In a career spanning a decade, Ivan Sen has carved a reputation as a chronicler of Indigenous youth, beginning with his short dramas Tears (1998) and Dust (1999), and his debut feature Beneath Clouds (2001). Since then, Sen has made a raft of documentaries that continue to explore the themes of his earlier work. From the buried skeletons of massacre victims in Dust, to Tom E. Lewis' incomplete family history in Yellow Fella (2005), the past is always close to the surface in Sen's oeuvre. In his latest work, Shifting Shelter 3, Sen once again examines how the past resonates in the present and the way time alters and erodes people's dreams.
Shot in three parts over 10 years, the Shifting Shelter series follows four Indigenous youths from country NSW as they grow from teenagers into young adults. The latest instalment sees Sen reconnecting with the four, his contemporary interviews intercut with earlier conversations from 1995 and 2000. The result is a portrait of evolving lives and changing expectations that is by turns heartbreaking, hopeful and inspiring. Shifting Shelter 3 is screening at this year's Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival at the Sydney Opera House.
Dan Edwards spoke to Sen about his new film and the recurring themes in his work.
Shifting Shelter 3 is obviously a project you've been working on for a long time. Can you tell me how the project first came about?
In my first year of film school [AFTRS] in '94, there was an Aboriginal arts festival for school kids up at Bogabilla, near Moree. I went up to cover it in a short documentary, and interviewed about 30 teenagers from around the state. I was just going around asking kids to do interviews, and there were three in particular who were pretty keen. I'd ask them a question and they'd talk for 10 minutes. So I just wanted to pursue that a bit further because they stood out as strong characters who wanted to tell their story.
I also had a cousin who was a similar age - about 15 - and she seemed very articulate and wanted to tell me about her life as well. I hadn't really thought about doing it as a Seven Up-type thing at that stage - I just wanted to do a profile on four Aboriginal teenagers from the country. It just grew from there - 10 years later I'm still talking to them and following them around.
Which of the four is your cousin?
Danielle, the girl who's been in and out of jail and addicted to heroin.
And at what point did you begin to think these people were subjects you might want to return to over a 10-year period?
I don't really remember. I did actually make the Bogabilla arts festival video, but for my film school assignment I handed in Shifting Shelter 1. That was then sold to the ABC and it always stayed in the back of my mind to revisit the project. Shifting Shelter 2 was done with the ABC in 2000... so there wasn't really a clear point. It just kind of snuck up on me.
How has your relationship with the subjects shifted over 10 years? Have any of them resisted ongoing participation in the project?
I think Cindy might have been a bit cautious this time - I expected there to be a bit more caution. As they get older they get families of their own, they get more mature and realise what they're saying - and that people are going to hear what they're saying. But at the same time I think they still work as subjects, because of their outgoing personalities. Even if they think more about what they say now, and are clamping down 10 or 20 per cent, they're still giving a lot compared to a normal person. What's interesting to me as a drama director is you ask them a question and in many instances you see the answer on their face before they give their verbal answer. So depending on the sensitivity of the viewer, you can get quite a lot from their non-verbal communication. You see them going through a thought process before they actually answer, and the answer they give may differ from their body language.
There are a couple of scenes in Shifting Shelter 3 where people become visibly upset on camera. Have you experienced any ethical dilemmas in the course of making the project?
Not really. I suppose I've developed a personal ethics in documentary filmmaking. I try to be honest, but I always want to present them in a positive way. Especially as this is an ongoing project - if I showed something that they didn't want shown, they wouldn't have me back. I've got a little test scale for myself - I only show what I feel comfortable showing, and I tap into their own sensitivity to do that.
Have the participants played a role in how the films have been put together?
No. When I get a subject, they have to trust me to portray them. If they don't want to allow that trust to form, then the project doesn't happen. I need to have that control, otherwise you end up making films for the subjects rather than audiences.
Have you stayed in touch with the participants between each episode of Shifting Shelter?
