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Songs and Stories of Indigenous Incarceration


Tuesday, 23rd August 2016 at 10:33 am
Ellie Cooper, Journalist
The over-representation and treatment of Indigenous Australians in the justice system is once again making headlines, but a documentary, Prison Songs, puts a human face to the experiences of inmates.

Tuesday, 23rd August 2016
at 10:33 am
Ellie Cooper, Journalist


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Songs and Stories of Indigenous Incarceration
Tuesday, 23rd August 2016 at 10:33 am

The over-representation and treatment of Indigenous Australians in the justice system is once again making headlines, but a documentary, Prison Songs, puts a human face to the experiences of inmates.   

Prison Songs

Pro Bono Australia has partnered with GOOD PITCH² to shine a light on powerful films that are addressing some of society’s most pressing issues. In the lead up to the GOOD PITCH² 2016 screening event in November we will be speaking with some of the filmmakers about what inspired them to document these issues.

In Australia’s first musical documentary, filmmaker Kelrick Martin enters Berrimah Prison, the Northern Territory’s largest jail, which is home to 800 men and women – 80 per cent of whom are Indigenous. Through stories and songs, the inmates share their experiences, histories and feelings.

Martin and Good Pitch impact producer Julie Buxton spoke to Pro Bono Australia News about Indigenous incarceration rates, the importance of individual stories and solutions to an issue that has long been called a national crisis.

Why did you chose to focus on the issue of Indigenous incarceration?

Martin: We kind of fell into it to be honest with you. We wanted to make a film that was originally about the actual prison itself – Berrimah prison – it was not necessarily focused on the issue of Indigenous incarceration as such, it was a profile of the prison and the prisoners that live there and the people who ran the prison.

Then as we auditioned more people and we looked for people to be involved in the film, we had more Indigenous people present themselves as being interested in participating. And as we dug more into their stories, the more the issue kind of came to the fore itself. That reason I think is why we gravitated in that direction.

What themes is the documentary exploring?

Martin: Obviously we explore Indigenous incarceration, and what we tended to find was that – and what I was quite adamant about in terms of wanting to tell the story – there was no formula or stereotype for people who ended up in prison. It wasn’t… if you raise a child a and they’re exposed to b they’ll end up in prison.

Everyone came from a variety of backgrounds… from backgrounds of poverty and domestic violence histories to people who had well-to-do backgrounds and who had privileged experiences growing up and who just made poor choices as adults. So for me that was the prime driver the whole film itself was to sort of show that it was not a one-size-fits-all description of those people who were involved.

How are songs worked into the documentary?

Martin: It was always going to be a documentary musical. Brian Hill who is a fairly well-regarded British documentarian who has specifically worked in this type of genre for many, many years was always attached to the project.

Essentially what happened was we focused on the individuals first and foremost. We wanted to have people… who came from a bunch of different backgrounds, and we sort of whittled down those particular individuals.

We then interviewed them, we took those interviews and with a couple of singer / songwriters… we sent transcriptions of those interviews to them to write songs for these individuals. The songs were then taken back into the prison, the prisoners got to read the lyrics, hear the songs being sung. Once they were happy with that song being their song, then we recorded the individual singing in the prison, we had those mastered and we had them perform to those songs for the film.

It was quite back and forth… because people inside they can’t work on these things at their own leisure but that was how we went about doing it but it was always from a collaborative perspective. In fact there are a couple of songs that weren’t written by our songwriters at all, they were written by the guys who did the two rap songs… [it] was purely their creation, so that was fantastic.

What impact are you trying to achieve through this film?

Martin: Essentially for me the film was all about humanising people that are in prison, just allowing people who are on the outside to see that these guys are not just these stereotypical numbers, these kind of overwhelming statistics that exist for people who see these issues being depicted in the media or in the newspaper. They are human beings and they have feelings just like anybody else, they have emotions and dreams and aspirations and regrets and all the sorts of things we do and quite often they come from a background that’s not too dissimilar from our own, so at all times it was me just trying to get people to see it through the lens of humanity as opposed to… statistics and overwhelming disadvantage numbers.

Buxton: Two things, the first is to raise awareness of the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within Australia [and the] disproportionate rates of incarceration of both children and adults in our youth detention and prison systems. A lot of people know but a lot of people don’t know in Australia.

Then secondly, to raise awareness of some of the contributing factors that cause a child or an adult to end up coming into contact with the law. So some of those things are obviously economic disadvantage, education, generational grief and trauma, and some of our colonial history and discriminatory laws and policies that continue to impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The second part is how do we progress that conversation to some solutions, what can we do about it? In screening this film to different sectors of society, including the legal fraternity, judges, police, community workers, social workers – what can each individual and each sector do, perhaps differently, to try to address some of the underlying causes of incarceration?

How relevant are these themes in light of the recent attention on the Don Dale detention facility?

