Born in Canberra in 1970, Australian filmmaker Rachel Perkins grew up in the beating heart of Australia’s Indigenous civil rights movement, an experience amplified by the role of her prominent Indigenous activist parents. Five years prior to her arrival, inspired by the Freedom Riders of the American Civil Rights Movement, Perkins’ father, Charles, embarked on Australia’s own Freedom Ride. Leading the newly formed Student Action for Aborigines group, Charles Perkins presided over the collection of University of Sydney students who toured through rural New South Wales. The busload of students protested, picketed, and faced violence in each town they visited but continued to raise the issue of Indigenous rights. In 1967, Australia overwhelmingly passed a referendum removing discriminatory sections in the Australian constitution, and the decade that followed was an era of social change: the abolishment of the White Australia Policy (1972), the passing of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975), and the first of what would be many Aboriginal Land Rights Acts being established in the Northern Territory (1976).
For many audiences, whether they realise it or not, Perkins’ work has set her out as much more than a filmmaker. She is also an educator whose narration of Australia’s history in the acclaimed SBS television series First Australians (2008) was monumental in fostering, as she puts it, “a new generation who would see that work and think about their country differently.” Perkins wrote and directed the series with her creative partner, Darren Dale, and since its debut, the seven-part series has transformed the country’s secondary school Australian History curriculum with its accessible, comprehensive, and balanced approach to telling the stories of Australia’s first inhabitants and the “strangers” that arrived on Australian shorelines over 200 years ago.
Though less overtly, Perkins has continued her role as an educational filmmaker and storyteller since then, continuing her television work with the ABC and SBS to direct Mabo (2012)1 and Black Panther Woman (2014).2 In March 2017 her latest feature, an adaptation of Craig Silvey’s 2009 novel Jasper Jones, is released in Australian cinemas. A story about murder and secrets in a small Western Australian town, Jasper Jones carries with it a story of racism in Australia’s 1960s, an issue that will not only always remain very close to Perkins’ heart, but also reminds us of perhaps the most underappreciated attribute of humankind: our capacity for kindness.
This interview took place in person with Perkins in February 2017, just prior to Jasper Jones‘ release.
Jasper Jones is a story that has become meaningful to so many children, young adults, and those of us who were young adults not all that long ago. What drew you to it, and what made you realise that it was important for you to share the story?
I think that’s a really good question and often I ask other people that. A lot of people ask me about my Dad, wanting to tell his story. I don’t have a particular view. (His story) is in historical records, and if they want to do it, they can. But I do often think, why do you think you’re the right person to do this project right now? Because things only get to be told so many times, or even just once, and then these stories won’t be remade again for 30 years or so.
I loved Craig Silvey’s book when I first read it. It had such a great combination of the darkness and the gothic nature of the mystery and the murder, but also that lovely lightness created by Charlie and Jeffrey Lu. All that dialogue is just laugh out loud. The story also has all those great thematics in it about race and about coming of age and feminism and all those other things that are mixing around in that time period. It really resonated with me. It was set in 1965 which was the year my father was on the Freedom Ride. He was a social outcast because of his perceived race so it had a lot of resonance for me, and I think it does for a lot of people.
Do you find those threads run through most of the projects you gravitate towards? Striving to make films for a wider audience, and then getting the chance to talk about race?
It has been and I have done that a lot. All of my work has been dedicated to Indigenous stories. The last film I made (Black Panther Women) was about women in the political movement what they endured. I feel like I’ve done a lot of that work now, and while I don’t feel like I should stop doing it, I feel like (Jasper Jones) was a great opportunity to do something just for the sake of storytelling, and that was a real enjoyment. I’d like to do more work that is just for the beauty and enjoyment of telling a story. But of course, it has to have meaning. It is so hard to make a film so I don’t want to make a film that I don’t care about or that I don’t feel strongly about. You have to leave your family. You have to give up your social life. You have to move away. You have to give three years of your life to this. So you have to care about it, otherwise, why would you do it.
So now you feel less of an obligation to focus on certain things, and you can focus on the enjoyment?
