Alice Springs, Aboriginal school, the town pool and the library. Shot over 2 months on a mini-DV camera, Wirriya features a voiceover by Ricco and occasional exchanges with the filmmaker. Cole was granted rare access by the local organisation directly responsible for the welfare of the town camps.

Warwick Thornton’s Rosalie’s Journey (2003) presents Rosalie (Ngale) Kunoth-Monks speaking for the first time, in her Arrernte language, about her life in central Australia as a young woman and the profound cultural challenges she faced when selected by Charles Chauvel to play the lead role in Jedda, opposite saltwater country man Robert Tudawali. Recreating scenes that match remaining archival footage from St Mary’s girls home in Alice Springs, Thornton and editor Dena Curtis have woven a moving portrait that brings forth memories and stories that have simmered quietly beneath the surface of the acclaimed and controversial icon of Australian cinema for over half a century.

Mistake Creek (2001) was made as part of Film Australia’s ‘Everyday Brave’ initiative of Indigenous stories by Indigenous filmmakers. The interest of director/cinematographer Allan Collins in personal stories about unrecognised achievements drew him to the stoic marriage of Mistake Creek cattle station managers Steven and Jo-Anne Craig, and the tensions between town and bush worlds. Beautifully shot in widescreen on Digital Betacam, this film reframes romantic visions of the outback and re-places Aboriginal people in national narratives of struggle in cattle country.

One of CAAMA Radio’s (8-KIN FM) longest running weekly programs is Green Bush, a show that connects Aboriginal prisoners in Alice Springs’ Gaol with their families through song requests and messages. Recalling the actual circumstances of 8-KIN FM’s first independent decade of broadcasting, and the current situation of many BRACS (Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme) operations in small Aboriginal communities, writer/director Warwick Thornton and designer Daran Fulham created the set of Green Bush inside Alice Springs’ Little Sisters town camp, where CAAMA used to live.

Like other Indigenous drama productions in Australia, and throughout the world, CAAMA’s ‘fiction’ storytelling–first seen in Danielle Maclean’s My Colour Your Kind (1997), then in Steven McGregor’s Cold Turkey (2003) and now Green Bush–employs distinctive realist codes, where appearances by non-professional actors and location shooting operate as signs of cultural authenticity. The style recalls Rossellini, Cassavetes, the Dogma ‘95 directors and Jean Rouch. While CAAMA’s emerging drama strand draws on the film school training of its writers, directors and cinematographers, it also has foundations in the grass-roots script-writing, story-boarding, directing of actors, and editing of educational films and community service television spots produced in Alice Springs since the late 1980s.

In the relentless whirl of activity filling the 3 permanently-staffed downtown Alice Springs offices of CAAMA Productions there is no question where the heart of Australian Indigenous filmmaking action is beating hard. A slate of over 15 short and long documentaries, short dramas, a television drama series and music video clips, and monthly schedules that can include bush work, training, meetings or post-production work in the cities down south, and overseas festivals and markets keep Executive Producer Jacqui North, Production Manager Rachel Clements and Production Co-ordinator Trisha Morton-Thomas and their network of Indigenous freelancers working at rates enviable to many in the industry.

The survey of CAAMA works at the Sydney Film Festival will illustrate continuity and transformations in the depiction of Aboriginalities as a spectrum of dynamic social, cultural and historical identities. As a critical incubator of Aboriginal screen production ethics and distinctive styles of narrative and character presence, CAAMA will continue to influence the look, sound, feel and politics of Australian film and television for years to come. The retrospective will also illustrate the radical potential of Central Australian production to transform the landscape of contemporary Australian film.

A Tribute to CAAMA, 52nd Sydney Film Festival, State Theatre and Dendy Opera Quays, June 12-16

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 19

© Lisa Stefanoff; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

David Starr Ngoombujarra, Ganggu Mama

David Starr Ngoombujarra, Ganggu Mama

Recently aired as part of ABC TV’s Message Sticks program, Deadly Yarns is a collection of 5 short films by 5 emerging Indigenous filmmakers, produced in WA under an FTI initiative supported by ScreenWest. I have to put my subjective foot forward here: I often find the short film format stifling, lending itself either to naff endings, or in the case of these films a certain propensity for STATEMENT.

The ethos driving the script development of these films seemed to be if you only have 5 minutes of screen time you’d better ‘say something.’ Personally, I crave stillness and space in film, particularly shorts, where there’s seldom room for more than a crystalline moment, a gesture, or an ineffable push towards something outside the frame. I think the medium makes anything more impossible. When a short film embraces this essential impossibility you can end up with something beautiful. The most resonant moments in the Deadly Yarns films occur when they gesture to a more complex reality outside the dramatisation, something not quite so over-produced. However, if statement dominates this series of films, it is to the credit of the filmmakers that each is delivered at a different pitch and volume.

Ashley Sillifant’s Broken Bonds is the visually and sonically lush montage narrative of a Nyungar boy and his totem, the Serpent, and how this Dreamtime spirit leads him out of a cycle of domestic abuse and into a championship boxing ring. The film has won 2 WA Film Awards, one for director Sillifant and one for cinematographer Rob Bygott. The film is tightly produced, and Sillifant is obviously talented. But I came away with the impression that the film had been stylised within an inch of its life. The saturated macho aesthetic teeters dangerously close to beer commercial territory at times, and I suspected the aesthetic was concealing something more real, giving the emotional core of the story a protective coating.

Don’t Say Sorry (directors Paul Roberts and Christine Jacobs) is raw by comparison. Jacobs delivers a first person recollection of her experiences as a stolen child, and entreats white Australia not to say sorry, but rather “understand and acknowledge.” It’s a fair enough expectation, and Jacobs puts her case forward passionately, but again production dominates content.

Ganggu Mama (director Mark Howett) has spunk and personality and the performances are solid. The screen presence and sensitivity of the 2 leads carries this one. David Starr Ngoombujarra (who also wrote the script) plays Dave, a didjeridu maker, opposite Clarence Ryan as his nephew Jackson, a young Wadjarri boy struggling to heal the split between contemporary and traditional identities. There’s a raw energy to Ganggu Mama that I liked, though the awkwardly sentimental final scene could have done with some pruning to create a more poetic and less didactic conclusion.

The last 2 films in the series, Miss Coolbaroo (director Michelle White) and Sugar Bag (director Gary Cooper), are the most fully realised and confident of the series. This can be partly attributed to the skill of the filmmakers, and partly to the inherent qualities of the 2 women, Monica Jones and Laurel Cooper, whose fragmentary recollections form the basis of each film. It was not so much the films themselves but their subjects that held my attention. Monica and Laurel recount their different stories with a sense of dignity and total self-possession. They’re both real Aunties, maternal gatekeepers of personal history who seem to know how much of the story needs to be told and how much tells itself.

