Through the Eyes of a Boy
4 August 2016 at 10:52 am
Zach’s Ceremony is a deeply personal coming-of-age story about a boy caught between two worlds, the city versus the outback, black versus white, and the struggles between a father and a son, but at it’s core it shines a light on the issues of race and identity.
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.
Aaron Petersen, director of Zach’s Ceremony, invites viewers to submerse themselves in Zach’s world and see it through the eyes of the boy.
In the documentary a 13-year-old Zach Doomadgee says: “In Sydney they call me a blackfella, in Doomadgee they call me a whitefella. I don’t know who I am.”
The documentary, filmed over five years, follows Zach through the struggles of his teenage years, his attempt to reconnect with his Indigenous roots through the rite of initiation and on the path to find out who he really is.
Petersen said he hopes the audience walks away with something from the film and gains a better understanding that Indigenous culture is alive in this country and it should be embraced, no matter the race.
He spoke to Pro Bono Australia News about the challenges of a non-Indigenous director making a film about Indigenous issues, how filming transformed him personally, how the documentary fits into a wider debate on race and Indigenous culture, and why he is inviting the newly appointed Northern Territory royal commissioners Mick Gooda and Margaret White to watch the film.
Why did you choose to focus on this story?
I guess the story was more presented to me, by Alec Doomadgee, who is Zach’s father. We met about 10 years ago working on a television series together, he was recording voice overs, and in between the sessions he started telling me about his background, his family, where he comes from and the Country in which he lived and grew up on. He then started telling me about his son, Zach.
Zach was always going to go through his rite of initiation, and just hearing about the story and the plan and what Zach was facing, also what Alec was facing too as a father, captured my attention straight away.
For me personally, I have two Indigenous nephews, and I used to chat to my brother-in-law as to how he was going to bring his boys up and what he was going to teach them, and he was a little lost as to what to do. So it just seemed to feel like a perfect fit, everything kind of aligned.
The narrative is very personal but the issues of identity and parental approval are quite universal, were you looking to paint the big picture?
I think early on we did a lot of research into a number of documentaries and a lot of them drew attention to a particular theme or something political and to the point.
For us, Alec is first and foremost an activist in the Indigenous space. He works in the media and knows the power of the platform and how to get his message out there, so he wanted to utilise the space to talk about themes that needed addressing. The producer, Sarah Linton, and I concentrated on these once in the edit suite and started piecing together Zach’s life. It was clear how these themes were discussed over the years and how they then affected Zach, it almost directed him down a life path. We steered clear of a political film, pointing and waving the finger at everyone saying how wrong they are, and instead allowed the viewers to submerse themselves in Zach’s world and see it through the eyes of a boy. Therefore, we made it universal, something everybody can relate to and having it told by a child allows how we connect with those themes in a different way. Zach is an incredible storyteller and you feel quite attached to his situation and a lot of the things that surround him.
So again, it felt like the right approach to take. We didn’t want to create a film that was going to bang people over the head with a message, we just wanted them to learn something at their own pace and let the film address topical issues carefully. At the end of the day, as long as somebody takes something out of the film and walks away wanting to make a change or listen to what was said and how they can adapt it to their everyday life, then that was our goal from the get-go.
Look, it’s difficult to be a non-Indigenous director making an Indigenous film and talking about themes that do not directly relate to me, so it was really important I allowed these to be introduced and discussed by Indigenous people, and that is Alec and Zach.
What themes does the documentary address?
We address suicide rates in Indigenous communities, especially in outback communities, and just how off the chart they are when it comes to global levels.
We discussed alcohol, especially within Doomadgee itself, because there is a particular law up there called the Alcohol Management Plan which restricts alcohol – full strength beer, wine and spirits – being drunk within family homes and the community. It is a particular law, well I say law, they call it a plan so it is not quite a law but it is still enforced by police, it is a particular law that is only subject to two places in Queensland and one of those places is Doomadgee.
Other themes include identity, culture, ceremony and then the rite of initiation itself and how important it is, and how it should be embraced a lot more on the education front.
That last one is the big one, Alec believes in that a lot and the way he has always expressed it to me, regarded as the main issue, I now understand it myself. It is creating the belief that culture is alive in this country and it should be embraced, no matter the race. Alec is a strong believer and… what he teaches people is that culture is alive and you adapt it to the environment in which you live. He always puts it that there is no other race in the world, that has adapted as much as Indigenous Australians, and they have [done it] in such a short space of time. Whatever way you do adapt, you embrace it with what you know and then it is about moving forward and never letting go. So that is probably the biggest theme that is going to speak to a lot of people, not only in the Indigenous community, but it’s also going to teach a lot of non-Indigenous the importance of culture and how we should embrace it as a nation, and it should be taught to our upcoming generations and respected. Break down all stereotypes that exist.
Some of the events of recent weeks and the media focus on the Don Dale detention facility have drawn attention to some of the underlying racial tensions that exist in modern day Australia, how does this documentary fit into this debate?
We all saw those images last week and we were shocked, but I think this film fits into that wider debate around racial tension and the treatment of Indigenous youth. It’s important to see how we can use education, knowledge of culture and identity to stop kids going down the wrong path and ending up in places like these. If more resources were focused on prevention and education rather than to punish negative behaviour, there would surely be a positive outcome for all. With the film’s impact, we would like to offer parliamentary screenings at a state and federal level and invite the royal commissioners Mick Gooda and Margaret White to watch the film. Perhaps a film such as this could be a useful tool to help drive change and inform their recommendations.
