Interview with Aaron Petersen: Zach's Ceremony
Zach’s Ceremony filmmaker Aaron Petersen spent six years following a ten-year-old Aboriginal boy from Sydney, Zach, as he prepared for his transition into manhood on his father’s country in Far North Queensland. Ahead of the films Australian premiere at Sydney Film Festival, we catch up with Aaron Petersen to learn about the making of the film and what he learnt in the process:
Screening at SFF: http://tix.sff.org.au/session_sff.asp?sn=Zach%27s+Ceremony
You had your World Premiere at Hot Docs in Canada, how did that go?
It went really well. We went there with a mixture of nerves and excitement wondering how it would be received on the international stage. The entire film team went, including the producer, Sarah Linton, and the film’s two lead subjects, Alec and Zach Doomadgee. Their presence at the festival was greatly received, they have such powerful and engaging personalities and they really struck a chord with the audience – particularly First Nations communities. The themes raised in the film really resonated with the audiences in Canada who face similar challenges and issues.
At the premiere a few local friends sang a passing through country song while Alec and Zach performed a dance from their country back home. It was a powerful and spectacular way to start our premiere and unite two beautiful cultures together through this film.
It sparked a real buzz around the festival, and that momentum continued to build during our three screenings at Hot Docs. By the last screening the energy was really high and everyone knew about the film. We received a standing ovation which made it all worthwhile.
Making this film has been a huge journey for me and I’ve learnt so much. I came from a generation of people that weren't really taught the correct history of Australia and when I met Alec I spent time learning the true history. I came at this project with an open mind and an open heart. Zach was the gateway for me to explore more of his culture and revisit everything I previously knew about Indigenous Australia.
I have come from an observational point of view and this film is my interpretation of what I saw.
How does it feel going to Sydney Film Festival?
Surprisingly I’m more nervous. The film is going to screen in front of family and friends and it’s going to be a much tougher audience only because a lot of content is already produced in the Indigenous space in Australia, so our audience will have a preconception on what they might see. Knowing this, we wanted to tell a story that portrayed the beauty of the culture more than the neglect and the troubles and we wanted to show that culture still stood strong in certain part of the country – as Alec says, it’s a living culture. I hope that people can open their mind up for 90 minutes and walk away learning something new.
You did a private screening in Doomadgee, can you tell us about that?
It was such an incredible experience. Everybody came, it was a huge turnout under the stars in Doomadgee in Far North Queensland, where we shot half the film. It was important to take it back to the community and the people who made it so, show our respect to them for allowing us to share their story and to thank them for their support in making the film. It was a private screening hosted by Black Screen who are a part of National Film and Sound Archive - they do travelling road shows to remote communities and show films for free so it was the perfect setup for what we needed. They came on the road with us for five days.
Everyone was excited to see Zach, who is well known in the community, up on the big screen. Zach’s story will inspire so many young kids to find out more about their culture. We had three screenings in total, one in Doomadgee, which is Alec and Zach’s home country, another in Borroloola just over the border in the Northern Territory and the final screening at Robinson River, which is where we captured the majority of the film and ceremony.
During the final screening something magical happened sitting out under the starry night – without giving too much away, there is a part in the film where Zach realises a key moment and connects with his grandfather. Where we were sitting, in Robinson River, is his grandfather’s country. Now it was a beautiful night, stars were out, there were 250 people there watching, laughing, crying and enjoying the film. At this particular moment Zach acknowledges his grandfather’s name, as he does a shooting star lit up the sky passing right over the screen, over his ancestor’s country. It was a clear sign that the film has their approval! Such an amazing moment for everyone there. A moment I will forever share with people. That is the magic and beauty that exists.
How did you come across Zach’s story?
I first met Alec back in 2008, we were working on a TV series for ABC3 called On The Edge. It was one of the first Indigenous programs I worked on and Alec was one of the presenters. Whilst working in-between voiceover recordings we started talking about our families and in particular our boys. Alec told me that one-day Zach would go through his own ceremony. Talking to Alec I felt somewhat envious that he had something so powerful to share with his boys and it made me want to learn and to share something with my family and friends and more importantly my boys. I wanted them to have a new appreciation for a people and a culture that is often shown with negative stereotypes throughout the media . Indigenous Australians I have met are such incredible people with amazing stories and it is only fair that I try to influence my wider circle to have a new appreciation. My boys now engage with the themes of the film and understand the true history and what the really happened on January 26.