There are some big voices in Indigenous film, and there are lots of big things that need to be said about contemporary Indigenous culture and identity. There are some big histories, big steps that need retracing, and big gaps that need to be bridged. The question is, how big can you be in 5 minutes? The fundamental schism here was between form and content; one drastically outsized the other, and they failed to meet. There are points where the filmmakers seem to realise this and roll with it. The camera backs off and all the mute things, like Laurel Cooper’s treasured photographs of her parents in Sugar Bag, are allowed to speak for themselves. It seems to me that filming History, particularly Indigenous history, is crucially invested in what can’t be re-enacted, recorded, or bashed into the shape of an exclamation mark. Laurel Cooper’s photographs, mounted and immaculately kept in plastic sleeves, succeeded beautifully in allowing all the unsayable things to momentarily resonate. I’m glad that it was this moment that concluded the series.

 

Christine Jacobs

On May 25, as this edition was being laid out, OnScreen received the tragic news that Christine Jacobs, director of the Deadly Yarns film Don’t Say Sorry was run over and killed in Canberra. Her film was to screen as part of the launch of National Healing Day at Federal Parliament. The screening went ahead and Jacobs’ speech was delivered by her 14 year old daughter Tamara. Everyone at RealTime extends their deepest sympathies to Christine Jacobs’ family and friends.

Deadly Yarns, 5 short films by WA Indigenous filmmakers, screened on ABC TV, April 22-May 20

ScreenWest, the ABC and FTI are currently assessing projects for a second series of Deadly Yarns.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 23

© Sarah-Jane Norman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

David Vadiveloo

David Vadiveloo

David Vadiveloo

The latest film from Alice Springs-based filmmaker David Vadiveloo may be a documentary about the Stolen Generations, but the director recounts a behind-the-scenes story that could easily be dismissed as contrived if included in a fiction film. Having self-funded the shooting of Beyond Sorry, he showed a rough-cut to a number of broadcasters in an attempt to obtain further financing. In a depressingly familiar scenario for Australian documentary makers, a local broadcaster offered a significant pre-sale deal on one, non-negotiable condition: the level of conflict between black and white Australia in the film had to be notched up.

Vadiveloo had no trouble walking away from the broadcaster’s offer, given that Beyond Sorry is a portrait of Zita Wallace, described by Vadiveloo as: “A living incarnation of the true nature of forgiveness and the true nature of reconciliation.” This is despite the fact that Wallace was removed from her family in the Arrente country of Central Australia at age 8. Assistance with finishing Beyond Sorry ultimately came, without strings attached, from the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). Vadiveloo acknowledges his good fortune at being given a free hand, noting: “Many young filmmakers in Australia seem to be hamstrung by what they think broadcasters want to see.”

Working both as a lawyer and a filmmaker, Vadiveloo’s career has been inextricably linked with Indigenous issues. At the Central Lands Council, he was involved in a successful Native Title claim incorporating Alice Springs. Since graduating from the documentary program at the Victorian College of the Arts, he has made a number of films depicting aspects of Aboriginal life, most notably the shorts Trespass (2001) and Bush Bikes (2002; RT59, p19), both of which have enjoyed considerable success on the festival circuit in Australia and overseas.

His new film is a study of the Stolen Generations from a fresh, non-sensational angle. Beyond Sorry treats the Howard Government’s inertia as irrelevant, looking instead, like Dhakiyarr vs The King (directors Tom Murray and Allan Collins, 2003, RT61, p22), at grassroots reconciliation. Indeed, the title suggests the need to move past the well-rehearsed arguments, buck-passing and entrenched positions of national politics by focusing on the micro level of interaction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Rather than looking at the dramatic moment of child snatching that haunts the popular imagination post-Rabbit Proof Fence, Vadiveloo says he “wanted to focus on the extent of the aftershock, the ripples that these policies caused through generation after generation.” He examines the decades after Zita’s removal from her family, including her upbringing in Catholic missions and her pragmatic decision to become a nun working in New Guinea, before she returned to education, married and raised a family. Bringing us up to the present, the film charts Zita’s decision to leave behind her suburban existence in Alice Springs to return to her grandfather’s country.

Two other voices also provide perspectives on Zita’s life. Aggie Abbott, like Zita branded a ‘half-caste’, escaped capture on that fateful day by following her mother’s advice to hide in the bush. As a witness to Zita’s former life, and now a respected Arrente elder, Aggie provides a counterpoint to Zita’s story. Zita’s non-indigenous husband Ron rounds out the portrait, testifying to the difficulties they have faced as a couple straddling the white and Aboriginal worlds.

There are no easy, happy endings in Beyond Sorry. Zita recalls how she was initially rejected when she returned to her family, a fate shared by many of the Stolen Generations. Having been told by nuns that the children were dead, Arrente culture prohibited the community from speaking about them. Unsurprisingly, her mother then found it difficult to accept her daughter was alive. It was only Zita’s persistence in pursuing her heritage that allowed them to eventually become close.

Praising Zita as a “voice without complaint”, Vadiveloo says she wanted people to understand that “there’s more to reconciliation than just saying sorry or scribbling in a book.” The film shows Zita as a living embodiment of the very real contradictions at work in contemporary Australia. She is a woman who will one minute quote John Laws in her pride at not “bludging off Australia” and the next rhapsodise about returning to her grandfather’s dreaming.

As well as examining complex questions of identity through the documentary form, David Vadiveloo has been central in putting together an ambitious new multi-platform project. UsMob, which began production in August, is set in Hidden Valley, the town camp outside Alice Springs where Aggie Abbott lives. It will include appearances by Aggie and other locals, but unlike Beyond Sorry, UsMob has received production funding under the AFC and ABC New Media and Digital Services Broadband Production Initiative. The SAFC, Telstra and Adelaide Film Festival have also invested. Spanning documentary, interactive new media and docudrama, it will centre on teenage characters in the Hidden Valley community.

An interactive series with multi-path storylines, UsMob includes plans for online, television and theatrical exhibition. Vadiveloo describes the project as “unique and logistically challenging…it attempts to focus on cross-platform delivery that encourages everybody to engage with the story, and in doing so, to engage with the culture.” He sees UsMob as setting a new benchmark in working with the local community. All the actors and storylines come from the town camps, and every single phase has been checked and approved by relevant elders, traditional owners and the peak Indigenous organisation, Tangentyere Council. All participants are paid and a percentage of any profit will go to town camp communities.

The interactive component of UsMob includes 2 games. The first is time- and skills-based, with echoes of Bush Bikes. It requires competitors to build a bike and move through terrain. The second game will test bush survival instincts through the acquisition and application of knowledge about the harsh outback environment.

