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BEGINS THE REVOLUTION

Seventy years ago, it was illegal to show films to Aborigines. In early 1998, six new films will come out as part of a cultural revolution in Australia: black filmmakers, creating their own drama stories, are joining their white peers as cinematic storytellers. ANDREW L. URBAN reports on an exciting project under way in Sydney.

The serene grounds of St Scholasticaís College, sprawled on a large corner of a leafy avenue in inner-Sydneyís Glebe, is pregnant with cultural revolution. The revolutionaries, a mere 50 or so in all, are scattered around several classrooms in small groups, their weapons laid on the tables - weapons made of words on paper. Nobody but an uninformed fool would doubt the power of these weapons; not that they mean harm. On the contrary: they mean to engage in entertaining action.

These revolutionaries are new filmmakers who happen to be black, workshopping their scripts, six of which have now been selected for production, under the seriously titled Indigenous Drama Initiative (IDI), organised by the Australian Film Commission (AFC), and sponsored by SBS Independent, The Australian Film Television and Radio School, as well as the State film agencies of Queensland, NSW and Western Australia.

Seventy years ago, Australia had a law against showing films to Aborigines, "on the grounds that it could inspire them to go crazy and riot," says Wal Saunders, head of the AFCís Indigenous Branch. It was from Saunders that the original impetus came to set up the IDI, the first of which (in 1995) led to the highly successful series, Sand to Celluloid, a collection of short films that have been praised by blacks and whites equally, to which SBS TV had committed itself under Andy Lloyd-James tenure as head of production.

"A lot of people donít realise," says Saunders, "that there are about 12 or 13 thousand separate filmic items made about Aborigines by non-Aborigines, from three minute grabs to the three hour ethnographic series on Aborigines of the Western Desert. What weíre endeavouring to do with the short dramas is allowing Aborigines to tell our own stories and reflect on whatís concerning them."

In most cases around the world when indigenous people pick up a camera, they tend to make documentaries, "about social oppression, death in custody, stolen children . . . which are often didactic stories of negative things that happen around them, and they are a turn off for the general public," Saunders argues. "In fiction we get away from the imperative to tell it as it is and there is less stress on getting it right in a cultural context. The aim is to entertain and engage an audience, and thatís what we saw in Sand to Celluloid: those stories were lighthanded, entertaining . . ." Though not always lighthearted: the subjects, like the two most acclaimed, No Way to Forget and Two Bob Mermaid, deal with personal crises. (The former was shown at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, the latter at Venice in the same year; others also enjoyed festival screenings and several were nominees and winners in various awards.)

Of the 59 applicants in this yearís program, 10 were chosen for the workshops at St Scholasticaís, a six day affair that was designed and put together by the AFCís Hilary Glow, who assessed each of the projects and worked out how best to team the writer/director with a tutor and the required actors. "The tutors had to have significant tv work or feature film experience and be good in a teaching environment," says Glow. "Itís not a place for ego driven auteurs and they had to be people who are not so hung up about their own personal approach, so they were open to the students."

Glow set out with two key goals: to address the methods of visual storytelling, and how to work with performers, using what they bring to enhance the project.

"In particular Iím interested in the way the work of the actor can be used in the process of writing and creating a script," she explains. "The conventional way is to tell the writer to go and write. And usually, the actors are brought in at the last minute, told to hit their marks and say their lines. This workshop searches out the incredible creative inputs that actors can make."

Or, as she so cleanly puts it, "the actors coming in with their eternal Ďwhyísí is helping the writing and the directing component, forcing the filmmakers to clarify their ideas."

In room 1, writer Janice Slater-Herring and her director Mark Olive from Western Australia, are working with Aleksi Vellis as their tutor, on Passing Through, an intriguing ghost story about a young Aboriginal family on a drive to visit relatives. Three actors are scratching alterations into their scripts as the process of refining infects them all.

Next door, another Western Australian, writer/director Michelle Torres, is workshopping her script, Promise, of a young girl and what her grandma teaches her about life, love, pain and joy, while making dough - like everything else, you have to put something in to get anything worthwhile out.

These two projects are among the six to be produced by March 1998.

The other four being produced are: Grace, by Wesley Enoch (Qld), a moving story of an Aboriginal woman who has lived in London for 50 years, shunning her identity. Home for the funeral of her sister, she is overcome with grief and despair and fills her suitcase with the earth from her sisterís grave;

Pilyka, by Danielle MacLean (NT), about a 16 year old albino girl shunned by her people who finally finds acceptance;

Tears, by Ivan Sen, about a young couple torn apart by a decision to leave mission life;

Self and Self Bed, by Erica Glynn (NT), about a shy young man, Alvin, who is given an arranged bride, Della, under traditional law, with whom he has to share a bedroom for appearances.

In 4, John Harding (NSW), in black boots, dark blue jeans and a The Late Show T shirt confidently, eloquently explains the details and backstory of his script, Bridge Crossers, to actors Gary Cooper (no, not the dead one), Glenn Shea, Kym Wilson, and tutor Lex Marinos. Cooper suggests "bunging on a Redfern black accent" when heís drunk, in an effort to be an "equal black" with his brother Graham, with whom a major conflict is a major theme in the script.

