Finding hope in the spotlight

IT IS A glowering mid-January day and the noise of cicadas flows like an angry wave through the air as students collect on the campus of the University of Wollongong. Though school is still weeks away, these keen teenagers are preparing for their HSC year with summer classes. Today, the subject for discussion is 'Belonging' and about a hundred and fifty of them crowd the lecture hall. Others are 'patched in' via video link from schools in towns across the region. They begin the session by watching a most unusual film called Rites of Passage. It is a recent release though it is not competing for box office dollars with The Hobbit or American Hustle. In fact it will never have a standard cinematic release. Because this film was made for an entirely different purpose than simple entertainment, though it hopefully also achieves that. Rites of Passage was made by a company called Beyond Empathy which uses the arts, in all its loose and various forms, to improve the lives of multiply-disadvantaged young Australians.

As the film finishes and the lights come on, four young people stand somewhat bravely before a microphone. They are four of the fifty young people who worked on the film as actors or behind the lens. And if they look a little different from how they appeared in the film it's because the film took nearly five years to make. They grew up during its making. The film was their rite of passage.

Arms from the audience shoot up. What was it like growing up in the part of Wollongong where the movie was shot? Did making a film like that better prepare them for the future? If their home life was hard, did the film provide a kind of family? Did it help them to belong? With some awkward giggles and serious thought, they answer the questions as best they can and agree afterwards they were some of the toughest they'd fielded so far. At least two of the four are now seasoned presenters of the film. One young woman, twenty-year-old Lakia Igano, even presented it in Warsaw a few months earlier, where Rites of Passage won a Special Jury Prize.

WOLLONGONG NESTLES SERENELY between the vast, glimmering Pacific Ocean to the east and a near vertical rocky escarpment to the west. The physical reality of its industrial roots is everywhere. Ribbon strip development, the steelworks and giant silos flank its port.

With their quaint weatherboard homes and majestic ocean views, the coastal suburbs in Wollongong's north are popular retreats for retirees and creative types. But drive south past the city centre towards Lake Illawarra and the southern suburbs and life is not so easy. In his acclaimed 2007 report Dropping off the Edge, Professor Tony Vinson found in Wollongong's south some of the poorest urban postcodes in Australia.

Vinson looked at a range of indicators such as completion of Year 12, rental stress, convictions, domestic violence, low birth weight, employment and taxable incomes. He looked directly at the effects of entrenched and localised poverty and disadvantage. And he urged: '…a more collaborative approach between the three levels of government and the business, industry and community sectors in addressing the warning signs contained in this data would result in a more cohesive, united Australian community in the future: in other words, a 'fair go' for all Australians.'

Enter Phillip Crawford, filmmaker, director and community worker, with an Australian Film Institute award to his name, our Oscars. Wollongong-based Phillip is one half of a powerful duo that steers Beyond Empathy. The other half is CEO Kim McConville from Armidale in northern New South Wales. With the financial backing of the Australia Council, the New South Wales Government and committed philanthropists and foundations, Kim, Phillip and a team of arts workers operate in disadvantaged communities across the nation. Beyond Empathy works in Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, Logan in southern Queensland, Bowraville in northern NSW and a swag of towns stretching across the state's north-west from Armidale to Moree. And in Wollongong.

Beyond Empathy often steps in when more conventional efforts to fix social ills have failed. When it was discovered that young mums in Tennant Creek were giving their babies bottles filled with Coca-Cola, Beyond Empathy partnered with the mothers (with backing from Coca-Cola Amatil) to make a short film, in local language, explaining why it was a bad idea. In Armidale, like many other towns and cities in this country, binge drinking had become a serious problem. Beyond Empathy's Just One Less program got five hundred people of all ages telling their own stories about alcohol in the privacy of a horse float converted into a recording studio. The project prompted a big regional conversation and the Just One Less flags still fly across town.

And when the midwives at Moree Base Hospital were despairing at the arrival of young teenaged mothers in advanced stages of labour with no pre-natal care whatsoever, it was Beyond Empathy that came up with the Mubali solution. Pregnant girls were invited into a special room in the hospital months before their babies were due, to make and then paint plaster casts of their growing bellies. While they were creating, painting and happily engaged, in would come the breastfeeding experts, the midwives and the obstetricians to deliver the all-important health messages. The results have been impressive – higher birth weights, longer periods of breastfeeding and overall healthier mothers and babies. Mubali (swollen belly in Gamilaroi) is now a standard form of engagement in many other health centres in Australia and the project has won several awards for Beyond Empathy.

