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A mother’s shame and rejection by her own mother drive the drama in Beck Cole’s debut feature, Here I Am, starring newcomer Shai Pittman. The two new Indigenous voices on Australian screens talk to Andrew L. Urban.

Everyone’s got “something they’re ashamed of,” says Beck Cole, who wrote and directed Here I Am, in which a young mother just out of prison tries to reconnect with her mother and young daughter. “I thought the story would strike a chord with mature women,” says Cole, who loved the process of making the film “more than I could have imagined”, but came out of it “tired and spent … it’s very personal.”

It was a story she had nurtured for some years. “I almost got a chance to make it a few years ago, but I’m really glad it didn’t happen. I’m more mature now and I’ve learnt so much working with [producer] Kath Shelper and with Warwick Thornton on his film, Samson and Delilah.”

"fresh acting faces"

Cole wanted fresh acting faces and much of support cast are not professional actors.

Newcomer Shai Pittman plays Karen, the young mother estranged from her own mother, Lois. Karen is fresh out of a two year prison stretch (evidently on drug related matters) and is anxious to be with her little daughter, now almost 5, and in the care of Lois – who doesn’t want Karen anywhere near them. Karen is determined to change that.

Lois is played by Marcia Langton AM, the celebrated anthropologist, Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University and now actor. 

There were two unexpected changes to the film once production started. One was the improvisation that drives some of the film’s key sequences inside the women’s shelter, Temple House, where Karen takes refuge. The other was the amount of footage that ended up on the cutting room floor. “Once we started the edit, we could see more clearly where the story really started,” says Cole.

"her response was the most important to me"

Above all, it was Langton’s approval that Cole was anxious to get. Sitting next to her at the film’s first screening at the Adelaide Film Festival, Cole was watching for a reaction but Langton was stone faced. “Afterwards she turned to me and said, ‘I didn’t realise it was so funny – I pissed myself laughing.’ Obviously on the inside,” adds Cole with a laugh, “because she was so poker faced throughout. But her response was the most important to me.”

Pittman, a striking looking Indigenous woman from Sydney’s West, is “hungry to act; I’m very ambitious, not so much for getting attention but to act.” She made her acting debut at age 7, on a bus in Police Rescue, and had roles in short films before making her feature debut in Here I Am – as the lead.

Of her role as Karen she says she “exercised Karen’s character to be open. Beck cast me for a reason; I knew Karen was there and Beck was supportive but she let me work it out.”

Pittman says acting was part of her life growing up; “I never questioned it. I know I can do it.” She says she’d like to be one of the new wave of Indigenous actors joining the ranks of white Australians. 

Cole, too, is excited about being an Aboriginal filmmaker “at this time. There’s such a feeling of goodwill. Audiences come to see our films with open minds. I think it comes from a decade of development through the Australian Film Commission and latterly Screen Australia. It has given me additional confidence that there are more of us now making films.”

"to be non-judgemental and more understanding"

She has no idea how audiences will respond to Here I Am, but hopes “people are moved by the film, entertained, and emotionally connect with Karen.”

As for Pittman, she hopes the film may prompt “especially younger audiences not to be ashamed of who you are – to be non-judgemental and more understanding.”

(First published in the Sun Herald)

Published June 2, 2011

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Beck Cole


Beck Cole and Shai Pittman

Shai Pittman

Warwick Thornton and Beck Cole onset

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