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It's tough but fair, say the makers of Deadly, a film set against the backdrop of an Aborigine’s death in custody. This is the report from the location.

There's going to be a nasty little riot in Wilcannia any day now, over the death of Jimmy Bryant while in police custody. To be precise, the riot will be in Yabbabri, the fictitious country town for which Wilcannia serves as a stand-in.

While this riot will begin with director Esben Storm calling "ACTION!" and stop just as quickly on "CUT !", there are those in 'Canni' who worry that a real riot in the real Wilcannia may just follow. They didn't welcome the idea of playing host to the makers of this film. They worry that a film that deals with the death in custody of an Aborigine might "stir up bitter feelings and bad memories and even possibly cause rioting," in the words of Sergeant Garry Megay of Wilcannia police.

"It is an insult to our intelligence when incompetent people make such stupid statements"

And on the front page of The Paddle Wheel, the weekly newsletter that passes for the local paper, regular columnist Slim (Slim Evans) had this to say, on the Friday before the film crew arrived: "In my opinion about 75% of the community are dead-set against it for reasons which are quite obvious except for our Shire Councillors who said they will give the film company all the support they need, on behalf of the Wilcannia community. It is an insult to our intelligence when incompetent people make such stupid statements."

Wilcannia is rightly apprehensive: it has never forgotten the death in custody a few years ago of a local Aborigine. That's why it's a bit of a sore subject, but the police don't think there will be a problem. There is little evidence - as shooting begins - that feelings really will overheat: Ron, an older Aborigine sporting a huge white beard, says the making of the film is good for the town. Like a dozen other locals, Ron is temporarily in showbiz, while "the circus" is in town, either as drivers, runners or extras.

Population 1000, elevation 80 metres, says the sign beside the Barrier Highway as the road crosses the Darling River. But for the month of July, Wilcannia's population has grown by almost 10% as the Deadly film crew moves in, taking every spare bed in town.

Producer Richard Moir and writer/director Esben Storm are quick to point out that the choice of Wilcannia had nothing to do with unpleasant historical fact, but simply the special look of the place.

Moir acknowledges that the film will be "tough. . . hard hitting,"

"We looked all over Australia, and at one stage even considered Kew, in WA," says Moir. But we were looking for a town which had some architectural interest. Here, the buildings are proud, and bear witness to the town's former glory, when it was home to about 5000 people, as a big river port on the Darling. "We love the buildings, the layout of the streets - and the light."

Moir acknowledges that the film will be "tough. . . hard hitting," but both he and Storm stress that they "didn't set out to make a 'cause' film for the Aborigines. We wanted to make a thriller."

And that's what Deadly is, a romantic thriller, but as Storm says, "we accept that some noses will be out of joint." He is emphatic, however, that the film "is as much about racial interaction" as about the single issue of deaths in custody.

The Australian film industry doesn't have a tradition of making biting, contemporary socio-political films. (And Storm and Moir hope this will not be just that: "We want it to be an accessible, commercially successful film.")

If anything, Australian filmmakers have been accused of making very safe films, by and large, films that "don't make a mess on the lounge room carpet." By contrast, Deadly is likely to leave quite a smelly pile on the pile of our social rug.

…here was a classic whodunit: Who killed the black fella?

The death of Jimmy Bryant, which occurs before the film takes up the story, is entirely fictitious. The whole film is a work of fiction, stresses Storm, but it was an idea born of fact. "It started with me reading the news stories about deaths in custody and the enquiry," he says. "It occurred to me that here was a classic whodunit: Who killed the black fella?"

Storm built it up with basic ideas "about a young cop who goes to a country town to investigate..."

But the final story is not as simple, or simplistic, as that. The young cop, Sgt Tony Bourke, (played by Jerome Ehlers) has a permanent drinking problem and a broken marriage behind him. Worse, he accidentally killed an innocent bystander, which put a brake on his promising career.

He comes to Yabbabri an emotional cripple, denying his sensitivity, but during the course of the investigation, he not only discovers the ugly truth about Jimmy's death, he also learns a great deal about himself - and falls in love with an Aboriginal girl, Daphne (played by Lydia Miller).

