On December 5th & 12th 2015, ‘Blackbird’, a short narrative film exploring a dark and little known part of Australian history, will screen as part of the VCA Graduate Screenings at ACMI.
The film is the culmination of a long personal journey for Australian Solomon Islander filmmaker and Footscray local, Amie Batalibasi.
2013 marked 150 years since boats carrying approximately 60,000 South Sea Islanders were ‘blackbirded’ (coerced through trickery and /or kidnapping to work as a labourer) to Queensland and NSW. Three of the filmmaker’s own ancestors were blackbirded from the Solomon Islands during the late 1800s, providing inspiration for the film.
‘Blackbird’ was made as part of Ms Batalibasi’s Masters studies in film and television at VCA. The film follows the story of Solomon Islander siblings, Rosa (24) & Kiko (16), who were kidnapped from their island home to work on a sugar cane plantation in Queensland, Australia in the late 1800s. As Kiko journeys into manhood amidst oppression and severe loss of culture and identity, he must find his will to survive.
The process saw a team of students, professionals and community members join forces on location in Mackay Queensland to shoot the film in July 2015.
Ms Batalibasi has been involved in many community film and media projects including ‘Pacific Stories’, ‘Wantok Stori‘, ‘ASSI Stories’ and the ‘Young Media Makers Project’ and she has been working in documentary film for the last eight years.
“Making a narrative film was a whole new ball game for me and because this story is so important to me I felt so determined to get through all of the challenges along the way. I really feel that there is a lack of representation of women directors and black histories on screen in Australia and so I’m really excited about sharing this story. I know that when most people see ‘Blackbird’, it will be the first time they’ve heard about Blackbirding and ‘Sugar Slaves’ in Australia. I really feel like I’ve found my voice as a filmmaker throughout the making of this film, but I couldn’t have done it without the wonderful support of the Mackay community,” Ms Batalibasi said.
The film was shot entirely on location in Mackay, Queensland – in a rainforest, the beach and a local sugar cane farm. Non-actors played the main roles and local Mackay Australian South Sea Islander residents (descendants of those originally blackbirded), played extras in the film.
Non-professional actor Jeremy Bobby, was born in the Solomon Islands but grew up in Queensland and played the main role of Kiko: “The reason I wanted to be a part of this story is because it was a part of my country, Solomon Island’s history. My ancestor’s story that honestly growing up here in Australia, I’ve never been made aware of, nor do I think my peers know about it. During the filming of ‘Blackbird’, I think the most challenging part for me was trying to reach the emotional side of the role I was playing. Not having much experience in acting, I really had to sort of put myself in the characters shoes and just try to imagine how it would feel being a young, adventurous boy growing up in an oppressive environment.”
Young aspiring filmmaker, Regina Lepping, was flown in from the Solomon Islands to play the role of Rosa: “Being a part of this project is educational and historical to me. I have ancestors who have worked in sugar cane plantations too so it is also quite personal to me. This project has helped me also as a young film maker in Solomon Islands to think serious and document the events in country’s history that are not preserved that are important to us. I am so proud to be part of the Blackbird team and I know this journey is just the beginning of shining a light in our dark past.”
The film was primarily funded by over 100 Pozilbe crowdfunding pledgers and a grant through the Queensland Regional Arts Development Fund. There has been overwhelming support of the film online with the Facebook Page reaching over 1400 likes.
To date, the film has picked up two VCA script awards Moving Clickers ‘Kickalong’ Award for Postgraduate FTV (Narrative) Production Script Award and the 2015 Panavision Script Production Award and it was recipient of the Melbourne University 2015 Margaret Lawrence Social Justice Award.
Indigenous Producer, John Harvey of Brown Cab Productions who has recently released the feature film ‘Spear’ that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is an Associate Producer of ‘Blackbird’. The film’s Director of Photography was ACS Award winner, Mark Morris, who recently shot feature film ‘Crime and Punishment’, a modern day adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel, directed by Andrew O’Keefe.
‘Blackbird’ screens with other VCA Graduate films as part of Program D on 5th December at 8:30pm and 12th December at 6pm.
After the ACMI screenings, Ms Batalibasi plans to enter ‘Blackbird’ into Australian and International film festivals and eventually release a DVD and educational kit.