BOB MERRITT'S MESSAGE OF UNDERSTANDING
Two of the four films nominated for Best Film in the Australian Film Institute Awards this year, The Fringe Dwellers and Short Changed, are on Aboriginal subjects. DEBBIE KRUGER spoke to Bob Merritt, writer of Short Changed, which opens soon around Australia
BOB MERRITT is, by nature, a passionate and volatile man, but today his mood is particularly prickly.
I dont have to justify myself to anyone, he declared when prompted to discuss his background and the success of his play The Cake Man. Ive had no complaints about live performances of my work except about people being turned away. I want to start with arrogance. Im not insecure.
This Aboriginal writer is neither down-trodden nor apologetic Merritt is intensely proud of his race and his own achievements. His latest feature film, Short Changed, has received five nominations for the Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Film and Best Original Screenplay. He is the founder and co-ordinator of the enormously successful Eora Centre for the Visual and Performing Arts in Redfern, Sydney.
He is also involved in the making of Black Futures, a series of documentaries to be screened on the ABC.
The wall behind Merritts desk at his office at the Eora Centre is covered with posters of various productions of The Cake Man, including its staging at the 1982 World Theatre Festival in Denver, Colorado where it received standing ovations. The play, which depicts the breakdown of Aborignal society as a result of white occupation, was the first by an Aboriginal writer to be produced in Australia.
Merritts commitment to the plight of his race, and the realisation he did not want to be married to one particular project, enticed him to films.
One day I realised I was earning my living off misery row, Merritt explained. It was band-aid treatment, cure rather than prevention. I found out the victims of the system were very conveniently handled by a system which needed victims. It was always a little person against the elements. Without forcing values, I tried to hold this up to be tested.
Merritt does not talk about his first film, The Citys Edge, although it, too, is represented by a poster on the office wall. About Short Changed, however, he will talk incessantly.
I was super sensitive about turning statistics into people, and to show by example that we the friendly natives appreciate the fact that we dont hold a mortgage on misery row. We do appreciate there are other people in turmoil as well, but time is running out on us in terms of identity. We are fearful of becoming putty-coloured people at the price of losing our soul.
Short Changed is the story of Stuart, a young aboriginal man, and his battle to regain contact with his nine-year-old son after six years in the bush. The boy lives with his white mother and grandfather in an upper-class suburb, and goes to the Christian Brothers. He does not know he even has a father, let alone an Aboriginal one.
The film has a universal appeal, according to Merritt. As the story unfolds, it transcends colour. All people can identify with the situation and problems confronting the lead character. Importantly though, as Merritt says, It is the first attempt at contemporary portrayal of blacks which treats them with dignity and intelligence.
Getting the film produced took determination. For one thing it was a minor miracle to get a black person to play a major role in a film. The Aboriginal characters in Storm Boy and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith had nothing to say for themselves, were going nowhere. Merritt wrote good roles but producers told him that black actors were not good enough to play them.
The Eora Centre was born out of Merritts frustration in July 1984 as an Aboriginal alternative to NIDA and the Australian Film and Television School. Merritts concern for the urban blacks was shared, thankfully, by New South Wales Education Minister Rodney Cavalier, and TAFE, whose support has enabled the centre to offer a three year accredited course. Short Changed was cast partly from students of the centre.
The major challenge was to find support for a film which expressed an Aboriginal point of view.
Merritt wanted to do away once and for all with the usual expectations of blacks as carrying a chip on their shoulder, as whingeing and being angry. The aims and objectives of the Eora Centre and its people are magnified in Short Changed, which offers a positive statement.
Keeping control of his creative integrity was a major concern. I have felt for a long time, and part of my frustration is that my works are assessed on far too much white input. Ive seen it in the past - white writers with less ability than I have, getting the rails run without censorship being applied.
Merritt cites The Fringe Dwellers as an example of this favouritism. The Fringe Dwellers was just Beresford going to Cannes, he says. It is patronising, full of unconscious prejudice, and shows the world exactly how Aboriginal people are not.
As for The Fringe Dwellers getting so many nominations in the AFI Awards (seven), Merritt is scathing but sincere. Im thoroughly delighted that the black artists in The Fringe Dwellers at long last are recognised for the acting talent, but never the less, in an age where art form is assessed with a political mentality, there is nothing to help the plight of Aboriginals in what The Fringe Dwellers has to say to the world.
In comparison, Short Changed is a dignified film which treats everyone fairly, including the whites. Short Changed says that we are all victims of conditioning. It probably does more for race relations anywhere in the world than a thousand demonstrations.
David Stratton, film critic for Variety and past Sydney Film Festival director, says the two films have nothing in common except that they are about Aboriginal people. Short Changed is an excellent film which presents a very vital problem with great sympathy, understanding and fairness, he says.
There are no villians - we understand the motives of everybody, even the grandfather. It is one of the most interesting, low-budget, urban Australian films to have come out in recent years.
Merritt is optimistic about the nominations for Short Changed. Its so important for me as an artist to know and appreciate the fact that my nomination for the first time around for an Aboriginal writer is not one of patronisation but of sincerity. The nominations are not only encouraging for blacks in the country, but for any budding young artist.
Mark Little, who plays Curly, Stuarts white friend, has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Merritt is disappointed though that David Kennedy, who plays Stuart, has been over-looked for Best Actor. He feels this is largely due to the direction of the film, which put too much white on the screen.
The films director, George Ogilvie, is up for Best Director award. Ogilvie had worked with Merritt before, when he directed The Cake Man in 1976. Both men have a great admiration for each other, and when the opportunity cam to work together again, first at Eora, and then on Short Changed, they both jumped. Merritt, however, feels he lost control of the film.
Ogilvie accepts that it is possible things did not turn out as Merritt wanted. There were certain things we felt differently about, he said. We had different views, especially on the character of the wife. I found her fantastically important. She was a spokeswoman. The nature of blacks in our society had to be said by a white person: if a black said it, it would come across as preaching. The wife was perfect a white person living within a black community.
Ogilvie is also disappointed Kennedy did not receive a nomination but says his performance was honest and truthful, and therefore underplayed. To push him would have been ugly and wrong. He was a passive character surrounded by hurrying whites, a man swept aside by society.
While Ogilvie says that Merritt is an extraordinary talent and would love to work with him again, Merritt wants to retain total control over his next feature, Dreamstealers, which he will write and direct.
Among his current commitments is Black Futures, a series of documentaries produced by Corroboree Films on contemporary Aboriginal issues. The first in the series, Eora Corroboree, is about the centre in Redfern and has already been screened to favourable reaction on the ABC. Further films deal with housing and employment, health, land rights, community history, and the Aboriginal image in film and television.
There are other major projects in the offing, which will further enhance his achievements and aspirations. Merritt is determined to encourage Aboriginal artists in the pursuit of their own identity by giving credence and promotion to the development of an important sub-culture.
Through the Eora Centre and Short Changed I see the emergence of the artist artists are going to keep our culture alive. I want to nurture that artists just like powerful societies do with their generals, because theyre the people with a vision. Im yet to meet the surgeon skillful enough to separate art from culture.
We only thought we were lost, simply because we werent encouraged to practice our culture. Its a physical and spiritual impossibility to be able to do that without our artists. Weve never been allowed in the past 200 years to see our own reflection, whether it be in live theatre or film, in any way we care to identify with, and the consolation is that we havent been reduced to such an extent that weve lost our dignity.