Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Aaron Petersen.
This documentary follows 16-year-old indigenous youth Zach Doomadgee as he prepares for his traditional initiation ceremony, a rite of passage into manhood for aboriginal boys. Outwardly Zach is a typical Sydney teenager, rebellious, resisting parental pressures and experimenting with drugs and alcohol. But Zach is also caught between two cultures – his aboriginal heritage and his life in bustling Sydney – he is finding it hard to fit in and struggling to find his own identity. In some regards the film and its exploration of Zach’s identity and his sense of alienation has some parallels with Stephen Page’s Spear from last year as it also explored this theme of the clash of cultures.
In Sydney, Zach is regarded as “black” and often has to deal with bullying. He has been suspended from school for fighting back. His father Alec Doomadgee is a boxing champion who has taught him the art of boxing and defending himself. But when he visits his traditional home of Doomadgee in Northern Queensland he is regarded as “white” because of his pale skin. And while there is a strong relationship between Zach and his father there is also the occasional tension. Alec loves his son and wants the best for him, and despite the occasional act of rebellion and pushing the boundaries Zach admires his father and wants to follow in his footsteps as a potential leader for his people.
Zach has a strong personality and a natural screen presence, and he seems to grow in confidence as the film progresses. Not only do we follow Zach’s journey, but we also get to learn about his father Alec, a strong and charismatic character who has a strong respect for the traditions and culture of the aboriginal people and has spent much of his life instilling these values into Zach. He also dispenses wisdom and tough love in equal measure.
From an early age, Zach has been taught traditional aboriginal dances and the importance of their culture. As a young boy he also liked fishing, riding his pushbike and playing football. Now approaching 16 he is also looking forward to undergoing the traditional initiation ceremony that is his path to manhood. But the film also follows Zach in the weeks after the ceremony when he returns to Sydney and we get to learn a little about how the ritual and what it means has affected him. But he also celebrates his 16th birthday with a more traditional teenaged party, with some under-aged drinking and loud music that draws complaints from the neighbours.
When Zach and Alec journey to Queensland and the Northern Territory for the ceremony we get some insights into life in the aboriginal community, and the problems that plague them, such as alcoholism and suicide. Some of this will remind audiences of films like Ivan Sen’s powerful and eye-opening Toomelah and Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country. We also see how the community was changed, not necessarily for the better, by the presence of missionaries who tried to instil the word of God into the aborigines. Some clever animation sequences from James Anderson give us the aboriginal perspective on Australian history, and it paints a grim picture. But it also helps to put Zach’s struggle into context.
But we also get a sense of the pace and rhythm of life and the strong sense of connection to the land within this community. Cinematographer Robert Morton (who worked on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, etc) has done a superb job with the visuals, capturing some great images and vistas of the wide-open landscapes of the vast region.
This observational documentary is an intimate study of a father-son relationship; it is also a coming of age tale and a look at indigenous culture and traditions and how Zach tries to reconcile these two cultures. Much like the fictional Boyhood, Zach’s Ceremony was filmed over a period of six years. Zach’s father began filming Zach from a young age, and some of that home footage has found its way into the completed film. But when Doomadgee was working on the ABC television series On The Edge in 2010 he met Aaron Petersen, who was working as an editor, and managed to convince him to come aboard this film following Zach’s journey to manhood.
Petersen spent six years working on the film. He shot over 450 hours of material and has edited the raw footage down to the 86 minutes we see on screen, carefully shaping the main narrative strands. The film deals with some universal themes of family, teenage angst, cultural tensions, tradition, history, isolation and loneliness. Petersen and Doomadgee also attempt to demystify some of the aboriginal traditions here. Alec is a respected member of the Doomadgee community and was able to gain permission to film some of the sacred secret ceremony, which normally is never permitted.
While Zach’s Ceremony is an eye-opening and profound exploration of aboriginal culture it is also a plea for tolerance and understanding, and its universal themes should resonate strongly with audiences.