In Wollongong, Phillip Crawford had already found from his work on two early productions, Hurt (2000) and the television series [email protected] (2005), that young people suffering disadvantage were surprisingly prepared to share their stories. Often, the story was all they had. Telling it could help others in a similar position realise that they are not alone.

However, allowing young people to tell their own stories on screen requires enormous discretion and wisdom, says Crawford. 'If a young person says "My mum's a bitch and I hate her guts and I never want to talk to her again", well that sort of stuff can't be used. Sure this kid is sixteen years old and might say that now, but in ten years' time they may not want that committed to posterity.'

In this line of work, the story must never trump the best interests of the individual.

SO, RATHER THAN navigate the complexities of docudrama, Phillip simply avoided it this time by deciding to make a true fictionalised feature-length drama. He would 'gather' young people from the area, many of them from the housing commission suburb of Berkeley and nearby Bundaleer (universally referred to as Legoland for its monotonous streets lined with little townhouses). He paired up with Gemma Parsons, formerly a local youth worker with Barnardos, who knew just about every kid in the area. She was the perfect person for the job and together she and Phillip put the call out to local youth and mental health workers that they were making a film and any young person who wanted to be included was welcome.

'The most fundamental thing was that the casting process could not include rejection,' Crawford says. 'The instant the "gathering" is done and the person shows up, they have to have a part or a role. Normally a filmmaker will ask "who is the audience", and operate on the basis that the audience is the most important thing. They'll also say, "it's all about the script and serving the story" but it can't be like that with us. If it was, we'd make very different creative decisions.'

So began four years of patient, painstaking work that never wavered from ten key principles:

1. The making of the film should help people living with hardship to build new futures.
2. All key actors must be amateurs and live in the community where the film is shot.
3. There can be no traditional script and there must be more than one story line.
4. The story lines must be developed with the actors, drawing on their life experiences.
5. If an actor fails to turn up, the shoot continues, creating a new direction for the film.
6. The film must be shot in real locations in the community.
7. Key actors and the production team should all operate the filming equipment.
8. Every scene should be shot with different types of cameras and styles.
9. All the credits must be in alphabetical order, with no one credited as writer or creator.
10. The first screening must be held in the community where the film was made.

Young people came from everywhere. For Michael McKay, it was his mental health case manager who introduced him to Phillip and Gemma. He ended up with a minor role in the film, but his bigger story about the boredom of life in a psychiatric ward formed the basis of the stand-alone short film Interlude,which premiered alongside Rites of Passage.

'The thing that I got out of filming was that it got me out of the house, off the streets and gave me something to do,' McKay says. 'For that four years, they tried to persuade me to go back to rehab. I tried a couple of times and dropped out. But last year on 6 May I went back to detox and rehab and I've stayed clean ever since.'

McKay was also the voice of the crowdfunding campaign launched toward the end of the production to raise cash for colour grading and sound production. He has also travelled to different cities to present the film to community groups, schools and TAFE colleges.

It's a similar story for Tiran Dingle, who has a central and very moving role in the movie. 'I was always wagging school and one day I was with my mate Lucas down at the beach having a mix (bong) when we started freestyling and rapping,' Dingle says. 'We went back to English and I started helping Lucas write a song for the movie. We were wagging the next period and Phil (Crawford) was walking through the paddock with his little boy. I got introduced and the next day I was in the film. The camera just loved me!'

Dingle says being part of the film through his teenage years helped keep him out of trouble. 'It kept us all out of trouble, 'cause we were heading down that track,' Dingle says. 'Steered us away from, you know, not drugs, but badder drugs. It also gave me a good feeling being part of something. I mean like how many people have made a movie!'

Crawford says while he and Parsons were neither social worker nor parent, they were a constant presence in these young lives, something that they didn't necessarily find elsewhere. 'One kid hadn't left his house for two years or even got out of bed for a long time,' Crawford says. 'He hadn't been to school since Year 7 or 8. What he got out of the film process was stability and he made friends outside his niche. He's now got a baby. He'll work on the next project too.'

