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David Vadiveloo: grass roots reconciliation

Tim O'Farrell

Tim O’Farrell teaches Cinema Studies at La Trobe University.

David Vadiveloo David Vadiveloo
photo Lisa Stefanoff
The latest film from Alice Springs-based filmmaker David Vadiveloo may be a documentary about the Stolen Generations, but the director recounts a behind-the-scenes story that could easily be dismissed as contrived if included in a fiction film. Having self-funded the shooting of Beyond Sorry, he showed a rough-cut to a number of broadcasters in an attempt to obtain further financing. In a depressingly familiar scenario for Australian documentary makers, a local broadcaster offered a significant pre-sale deal on one, non-negotiable condition: the level of conflict between black and white Australia in the film had to be notched up.

Vadiveloo had no trouble walking away from the broadcaster’s offer, given that Beyond Sorry is a portrait of Zita Wallace, described by Vadiveloo as: “A living incarnation of the true nature of forgiveness and the true nature of reconciliation.” This is despite the fact that Wallace was removed from her family in the Arrente country of Central Australia at age 8. Assistance with finishing Beyond Sorry ultimately came, without strings attached, from the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). Vadiveloo acknowledges his good fortune at being given a free hand, noting: “Many young filmmakers in Australia seem to be hamstrung by what they think broadcasters want to see.”

Working both as a lawyer and a filmmaker, Vadiveloo’s career has been inextricably linked with Indigenous issues. At the Central Lands Council, he was involved in a successful Native Title claim incorporating Alice Springs. Since graduating from the documentary program at the Victorian College of the Arts, he has made a number of films depicting aspects of Aboriginal life, most notably the shorts Trespass (2001) and Bush Bikes (2002; RT59, p19), both of which have enjoyed considerable success on the festival circuit in Australia and overseas.

His new film is a study of the Stolen Generations from a fresh, non-sensational angle. Beyond Sorry treats the Howard Government’s inertia as irrelevant, looking instead, like Dhakiyarr vs The King (directors Tom Murray and Allan Collins, 2003, RT61, p22), at grassroots reconciliation. Indeed, the title suggests the need to move past the well-rehearsed arguments, buck-passing and entrenched positions of national politics by focusing on the micro level of interaction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Rather than looking at the dramatic moment of child snatching that haunts the popular imagination post-Rabbit Proof Fence, Vadiveloo says he “wanted to focus on the extent of the aftershock, the ripples that these policies caused through generation after generation.” He examines the decades after Zita’s removal from her family, including her upbringing in Catholic missions and her pragmatic decision to become a nun working in New Guinea, before she returned to education, married and raised a family. Bringing us up to the present, the film charts Zita’s decision to leave behind her suburban existence in Alice Springs to return to her grandfather’s country.

Two other voices also provide perspectives on Zita’s life. Aggie Abbott, like Zita branded a ‘half-caste’, escaped capture on that fateful day by following her mother’s advice to hide in the bush. As a witness to Zita’s former life, and now a respected Arrente elder, Aggie provides a counterpoint to Zita’s story. Zita’s non-indigenous husband Ron rounds out the portrait, testifying to the difficulties they have faced as a couple straddling the white and Aboriginal worlds.

There are no easy, happy endings in Beyond Sorry. Zita recalls how she was initially rejected when she returned to her family, a fate shared by many of the Stolen Generations. Having been told by nuns that the children were dead, Arrente culture prohibited the community from speaking about them. Unsurprisingly, her mother then found it difficult to accept her daughter was alive. It was only Zita’s persistence in pursuing her heritage that allowed them to eventually become close.

Praising Zita as a “voice without complaint”, Vadiveloo says she wanted people to understand that “there’s more to reconciliation than just saying sorry or scribbling in a book.” The film shows Zita as a living embodiment of the very real contradictions at work in contemporary Australia. She is a woman who will one minute quote John Laws in her pride at not “bludging off Australia” and the next rhapsodise about returning to her grandfather’s dreaming.

As well as examining complex questions of identity through the documentary form, David Vadiveloo has been central in putting together an ambitious new multi-platform project. UsMob, which began production in August, is set in Hidden Valley, the town camp outside Alice Springs where Aggie Abbott lives. It will include appearances by Aggie and other locals, but unlike Beyond Sorry, UsMob has received production funding under the AFC and ABC New Media and Digital Services Broadband Production Initiative. The SAFC, Telstra and Adelaide Film Festival have also invested. Spanning documentary, interactive new media and docudrama, it will centre on teenage characters in the Hidden Valley community.

An interactive series with multi-path storylines, UsMob includes plans for online, television and theatrical exhibition. Vadiveloo describes the project as “unique and logistically attempts to focus on cross-platform delivery that encourages everybody to engage with the story, and in doing so, to engage with the culture.” He sees UsMob as setting a new benchmark in working with the local community. All the actors and storylines come from the town camps, and every single phase has been checked and approved by relevant elders, traditional owners and the peak Indigenous organisation, Tangentyere Council. All participants are paid and a percentage of any profit will go to town camp communities.

The interactive component of UsMob includes 2 games. The first is time- and skills-based, with echoes of Bush Bikes. It requires competitors to build a bike and move through terrain. The second game will test bush survival instincts through the acquisition and application of knowledge about the harsh outback environment.

For Vadiveloo the common strand linking the UsMob components is the aim of creating a non-didactic learning tool that avoids stereotypes about black and white lifestyles and allows participants to engage and become familiar with the environment of Hidden Valley. On the evidence of his film work thus far, David Vadiveloo’s future projects will no doubt make their own vital contribution to grass-roots reconciliation by furthering understanding between the frequently distant worlds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Beyond Sorry, director/producer David Vadiveloo, 2004

Tim O’Farrell teaches Cinema Studies at La Trobe University.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg.

© Tim O'Farrell; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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