Why did you choose to film it over five years?
Initially we started out thinking it was just going to be the initiation ceremony, then I met Zach, we had a chat, and we bonded straight away. From there we formed a really close relationship. That allowed him then to start sharing things with me. Usually, especially being a white guy coming into an Indigenous family, there is going to be reservation but for some reason Zach and I just clicked and that goes for Alec as well. They were quite happy to invite me in and share their worlds. What I quickly noticed was how compelling their story was, it wasn’t black and white on paper, it was incredibly involved. Alec is now married to a non-Indigenous woman, Amy, who is appears in the film, but before then, Alec was raising five kids all on his own. When you see what he achieved and how good all the kids turned out, it was an incredible story from the get go.
After a few years of filming, we headed to ceremony up on Country and we were invited to start filming the process. What happened in the lead up to then, was Zach approaching his teenage years so he had all those dramas to deal with. Most of us take it for granted growing up in the city but when you’re moving around a lot and dealing with all the added pressures and expectations, it compounded on him and before he knew it, he was breaking down, completely shutting everybody out. That flowed into this incredible father and son battle, so once we hit ceremony, it reached a whole new level. From there I had to follow the story until we found a natural ending and that ending was basically Zach coming to terms with who he is and how he was going to, I guess, step out of the shadow of his father and start walking his own path. And that simply resulted in filming for so long.
Do you feel personally connected to the story after spending that much time with the family?
Yes, but I think I had my own experience coming from the story. Naturally being in my position of documenting Zach and Alec’s life over the years, I couldn’t think of anything but their “on camera”. But off camera, I developed with the two off them, and their extended family which was pretty special. Today Alec considers me a brother and his mother considers me a son, and that’s just an example of how close we all became over that period.
So for me it was incredibly transformative. I went up there as one person and have since completely transitioned into a far better educated and aware individual. I now understand the struggle and can at least contribute something to the change. And then the flow on effect through to my family and friends, and my greater circle. Seeing how I as an individual taught my family and then they taught their friends, I’ve now seen a huge number of people suddenly paying a lot more attention to Indigenous issues and the message behind the film itself and embracing Zach’s story, so it’s been incredible.
What impact are you trying to achieve through this film?
Exactly that example I just shared with you. At the beginning of each screening so far, Alec and I stand out the front, introduce the film and have a chat. It’s quite important that Alec talks about the film and the reason and messaging behind it, especially when taking the film on different parts of Country. See Alec is from the Waanyi, Garrawa and Gangalidda communities up around the Gulf of Carpentaria and a lot of songs and stories are shared in the film, especially around ceremony and Dreamtime. And it’s really important that you not only ask for permission but that you acknowledge the land in which these stories are being shared on, just to pay respects to the people of that area. We start every film in that fashion and I invite audience members to see the world through Zach’s eyes and experience it in a way that they’ve probably never seen culture shared before. The feedback that I get from most viewers is that they simply absorb more and learn more with the introduction in mind.
Personally for me, I want them to walk away with something new even if it’s just one little thing, whether it’s learning what Country they stand on or what the local language or the people from that country are, that’s the start of respect and acknowledging. Just how you flow on from there is going to be up to the bigger system, which is going to be education and the upcoming generation and how they’re going to embrace it all and talk to their parents about it. So when you look at the big picture, we hope the film sparks a conversation and people take that little bit away.
Do you have a target audience in mind?
It is tough to think who our audience is. When we first showed it to our partners like AIME, we first thought obviously it is an Indigenous themed film so it’s going to be for an Indigenous audience, but we always had the vision that this film is much bigger than that, it is much bigger than the space we were defaulted into. The versatility of our father and son story makes it universal and it can really be taken into any culture, or place around the world. Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, we can all relate to it because of that family aspect. So we’ve seen just from the screenings at Hot Docs in Canada and Sydney Film Festival just how many different types of people are taking it in. We’ve seen kids from as young as 13 or 14 going to the screening with their parents, and then older generations like 60, 70, 80 year olds, and it all affects them in completely different ways.
I was told a story by a friend. Her daughter watched it, and she was only 13 years old, and being a 13 year old absorbed everything, she learnt so much. She then turned to her mother afterwards and said “why did you raise me to be a racist?” And naturally the mother was offended but the daughter goes on, “because your generation has completely messed everything up, these people are beautiful and they deserve to be treated as though they are like anybody else,” and this is a 13 year old saying this. And just by having that conversation, the mother started looking at it in a new way. She walked away from the film feeling initially guilty as well, which most people from the white side of Australia do, and walked away with her own feelings, but hearing how her daughter was affected by the film, gave her then another angle to analyse and think about what she watched. What we’ve found, is that it sits with people for weeks or months afterwards. We get random messages from people saying they experienced something the other day and it made them think about the film, so you get an idea of that penetration through Zach’s experience has allowed people to absorb and listen.
We always wanted it to be an international audience to watch the film because taking it overseas it might allow that pressure to come back onto Australians and really analyse what some of the problems are that exist here. As Zach says, “We’re all as equal as everyone else in the world aren’t we?”
Zach’s ceremony is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 7 and 9 August.
See here for more stories in our GOOD PITCH² series.