Director Dylan River is the scion of a bona fide Australian filmmaking dynasty. His grandmother, Freda Glynn, co-founded the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, the country’s largest Indigenous broadcaster. His father is acclaimed director Warwick Thornton, who gave us the revered Sweet Country last year. It was perhaps inevitable that River himself would be drawn to film, first as cinematographer – he shot Sweet Country – but also as a director in his own right, with a handful of shorts and three respected documentaries – Buckskin, Finding Maawirrangga and Finke: There and Back – to his name so far.
His latest effort, however, is a change of pace. The six-part children’s web series Robbie Hood follows the exploits of the titular youth (Pedrea Jackson) and his best friends, Georgia Blue (Jordan Johnson) and Little Johnny (Levi Thomas), as they grow up, Indigenous and poor, in Alice Springs.
“Robbie Hood’s really inspired by my growing up in Alice Springs,” River explains. “And the kind of world I’ve seen first-hand, or things I’ve experienced or that I’ve heard that other people have experienced. It’s kind of a gift to the town, to the youth of Alice Springs and to the people here – to try and give them a bit of understanding, and to have fun with it.”
And it is a fun show – but it’s also a bit of an eye-opener for those raised on more traditional Australian children’s fare like Ship to Shore or ‘Round the Twist. Robbie and his mates swear. Sometimes they steal. They run afoul of the local cops and the local methamphetamine dealer. Robbie’s dad is a drunk who regularly hits him up for money. This is a grittier and more truthful take on the joys of youth.
River admits that he actually didn’t want to make a children’s program, and so the rougher tone of the series stems from his attempt to find a kind of middle ground between the expectations of the form and his own experiences. “I think kids are way more mature than they used to be, or at least people weren’t really targeting what they want, compared to what they thought they wanted.”
SBS, who commissioned the series, were quite agreeable with this approach – up to a point. “There’s a few naughty words that I had to take out along the way that they thought were just a bit too much, but that’s okay – it’s all compromise.”
The series was shot on location in Alice Springs, using as many local cast and crew as possible. River refers to the project as his gift to the town.
“We crewed out of Alice Springs, but a lot of people there aren’t professionals at any particular job,” he explains. “They dabble in this or that, whether art department or sound. We’re just trying to pull skills from all around town. We had a small crew but that made us quite efficient and fast – we could move around quickly. For example, the first day we shot we got rained out, so we had to quickly change schedule and all jump into another episode and find another location, and having a small crew allowed us to do that.”
His policy of recruiting locally also meant using a lot of non-professional and first-time actors, which presented its own set of challenges. “You have to give everyone more time. With non-actors it’s a balance of telling them what you already have in mind and trying to support them and guide them. Some of the people in it needed a lot of instruction and others really went with it and wanted to do their own thing. It’s all a balance. Everyone’s different. You’re feeling it out in every scene.”
Speaking as an Indigenous creator, River firmly places Robbie Hood in its context as part of a growing wave of Indigenous screen narratives, although he is careful to acknowledge the debt he owes to those Aboriginal filmmakers who have come before him – including his own family.
“I’ve been very fortunate to come into it at this stage when all the hard yards have already been done,” he says. “There have been a lot of filmmakers before me, from my grandmother to Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Day, Jasper Jones), who’s given me a lot of opportunities, to my dad and my mum, and people in this industry who are fighting for Aboriginal voices. They’ve done the hard yards and made it possible to get funding and for people to be interested. It’s up to me and this other wave of filmmakers to keep that and keep fighting for it. There’s definitely a huge interest in Indigenous stories globally, and I think that still has room to grow in Australia. We still have a long way to go for the country to be as proud of our Indigenous heritage, but filmmaking is one way to do that.”
Robbie Hood, an SBS On Demand commission, is available at SBS On Demand from Friday, 5 July and airs on SBS VICELAND on Tuesday, 9 July at 9:35pm, and on NITV on Friday 12 July at 9pm. It’s a 6 x 10-minute series.
It’s Nick’s last episode this week. Along with tearful farewells, Nick and Fiona discuss what they’ve been watching...
01:37 Fiona's been seeing things at the Sydney Film Festival, including Her Smell, starring Elisabeth Moss.
03:55 Nick did not like Dark Phoenix, the latest X-Men movie.
09:24 Fiona has mixed feelings about the Oscar-nominated Never Look Away, another SFF film.
12:09 Nick re-watched an old favourite: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and has questions about how sexism in movies has evolved.
21:36 Fiona recommends Brazilian film Bacurau.
23:16 We farewell Nick from The Playlist and introduce Fiona’s new co-host, Ben Nguyen.