For Vadiveloo the common strand linking the UsMob components is the aim of creating a non-didactic learning tool that avoids stereotypes about black and white lifestyles and allows participants to engage and become familiar with the environment of Hidden Valley. On the evidence of his film work thus far, David Vadiveloo’s future projects will no doubt make their own vital contribution to grass-roots reconciliation by furthering understanding between the frequently distant worlds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Beyond Sorry, director/producer David Vadiveloo, 2004

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004

© Tim O’Farrell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Ivan Sen’s documentary Who was Evelyn Orcher? opens with a close-up of grief, a face caught in the remembrance of loss. He holds the shot longer than seems necessary or appropriate, not because he’s being unkind or vicarious (this is his own family he’s filming) but because he wants us to feel the full force of the pain.

As Sen stated in his introduction to the documentary at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, he is “sharing the grief of one Stolen Generation family.” It is an attempt to personalise the generalised term ‘Stolen Generation.’ He does this through the story of Evelyn Orcher, an older relative who was abducted from her family at 14 years of age and reunited with them 31 years later. In the aftermath of the reunion and Evelyn’s subsequent death, Sen listens to his family to find out who this person was and what it means to have something as precious as a life restored 3 decades after it was stolen.

The words of the remaining relatives, especially the women, make it clear that the grief doesn’t stop when the missing person is found. In fact it aggravates the pain and gives it fresh impetus.

Sen’s film is close-up and personal, the camera moving in and out of focus, shifting around to find new ways in. The shots taken while driving through the flat plains of western NSW—moving and yet immobile—recall his feature film Beneath Clouds (2001, RT48, p13). The vastness of the land provides a backdrop to the intricacies, interactions and ties of people’s lives in a place where they are lost and found. There’s no doubt Sen is there, intimately connected and involved, but he doesn’t personalise the story or make the film about his attempts to find out about Evelyn. Instead, he relies entirely on the spoken words of his family and Evelyn’s friends.

Likewise, he refuses to provide the type of narrative usually supplied from a privileged position by the documentary maker constructing a ‘complete’ picture strung together from people’s testimonies and carefully researched ‘facts.’ There is no official, authoritative version here of what happened to Evelyn or who she was. That’s not to say that such a narrative could not be constructed if necessary; there are glimpses of photographs and official-looking documents. But by denying an ‘authorised’ account, the film refuses to legitimise any narrative that purports to say what really happened. In the end, such a version of events cannot provide consolation for the pain of the Stolen Generations. Such trauma is not easily assuaged. The life in question can never be restored.

Instead of filling in blanks, the film leaves unanswered questions and loose ends. Why did Evelyn end up living the life she did? Who is responsible? That’s not really what this film is seeking to resolve: there is no satisfactory answer to the question “Who was Evelyn Orcher?”, just a few snaps, scraps, and raw memories. Evelyn’s painful, fragmented story remains where it should—in the minds and voices of those who cared for her most, not just her family but also the people who lived with her from day to day.

Personal documentary filmmaking was the topic of a forum held during the festival looking at why the ‘I’ of the beholder has become so prevalent in the form. Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock were cited as examples of filmmakers who, in expressing a viewpoint, become the subject of the film. Who was Evelyn Orcher? is different, an example of a personal film in which the ‘I’ is present but dispersed, manifesting itself through its relation to others.

Filmmakers Tahir Cambis and Helen Newman were part of the documentary forum, and their film Anthem screened at the festival as a work-in-progress. Both of them appear in front of the camera in the course of a film that is a personal odyssey through the events of the past few years, starting with the Kosovo refugees and continuing through 9/11, Tampa, Afghanistan, Iraq and the whole ‘War on Terror’ scenario. It is quite a jolt to revisit so many recent events and realise how far the social and political lexicon has shifted in a few short years.

Covering so much ground, Anthem is profligate in its use of material. Half a dozen potential storylines are opened up but never fully explored in the ceaseless movement from place to place. This is defiantly non-mainstream, eschewing any pretence of balance, impartiality or a ‘neutral’ territory from which to observe events.

The film’s best moments are the unexpected encounters—Ruddock being patronising at a public meeting, Howard looking shifty at a memorial service—that slip beneath the radar of daily media representations. The footage of protest actions at various detention centres is similarly revealing. Other parts of the film are less well integrated: for instance, the plight of an Iraqi family in detention who are subsequently returned to Iraq gets a bit lost in the mix. We’re not given much of a chance to become intimate with these people, which may be because Cambis and Newman are not solely focussed on making the type of documentary that attempts to humanise a subject, but the refugees are never really allowed to escape their status as victims of circumstance and politics.

Anthem is all about the buzz, the outrage, the exhilaration of events as they unfold. At one point, Cambis is filmed moodily standing on a pier, contemplating leaving for Afghanistan in the morning because “it might be interesting.” As a viewer, you wanted to scream “No! Don’t go!” Too late. Next moment we’re off on a race-around-the-world excursion, a backpackers-in-hell journey with bouncy taxi rides and late night drinking sessions. The “I wanted to find out what it was really like” motivation seems worthwhile but remains unresolved. Documentaries that try to get inside another culture from the outside require time, but Anthem doesn’t have that luxury.

For a personal record of contemporary events, Anthem comes across as strangely impersonal. We never really know these people, but then maybe circumstances don’t permit too much introspection. The filmmakers are drawn into events as they occur but reveal little about what the journey means to them as individuals. That’s not their project. Like Sen, Cambis and Newman realise the film is not about them or their story. But it is equally hard to determine the significance of parts of Anthem, apart from the fact that the filmmakers are there. Perhaps in a climate of such accelerated and radical change, simply bearing witness is one of the most important things a documentary maker can do.

Who Was Evelyn Orcher?, writer/director Ivan Sen, producers Ivan Sen, David Jowsey, 2004; Anthem, writers/directors Tahir Cambis, Helen Newman, producer Ross Hutchens, 2004; 51st Sydney Film Festival, State Theatre, June 11-26

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 18

© Simon Enticknap; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

The screening of Kalkadoon Man, a documentary commissioned by the Queensland Biennial Festival of Music about the seeking out and making of a didjeridu by composer William Barton, was a generous theatrical affair. There were speeches, performances by Barton on the instrument and by his mother, Delmae Barton, in soprano vocalise, and the handing over of the didjeridu to the museum’s director.

I spoke to director of the film, Brendan Fletcher about the experience of making the film. He described a rich and intense experience—10 days on the road outside Mt Isa with Barton. “It was pure process…just me and William, a camera and a microphone and the bubble of the journey.”

For Fletcher this was an adventure and an education. The adventure comprised traversing a unique landscape, Barton’s traditional Kalkadungu homeland, during the wet season. A sudden storm meant re-crossing 5 rivers to avoid being stranded. There are brief dramatic shots of Barton taken from the car as he wades ahead, the sky filled with rain and lightning. Some days were hot and fly-blown, making it hard to work. Mostly though it’s the pleasure of the collaboration that comes across.