Actor Lewis-Fitzgerald is acting the tutor in room 5, where Rachel Maza (NSW) is working on Her Story, a drama about the conflict between two sisters, a family secret - and their invalid father. Marilyn Miller and Margaret Harvey play the sisters. Fitzgerald opens the characters and quickly distills the essence of the scene they are working on. Maza, in a red skivvy under a black cowl-neck top, jeans and sneakers, directs the actors, teasing out the subtelties. Fitzgerald comes in, at pains to explain the emotional status of the characters.

"This has been hugely affirming," Maza says during the lunch break. "If left to me own devices I wouldnít have done it . . . that step from actor to writing and directing. I wouldnít have had the confidence." Her story is indeed something of her story, "close to the heart and simila to my relationship with my sister. . ."

The story, of a white father who never talks of the Plalm Islander mother, "is not my story," she says, "but there are elements about the need to know about oneís heritage, cultural identity . . . "

Reflecting on the entire process, Maza makes a telling point: "Itís more to do with being part of this country, not just being artists. These are all Ďheartí stories, and white Australia needs to see these stories and to understand, after all these years of ignorance and misrepresentation."

These may not sound like the words of a revolutionary, because the sentiments are soft: but in the context of Australian cultural history from the laws against blacks seeing films to the thousands of stories told ABOUT them that made them Ďotherí - the push for Aboriginal stories on the screen is indeed revolutionary.

And the impact of these projects is likely to have long term ramifications. As Maza says, "Sand to Celluloid blew me out; they were such potent, powerful pieces of film that I rarely see in cinema, and of course I related to it all. I probably have to admit that I didnít expect so much."

But like many of her fellow filmmakers, Maza has another agenda, quite distinct from any social, cultural or political one: "Iím really eager to be a director because I want to demand the most brilliant performances. I need to fuel and feed the actors . . . using the inputs from actors and communicating with actors is crucial."

That, of course, is one of the key agenda items for Hilary Glow, and how the screenplay can be expanded.

"Itís expensive," Glow admits of the workshop process, "and lengthens the development process. The industry may see it as an indulgent process. But itís producing really compelling and interesting work, with extraordinary performances."

One of the two supervising producers attending the six day workshop, Graeme Isaac, points to a much broader "outpouring of black culture," of which filmmaking is only one. "The filmmakers whoíve come forward all have something to say," he says, "and thatís crucial. A lot of them have had stories building up - so itís lkike a dam bursting. There is also a lot of Aboriginal wrtiting in the publishing queue. . . literature, also poetry. Film is another. Itís not in isolation. Many of the stories are part of Australiaís unwritten social history. There is a lot of interest in this, so there is a place for these film makers." That, of course, is a vital point: stories need not only to be told - but heard.

"These people," says Isaac surveying the room full of people tucking into a buffet lunch, "are making films like we did 20 years ago - with lots of creative freedom."

The six films will be shot on 16 mm film to give them an opportunity for commercial theatrical screening, (they will all be screened on SBS TV) and will also be shown at some 25 communities around Australia, from the capital cities to places like Broome, Warnambool and Mt Isa.

"They will show that black filmmakers arenít that different . . . we tell good stories. Itís not saying weíre black and we want a slice of the cake. We just want to be treated as filmmakers who happen to be black."

Hilary Glow, a high energy ball of enthusiasm, beams at the activity that has replaced the decorum of St Scholasticaís: "thereís content jumping out of these people, their subject matter ranges as widely as the people themselves, and shows their need to tell stories. Thatís why itís so exciting."

This story first appeared in The Weekend Australian, July 5 1997.

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Rachael Maza: "Sand to Celluloid blew me out; they were such potent, powerful pieces of film that I rarely see in cinema, and of course I related to it all. I probably have to admit that I didnít expect so much."

". . . These revolutionaries are new filmmakers who happen to be black, workshopping their scripts, six of which have now been selected for production . . ."


Kym Wilson, Gary Cooper, John Harding, Glenn Shea and Lex Marinos

" . . .The aim is to entertain and engage an audience, and thatís what we saw in Sand to Celluloid: those stories were lighthanded, entertaining . . ."

". . . This workshop searches out the incredible creative inputs that actors can make. . ."


Marilyn Miller, Maragert Harvey, Lewis FitzGerald (rear) and Rachael Maza

". . .The filmmakers whoíve come forward all have something to say,and thatís crucial. A lot of them have had stories building up - so itís lkike a dam bursting. . ."


John Harding and Lex Marinos

". . . The six films will be shot on 16 mm film to give them an opportunity for commercial theatrical screening, (they will all be screened on SBS TV) and will also be shown at some 25 communities around Australia . . ."


Gary Cooper and Kym Wilson

". . . Itís not saying weíre black and we want a slice of the cake. We just want to be treated as filmmakers who happen to be black. . ."







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