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a life retrieved

oliver downes: interview, beck cole & shai pittman, here i am

Oliver Downes is a freelance writer based near Sydney. He is a trained pianist whose interests include music, literature and film. He is currently completing a Masters of Creative Writing through the University of Sydney.

Beck Cole on the set of Her I Am  with Shai Pittman Beck Cole on the set of Her I Am with Shai Pittman
photo Sam Oster
CINEMATIC REPRESENTATIONS OF INDIGENOUS LIFE OFTEN SEEM TO DWELL UPON THE TRAGIC ASPECTS OF THE PAST, THE OVERPOWERING WEIGHT OF A TRAUMATIC HISTORY OBSCURING ONGOING EFFORTS TO IMPROVE LIFE IN THE PRESENT. WHILE POWERFUL AND CONFRONTING FILMS HAVE BEEN MADE ON THE ONGOING DISINTEGRATION OF INDIGENOUS CULTURES IN REMOTE AREAS, STORIES DEALING WITH THE EXPERIENCES OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLE IN URBAN AREAS ARE RARELY, IF EVER, TOLD. WITH HER DEBUT FEATURE HERE I AM, WRITER-DIRECTOR BECK COLE HAS BROKEN THIS MOULD, CONSTRUCTING A QUIETLY ENGROSSING PORTRAIT OF CITY LIFE FOR INDIGENOUS WOMEN IN CONTEMPORARY AUSTRALIA THAT IS IMBUED WITH GENTLE HUMOUR AND A THOUGHTFUL AND UNASSUMING OPTIMISM.

Here I Am follows the struggles of Karen Burden (Shai Pittman) in her attempts to turn her life around on being released from prison. Desperate to regain custody of her young daughter Rosie (Quinaiha Scott) from her unforgiving mother Lois (Marcia Langton) while persuading the authorities that she’s put her drug-addled past behind her, Karen enters a women’s shelter run by the formidable Big Red (Vanessa Worrall), settling into the emotional hard work of straightening out her life.

Working from her own script, Cole’s film illuminates the reality of a “fairly common experience” through a simple but effective naturalistic style that allows her to lay bare the human story behind the statistics. “Karen comes from me really,” she says, “my experience and what concerns me and the things that I think Aboriginal women experience...There is a disproportionate number of Indigenous women in prison in this country, that’s a fact...You’re making a film that you hope will engage an audience, because everyone’s got a mother, most people are parents at some point in their lives, so it’s dealing with universal themes. But it is also taking you into a world where you (probably) haven’t been before, one that really exists.”

In this film, Beck Cole draws on her experience making documentaries—her previous work includes Making Samson & Delilah (2009) as well as the brilliant SBS series First Australians (2008) with Rachel Perkins—and the half-hour drama Plains Empty (2005), which also followed the experiences of a lone woman. Cole shot Here I Am on location in the “familiar territory” of Port Adelaide (her upbringing being punctuated by regular moves between Alice Springs and South Australia) to lend the film an inimitable aura of realism. “We were in that world all the time,” she comments, “it was a really good grounding, a reality check, to be making a story amongst it...we were really welcome there. [Adelaide’s] like a big country town, really laid back.”

Immaculately shot amongst cheap motels, decaying industrial infrastructure and cigarette-butt littered streets by director of photography (and Cole’s husband) Warwick Thornton, Here I Am is grounded by an extraordinary performance from Shai Pittman, who approached her task with similar energy and persistence to her director. “I love doing this style of work,” she enthuses. “I suppose being an actor you’ve got to be quite open to diverse, different people...Karen was really easy to relate to. There were times when I just thought, okay, this is a test...[but] I did it all, never questioned it.” Says Cole, “Shai was completely and utterly fearless.”

Karen’s story plays out against the backdrop of the women’s shelter, the makeshift camaraderie among the residents leavening the desolation that continually threatens to overwhelm her. As Cole notes, “it’s important to have a laugh in dire situations.” As well as giving roles to theatre veterans Betty Sumner and Pauline Whyman, Cole drew on predominantly Indigenous, non-professional actors from the local community in casting the supporting roles, their efforts adding to the film’s raw honesty. “I like to try and find the heart in people, get them to express that,” explains Cole, “but when you’re putting words in their mouths you’re dealing with something else, it’s a different scenario...It was challenging, and I think it’s just something that you’ve got to embrace and look for those little quirky moments...That’s what I like. I think you can tell when there’s that essence of that person’s heart in that moment on screen.”

Indeed, the roles of many of the institutional figures encountered by Karen—her parole officer, a job-seeking coordinator, a child welfare officer—are played by Indigenous women who hold similar positions off-screen, a decision that Cole believes reflects an encouraging trend in reality. “I’ve got loads of friends who work in those sorts of jobs...Women are in these jobs, right across the country. I think it’s a statement about employment, a statement about taking control of your own destiny and getting to change things for the better—you’ve gotta get in there and work from within. It’s not rocket science.”

Which doesn’t mean it’s easy. Against Pittman’s smudged and battered Karen, Cole sets the stony and unrelenting figure of Lois, who has achieved a position of stability through hard, repetitive but essentially restorative labour—she is employed, significantly, as a cleaner. Langton, a renowned academic and social activist, was by all accounts an inspiration on set, reading Senate Notes between takes—when not on Facebook. “She’s very strong,” says Pittman. “She reminds me of Indigenous mothers and grandmothers these days [who are] just like her; she’s strong like that. It was just like having my grandmother on set, or my mum.”

Much of the emotional power of the film comes from the ultimate reassertion of Karen’s individual dignity and sense of self-worth against the contemptuous judgement of her mother and society at large. In a remarkable scene towards the end of the film, she takes a shower, a simple symbolic act shot with uncomplicated grace. “I reckon you can forgive,” Cole muses, “...[but] the thing that is really hard to shake is shame...When I was thinking about Karen I was thinking: how do you get over the shame of neglecting a child? Because that is mega-shame. How do you forgive yourself for that? You can’t, all you can do is try to forget it—and you can’t do that either...It’s a hard question.”

A willingness to confront hard questions seems to lie at the heart of Cole’s filmmaking. As with other contemporary Indigenous filmmakers such as Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds and more recently Toomelah) or Thornton (Samson & Delilah), Cole has received immense support from the Indigenous Branch of Screen Australia who recognise the importance of talented Indigenous storytellers sharing their stories. “I think there’s...an important place for films like [Rolf de Heer’s] The Tracker (2002) and others,” says Cole, “the more the merrier—the history of this country being told from all its perspectives is an important thing. But the reason why there’s a lot of support for films made by Aboriginal people about Aboriginal people has been largely I think due to a commitment by Screen Australia and its Indigenous Branch... it’s been strategic I think, and it’s great that there’s been such a high calibre of films released. It’s no longer this bullshit ooga-booga blackfella sort of stuff. These are stories that audiences can sink their teeth into and enjoy. That’s all you want for someone who’s paying 15 bucks to see a film...Now there’s more of a push to get the next group of people through, to keep this momentum up. It’s an exciting time to be a filmmaker in this country—particularly an Aboriginal one.”


Here I Am, writer, director Beck Cole, director of photography Warwick Thornton, producer Kath Shelper, Scarlett Pictures, 91mins, 2011

Oliver Downes is a freelance writer based near Sydney. He is a trained pianist whose interests include music, literature and film. He is currently completing a Masters of Creative Writing through the University of Sydney.

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 13

© Oliver Downes; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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