A documentary film which featured at the Sydney Film Festival last June, and which Jeremy Eccles reviewed, is now hitting cinemas around Australia. We’re re-running his review so he can you why it’s well worth the outing. (Note: Zach’s Ceremony was seen at same the same time as Ivan Sen’s Goldstone.)

Jeremy Eccles

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.

Doco-maker Aaron Petersen tackles the subject of Zach’s Ceremony so 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. 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.

Here’s the screening link