Martin: To be honest I think the issues have been relevant for quite some time. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was over 20 years ago, and back then this film probably would have been just as relevant. I don’t think the issue’s ever gone away, I think it’s something that’s always just sort of been with us, and unfortunately people just tend to [have an] out-of-sight-out-of-mind type of attitude to these types of issues because it’s just too hard, because it doesn’t directly affect them, so they’re not really that concerned about it.

Plus I think the momentum of society has become more of that elk of crime must be punished and tougher sentencing laws, which obviously plays well for the politicians. So in that regard I think that this film’s always kind of had that relevance, but it’s only due to particular events of recent times that it’s kind of been brought to the fore, and sadly will probably continue to be brought to the fore in other instances in years to come.

Obviously the overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in prison is a complicated issue, but do you see any solutions from your experience working on the film?

Martin: Each individual is going to have their own reasons for being in jail, there’s no one size fits all. But what I found, which was quite a common denominator for a lot of people, was that early intervention. I just feel like if individuals were given an opportunity at a younger age to be able to have assistance to address these issues that were within their lives, whether it be domestic violence, whether it be lack of education, whether it be whatever. I feel like if there had been some form of community intervention or government program to help younger people avoid those pathways that lead so easily into incarceration I think that that would have made a huge difference to a lot of people.

I think there are individuals who are inside jail because they have committed crimes, fairly serious crimes, and I completely respect the fact that the courts have a job to do, to incarcerate people who are guilty of crimes. But I think there are a lot of people who are within those institutions who don’t necessarily need to be there but the crimes that they’re guilty of are crimes that are related to socio-economic disadvantage. And those are the things that we can certainly fix.

Buxton: There’s certainly no easy solution, there has to be a multi-faceted approach to address a range of issues, but just by way of example, a really obvious thing we need to do more of is look at early intervention and prevention strategies, particularly when you’re talking about children and young people. Rather than incarcerating a child, you need to look towards different ways of diverting them from the criminal justice system. Some of the things to look at that are working well are the idea of cultural camps, trying to keep children in education rather than excluding them for perceived behavioural issues where there might be other things at play such as mental health issues… so looking at a range of approaches that can try to address the terrible problem that’s the over imprisonment. And then looking at the legal sector – better education and training of lawyers and advocates to try to impress upon the courts some of the underlying causes of contact with the law. And then also the judiciary, there’s great interest from judges to learn more and improve their cultural awareness.

Who’s your target audience?

Martin: For me it’s anyone who doesn’t understand what this issue is all about. There are going to be people who watch this film that know what this film’s about, that understand the issue, that have an empathy towards the issues that are being depicted and do so when these issues are raised in the media such as the Don Dale issue. But for me the best audience I can try to crack through to are those that enjoy music and just enjoy seeing a film that’s done in a different way such as our film, I don’t think anyone’s done this type of film in Australia before, so just really trying to find audiences that maybe haven’t thought about the issue in a way that’s been depicted this way before, and as a result they watch it and they enjoy it and they actually learn something.

Buxton: The film will be screened this week at the Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration in Alice Springs where there will be judges from around the country. Keenan Mundine, who’s the Prison Songs ambassador, one of the things that he speaks about is a particular judge who really listened to his story and understood the severe social disadvantage that he had in his life, which was his parents dying at a very young age… causing him to be catapulted into child protection and youth justice. So he speaks very highly of [this] judge who heard his case at one point… and gave him a chance to do things differently through a diversion program. So they’re the sorts of ways the film can help, it’s really an advocacy tool where the film can help educate and enable decision makers and community members to look more deeply at the issues and try to think more deeply about how to do things to avoid incarcerating people. The whole prison system and youth detention system doesn’t achieve what it’s designed to achieve so we really need to do things differently and the Prison Songs film is a great tool to raise these discussions – it’s incredibly moving and powerful… and we’re seeing fantastic responses from all sectors of society who feel that it has enabled them to view the issues differently and inspired them to try to think about new approaches.

How are you getting the film out there?

Buxton: Through a range of mechanisms. Social media. We’re working closely with Change the Record Coalition, which is a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and human rights organisations – we work in partnership with them. Oxfam will be doing some screenings, Amnesty International has done some screenings.

In terms of the legal sector, I’m a lawyer by trade, so I am the chair of the Law Institute of Victoria Aboriginal Reconciliation Advancement Committee. The Law Institute of Victoria has been very supportive promoting it through its networks, it’s done two screenings itself. In terms of judges, again through my legal networks. Word of mouth is very strong. For example, several people who attended Law Institute of Victoria’s screening then followed up saying, we’d like to host one now for our staff, our colleagues. The people who see the film are incredibly impacted by it, and it often has motivated them to take it back to their organisation to host a screening.

Prison Songs will be screening on NITV at 9:30pm, 31 August.


Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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