Fletcher says he filmed Barton each night as they sat by the campfire, recording the stories and songs that would become the vocal strand of the film (some of it re-recorded later, but using the same words). As the 2 travelled, Barton would fill Fletcher in on family and clan history, visit key sites and recollect his own history with the didjeridu. Producer and editor Chris Newling says that the makers soon realised that there was no need to narrate the making of the didjeridu: you can witness that without words—the only exception appearing to be the explanation about filling cracks in the timber with spinifex wax from the plant’s roots.

What Barton has to tell us is a spare but intriguing account of his parents’ battle for land, their success, his father’s death, memories handed down of massacres and narrow escapes, glimpses of good, caring relations between whites and blacks, and Barton’s education as a player. The elders of his clan passed on to him his teacher’s didjeridu (though he points out that ‘teach’ is not in the Kalkadungu language—the learning player watches and listens and learns). This was rare, he says. Usually such an instrument is broken, “silenced” after its maker and player passes on.

The most powerful moment of the film is when Barton first plays the instrument he has made. The music he makes with the didjeridu is sombre and fluent. Shot in tight close-up, he appears to finish, but his eyes remain fixed on the didjeridu, his hands stay in place. It is as if he has hesitated rather than ceased playing, as if to ask the instrument is it satisfied, has it been awoken.

Kalkadoon Man, A documentary film, Queensland Biennial Festival of Music, Queensland Museum, July 18

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 23

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

The annual Message Sticks Indigenous arts festival at the Sydney Opera House provides Sydneysiders with a fascinating cross section of contemporary visual arts, performance, music and film by Aboriginal artists from around the country. The New Blak Films night comprised 2 13-minute shorts: Turn Around and Shit Skin, directed by Samantha Saunders and Nicholas Boseley respectively, and a 45-minute mini-feature, Cold Turkey, directed by Steven McGregor.

There is no doubt that the most challenging local cinema in recent years has either come from Indigenous Australian filmmakers or dealt with Indigenous stories. The painfully slow lancing of the wound created by Australia’s repressed history of race relations seems the only topic that can provoke even the mildest form of political engagement or formal experimentation in Australian filmmakers.

With this in mind, it was interesting to hear director Saunders introduce the evening’s first film, Turn Around, claiming she doesn’t think of her work as “Indigenous film” but rather as “girl fantasy.” This seemed a little disingenuous, given the context in which the film was being presented, but after viewing Turn Around her comment made more sense. While it is, of course, important that Indigenous films tell the big, representative stories about Aboriginal experience, Indigenous directors also need to be as free as anyone else to put prosaic tales of everyday life on screen. Although primarily a simple love story, Saunders’ film pointed the way towards an Indigenous cinema of the everyday, in which cultural identity forms part of the story’s milieu, rather than its thematic focus.

In contrast, Shit Skin was firmly in the ‘big picture’ vein, exploring how the traumatic experiences of the stolen generations continue to reverberate for Indigenous people in the present. The weight of historical narrative at the heart of the film’s drama seemed a little overwhelming for Shit Skin’s 13 minutes, and left little room for the development of the characters’ emotional journeys. In the Q and A session following the screening, director Boseley was asked if a story about a member of the stolen generation finding his or her family had ever been considered for a feature film. The question reflected my feeling that only a feature-length work could really do justice to the historical, political and emotional complexity of the subject matter.

Following a discussion with the directors of the 2 shorts, McGregor’s Cold Turkey provided the centrepiece of the evening. McGregor hails from Darwin, and has been involved in film production for 15 years, 10 of which he has spent with the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) in Alice Springs. He has directed several documentaries, including Marn Grook, the first by an Aboriginal director to be sold to a commercial television station. Although Cold Turkey is his first drama, McGregor’s film production experience was evident in his assured handling of the film’s fragmented narrative structure and the complex relationship between the 2 main characters.

Cold Turkey focuses on 2 brothers living in Alice Springs who embark on a final night of drunken revelry before the youngest, Robby, leaves for a job in Coober Pedy. Robby wakes the next morning in a police cell and the body of the film focuses on his attempts to reconstruct the night’s events through shards of hazy memory distorted by alcohol and his brother’s mind games. Although Cold Turkey effectively depicts a set of social problems that beset many Aboriginal communities, the emotional heart of the film is the complicated relationship between the brothers and the way that familial love can sometimes play out in the most twisted, hurtful way imaginable. It will be fascinating to see if McGregor can sustain his flair for formally challenging storytelling across a feature-length film. Hopefully he will be get to flex his talent in this way in the near future.

Events such as the New Blak Films night are important in giving exposure to what is still a nascent Indigenous filmmaking culture in Australia. It is also important, however, that these films are not side-lined or marginalised from the rest of Australia’s filmmaking culture. All 3 directors on the night stressed that they think of themselves as filmmakers first and foremost, and hoped their future output would not be forcibly limited by expectations of what Indigenous filmmakers can or should produce. The films screened deftly illustrated the range of possibilities being explored by young Aboriginal directors, and further reinforced the impression that Indigenous stories are currently providing the cinematic narratives that engage most powerfully with the faultlines running through Australian life.

Message Sticks ’03: New Blak Films, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, May 27

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 18

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Dannielle Hall & Damian Pitt, Beneath Clouds

Dannielle Hall & Damian Pitt, Beneath Clouds

The AFI Awards roll around every so often like a funeral for a distant uncle. Time to take stock and try to find something nice to say about the old bastard. It’s not been a notable year for Aussie movies with domestic box office share sliding back into the 4% range. It is increasingly clear that Australian cinema rests on a star system that has overshot a local production base. The best analogy might be soccer, where fans are more interested in Leeds United than the local league. Forget the ‘telling our stories’ rhetoric—the nationalism Australians draw from the cinema is the nationalism of being acknowledged internationally.

It’s ironic, then, that a lacklustre year has produced one of the best Australian films for a long time. In a just world, Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds would walk away with this year’s award. Where most Australian films are formally conservative exercises full of Actors reciting Dialogue, Sen can use silence to build to a powerful emotional experience. It’s a film of enormous courage which doesn’t try to aestheticise pain or set it into a comfortably discredited past. It stands out as a film which successfully asks you to feel something.

If Beneath Clouds has been the major achievement in our cinema’s recovery of the courage to deal with Indigenous stories, Rabbit-proof Fence has been the popular success and will probably start favourite for Best Film. It’s a film with some fine moments whose importance is in telling us what we should already know about the Stolen Generations. While the emphasis on the strength of young Aboriginal women is a timely intervention, the film falls back on the comforting convention of racism as outmoded bureaucratic insensitivity. Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker situates racism as melodramatic villainy, though it does this to grapple with the problems of making our ugly history into aesthetically pleasing art.