Lakia Igano, who presented the film at the 2013 Warsaw Film Festival, is very clear that she didn't act in the film, she simply performed the story of her home life. With an unstable and often absent mother, a father in jail, and the death of several close relatives, it was usually up to her to raise her siblings, all the while trying to keep up with schoolwork. Now twenty, after a period of homelessness, Lakia is settled and in love and studying at TAFE. She says being in the movie allowed her to escape from life for a while.

Igano says if she ever gets married Crawford and Parsons will be at the top of her guest list. 'Because they made me what I am today. Without them I'd just be some awkward little girl that sits in the corner not able to speak,' she says. 'To be able to perform in front of a camera was one of the biggest things I'd ever done.'

Similar words come from Elias Rees, who says Crawford was a big inspiration for a lot of people. Rees now has an agent and has appeared in the ABC series Redfern Now (2012) and the feature film Around the Block (2013). He hopes for more film work but in the meantime is considering doing zoo studies at TAFE. Elias says his family is so proud of him and his father cried 'like a bear' when he saw the film.

Yet despite such words from the young people themselves, it is something much more complex than modesty in Phillip Crawford when he expresses doubt about his personal contribution to the lives of the fifty or so young people who grew into adulthood under his and Gemma's watch.

'For instance, Lakia. She always had that drive. She didn't want to be one of those young people who fell through the cracks and lost her way,' Crawford says. 'She could see the trap that others all around her had fallen into and she made decisions to make her life different. We were simply there to say "Yes, I think you can. And you can even do something as crazy as take a film to Poland".'

'A couple of the most needy people in our project haven't ever been to high school. To anybody else from outside, there's no discernible difference in their behaviour. They are quite scary, they do intimidating things on the street, they are violent and into drugs. They don't have jobs and they are not likely to get them,' Crawford says.

'Every other adult who tried to get them to do something they'd arc up and say "get fucked". But they didn't do that with me or Gemma. They knew that even when they did bad things, we'd keep on coming back to them and say, "would you like to do the next thing?" So it's a tiny thing we can claim that they have two adult relationships that have stayed with them over the years: adults that they would listen to and that they could exercise respect with.'

Crawford says change can't be forced. 'We're doing it because a whole lot of shit things have happened in their lives and they haven't had many opportunities and I don't know what they're going to make of the opportunities we've given them,' he says. 'But I think it's a right that people can get to do something in their lives they feel proud of. They should all have that experience of someone saying to them "You did a good job." We can't stop them committing offences, we can't stop them smoking dope. And we can't make them go to school or university. Only they can do that for themselves. And does it matter if they choose not to? Not to me, it doesn't – they don't have to change just to impress me or make our project look good. But I wouldn't do it if I didn't think it gave them some resilience and hope.'

CRAWFORD IS ALSO very clear about the pitfalls of 'measurement'. 'I think it's important to avoid looking through the filter of so-called "success", not just in this project but any other involving people experiencing serious hardship,' he says. 'If our measure was the success stories, then we would let the most difficult people fall by the wayside when it became too hard. And at the end, we'd be able to say "Wow, 95 per cent of our participants went back to school" even though they'd probably be the ones who would have gone back anyway because they were more ready to commit. You may be able to tell more about the effectiveness of the project by looking at the people who don't look like successes, those that are the hardest to reach but that you've managed to help stick with the project. That's pretty much the driving force behind Beyond Empathy.'

Rites of Passage has been selected to screen at international film festivals in Sāo Paulo, Warsaw, Colorado, Seattle, Cyprus and Canada. It has been seen by thousands of people in cinemas in Australia. Evan Williams, a film critic at the Australian, describes it as among the most remarkable and moving films produced in Australia in recent years. Parenting author and educator Steve Biddulph says, 'Just a few minutes into the film, you start to care intensely about these kids, and the tension of how they will survive and get through becomes unbearable. Somehow, through the freshness of the filmmaking, you see their inner worlds lit up and the trials of being young and fragile under the tough masks the world makes them wear.'

There are nine babies born to young people who became parents during the filming of Rites of Passage. Never one to let anyone fall by the wayside, Phillip Crawford has big plans for those babies and their parents. They will be part of Beyond Empathy's next project in the Illawarra, a film called Protection, about childhood and how we stay safe. His other film in the planning is Blue Rose, a story told through the eyes of people with severe intellectual disabilities and who cannot speak. What on earth could be easier than that?

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