Yeah absolutely. I have gotten a couple of big stories out of my system that I’ve wanted to tell for twenty years. Stories like Mabo, the First Australians series, Freedom Ride. And Bran Nue Dae was just a wonderful play that I saw and thought again and again that it meant something to me, and that it could have great commercial appeal, which it did in part. I still have films that I’ve been wanting to do for twenty years that are in development with us – they might turn into television – so I’m getting through the list which is great.
When the second season of First Contact aired in 2016 you spoke out about the enormous number of people who were watching and how this meant you felt the show was doing exactly what it should. If you look at your work and the projects you have ahead of you as a form of activism, is there a medium, either television or film, that you prefer?
No, absolutely not. Television does have less risk associated with it in some ways because it’s going out to an audience at a certain time slot and it is very careful about its market audience schedule. Whereas film, you never know whether they’re going to get into a festival or not, and you don’t know whether they are going to hit the audience that you intend them to do. It is definitely more of a risk.
I think both are effective, but in cinema, if you’ve got a message that you want to commit it to, whether you see it as activism or not, and you want that message to be absorbed by as many people as possible, it becomes about what you wrap that message in. Even making a musical out of Bran Nue Dae, there is still content matter in there about Indigenous identity. That is absolutely at the heart of it. So if you want to get something out about that, then most people need to wrap it in something commercial because that is what will get your message further. That’s why I like lighter films that reach big audiences because they can have the opportunity to speak to that audience effectively.
I wouldn’t see this current work as an activist work though. Jasper Jones is about empathy and understanding. Through understanding Jasper, and supporting him, Charlie realises that the world is not quite the place he thought it was. I wouldn’t call it a piece of activism. It is definitely a departure from that.
But with the state of unrest the world finds itself in right now, empathy is an important thing to be pushing for, wouldn’t you agree?
Empathy is always a much-needed quality. And Craig Silvey really defines (Jasper Jones) as being about exactly that. He feels that’s the big thematic of this film, and yes those issues are as relevant today as they were in the 1960s, absolutely.
Does that surprise or scare you?
No. I think that tolerance and understanding are things you continually have to strive for, and I don’t think you can give up on them. You can’t just say we’ve reached a completely homogenous understanding world, we have to keep being vigilant and being accepting and understanding. We have to show empathy towards Muslims, or political refugees, or people from war zones. Issues around young transgender people are another example. We are continually evolving as the world around us tries to understand and accept others, so we have to have empathy for each other.
Charlie does that well.
He certainly tries to.
You identify yourself as a filmmaker and a storyteller, but for many audiences, another word I would use to describe you is ‘educator’. Is that something that you see in yourself, and a role you find yourself utilising in telling stories like Jasper Jones?
Certainly all my previous work has been about that. For First Australians we designed it thinking that our biggest audience for the long-term would be in the secondary educational sector and we really hoped that a new generation would see that work and think about their country differently. Someone sent me an email – a father – right after our premiere screening, and he had taken his four kids to the movie and he said in the car afterwards the discussion was all about suicide and racism and abuse and dealing with those things. It’s so great to see it is starting conversations around those subjects, but actually what is also great to really see is people going in large numbers and seeing this Australian narrative and feeling uplifted and moved by it. Education isn’t the central cause of this work, it tries to transcend that and also be great storytelling.
As a filmmaker that sits at the apex of several underrepresented groups, one being your gender, the other as being an individual with an incredible Aboriginal history behind you, do you ever find words like ‘perspective’ and ‘responsibility’ become imposed upon you?
I’ve used that language myself many times so I don’t feel it as an imposition. In the 1980s when there were no Indigenous filmmakers we fought very hard for a place in the industry and for the dedicated funding to help develop our filmmakers. I was a big part of funding the first initiative to make short drama films because we as a community hadn’t really done that before, with one exception being Brian Syron. All of those words you’ve used were words we used ourselves in arguing a case for us to have access to resources. I think it’s very important to realise where you’ve come from and realise what opportunities you have and who opened the doors for you.