Paul Goldman’s Australian Rules is another matter. It appears to have survived the bad odour caused by lack of consultation with the Indigenous community and is now draping itself in the mantle of liberal politics. All this for a collection of clichés: the regressive male hero of Black Rock (and a hundred other Aussie films); and the country town as hell. Although it’s about standing up to your father, its drama is built around the paternalistic assumption that the courage of white liberals is what’s important.

It’s all very well having aesthetic victories around the margins, but a healthy film industry needs a sniff of the multiplexes. Three films have had wide commercial release this year: The Man Who Sued God opened on 233 screens, Dirty Deeds on 183, and The Hard Word on 162. Rabbit -proof Fence was the closest thing to a crossover hit opening on 95 screens and then holding around 50 screens through a 5 month roll-out.

David Caesar’s got Kerry Packer’s money and Broynbrown in Dirty Deeds and yuz can all get stuffed if you don’t like it. You’ve got to admit that the money’s on the screen. Every shot is brutally art directed, every line of dialogue polished to a state of rough perfection. Each image strives to be a fragment of cultural DNA from which you could reconstruct the entire zeitgeist of late-60s Australia.

Alex Proyas has got Rupert Murdoch’s money in Garage Days. I suppose it’s this year’s Moulin Rouge, given that it proposes the triumph of visual bombast over quaint pre-postmodern conceits like characterisation. The musical has become the quintessential genre for these self-consciously flashy films. The puzzling innovation here is that although the film appears to champion the cause of live music, all the music is non-diegetic. Being a musician is a hip fantasy, not a matter of performance.

As its title indicates, The Hard Word grows out of the sharpness of its dialogue. There’s Guy, Rachel, and a caper which provides the pretext for hardboiled bon mots, though the wheels fall off during the third act. After seeing Claudia Karvan struggle to be a femme fatale last year in Risk, and Rachel Griffiths defeated by the same task here, I’m wondering whether we’ve got the dark relish of treachery within us. Our politics suggests that the evil in this country is much more banal.

The Man Who Sued God (Mark Joffe) is the kind of compromised, dishonest crap that gives commercial filmmaking a bad name. The impulse to populism manifests itself in over-produced music, helicopter shots, the kind of blue heelers you see in TV commercials, and the kind of Billy Connolly you also see in TV commercials. The film tries to kid you that it’s got something to say until the whole pile of shit finally caves in on itself and the only way out is to sell us the old one that love conquers all, even insurance companies. Tell it to your agent, Billy.

Back over in the art cinema margins, theatrical influences still hold sway. Tony Ayres’ Walking On Water is this year’s Soft Fruit, a film conceived in terms of individual scenes, each leading to its chunky moment of confrontation. The problem is that you get confrontation after confrontation right up to the moment when there has be to Resolution, which has to come out of nowhere. (Russell Mulcahy’s Swimming Upstream hasn’t been available for preview, but I fear we are in for a similar bout of Performance.)

Where Garage Days is hip that the surface is all, Till Human Voices Wake Us (Michael Petroni) is the complete opposite. Characters are intensely introspective and quote TS Eliot. Piano and cello are played sensitively. This is one of a number of films brought out of limbo to round out the field—but that’s part of the value of the exercise. The history of Australian cinema is littered with lost causes, tragically flawed films whose primary interest is in the ways they go wrong, the contradictions they can’t reconcile.

Let’s consider Paul Cox’s 1999 Molokai, a film about lepers with a famously troubled production history. It is tempting to reach for the obvious metaphor and see the film as something of a leper. Given its episodic nature, it is obvious that bits have already dropped off. David Wenham is hunkered down into his accent and declines into the clutches of the make-up artist, Kate Ceberano drops by to give us a tune and Chris Haywood goes blind from drinking whatever Kris Kristoffersen and Peter O’Toole were having in their dressing rooms.

I can see why Cox wanted to make a film about Father Damien, another European wandering in a beautiful but blighted wilderness at the other end of the earth. But it’s a hagiography whose time has past, in that it shares with Australian Rules the assumption that it is the white man’s burden to save the poor indigenous victim.

Like Molokai, Julie Money’s Envy was made in 1999. It’s another of these games of get-the-yuppy in which Sydney filmmakers seem to delight. I guess having a 3 generation mortgage will do that to you. Who is the audience for these films? It certainly isn’t the yuppies who are caricatured, and the rest of us can hardly be too traumatised by seeing Tuscan kitchens invaded or the paintwork scratched on the Beemer.

After a few festival screenings last year Willfull has had to wait for its brief swandive to the floor in commercial release. Rebel Penfold-Russell concentrates on the design of the film, but seems to have learned about directing actors from watching sitcom mannerisms. But then, the tragedy of the ghostly mother is that life is more complicated than simply being stylish.

Finally, the real suspense this year doesn’t concern the films so much as the AFI itself. Given that the organisation has been pared back to something that no longer does much more than this, the Awards are under pressure to produce and I fear that the sparseness of the field won’t help.

Emirates AFI Awards 2002. Dates to be announced. www.afi.org.au

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 31

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Damian Pitt and Ivan Sen

Damian Pitt and Ivan Sen

Damian Pitt and Ivan Sen

One of the innovations of this year’s Adelaide Festival was the inclusion of a number of new Australian films. The major triumph in the season was undoubtedly Ivan Sen’s first feature Beneath Clouds, one of the strongest and most deeply affecting films produced in this country.

The success of the film at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won awards for best debut feature and best new actress (for Dannielle Hall), signals Sen’s rapid ascent to international prominence. This rise has not been unearned, given his body of short and medium length works that also screened in Adelaide and provided a rich background for the feature film.

Another viewing context was the festival’s emphasis on Indigenous films and films on Indigenous issues. Beneath Clouds is a road movie dealing with the unlikely travelling companions Lena, a young woman running away from her Aboriginal background in search of an idealised Irish father, and Vaughn, a young Aboriginal man who breaks out of detention to see his dying mother. Over the course of little more than a day, they hitchhike from Moree to Sydney.

Sen is clearly conscious of his status as an Indigenous filmmaker, though he is also anxious to position the film as broadly accessible. He refers to his Aboriginal background as “something to be proud of, but also just a tag, a hook.” While his films represent a strongly personal and coherent insight into the experiences of Aboriginal youth in country towns, Sen also wants to generalise beyond this. He claims to be “always interested in people searching for something that makes them believe they belong somewhere.”

In discussions after the screening, Sen emphasised his interest in a sympathetic emotional engagement with characters: “I find it easy to see other people’s point-of-view,” he said, adding that his starting point for the film was that he “felt very close to both characters.” His aim was to “intensify the emotional journey of the characters to such a level that the audience will have no choice but to join them.”

