It’s hard not to look away in documentary Zach’s Ceremony, so raw is the pain and anger on the young protagonist’s face.
We first meet Zach when he is five years old, caught on handicam by his father, actor and activist Alec Doomadgee. Alec regularly takes his eldest son back to Doomadgee in Far North Queensland to spend time with his Indigenous family. Zach is a bright, engaging kid whose story immediately draws you in, whether he’s hunting, fishing or boxing with his father and siblings. It’s a true story.
It is painful to watch him growing up in Sydney over the next 11 years, taunted for the colour of his skin, and initially finding no respite when returning to his father’s land to prepare for initiation. As Zach ruefully observes: “When I come up here I get called white; I go back there and get called black. I feel like I don’t know myself.”
Shot over 12 years, Zach’s Ceremony resembles Taika Waititi’s Boy, or the Seven Up series. It’s a fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the life of an urban Indigenous family and the father-son relationship driving it.
The ceremony (mentioned in the film’s title) is an extremely rare opportunity to witness the various stages of male initiation, undertaken by Zach and his fellow teens, in Robinson River. Little wonder the film garnered the audience award for best documentary at both the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals.
Life for Zach could so easily have taken a sinister turn. When we meet him aged 14, life hasn’t become any easier. With his father overseas visiting First Nations people in Canada, Zach is left alone with his stepmother and siblings and soon goes off the rails, smoking dope, drinking and skipping school.
At one point Zach utters the statement no parent ever wants to hear: “I’m done livin’ in this shit house. I’m done livin’ in this shit city. I’m done livin’ in this screwed up friggin’ world.”
The idea for the documentary was Doomadgee’s. A respected tribal leader and educator, he is also a well-known actor from TV series’ Redfern Now and Cleverman.
“I started work on this film 10 years ago when I saw the questions in Zach’s eyes about his Indigenous heritage. I've since come across many Aboriginal kids that have the same questions. Who am I? Where do I come from? What is my culture? Is my culture dead and gone? I believe this is a very important film for the education of not just mainstream Australia but the many Indigenous kids who are asking the same questions of identity,” says Doomadgee.
But this is Zach’s story, and he is undoubtedly the star and heart of the show. Speaking today he is an affable, intelligent 18-year-old who is determined for his film to make a difference, both to young Indigenous kids learning to value their culture, and breaking down the barriers between black and white Australia.
Capturing it all so respectfully is director-editor Aaron Petersen, a non-Indigenous filmmaker who worked with Doomadgee on the TV series On the Edge and slowly earned the trust and respect of Zach and the community. Shooting the documentary was a labour of love for Petersen, who juggled the semi-regular shoots with a full-time role as director-producer-editor.
“We were struggling to find film funding, it was a really risky project for a lot of the funding bodies,” says Petersen. He ultimately mortgaged his house to help fund it.
The heat, dust, mosquitoes and ever-present threat of crocodiles made the four-week shoot in far-north Queensland difficult. The location was four hours from the nearest town and without mobile phone coverage. The heat was unbearable, never getting below 45 degrees Celsius which can be fatal to the cameras, requiring a month’s supply of chemical cooling bags to be brought up.
There is no doubt it was worth it. The film had its unofficial premiere in Doomadgee, and the flow-on effect since has been profound. “Since that day a whole lot of kids want to do [the] ceremony, it’s become a privilege, an honour,” says Zach who is looking into working with AIME [Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience] and Headspace. “I feel now like a lot of Aboriginal kids are starting to pay respect to their culture, to their elders.”
“It may be a father and son story with Indigenous themes but [they are] themes a lot of cultures around the world can connect to,” says Petersen. “They see that hope and sense of pride, and everybody who sees it walks out in a completely different frame of mind.”
Zach’s Ceremony will be released on March 30. A Q&A is being held tonight at the Dendy Newtown in Sydney from 6pm. An educational outreach program is planned to support the film on national release.