Certainly in feminism as well. I am a feminist and I understand one day we will reach parity in the film industry. I think that time is rapidly approaching. And I think women in the future need to understand the struggle that people had in order to achieve that parity. Very similarly is the case with Indigenous filmmaking. I don’t take any of those words for granted. I don’t think any of them cramp my style. I’m proud of those labels, and I think that it’s a great privilege to be part of the Indigenous story in the wider Australian narrative.
I don’t find the need to say I’m a filmmaker first and an Aboriginal person second. I’m happy with those labels and I embrace them because I don’t see them as limitations to what I can produce.
At the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2016, Gillian Armstrong argued that gender equality in the industry can not be reached until there are as many mediocre female filmmakers as there are male ones. I think that’s applicable to so many aspects of diversity.
(Laughter) I feel like a mediocre filmmaker all the time so maybe I can be put on that list.
I don’t think so.
I haven’t struggled as a woman in the industry at all. And I’ve been really welcomed in the film industry as an Indigenous person. I think the cultural sector in the film industry is well in advance of other areas. I think its something to be really proud of. It can only get better as well.
Returning to the word ‘perspective,’ Jasper Jones is the title character in this film and yet the story is told entirely from Charlie’s perspective, just as it is in the book. Do you think this relates to issues of accessibility in the industry? Did you ever consider not going down that route?
There was no question about going down that route and I don’t think it had to do with accessibility at all, it was just that was the nature of the work. I did have one person who said to me, “I’m actually more interested in the story of the Aboriginal character.” And I thought, “Well that’s fine, but that’s not what this is.” This is absolutely Charlie’s journey of understanding and journey to empathy. And it is his rite of passage. In a way, Jasper doesn’t change at all over the story, he’s not the main character and it’s just not his story. I don’t think that because he’s aboriginal he should get preference. The story was never constructed in that way. He is the catalyst, that drags Charlie into understanding. He taps on his window and almost drags him out the window and into life. That’s Jasper’s role. I think that’s a greatly legitimate, fabulous role.
Craig Silvey said the one scene he had to fight for was the cricket match when Jeffrey Lu has the chance to shine. It’s such a momentous stand-out scene.
It really is, I love it. And Craig and the first assistant director (Mark Boskell) directed that scene together. I did the drama and they did the cricket.
The tone of that scene is exactly what is carried so well through the entire film. There is a real lightness and fun but it is also tackling something much darker thematically, which is so much of what Jasper Jones is about. Can you talk about that?
It was really fun to give the directing over to someone else and get to just watch, and I think the outcome is beautiful. The cricket match is about this young boy who triumphs and for a day he becomes the hero of the town where no one thought he could be. Sport in Australia does that. If you’re a sportsperson you’re just glorified. Unfortunately, in this case, the glory doesn’t last long.
The film certainly has a small-town mentality to it. Mistrust and secrets and the veneer of respectability exist. If you’re a bit different you don’t fit in. The beauty of Craig’s writing and his conception of this world, are perhaps best seen moments later in the scene where the Lu family are attacked. Craig has the neighbours come out and defend them. (The writing) is talking about people as human beings because of course if you live next to a family, you will inevitably get to know them. Racism comes from ignorance mostly. The closer we are the more empathy we have for each other.
Craig’s also making a comment about racism in Australia. A lot of cinema deals with race in terms of good guys and bad guys and this is a far more complex and nuanced view on it. These are people having various reactions. I think it goes to show an understanding of people’s humanity and questions of closeness and how they relate to empathy. Again though, all of this is wrapped up in this lovely story. So really, it’s not just about that. It transcends that, and becomes a great piece of entertainment.
- A co-production between the ABC, SBS and Perkins’ production company, Blackfella Films, Mabo tells the story of the successful legal battle waged by Torres Strait Islander man Eddie Mabo to bring about native land title legislation in a time when the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ meant that Indigenous people were not recognized as traditional owners of their land. ↩
- A passion project of Perkins, Black Panther Woman gives a voice to Marlene Cummins and her experiences, both good and bad, during the brief but powerful Australian Black Panther movement. ↩