Visitors to Melbourne’s much-missed cultural hub ACMI after an ambitious two-year renovation, will notice its permanent centrepiece exhibition The Story of the Moving Image has been updated.

An interactive timeline of the moving image – from early optical illusions and shadow puppets through to modern cinema and videogames – the exhibition’s previous iteration culminated with the 2007 introduction of the iPhone. No more.

Indigenous filmmaker and storyteller John Harvey has developed a new contribution to the exhibition in Canopy, a meditative portal into our interconnected lives that shows how Indigenous people can tell their own stories more easily in modern times.

“The changes we’ve had in our world since that time, and the democratisation of the screen, have just been huge,” says Harvey. “Those things made me think about how Indigenous stories have been told on screen in this country. Filmmakers such as myself [now] have more control over how those stories are being told. And we’re seeing that shift.”

Canopy blends personal home movies with excerpts from his dramatic short films Water (2017) and Out of Range (2019), which also feature cameos from his children. Running across four screens for around five minutes before looping back again, Canopy is designed to draw in a casual audience browsing the exhibition.

Harvey isn’t especially active on social media. Still, he didn’t mind sharing a direct portal into his personal life – and his thinking behind the title.

“It felt quite honest,” he says. “It has these moments of reflection and contemplation. The work is called Canopy and we live in this forest on the Sunshine Coast, [where] we spend a lot of time looking in the bush. I’m very aware of how the country and the canopy holds us. And for me as a parent, with my partner [artist/musician Lydia Fairhall] I create this canopy for my kids to grow in.”

A prolific writer and creator who works across screen and stage, Harvey is also responsible for the online series Kutcha’s Carpool Koorioke. His theatre work includes Malthouse Theatre’s 2017 production Heart is a Wasteland and Sydney Festival’s 2020 show Black Ties, and he’s the founder and creative director of Indigenous production company Brown Cabs. His latest project sees him acting as story consultant for a children’s theatre work on Saibai Island in the Torres Strait, where his family is from.

Harvey says during the making of Canopy he was taken with how our modern photo albums are often kept on our phones, with a mix of moving images and still images. He also considered how the first film ever shot in Australia was in the Torres Strait, offering a purely anthropological view of Indigenous people via “the white gaze” of its creators.

His work, then, is partly about self-representation for First Peoples, and working outside of the western world’s insistence on linear storytelling. “It’s an acknowledgement that these things aren’t based on a linear timeframe,” says Harvey. “We feel and experience things at different times, and engage with things at different levels. It’s not so neat and packaged as a three-act story. For me it was the opportunity to really step away from that.”

The piece’s stream-of-consciousness flow reminded him of how it would look if he saw his life flash before his eyes. But Canopy is also meditative in a universal way, tapping into moments of reflection we all need in our daily lives.

“I hope people have those moments to reflect as they’re seeing the work,” he says. “Something we all crave is just to sit with ourselves and walk in our own shoes.”

Canopy is part of The Story of the Moving Image on display now at ACMI. More details.

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