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Almost a decade after making Bastardy with actor Jack Charles, filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson refuses to see himself as a detached observer, instead drawing in his subjects as collaborators. By Ellen van Neerven.

Filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson

Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Uncle Jack Charles.
Credit: GERMAINE McMICKING

It’s nearly 10 years now since the release of Bastardy, Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s documentary portrait of Uncle Jack Charles. I am in Fitzroy at the time of the anniversary, with people who hold stories of this place. Smith Street comes alive every July with a festival celebrating its black history, presence and culture. It’s cold – we keep by the fire and close together during the performances. This traditional meeting place, where people have long come to connect, smoke, drink, sing and play guitar, is where I’m told Uncle Jack found out all sorts of crucial information about himself and where he belongs. In 1854 there were only 18 Wurundjeri people, now there are maybe 1500 – a “failed extermination of the blacks”. The ongoing strength of community is all around us in this constant theatre of black performance, dance and music.

Bastardy goes some way in exploring this person and place; Uncle Jack narrates a special rendering of “Black Fitzroy”. Although I can’t see him in the crowd, his name is on high rotation in the surrounding conversations, well loved in person and for his portrayals, iconic in many ways, including the figure he cut zipping along these streets in his motorised scooter. There is a bigger community that wasn’t part of the film, one that continues to grow.

The attempt to thieve Victorian Indigenous people of their identities left many looking for answers. Uncle Jack was taken from his mother as part of the government-regulated Stolen Generations. He was born on the Cummeragunja Mission in New South Wales, later finding out he belongs to the Boonwurrung and Wiradjuri. Kinship between brothers and sisters on the streets warded off the isolation that sat in the memories of a childhood of abuse and trauma under government care. The shuffle – Fitzroy Gardens, Charcoal Lane, the Fitzroy and Collingwood flats – is track-making and storied. Prominent folk singer–songwriter–activist Uncle Archie Roach came here in the ’70s to find his family, joining many others.

Living on the street and being black of skin invites damaging assumptions. These assumptions could have easily shaped the narrative in Bastardy: a promising actor now without work; a “sad, tragic fall from grace” to homelessness and addiction. Instead, Bastardy asks the viewer hard questions about impressions of failure. Uncle Jack is deeply honest about his cat-burglary and heroin use. His complex experiences, and persistent generosity, charisma and relationships, are revealed through Courtin-Wilson’s empathetic lens and relational approach to documentary filmmaking. Courtin-Wilson followed Uncle Jack over a seven-year period through time gaps when Uncle Jack was in prison.

Two memorable images from Bastardy connect back for me. The first is Uncle Jack outside one of the Toorak mansions he lifted from – he calls it claiming back the rent owed on stolen land – musing about cutlery draws stacked with cash and chocolate cakes in the fridge. The second: after two years inside, his return to his modest abode where he finds and holds a tea-crusted mug – he’d just made the cuppa when the coppers arrested him. There is no easy definition of “finding home” here. Strength of belonging to family and country holds  against a sense of loss and trauma – a strength that is both communal and individual.

From Fitzroy, I connect to Paris, where Amiel Courtin-Wilson is working. As a young white filmmaker who grew up in a creative and community-oriented household in St Kilda, he met Uncle Jack years ago.

“Documentary is family,” he explains. “Ever since I made my first film about my aunt when I was 19, and then meeting Jack, my family has extended and expanded.” His films are about exploring close familial relationships, an ode to the people who informed his upbringing. He got into telling other people’s stories, or telling them “together”, through a formative experience as a teenager. As the subject of a documentary, he was left feeling excluded from his own representation. Courtin-Wilson works by his own fierce processes and describes to me how he doesn’t see the people who feature in his documentaries as subjects, but rather, how he sees the process as a distribution of power between them. This is why he shows the people he works with what he has made, with the intention to edit or delete if they don’t agree with the representation. Courtin-Wilson tells me Uncle Jack chose not to change a single frame. This has not always been the case when making his films, some of which are fictionalised accounts but start from a true-to-life personal narrative. Hail (2011) explores the relationship between a former prisoner and his long-term partner, and Ruin (2013) tells the story of two young adults in Cambodia trying to reach home.

We talk about his new film, The Silent Eye, which, along with Bastardy, is showing at the Melbourne International Film Festival. The Whitney Museum of American Art commissioned The Silent Eye for a retrospective about Cecil Taylor, the pianist and poet known as one of the founders of free jazz. The feature-length performance film is an intimate and compressed capturing of Taylor with his friend and long-time collaborator Min Tanaka – known for his dance and choreography – including teaching Body Weather, which imagines dance as following nature.