The explosive emotional response to the film bears out the power of his filmmaking in bringing home the ways in which racially-derived pain is internalised. Sen says that, “I knew I wanted to create an emotion at the end of the film, but I didn’t know what the emotion was.”

Sen spoke of Beneath Clouds in terms of personal history and catharsis. Lena’s denial of her racial background has an autobiographical element, Vaughn’s character draws on the experience of a cousin. Themes, narrative fragments, and stylistic elements return from the earlier short films in a tightly condensed fashion. The 1998 film, Tears, features 2 characters named Vaughn and Lena walking a country road while the camera tracks laterally beside them. Sen wrote the feature script 4 years ago, and the retrospective of his shorts showed us the ways he has been sketching around it and honing the power of his craft.

Everything about Beneath Clouds speaks of sparseness and strength of vision. The characterisations are simple but unyielding. Lena and Vaughn suffer no bullshit. They have the close-mouthed scepticism of those on the margins. Anger chokes other emotion, but the project of the narrative is to ripen that anger to include emotions that will help the protagonists to re-find the possibilities for life.

Given the state of the world, and the way it leads you to withdraw from it, there is no neat or hopeful ending here, but there is the ability to understand your pain. This film emphasises the relevance of this to an understanding of Aboriginal youth culture: it also wants to help a broad audience imaginatively inhabit these situations and emotions.

In this light, Sen is clearly achieving work that is much more important than the liberal guilt melodrama prominent in some other recent films on Indigenous themes.

Stylistically, the film is equally uncompromising. Sen’s filming of conversation demonstrates his sureness of touch. No wide 2-shots, no over-the-shoulder shot-reverse shot. He symmetrically juxtaposes big bold close-ups. You access this film through faces. In discussing his casting decisions, Sen keeps on returning to the look of the people, their non-verbal aspect. Like Pasolini, or better yet Bresson, it’s an effective way of dealing with non-actors, but it’s also a strategy that’s about direct honesty. There is nowhere to dissemble or conjure away the harshness of the truth.

Those who have seen Sen’s 1999 film Wind, will know that he has the strength (rare among Australian filmmakers) to substitute a single reaction shot for 10 lines of dialogue. He refers to the substitution of other elements such as looks or diegetic sounds as a wish to “start simple before you introduce dialogue,” so that dialogue emerges as “a focused substance.” The 1997 AFTRS short, Warm Strangers, is the clearest example of this, building to the point where a single word is uttered at the climactic moment.

There is perhaps something of Sen’s own behavioural style here. The quietly-spoken director likes to tell the story of his High School yearbook that summed him up thus: “Ivan saw all, heard all, said little.” The publicity materials for Beneath Clouds source his interest in film to “the ability to represent the complexity of life in a whole different realm to that of the word.”

When pressed to generalise about his formal methods, Sen spoke of avoiding contrivance to achieve a more direct realism, but then qualified this to say that he was interested in forms of contrivance which produce something uncontrived.

The productiveness of this paradox is evident in his handling of landscape. He plays with the angular abstraction of the wide-angle lens, and compositions with the horizon ostentatiously low in the frame. The opening titles sequence, shot by Sen himself (he was also composer and musician for the soundtrack, as well as writing and directing), lays out this interest in finding patterns in land and sky in order to see it afresh and emotionalise it. He has pared down his methods of achieving abstraction from those found in earlier films which included fast motion, dissolves to an unmoved camera position and the manipulations of colour balance which are so striking in Wind.

Ivan Sen’s success is doubly important if it provides evidence that institutional policies aimed at producing new filmmakers in this country are working. He comes out of the Australian Film Television and Radio School, where he has become the central figure for a group of collaborators. These include cinematographer Allen Collins, producer Teresa-Jayne Hanlon and editor Karen Johnson. Sen and Collins, in particular, have built up a strong rapport. This has resulted in a very quiet set, according to Sen, where “our language becomes as simple as a look.”

Australian filmmakers rarely get such a chance to work consistently, and while we hear a lot about development pathways for emerging filmmakers, it is encouraging to see such a resounding example of success in development policy. This validation was particularly important given the controversy surrounding Australian Rules, which also premiered at the festival. We all know the problems of a film industry administered by government institutions, but it’s important to remember that every now and then the system works.

Sen is not so much shy as self-possessed. He has detailed plans for the future, which include several films to be shot in the US, and which he promises will be “totally different” now that he has emptied his sketchpad with this film.

Beneath Clouds stands as a summation; a moment when a group of people working with a sureness in their art have come together to produce something fine and deeply moving.

Beneath Clouds, writer/director Ivan Sen, distributor Dendy Films, premiered Adelaide Festival, Her Majesty’s Theatre, March 3-4, released nationally May 23. Also screening as part of Message Sticks, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, May 14 – June 2.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 13

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

This year’s Adelaide Festival premiered a number of films hotly contesting a range of issues including, implicitly, whether white Australians can make truly representative films about Indigenous subjects. Australian Rules has been particularly controversial but this subtext is also read in Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker and Phil Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence. In our Watchdog column, Jane Mills takes a critical look at the latter and its relationship with Hollywood filmmaking. Director Phil Noyce and Indigenous filmmaker Darlene Johnson (director of the insightful making-of documentary Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence, screened Channel 9, Sunday Feb 3, which should be seen alongside the film) offer their perspectives on the issue. In WriteStuff, Hunter Cordaiy interviews Christine Olsen, who adapted the original story to screenplay, about the film’s evolution and the commitment and obsessiveness that was part of the process.

Ivan Sen is Australia’s finest maker of short films with a series of outstanding and award-winning works including Tears, Dust and Wind behind him. Now he has won the award for best debut feature film at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival for Beneath Clouds, which continues Sen’s exploration into young Indigenous people living outside cities. In an incisive report Mike Walsh looks at the new film in the context of the earlier works and what Sen has to say about his work.

 

Keeping track

In Sydney and Melbourne it can be hard to gauge what’s happening in film in other states. OnScreen keeps up with reports on the WA Screen Awards, digi-docs (digital documentaries at the Adelaide Fringe) and the South Australia Zoom Awards. Plus there’s my take on the My Queer Career Awards which featured a strong field of shorts screened as part of Sydney’s Mardi Gras Festival. We also introduce a new mini-review section, critical bytes that encourage you to see new Australian and international independent films doing interesting things on celluloid. This time we include Walking on Water, The Tracker, The Circle, Mulholland Drive, Promises, No Man’s Land and Paul Cox’s eagerly awaited Nijinski, based on the dancer’s diaries and featuring Adelaide’s Leigh Warren Dance Company.