While the film is a universal story of father and son relationship it also invites the viewer to rethink how they perceive Indigenous people, What is the deeper message that you hope viewers will take away?
There are a lot of problems in Australia on a political level and on an intergenerational level with ingrained racism. None of us wanted to come out with a political film, we wanted a film that appealed to everyday people. We wanted the audience to rewrite their perceptions on their own. To achieve that, it was really important that we showed the film through the eyes of Zach.
A lot of people believe they know what problems Indigenous communities face, they have made up their minds. We wanted Zach to come across them in the film and address them in his own way. The film doesn’t beat you over the head or give you a sense of hopelessness. By the end the audience can walk out with a feeling that they can do something, that there’s hope – we want them to see that we are all connected and we’ve all got to help each other move forward to a place of respect.
How involved were Alec and Zach with the film's production?
It’s an observational documentary and it is driven by key moments in Alec and Zach’s life. Alec was certainly key to the life of this film. It was his vision to share the beauty of his culture and he needed partners on board to help bring his dream to life.
I also shared the role of editing in post-production which made sense considering how personally I knew the subjects, the content and story objectives. We filmed it over six years so I guess we were all learning as the years rolled by.
Alec and Zach trusted in me with making sure the story addressed themes that were connected to their lives at the time. It’s incredibly authentic in its approach. Every scene caught at that precise moment. There is no way I could stop or interfere with anything. Zach drives it and it’s his interpretation of everything he comes across. During post production, Alec would provide feedback on story components, as anyone that close to a subject would. There are a lot of very personal stories in the film and I had to be very careful how I represented those people in the film to make sure no one would be hurt.
Being the subject of a film is not easy for anyone, particularly a teenager - how is Zach taking the attention?
Zach has just developed into the most amazing person. It’s been quite transformative for him. With the film now finished, he told us he now understands the bigger picture of what this film is about and the potential this has to create positive social change. He is growing into a real leader and the way that he answered questions from the audience at Hot Docs has completely blown me away. Keeping in mind that he is only 17! Incredible. I hope that people will embrace the screening; we are going to do a special song with Elders who are coming down from Doomadgee especially for this event.
Capturing such a sacred ceremony – care and respect. How did you get access?
Alec has been working closely with the people and elders in his community for over 10 years and has been talking to them about the power of film. Over the years he took cameras up to the community, to get them used to having cameras around, and spoke about it regularly. All the credit goes to Alec for the access.
While we were there it was challenging. We were all white people walking into their family homes and communities. All up I spent about four months on country, which I am incredibly grateful for. Even with the access to the ceremony we were very upfront with the Elders that we didn’t want to show parts of ceremony that were sacred. That wasn’t our intention. We especially weren't going to capture and share any secret men's business. The Elders very much led what we were allowed to show and where we were allowed to go. There was a huge level of respect and education that I had to learn.
For example, ceremony isn’t like a birthday event on one afternoon, it takes place across a long period of time, many weeks. It’s a personal and transformative stage for any young boy or girl's life and there is an incredible amount of detail and care. I had to listen and learn to truly understand what was happening.
What’s next for you?
It’s been six years of filming and seven years if you include post. I have definitely found a place in the genre and working alongside Sarah and Alec. It's definitely a space we want to work in again. Tough gig for my debut directing role but we got there. There are quite a few options in the pipelines now. We want to film Zach for the next year or two to offer a reprise as to what he is up to after the film. This will extend into the outreach part of the film.
On top of that, the trip to Canada really opened up our eyes as to how many similarities there are between Australian Indigenous people and First Nations people of Canada, so there are quite a few co-production options we have been exploring. So watch this space.
Screening at SFF: http://tix.sff.org.au/session_sff.asp?sn=Zach%27s+Ceremony