The movement of Tanaka makes prints on the glass of the large windows – tree patterns and fingers. It is a concert, an orchestrated conversation to music. Even though we are in such a small space, in the top level of Cecil’s New York City home, we don’t ever feel claustrophobic – Tanaka brings more space in. Tanaka is gesturing around the room with such care, as if caressing each object. Reaching for shirts, books, paintings. He is mouthing sounds or words, highlighting the limitations of speech when music is in its place. Smoke rises from a stick of incense. A photo of Taylor as a young man is visible in the background. He plays energetically. It is quite mountainous. The performance is epic – it feels as though it takes a lot out of them both. Jamming, dancing, both showing they feel each other. Looking at each other, sometimes smiling. Salivating. Little more can be squeezed from their skin.

After watching the film, I have questions as to how Courtin-Wilson gained access to this closed room in New York with two great collaborators. I know how he and Uncle Jack developed a close relationship but I am not sure how he came to share in this intimate space with Taylor and Tanaka.

“Dad used to play him,” Courtin-Wilson says of Taylor. “He has been very important to me for a long time.”

Courtin-Wilson went to New York and spent six weeks in jazz bars seeking out Taylor’s contact from the “oldest people in the room”. He camped outside the house until Taylor, admiring of his patience, let him in. Courtin-Wilson went on to live with the pianist, now in his late 80s, in his three-storey home, where he cooked, cared, cleaned, helped him with meds and meals. Courtin-Wilson introduced Taylor to YouTube and together they watched Billie Holiday clips.

The filmmaker, who is invested in collaborative modes of working, finds this represented in the film as subject matter. “When he watched it, Cecil said The Silent Eye captures the feeling of being in sync with another artist … his relationship with Min. The slow-motion sequences he liked the best – time escapes when you’re having a great link, a collaboration like that is happening.” Through friendship we witness this beautiful intimacy that is neither public concert nor private jam; we sense Courtin-Wilson is in the room, just as Uncle Jack would directly address him on occasion in Bastardy, positioning us behind the filmmaker.

There are words in The Silent Eye – lines of a poem unexpectedly recited by Taylor in the middle of the film – a release, a reverberation. Silence occurs around the sound. Courtin-Wilson says, “the decision to include the single poem in the work came from discussions with our editor, Alena Lodkina. We were talking about Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho and the way in which a fragment of text can expand in unforeseen and profound ways when given enough space around it.”

Most practised in working on a project over a long stretch of time, Courtin-Wilson described how freeing and satisfying it was to film in three days. Having said that, The Silent Eye is part of a bigger Taylor project on which Courtin-Wilson is working. Something he calls “a time traveller essay film”. Courtin-Wilson shares his frustrations that recent research trips to the major university libraries in New York such as New York University and Columbia showed not much on Taylor in their databases. I can’t help but think I have figured out Courtin-Wilson’s prerogative – he is deeply concerned about how elders of their communities are to be remembered in the public collective memory, how they will go in the archive as artists, and receive public recognition while they are alive.

Courtin-Wilson says Uncle Jack and Taylor are men who say they owe their life to their craft. “Cecil said without music he wouldn’t be alive.” There is an aloof sadness to both, their art forms acting as salvation. They have made extraordinary contributions in two very different fields – free jazz in America and black theatre in Australia.

As Courtin-Wilson gets ready to board a plane to Melbourne, I catch up on the near-decade-long journey Uncle Jack has been on since Bastardy was released. There is a lot to cover. Last year, audiences saw the return of his 2010 one-man show, Jack Charles v the Crown, which continued the telling of the story of his life, complete with his trademark unswerving optimism, gut-busting jokes and solid gems of wisdom. He toured the show across the world, taking Bastardy as an accompaniment, and portrayed important roles in the critically acclaimed sci-fi drama Cleverman and the feature-length film Pan, a prequel to Peter Pan.

Deserved recognition and awards continue to come to him, now in a place of calm and centredness. As a strong role model for mob, he works with Uncle Archie in youth prison programs and healing camps to support young people in living sustaining lives, and future-sourcing the next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander actors to portray the roles and tell the stories he worked hard to create the space for.

Courtin-Wilson and Uncle Jack keep in touch these days through Skype and phone. Turning 60 at the end of the filming of Bastardy, Uncle Jack is now approaching his 74th birthday. In the lead-up to his 75th next year, there is a book coming, and there will be many contributors eager to add their stories.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 5, 2017 as "Ruin, Hail and shine". Subscribe here.

Ellen van Neerven
is a Yugambeh writer​. Her books include Heat and Light and Comfort Food.