A conversation with film and theatre producer Alex Kelly about making the documentaries Island of Hungry Ghosts and In My Blood It Runs, and working with Naomi Klein on This Changes Everything. By Kirsten Krauth.

Producer Alex Kelly

Alex Kelly is 34 weeks pregnant, reclining on a small stage the shape of a four-poster bed. As we speak, the lights dim and glare, and she directs ambient mist that surrounds us in sound and smoke. She’s in pre-production for a new show she’s created, The Things We Did Next, a play set in 2029, when “climate impacts are a daily reality”. Through the play’s format of a chat show, in which writers and thinkers “[improvise] a future version of themselves”, she hopes to “move beyond the binary of dystopia and utopia”.

Kelly’s lifelong involvement in social movements began when she discovered zines – on feminism, politics or alternative music – as a teenager. Growing up on a sheep farm with a mother heavily involved in the union movement, she felt a sense of isolation, but she says zines “opened up a world of, ‘Oh, there are heaps of other people that think like me.’ Experiences of solidarity, collectivity and community felt very deeply enriching and I’ve always gravitated to that since. I find an enormous amount of richness in being in the world in that way.”

After working extensively with Indigenous communities in Alice Springs on projects for Big hART, she received a Churchill Fellowship to research other practitioners exploring the space between art, story and campaigning. She discovered a new field, impact-producing, which involved “mapping campaign strategy across film distribution”: how a film goes into the world, who the audiences are and what producers would like those audiences to do after they’ve seen the film. The fellowship led her to work closely with Naomi Klein on This Changes Everything.

While Klein wrote a book, her partner, Avi Lewis, directed a documentary by the same name, its release culminating in the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. “That project had a very clear core value, that books and films don’t change the world, social movements do,” Kelly says. “The thesis of that project was that climate change is … an economic problem and we don’t all have to drop everything [to] become climate activists.” It became about transforming every sector – immigration, education, health, agriculture – and banding together as a coalition. She went to 12 countries with Klein, “trying to bring people together across different social movements to talk about how they could build power”.

Two documentaries that Kelly has produced recently are intensely moving and poetic accounts. Island of the Hungry Ghosts uncovers the experience of asylum seekers and those who work with them on Christmas Island, while In My Blood It Runs centres on a 10-year-old Arrernte/Garrwa boy, Dujuan, negotiating his local culture alongside that imposed on him at school. When I ask Kelly what draws her to projects, she says she looks for “the intersection between ‘let’s think strategically about messages’ [and] engaging the heart by telling a story and inviting [viewers] into a world that they may not see”. She adds, “You can’t work backwards and say we’re going to make a film to make people feel x; you have to make a film that is still its own piece of art and follows the poetry of what emerges.”

For In My Blood It Runs, along with a festival and cinema release, Kelly and her team are organising screenings to the Attorney-General’s Department in Canberra, the UN in Geneva, the Northern Territory Parliament and state education ministers, “to highlight the importance of First Nations-led education”. But broader issues are also at stake, such as raising the age of criminal responsibility – currently 10 – across Australia. “If you’re 11 and you commit a crime, you go into the justice system and you could end up in Don Dale, whereas in most countries it’s 14, or even 16,” she says. “If you commit a crime before that age [overseas] then you would receive a greater level of support to address why you might have committed a crime. Australia doesn’t have that safety net for young people.” For Dujuan and his family, credited as collaborating directors on the documentary, changing this legislation was a key component of what they “wanted the film to do in the world”.

The Things We Did Next is in its early stages but is propelled by all the threads running through Kelly’s work in documentary film and impact-producing. While distribution and content matter, Kelly is always thinking ahead to what the audience will do after they’ve watched her films. And for her next move? She’s interested in the possibilities for cultural and narrative shifts. “When I think about climate change … I’m more interested in thinking about how we look after each other as the storms get worse.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 10, 2019 as "Activist listening".

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