Not really. I try to stay out of their lives. It's kind of like when you go to a counsellor - that process works because they're separate from your life and the people you know, so you feel comfortable letting them know intimate details.
Shifting Shelter seems to pre-empt a lot of the themes you explore in your other work. Was your interest in Indigenous youth and the effect of time on people's lives stimulated by making the early Shifting Shelter episodes?
I think as soon as you turn a camera on and start recording reality in a documentary sense, you can't escape the fact that you're capturing some kind of theme or some kind of perspective. As a camera operator, director and editor you absorb all that, and it's inevitable that it's going to come out in your drama work, or in some other artistic away. Shooting a film like this, you take on board the experiences of the subjects, and somewhere that's going to come out again. I find that my documentary work feeds my drama in many different ways.
There certainly seems to be a definite thematic link running through Shifting Shelter, your doco The Dreamers (2003), your dramatic shorts Tears and Dust, and your feature Beneath Clouds.
Yeah, they feed off each other. Lately I've been shooting a lot of documentary and really enjoying it, and really getting a lot out of it. I don't have a lot of contact with people generally in my life - I kind of stick to my writing and can be very insular. But I find with my documentary work I get to go out and meet these people in different situations and hear their intimate stories, and it's a big input into any creative outlet that I've got.
Since Beneath Clouds you've worked exclusively on documentaries. Is that through choice, or are they simply the projects you've been able to raise finance for?
I just find documentary so satisfying, with the ease of getting projects up and shooting - the process is just so fast. And I suppose I haven't come across any drama scripts that I've felt connected with. I see drama as something so special that I only want to save it for the special stories. I've got a couple of Indigenous-themed films [in development], but I've also got a vampire-themed film and a road film as well. I'll only make one movie on each of those themes, so I want to make sure they're as strong as I can get them. In the meantime I shoot and usually edit all my own documentary work, which is very hands-on. You just can't beat that as a learning experience. Editing pictures together has a lot of influence on my scriptwriting.
I don't know what it's like for other people, but you get to the stage where you realise that feature filmmaking, especially in this country, is a part-time job. So you have to do your number one job and do features on the side. But in saying that, the documentary subjects that I've been working with over the last year or two…they're so fulfilling and rewarding, and finding that kind of satisfaction in drama is really rare.
Do you regard placing Indigenous stories on screen as a central reason for your filmmaking? Or is it simply a question of making films about what you know?
It's obviously something that makes me up as a person, and my history and my family's history. My first creative outlet was photography, and the first thing I did was take photos of my Aboriginal family and the mission where we all came from. In that way it's a personal reflection of my being. So as I moved into film it's just changed art forms. But while I want to tell stories about my family and Indigenous experience, I've also got stories where I just want to inspire the imagination on a universal level.
Do you still keep up your photography?
Not really. I learnt a long time ago that although photography can be extremely powerful and rewarding, the story you can tell in one frame was too limiting for what I wanted to express. One frame can tell a strong story, but film is a lot more detailed - it just fit with what I wanted to do.
So what's next in the pipeline for you?
I'm just finishing a one-hour doco - I'm editing right now actually - for the ABC. It's about Aboriginal urbanisation, assimilation, identity and the experience of what it is to be Aboriginal these days. It's called Broken Borders. I'm finding it fascinating because half the film is ABC archive material of people moving into Sydney and other towns from community missions and isolated reserves in the 1960s and 70s. The old material is intercut with material I've shot with 15 or 16 subjects living here in Sydney. It uses Sydney as a metaphor for the rest of the country.
I've got another one-hour documentary after that, which I can't really talk about, and then I'm doing some work on the First Australians series [produced by Darren Dale and directed by various filmmakers including Sen and Rachel Perkins]. And hopefully one of my feature projects after that…but they're always evolving and changing.
Shifting Shelter 3 is screening at the Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival, Sydney Opera House, 14 May at 1pm. Entry is free. Ivan Sen will give a talk after the screening.
Sen's new documentary Broken Borders will be broadcast by ABC TV later this year.