"The death in custody issue is really just a trigger for the drama," says Storm. "The story is just as much about the Australian male." He says the film doesn't draw conclusions about the police. "Some are good some are not, like the rest of society." Willcania police have agreed to co-operate, and Sgt Megay points out that much has changed in the way police handle prisoners these days, in the wake of the royal commission that studied black deaths in custody.

"I know five minutes is a long time if you want to hurt yourself" - Sgt Megay

He points to the dramatic decline in the number of people now held in police custody. "When I was lock up keeper at Kempsey three years ago, we regularly had at least three people in custody every night. A year ago, it was more like an average of one a week. Police," he says, "are generally taking fewer people into custody, and the procedures have changed."

In Wilcannia, for instance, the police station has a supervisory schedule that requires a check on persons held in custody every five minutes in the first half hour after detention. Then every 15 minutes in the next hour, and then every half an hour. Each check is noted in writing. "I know five minutes is a long time if you want to hurt yourself," says Sgt Megay, "but it's a small place and it's the best we can do. And we keep a real good eye on anyone who seems agitated in any way."

Out in the bush on location, it's like any other shoot, and there is no sign in town that the crew aren't welcome. The production office is housed in the Roads and Traffic Authority's depot building on the edge of town. The first visible signs of their presence is a large mural painted on a specially built fence, featuring a large Aboriginal head and several symbols.

Production designer Peta Lawson hired the local Aborigine artist group for the job, and they responded with pleasure. Up the road at the century old Club Hotel, licencee Frank Peacock had to be restrained from going ahead with renovations to keep the "daggy" look as he calls it, of the painted facade. "When they saw us start splashing on new paint, they freaked out," he says with a big giggle. Peacock, who's been in town almost 10 years, says the film did stir up a few people, but adds, "I'm co-operating", with the emphasis on "I'm".

The last two of once 13 pubs expect a busy time . . .

It's 9.30 on a Thursday morning. Outside, a dozen Aborigines are gathered in small clusters. It's "pension day" (social security payments) and the last two of once 13 pubs expect a busy time. About 80% of the population is black, many on social security benefits. On pension day, says Frank, "they tend to stay and drink on the premises. The other days there is more take away."

It's not a rich town, but it does look good, especially in the morning sun, with its wide streets, stone post office, court house and shire buildings, and its brightly painted corrugated iron sheets that make up some of the houses. It's also quiet at this time of year, and cold.

Storm says Deadly will be unlike any other Australian film that has featured Aborigines: "For a start, you always see outback places in the burning heat. We are shooting in winter, which means the bush looks different, and everyone's all rugged up."

"just 'cause you're black it doesn't mean you can't be an asshole" – Richard Moir

He's also keen to make the point that it's not a case of the white (male) cop coming in to solve the mystery - and take the girl. "Early on we recognised that we are making a film from the white man's point of view. But there are really three heroes: Tony, the white cop, Daphne the black girl, and Eddy, the black local. Daphne runs the motel, and she's no victim.All three have an active role in the resolution of the story," says Storm with some passion, "so some kid from Fitzroy Crossing can see a black guy on the screen being just as heroic as a white guy."

Moir adds a touch more throttle: "We've got some unattractive whites - but also some equally unattractive blacks. We wanted to avoid overcompensation...just 'cause you're black it doesn't mean you can't be an asshole."

Storm returns to his main emphasis on Tony: "His journey is huge - and quick. The time span of the film is just three days. By the end he's exhausted...hopefully, so is the audience. But he's learnt tolerance and compassion." Hopefully so has the audience.

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Actor Frank Gallacher (left) on set with director Esben Storm (right)

Producer Richard Moir (left) with actor Jerome Ehlers



8/4/99: The Making Of … is a unique and historic series of articles on a selection of Australian films - such as this one - that were made BI (Before Internet), or at least before Urban Cinefile was launched. All the films covered in this series can be found in the FEATURES ARCHIVES menu page, listed alphabetically under MAKING OF

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the Australian Film Commission in helping to publish this series.


Other films already covered in this series of Making Of:
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