 

Digital profiling

RealTime+OnScreen is the only Australian publication that regularly profiles digital artists and keeps you up to date with events and conferences. This time we turn our attention to WA artist Michelle Glaser. Juvenate, on which she collaborated, was co-winner of the prestigious Mayne Multimedia Award at the Adelaide Writers Festival. We visit Tasmania’s Maria Island for the Solar Circuit gathering and continue to look at works that cross the film/digi boundary including the already mentioned Digi Docs conference. Emma-Kate Croghan (Love and Other Catastrophes) takes her Desire to the web and David Varga looks at opportunities for filmmakers using DVD distribution. We also introduce a new section where artists describe their digital works-in-progress, a snapshot of ideas in development in the digital arts arena.

 

Exit

And with that smorgasbord, I bid you adieu. This is my last OnScreen. I’m leaving RealTime for a position at the Australian Film Commission. It’s been a wonderful 4 years (with 2 as OnScreen editor) and I’d like to thank, in Academy Awards style, Managing Editors Keith and Virginia, for offering me the opportunity to commission some of the finest writers working in the arts in Australia, and for keeping the standards of RealTime so high. Thanks also to Gail Priest, Designer and Sales Manager, for always being positive, capable and willing to lend advice and a hand with anything. And thanks to all the OnScreen editors and writers who continue to make this section of the magazine an insight into what’s happening in film, screen culture and digital media nationally. Where else can you get this critical information, and where else can you get it free? I look forward to receiving it on my desk at the AFC.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 14

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Christine Olsen

Christine Olsen

Christine Olsen’s documentary production credits include Riding the Tiger and the award-winning Hepzibah. Her screenplay for Rabbit-proof Fence is an adaptation of Doris Pilkington Garimara’s book about her mother’s story, Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence. For Olsen this a double first—a feature film as co-producer and her first screenplay.

 

Rabbit-proof Fence is an adaptation from a book. To write the script you were confronted with one text and then had to turn it into another—can you describe how that process worked?

I knew that the book would provide the story for the film—it seemed to me to be a classic story; 3 little girls taken away from their homes decide to run away and walk back home. A very simple structure, and I think these stories make the best films.

So it was the journey which you saw as being classic?

It was like a classic fairy story actually, even down to the number 3, which you quite often find in fairy stories—3 sisters, 3 brothers, 3 witches—and it was about 3 little girls stolen from their home by the wicked witch and taken to her house where everyone is under a spell, and it’s a spell of forgetting. The longer you are in the house the stronger the spell becomes. It was imperative for the girls to get away as fast as they could before they fell under that spell.

This is the first screenplay I’ve ever written and now, looking back on it, the process of writing is the process of finding out what that story really is…and what you have to do is find out what that story is within you, why is it that you are completely obsessed…being completely taken over in your mind…constantly making notes, having thoughts about it at the kitchen sink, and why that strength of story carried you through 3 or 4 years of writing.

At various points I thought I knew what the story was—yes, this is what the story is, it’s a classic fairy story—you keep working on it and then you think…maybe this is an escaped prisoner story, a world war story; this is a script about a land taken over by invaders, they’re now reaching far into the hinterland and are stealing the children and taking them back into their own territory to train them as domestic slaves. The children escape as in any prisoner of war story and make their way home through enemy-occupied territory. Then this becomes a layer within the story. I think when I finished the script I knew this was film about home and what home means.

From there you developed the script and you weren’t necessarily being faithful to that original text?

Not at all…I felt completely free to do whatever I wanted with this story…there’s very little drama in the book and I didn’t know how to make a film about 3 little girls walking along a fence…But the moment I realised that the central idea is an argument between Molly and Mr Neville—who said ‘I know what is best for you’ and Molly says no, ‘I know what’s best for me’—I had my dramatic argument.

And it gave the script a voice that was different from the book?

Yes, I think it’s quite different.

How did you come to that conclusion?

The book was told very quietly, almost passively, and I knew instinctively that I actually had to work out why this film was important to me, why it obsessed me, and what drove me…

This suggests that writers must engage with a story on a very deep and personal level in order to sustain the vision.

Absolutely, otherwise…there won’t be any lasting interest. If a story is going to reverberate with people, that’s where it must come from…there’s something there that is universal, the extreme becomes the general.

So the process involves a couple of years of writing, and then you send the script off to Phil Noyce in LA and wait…How do you keep the writer’s obsession with the project over that length of time?

I did heaps of research…historical research. I went to Perth, I read everything I possibly could about the Stolen Generations. I knew that the key to this was actually going up to Jigalong and spending time there, and until I had nailed down Molly and Daisy I was going to be writing a white person’s film based on the whites in the film…I always thought I knew those people…they are our grandparents…they’re my family but I didn’t know the little girls.

I’m very proud of the way we handled the Indigenous issues in the film, consulted with the Jigalong people. We were very careful to take notice of their concerns, and their major concern was who would be playing Mardu people on screen. That process has enriched the film and it’s been such a positive thing to have done…it’s easy…it’s important to tell people it’s not hard to do this properly…you just have to listen.

Is there something about the production process that threatens or supports the holding of this writer’s vision?

One of the things I did was to be co-producer…and this meant that I was there the whole way through…

And normally writers aren’t, are they?

No, but because I had my experience as a documentary producer I was determined to have a creative input. And one of the things that happened that was vital to this whole process was that in June 2000, when Phillip had committed to the project, we spent 10 days working on the script.

When you worked with the director did you make substantial changes?

I think what happened was that we heightened the story…he was always saying ‘take it as far as it can go and if it’s too far we’ll pull it back’…that was his mantra. And also because he is such an experienced director he could say what we didn’t need and how things could be done…it was an immense learning curve.

In the last shot of the film we see 2 of the women whose story it is, and you suddenly come out of the fiction to living people…was that abrupt change always in the script?

Yes…in a sense that image says it all…we are still here and living in this land…what’s happening is that you’re confronted with a multitude of emotions at the end of the film and the lasting one is that these people have survived.

Rabbit-proof Fence, writer Christine Olsen, director Phillip Noyce, distributor Becker Entertainment, currently screening nationally. See p15 for Jane Mills’ commentary on the film and Darlene Johnson’s ‘making-of’ documentary.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 16

© Hunter Cordaiy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Shane O'Mara, Gavin Ritchie, Road, Catriona McKenzie

Shane O’Mara, Gavin Ritchie, Road, Catriona McKenzie

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald (August 2) has 2 articles by Garry Maddox. “Black male: the hottest thing in Hollywood” argues that Afro-American actors have never been in a better position, taking on an increasing number of lead roles. This interview with Chris Rock reveals that he sees himself (and is seen) as part of the mainstream now, that Hollywood credits star power as more important than racial background. This is an interesting cultural shift and no doubt has been greatly influenced by the dominance of Afro-Americans in contemporary music and global Top 40 charts. Contrast this with Maddox’s other article: “Audiences slow to appreciate Aboriginal content.” The title sounds pretty definite doesn’t it, casting a negative slant. But what the article is really about is upcoming films featuring Indigenous content, rather than the ‘relatively’ poor showing of recent releases Yolngu Boy and Serenades. It’s getting a bit tired to keep comparing Australian and Hollywood films in terms of weekend box office takings. Surely we can come up with other criteria for judging our own films. The 3rd Indigenous Film Festival in Parramatta this year attests to an eager audience—they cited the 2000 event as “an overwhelming success.”

