Rachel Perkins on Jasper Jones and Indigenous activism
Pemberton is a timber town in a wine and avocado region. The sawmill lies in a valley past the old rail crossing, 335 kilometres south of Perth, ringed by old timber houses, hemmed by state forests.
A century ago, the mill’s workers cut railway sleepers from the local karri eucalypts to lay the trans-Australian line. It still turns out such hardwoods. In the surrounding country – the land of the Noongar people – iron ore magnates from up north stampede to snap up dairy and beef agribusiness.
Under a pink baseball cap, Rachel Perkins is on the Pemberton main street, directing a budding romance.
A smart, longed-for blonde girl, Eliza Wishart, played by Angourie Rice, emerges from the wooden Corrigan Library, a temporary name for Pemberton’s community resource centre. A 13-year-old bicycle rider with ruffled brown hair, Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller), hangs on what she has to say.
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s – have you read it?” Eliza beams, proffering a book. But Truman Capote’s writing doesn’t spur Charlie like the works of Harper Lee or Mark Twain: epic childhood adventures threaded with social justice.
Off camera, West Australian author turned screenwriter Craig Silvey holds a MacBook and reads Miller’s lines aloud. Jasper Jones, Silvey’s second novel, is coming to cinematic life.
Silvey’s story is being reset from 1965 to 1969-70, to ratchet up the tensions of social change as much as to match the vintage cars that have been sourced. At its heart, it’s still a rollicking coming-of-age story. The fictitious Corrigan, inspired partly by Silvey’s own childhood holidays in the coalmining town of Collie, 165 kilometres north of here, has become a timber town to suit its filming location.
On a filming break, Perkins tells me the epoch for this story was rich with promise. Conditions of entry for non-European migrants had only just been relaxed, for instance, under the White Australia Policy. Charlie Bucktin’s best mate, Jeffrey Lu, played by Kevin Long, is an unflappable cricket fanatic from a Vietnamese immigrant family.
But divisions and inequality were being tackled head-on. In 1965, Rachel Perkins’ father, the late Indigenous activist Charles Perkins, staged the Freedom Ride, taking a group from his alma mater, Sydney University, to regional New South Wales towns, picketing the Walgett RSL Club and the Moree Baths, which both excluded Aboriginal people.
“Every time I’m in Moree I go to the baths, and I really enjoy going in there as an Aboriginal person and enjoying the freedom I now have because of what those people did,” Perkins says. “People bathing together and accepting each other’s humanity is a really simple but very profound thing.”
In Ivan Sen’s documentary Fire Talker: The Life and Times of Charlie Perkins, narrated by Rachel Perkins, archival footage from February 1973 shows her father saying: “My name is Charles Perkins, I’m a half-caste Aboriginal, born on a shanty town reserve just outside of Alice Springs.” Early in Silvey’s novel, too, the narrator says: “I’d heard Jasper Jones described as a half-caste, which I’d never really understood…”
In the book, Charlie Bucktin’s father quietly responds, Atticus Finch-like, with a stack of books to educate his son about the racist ideology of the caste system. The theme of “sorry” permeates both the Jasper Jones book and film. But Perkins opted not to use the term “half-caste” to describe Jasper, played by Indigenous actor Aaron McGrath.
“I’ve made a lot of what people might call political films, with social-political contexts,” says Perkins, whose documentaries include Freedom Ride, First Australians and Black Panther Woman.
“But the adaptation of this book is a departure: it’s very much a piece of entertainment, with a murder-mystery being the hook, but also the light and shade and the humour. It’s delightful material, and that’s why the book connected to a big audience…
“In the film, we don’t even go into Jasper’s position in society. In fact, we don’t even mention that he’s Aboriginal. We just don’t want to bang people over their heads about that. A lot of people understand there was discrimination, and still is in some ways, against Aboriginal people. A lot of my work has been about explaining,” she says, laughing. “If you don’t get it, just refer to previous films.
“All that explaining has been about being on the inside of an Indigenous world, and other people not having that opportunity to understand that. That’s what’s influenced my filmmaking to date. And I feel like I’m getting to the end of that process.”
I suggest to Perkins that she has long prioritised storytelling over politics or message, from her 1998 feature debut, Radiance, through feature musicals One Night the Moon and box office hit Bran Nue Dae, and as a creator and director of the groundbreaking series Redfern Now.
She raises her eyebrows. “Really? Mmm. I don’t know. I didn’t get a job the other day: I was being considered alongside some other directors, but someone said, ‘Oh no, she makes those political films.’ ”
David Jowsey says he and Jasper Jones co-producer Vincent Sheehan had several interested directors from which to choose. “I was very keen for Rachel to direct it because she’s explored the themes in the film all her life, being Indigenous and grappling with bigotry and identity and trying to change the world into a better place for your people,” he says.
Perkins first directed McGrath in Redfern Now, when he played an Indigenous schoolboy who faced expulsion for refusing to stand for the national anthem.
The past always has bearing on the present: throughout McGrath’s own education at a private Sydney school, on a scholarship like his Redfern Now character, he was the only Indigenous kid in his class, and had “personal encounters” with racism.
