Sarah Runcie, AFC Film Development Administrative Officer, speaks to writer/director Wayne Blair about his award-winning short film The Djarn Djarns.
Wayne Blair has distinguished himself as an actor for stage and screen with his wit and natural warmth. This same sensibility has also informed his work as a writer/director and his latest film The Djarn Djarns is no exception.
Winner of the Kinderfilmfest Crystal Bear prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival, The Djarn Djarns was developed through the AFC Indigenous Unit initiative, 'Dramatically Black'. Soon to screen at the Sydney Opera House in the Message Sticks Indigenous Arts Festival, The Djarn Djarns will also screen later this year on SBS as part of a collection of half-hour dramas written and directed by Indigenous filmmakers.
The Djarn Djarns is the story of a young Aboriginal boy who, in the course of one day, negotiates grief and friendship, loyalty and betrayal. Hunter Page-Lochard, who plays the lead role of Frankie, manages this challenging mix of emotions with charm and strength. Frankie's journey is set against contrasting worlds: the razzle-dazzle showbiz of the Dreamtime Centre where Frankie is a traditional dancer - or djarn djarn - and the dark domestic history of the death of Frankie's father, the absence of his mother and Frankie's subsequent sexual abuse by his mother's white boyfriend. The link between these worlds in Frankie's life is the love of his fellow djarn djarns. It is that mateship between boys that makes The Djarn Djarns, despite its difficult dramatic terrain, a hopeful film that is, by turns, poignant, disturbing, satirical and funny.
SR: How is the story of The Djarn Djarns based on your own experience growing up in Rockhampton, Queensland?
When I was about 17 I worked at Dreamtime [in Rockhampton] as a tour guide. Then for three or four years I was a djarn djarn. I was much older than the boys in the film but there were young boys. There were five or six of us that had to dance for tourists. It was fun. The interaction, the dialogue that we had everyday, was funny. There were different personalities within the group, as there is with any group. I sort of enjoyed that actually. It was a good time in my life because I was playing rugby league and cricket in Rockhampton and then, at night or weekends or during the day, I'd do traditional dance. It was a bit of a juxtaposition but I really enjoyed it.
What did this juxtaposition mean for you in developing your own sensibility?
I just had a bit of everything and these worlds I saw were just totally different. But, yet, in some respects, totally the same in the sense of teamwork, people getting on. People have to work together to produce something. There are just so many different stories out there when you go into people's lives. But I had never seen a story where you go into 10-year old urban yet traditional dancers' lives. I wanted to show that.
What about the The Djarn Djarns story is specifically Murri or specifically Queensland?
Djarn djarns is from an Aboriginal language from up that way. When I wrote the script, I was thinking of places up there, in reference to land, colour, to the heat of the place. The weather is different. The way the sunlight comes up over the mountains is a little bit different. We wanted to shoot in Rockhampton because that's where I am from.
What do you think is universal about the story?
The film talks about friendship, the love between a father and a son, a mother and a son - family. I wanted to relay that when you are doing well you'll get back slaps and people will be there to congratulate you, no matter what, but when times are tough, that's when friendship really matters.
What were your stylistic decisions in depicting the different worlds that Frankie straddles?
Speaking to Murray [Director of Photography, Murray Lui], we wanted to have a sort of 80s B-grade American film [feeling]. I sort of enjoyed those films for what they were because that is what I grew up with.
Like what films specifically?
Scrooged - comedies like that. And that TV series called Monkey.
How did you consider story pacing?
The pace changes half way through the film. As you get in touch with what is happening, we wanted to spark it up a little bit. As the film progresses, there's a couple of flashbacks with him and his father, him and his mother's boyfriend, that sort of chop and change in the story but once you get into real time, that's when the film relaxes.
How did you talk to Murray Lui about the story?
Murray has been the DP on the three short films that we have done. I will have this idea. We'll meet for a coffee in Annandale, or breakfast, and I've got to shout him. No. Just joking. And I'll have written three or four pages - just the idea - and he'll like it. He usually likes the sort of stuff I write - so far, cross fingers. And he'll get up some ideas about it and then I'll just write. He's always been there from the word go.
You have worked with Kylie Du Fresne, your producer on The Djarn Djarns, on two previous films as well - Kathy and Black Talk. What kind of interaction do you have with her in terms of that script early development?
Pretty similar but more in a sense of 'how much is this going to cost?' Kylie always says 'how long is a piece of string?' You know? So she makes me be very much more specific. It's not all strawberries and cream. Sometimes both Murray and Kylie will not agree with something and it'll make me think harder.
Why did you choose to deal with sexual abuse in the way that you did - by implication?
I didn't want to be too overt. I didn't want to be bogged down. I think sexual abuse is evil at work and in all communities - black, white, brindle. I just don't think it's something that has been talked about enough. People have suffered because of it. This is a young 11-year-old who has a responsibility of culture, responsibility of friendship, responsibility of his family, and this boy, his innocence, has been taken for no reason, for someone else's selfish reason. Yet this boy, because of the love for his father, what the father has taught him, is fighting on. Through strength of friendship he's staying alive.
What do you think was the most difficult or challenging aspect of writing the script, as opposed to directing?
I enjoy writing but I suppose the script got to a certain stage and it was just missing something. The love between the young boy and the father and the young boy and the mother just needed to be lifted to show some sense of hope. That was the last process. It took me a couple of hours but when it became clear, it was plain as the nose upon your face. If there was any kind of difficulty it was that last step I had to take in making the script go from OK to great OK.
