The Sydney Film Festival opened with an Indigenous thriller and followed up with a Black documentary that is also slated for a theatrical release. But the coincidental parallels between the two were almost as important as each film on its own. The zeitgeist, you might say.
Most significant was their mutual turning on the need for Aboriginal people to obtain the peace that comes with having your feet on Country, as director/writer/cameraman/composer and editor Ivan Sen put it so poetically at a talk session during the Festival. Not that Sen hits you over the head with that message in his film Goldstone “ a successor but not necessarily a sequel to his previous ‘Outback noir’ thriller, the stylish Mystery Road. But the pain felt by detective Jay Swan following the death (by suicide?) of the troubled daughter we met in Mystery Road, anaesthetised at the beginning of the film by alcohol, is surely salved at the end as actor Aaron Pedersen canoes gently down the remote, beautiful Cobbold Gorge and views the rock art painted by ancestors of his mob whom he’s only accidentally discovered while pursuing missing Chinese sex workers into the Never Never.
Sen doesn’t explain how Jay could be so ignorant of his ancestry. But Queensland governments over the years did their utmost to scatter the tribes that predated them on that State’s land “ that’s the ones they hadn’t massacred first.
But it’s all there under the surface of Sen’s deliciously allusive film. You simply have to put a bit of work like Jackie Weaver into adding to the surface dramas. She’s the mayor of Goldstone, a surreal ‘town’ in the desert (somewhere outside the real Middleton) created by a handful of dongers given varied exteriors by Sen. Every smile on her face has a different, usually evil meaning. As Sen told us, I couldn’t have made it without her.
But even as we’re following Jay’s trials in the face of racism and the rampant greed surrounding a mine expansion “ which he overcomes with superhuman skills even when facing a machine gun – we’re actually party to the wondrous and much quieter conversion of the local non-Indigenous cop (played by a handsome Alex Russell) from the primrose path of corruption to a much rougher road to righteousness as a result of stilted bedside conversations with one of the Chinese sex workers “ who follows a parallel path herself.
It surely helps Sen to leave unsaid that which needs to be said that Aaron Pedersen is party to the creation of both his character and the film from the start. It’s obviously also essential that creative control lies in Indigenous hands for matters involving land rights and mining leases, grog running into a dry community, the elders clinging to the disrupted scraps of their history and their Country, and the significant appearance of Uncle Jimmy’s ghost.
Whether Jay Swan will reappear for a third time, or Ivan Sen will tackle a mooted Indigenous resistance project seem likely to be put on hold. For his personal association with suicide in his Tamworth Aboriginal community has compelled him to make a film on that sad subject next. Can he do that allusively?
Doco-maker Aaron Petersen “ note the name’s similarity “ tackles the subject of Zach’s Ceremony so much more directly in his film of that name. But the non-Indigenous director is in many ways just a medium for the very direct wishes of Alec Doomadgee, father, mentor and tormentor of the aforementioned Zach, who’s brought up in the Sydney suburb of Concord but has been totally convinced by Dad that he cannot reach any sort of meaningful maturity without going through a full tribal initiation in Doomadgee, Garawa Country on the Gulf of Carpentaria. The film starts with the 10-year-old Zach asking seriously, When can I do the ceremony that makes you a man, not just a little boy who thinks he knows everything?.
Fortunately, he doesn’t have to totally rely on paint-up dancing in his suburban back garden. There are visits to Doomadgee to acclimatise “ though these do force him to realise that, while he’s ‘Black’ and bullied at Concord school, he’s white and not the full quid in Doomadgee. It’s been even worse for Alec whose Garawa mother coupled with a white man to produce him, meaning that his Black step-father never fully accepted this ‘yellar fella’ adoptee. There are tears as he recalls a night when the old man refused to bed down next to him under the stars. Perhaps that’s what drove him to Sydney, to Indigenous political campaigning, to the boxing ring (where Zach is also taken) and to a refusal to detribalise his son. We don’t really get the full picture of Alec in this portrait of his son.
But we do get an increasing confusion over the seven years of the film for Zach himself, as he chafes under Dad’s constraints, breaks free when Alec heads off to America to exchange thoughts with Native Americans, and shows how hard it is to take the city out of the newly initiated tribal boy when he returns to get wildly pissed at his 16th birthday party in town. But that ceremony is the heart of the film, taken so seriously by Zach and elders such as the artist Nancy McDinny, with structures built, lessons solemnly learnt, and one riotous session when all initiates have to pursue, capture and ‘beat’ someone to dance for them. This is all assisted in the film by the excellent English spoken in Doomadgee “ an inheritance from the missionaries, of whom the locals don’t have happy memories. Garawa is also spoken, of course, and clearly, the ceremonies haven’t been lost “ though I should explain that we don’t see the most serious part of this initiation.
That legacy of the ‘Mish’ is an aspect of Indigenous history that I’m only just coming to terms with “ the competition that must have occurred between the missionaries in place to smooth the pillow of a dying race, and the anthropologists who appeared in the 1920s to record and encourage the complex cultural lore that others wished to assimilate out of existence.
Zach’s so lucky that he has both tribal and urban lives to experience and choose from. So many urban Aborigines have lost those roots. I’ve no idea, for instance, where Ivan Sen’s tribal roots might be “ but clearly, he feels the need for them, and wishes them fervently on Jay Swan in Goldstone. It’s a touchy subject. I’m reminded that Warwick Thornton ended the equally subtle Samson & Delilah at a remote outstation on Country for his young couple to discover their better selves. That wasn’t seen as a happy solution by everybody.
Goldstone should be in Australian cinemas on July 7th, while Zach’s Ceremony has no fixed date, but hopes for theatrical release as well as becoming a valuable educational tool in schools.