If there is no audience, why are so many filmmakers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, mainstream and non-mainstream, looking to explore Indigenous themes in upcoming films? The AFC has a slate of productions in the pipeline. Phil Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence (with an impressive cast including Kenneth Branagh, David Gulpilil, Gary McDonald, Deborah Mailman) is about 3 part-Aboriginal girls who are taken from their families in the 1930s and their long return journey. Rachel Perkins’ One Night the Moon (see Jane Mills’ review/interview), also set in the 30s, concentrates on the disappearance of a child and a white family’s relationship with an Aboriginal tracker. Fred Schepisi’s Black Magic is a biopic on Len Waters, the only Aboriginal fighter pilot in WW2. Ivan Sen’s debut feature, Beneath Clouds, is a road movie about 2 Aboriginal teenagers. Craig Lahiff’s Black and White (writer Louis Nowra with actor Robert Carlyle) is about Rupert Max Stuart, an Aboriginal man imprisoned wrongly for the murder of an 8 year old girl. Lastly, Bill Bennett’s Bennelong (writer Nick Enright) concentrates on the first years after European settlement and the developing relationship between Governor Phillip and Bennelong. These films are to be released 2001-2003. There must be an audience—all those who walked over the bridges in support of reconciliation for starters.

The Indigenous Branch of the AFC, SBS Independent, CAAMA (Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association), The AFI Exhibition Program and the ABC have been instrumental in preserving Indigenous stories through fiction and documentary. The distributor Ronin Films has a significant back catalogue of hard-to-find shorts and docos like Bedevil, Coolbaroo Club and Land Bilong Islanders. The National Indigenous Documentary Fund is in its fifth year, the only regular production opportunity for Indigenous filmmakers. Visit the CAAMA website for their current projects including a doco on Bonita Mabo and second series of the ABC’s very successful Bush Mechanics. Documentaries released in the last few years have concentrated mainly on personal history, recovering the memories of the Stolen Generations. Recent films like Sissy (screened on ABC) and A Walk with Words (winner WOW Festival 2000) have been more about liberation, through coming out or the power of words. Romaine Moreton, gorgeous provocative wordsmith, talks of her dual love of academic theory texts and art: “film, music, poetry, the arts, are how you translate those theories and put them into the consciousness” of everyday people.

Now a new generation of filmmakers is moving beyond ‘black’ issues to explore, as Rachel Perkins puts it, the “space between Aboriginal and white Australians.” Beck Cole, recent participant in the AFC’s Visual Telling workshop (Sharon Verghis, SMH, April 23) where filmmakers had 5 days to develop a film script, had a new slant on this negotiated space. “The tales don’t simply have to be of the harsher realities of black Australia, endless tellings of deaths in custody or community breakdown…I don’t think it has to be one issue any longer—we’re more complex than that. We don’t want to be forever trapped in all that PC bullshit.” Blak Screen at the Sydney Opera House, one of the most exciting film programs this year, had selections of the best on offer: Ivan Sen, Catriona McKenzie, Tracey Moffatt, Darlene Johnson. Their shorts deserve to be seen like this, as a package, as they are some of the most beautiful and compelling films made here.

If audiences are not going to recent releases like Yolngu Boy and Serenades, perhaps it has more to do with the state of reviewing than content. Nothing sinks a film like the perception that it is ‘worthwhile.’ Rhoda Roberts (in Joyce Morgan, “It’s easy to mix the wrong cocktail in the global village”, SMH, June 13) argues that critical reviewing of Indigenous arts can be softer than on other work: “Often when we see our non-Indigenous critics, they’ll do an overview rather than a review…It might be they’re frightened of being labelled as racist.” There’s no doubt that it can be difficult for a white writer to critique Indigenous work—all kinds of concerns and complexities start to surface—but it’s important to keep negotiating. In this issue of OnScreen, 3 non-Indigenous writers do just that, tackling Blak Screen, FedFest and Kumarangk, a new documentary on Hindmarsh Island. Let us know what you think.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 19

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Sean Mununggur, diretor Stephen Johnson, Yolngu Boy

Sean Mununggur, diretor Stephen Johnson, Yolngu Boy

In the current climate there are lots of feature films being made from Indigenous stories by non-Indigenous filmmakers. Beyond the Rabbit Proof Fence by Phil Noyce is a good example. Others are in the pipeline with ex-pat directors returning home from Hollywood. Meanwhile, Indigenous filmmaker Ivan Sen has just started his first feature Beneath Clouds. Others like Rachel Perkins, Erica Glynn and Richard Frankland all have projects in development.

Yolngu Boy sits somewhere in between. A black story told by a white creative team supported by Indigenous associate producers. Much respect to the Yunupingu brothers in giving the filmmakers access to the communities and culture of Arnhem Land.

Yolngu Boy is a tale of instruction, almost a fable, which follows the story of 3 young lads who share the same totem: crocodile. The message is simple. If you follow your culture and stay strong then you’ll remain on track to becoming a man. If you stray off the path then you’ll be in trouble. At the beginning of the film we see 3 boys hunting together; they go through ceremony and we understand that they are bonded by more than friendship. The film jumps several years and we pick up the characters who are older now and heading in different directions. Miliki is into football and dreams of going to play AFL in the city. Botj arrives back from a Darwin remand centre where he’s spent time for petrol sniffing and other misdemeanours. Lorrpu is strong in his culture and thinks he can help Botj get back on track. The 3 band together to travel to Darwin. Despite their friendship there are strains as Botj stirs up trouble and tries to get his mates to come along with him. After much adventure (I loved the moment when they catch a manta ray and are dragged out to sea in a sacred canoe), they make it to Darwin and there the trouble starts again.

Yolngu Boy was written by Chris Anastassiades (who also wrote Wog Boy) and produced by Gordon Glenn. That the Yunupingu brothers were associate producers is instrumental in the evolution of this film. The director Stephen Johnson established his career making music videos with Yothu Yindi. Yolngu Boy is his first feature. The strength of the film lies in its characters and strong performances by John Sebastian Pilakui, Nathan Daniels and Sean Mununggur. It’s great to hear the sounds of Yothu Yindi, Nokturnl and other Indigenous bands and wonderful to see Indigenous characters and Top End country on the big screen.

Yolngu Boy, distributed by Palace Films, is currently screening nationally.

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 17

© Catriona McKenzie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net