So you found it easier to write The Djarn Djarns than Black Talk or your other films?
They're similar. Once you get that image, that great image of two boys in the back of a church or four young urban dancers playing together, it's quite easy for me to get it out on paper.
What did you find the most challenging aspect of bringing the story to the screen?
Finding the right four boys. Three weeks before we had to shoot, we were still umming and ahhing. I looked at all the Ned Kellys and the Kelly gang and The Beatles, trying to find my right John, my Paul, my Ringo, my George, you know? We didn't have money to bring the boys together and get them in a room or get a workshop of the eight boys together that were all going to be in the film.
How did you deal with that?
I remember the first day they came together for rehearsals, meeting everybody, and they're all quiet, firstly. I was going 'Oh no, what am I going to do?' I can't do my drama games like a NIDA teacher. They just wouldn't get it. So what we did was cut up a tape of all their audition pieces. The boys were all really quiet and nervous. They all sat together in the front row and watched their audition pieces. And even my audition pieces. They just laughed at themselves and laughed at each other. And that was good. After that they went to the pool at the motel and after an hour they were all laughing and tackling each other into the pool. From that moment I just went 'wow' and a big smile came on my face.
How did you get your four main cast to work together - given their different backgrounds and experience?
It was hard but they got a rhythm. You find young child actors work it out pretty quickly. There was a big scene shot in a cemetery. It was a hot day and we were there for the whole day. We got there at six and finished at five and by 10am it's like 'when can we go home?' or 'when's our last scene?' Always the question I got was 'what's for lunch Wayne?' I just had to say, 'boys, you're gonna be here all day.' Eventually I said, 'Look, who wants McDonald's for dinner?' And they all go 'yeah, me, me, me.' And I said, 'okay, I'll shout McDonalds tonight on the way home? I'll drive with you boys.' For the rest of the day they were brilliant.
Another little story is one of the young boys on the shoot, I think Hunter, got him to kiss somebody for $10.00. That was supposed to be a secret. Every time this young boy wouldn't act, or he was like 'when's lunch?' I'd just have to say '10 dollars' and he would act excellent. I suppose I became a 10-year-old boy for 10 weeks as well.
How did the experience of going through the 'Dramatically Black' workshop help you in developing your script and your visual strategy in telling the story?
It was enormous. There was a week's workshop in Glebe and I was working with Kim Batterham and Martin McGrath. Martin shot all my scenes. I had actors there who I knew - Indigenous and non-Indigenous - working on my script, giving me ideas for six days. I had Karen Johnson and Mark Perry cutting it. These experienced people working on your film builds your confidence to believe in yourself and believe in your story. Throughout the whole six days experienced people are dropping in ideas and encouraging your impulses - impulses that normally would be kept below the surface - bringing them to the forefront and I'm going 'yeah, I can do that.' I found that process very inspiring and very informative.
What does your acting experience bring to your directing?
Being a director I just find that the dialogue I have with other actors on set is much easier. I tend to shortcut a little bit sometimes and at other times I know when to pull back. I suppose the dialogue with the child actors was much easier because they would just be kids. That's what the script asks for. You just have to push and pull them down the path they want to go. And it was a great path. Sometimes with young actors, or any actors, I've found being on set is different to rehearsal. When, as director, I would be trying to teach the actors something - and people were watching - I'd say to the First AD: 'I don't care what you guys are doing, just look busy. If you don't have nothin' to do - the lights are in place, the call sheets are done for the next three days - I don't give a rat's arse. Look busy if I'm talkin' to the actors.' And they would, you know. And the actors would lose their insecurities.
Did you have to do the same?
Well, a lot of the times, as director you just have to let everything go and just say 'wait, relax, chill' and trust and it'll all get done. You just have to drop all the bloody insecurities, drop all the pressures and say you're just making a film. You're not in Iraq. You've got your health. You've got your family. Just do it and have fun. You have to have fun. Once people see that, people trust that. They trust you.
What are you most happy with in The Djarn Djarns?
I am very proud that we got a 26-minute-film, that when I wrote the script and saw the film - and I have seen the film numerous times - I love it. What we tried to achieve in the script I believe we got onto the screen and a little bit more. I am so thankful we achieved this story in the amount of time and limitations we had. It's a story that all those young boys have seen now and they love it. Their families love it. The community up in Rockhampton love it and they're proud of it.
Is that the best part about filmmaking for you?
Yeah! Just bringing smiles to people's faces, just to have a sense of achievement, not only for me but for everyone on the crew.
So, in a way the theme of The Djarn Djarns - friendship - is what you love about the process of filmmaking itself?
Oh, heck yeah. I grew up on team sports and when you have a good team, there's nothing like it. When you're winning, and sometimes when you're losing, there's no complaints really and it's the same with this. When you're working together for a common cause, then you have a trust and a respect for each other and you respect your differences too. That's the key. You mightn't agree with someone on a certain topic, but you're learning all the time. If you can learn and have trust and respect in telling the same story, whatever you come up with on the opening night, I don't care how the show turns out - you've succeeded anyway.
The Djarn Djarns will be premiering on 27 May at the opening night of the Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival at the Sydney Opera House along with the other 'Dramatically Black' initiative films Plains Empty, Sa Black Thing and Green Bush. Free screenings of these films, and other Indigenous filmmakers (including Ivan Sen's Cannes-nominated Yellow Fella), will be held 28-29 May. Visit Message Sticks for the full program.