“With friendships, it never really worked,” McGrath tells me between scenes. “My closest friends have been my family. I’ve always had my family, and wasn’t really worried. They’ve always had my back.”
Family, politics and identity have always been intertwined for Rachel Perkins, too, who was born in Canberra in 1970. Her elder sister, Hetti, would become an art curator, and the middle child, Adam, a self-employed share trader.
“For us, Canberra wasn’t our home, it didn’t ever feel like our home,” says Rachel. “Dad talked so much about this place called Alice Springs, which he thought was home. Back then, before the cafe society that’s there today, for a teenager, Canberra was the bleakest place in the world.”
Charles Perkins’ mother was an Arrernte woman, also called Hetti, and his father a Kalkadoon man. He was born in 1936 at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station – then known as the Bungalow, or the “half-caste institution”, a compound controlled by the police. There was a wire fence to keep tribal people away. Charles would see his grandmother through the wire. He was forbidden to talk to her. He didn’t understand her language when she called out to him.
But Charles’s mother, who worked as a cook at the Bungalow, passed on the maternal line of strength, telling her son: “You’ve got to always speak your mind.” He would rise through the ranks of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, created by the Whitlam government, notably criticising federal ministers and calling the West Australian government “racist and rednecked” on television. In March 1975, Whitlam government Aboriginal affairs minister Jim Cavanagh suspended him for a year without pay for this continued outspokenness.
Charles Perkins drove to Alice Springs with his three children, where he helped kickstart the land rights movement. The children hung off their father when he visited outback humpies and town camps. “We were part of his life, and off we went, and were completely swept up in it,” Rachel recalls.
Rachel had been recalling those years earlier in the day because, as a member of the Australian Heritage Council, which provides ministerial advice on sites to place on the national register, she has been on the phone refuting claims by a bureaucrat that legislation enacted by the Hawke government in 1985 to protect Indigenous cultural heritage sites had been unsuccessful.
On the contrary, that law had been successfully invoked a couple of times. “I remembered the legislation because, at that time, a women’s sacred site in Alice Springs was under threat: basically two hills – breasts – and they were going to put a dam between these two hills and flood this whole area. The Northern Territory government was gung-ho for it as a tourism thing. So my dad set up a little camp there as a protest. My brother and I went with him, as we did to everything. I was 10 or 12.”
Her white Australian mother, Eileen, from a German background, has always been a “real rock”, not only backing her husband Charles, but today looking after Rachel’s young son, Arnhem, while Rachel makes Jasper Jones, as well as helping Rachel to paint and renovate her houses in Sydney’s Bondi and in Alice Springs. The boy’s father is Perkins’ former partner, filmmaker Richard McGrath.
“Mum felt it was important for her children to have a strong sense of their identity, to put their Aboriginality first, because others might not,” says Perkins. Eileen organised Indigenous cultural lessons for the children of the diaspora of Aboriginal people drawn to Canberra’s power circles. “To be a white woman, trying to organise cultural education in Canberra, was pretty advanced, because schools weren’t doing it.”
Rachel Perkins picked up a movie camera “by accident”, having an interest in photography, and at 18 went to study her craft at the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association in Alice Springs. At 22 she started Blackfella Films, the company that two decades later would make Redfern Now.
Alice Springs gives Perkins her greatest nourishment. She’s searching for schools that will allow her son to split his education between there and Sydney. She raised funds to record the Dreaming songs of Arrernte women on country. She set up a film set base, and had 150 women come through.
“We got from the archive old recordings and gave them back to women – in some cases, their grandmothers singing songs they’d never heard before. They’d burst into tears. It was amazing. That was the most important project I’ve wanted to do my whole life.”
She’s never wanted to become a politician, “but I want to support people who are, because I believe you should make a contribution. That’s why I supported Noel Pearson. I just saw so clearly how all those sharks were circling around him, and what they did to Dad, how they just annihilated him in public. I saw Noel was on the same trajectory, so I stood up for him. There was a backlash, a few Aboriginal people said, ‘Stick to the arts; you’re a naive girl.’ But I know what it’s like to live in the political world, and how tough that is.”
Perkins believes constitutional recognition, which she supports, will happen, perhaps this year, despite there being a “lot of sceptics in the Indigenous community … a lot of people who don’t live in the real world of what’s on offer, what gains you can make now”.
She sat on the fence for a long time on the issue but was ultimately moved by the campaign for the 1967 referendum. “It would be disrespectful to them for this generation not to put in as much effort,” she says.
Perkins and her family have been “really personally attacked” on social media for her stance. “They’ve said I’m a propagandist, a sellout. It upset me for quite a while.”
But it hasn’t stopped Perkins’ work. Projects she’s wanted to make for 20 years are now coming to fruition: the stories of Bennelong, the Wangal man captured by governor Arthur Phillip, for instance, and of Patyegarang, the young Indigenous woman who met colony astronomer William Dawes in 1790-91, are both part of four hours of television called The Sydney Project, now in the planning stages.
“Jasper Jones is a new direction for me, because it really is a piece of entertainment, primarily,” she says. “It has a social conscience, but I’m keen for it not to be framed in that way. Whether I’ll escape [the political] or not, I don’t know.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 28, 2017 as "Telling truths". Subscribe here.