• (L–R) ‘The Family Law’, ‘Lil J and Big Cuz’, ‘Untold Australia’ and Wesley Enoch from Sydney Festival. (SBS)Source: SBS
Wesley Enoch speaks to themes that underpin his hand-picked collection of programs exploring Australian culture.
Fiona Williams

7 Jan 2021 - 1:17 PM  UPDATED 13 Jan 2021 - 3:01 PM

The Sydney Festival is the premium event of the harbour city summer, with a mix of Australian and international cultural events to keep the city buzzing in the first few weeks of every new year. This year, the global pandemic has necessarily put the brakes on any international aspect of the festival program, and festival director Wesley Enoch says he's relished the opportunity to make this year's event an entirely Australian-made affair: "I've seen it as a bit of a blessing, to be honest!"

"Often I've been criticised for not being international enough," he says, "because my fascinations are about Indigenous storytelling, First Nations storytelling about the Australian context and Australian artists, about commissioning new work. Weirdly, I'm a little bit in my element. Last year we had 45 commissions and new works. This year we have 39. You start to go, 'Oh. it's not that different'.

"It goes to the idea of values-driven programming," says Enoch, who is overseeing his fifth and final turn as artistic director. "When you take away the imperative for huge audiences, because of COVID-safe capacity restrictions, and you even step back from the idea of celebrity, because that's what international programming is often about, and you start to promote Australian artists in that environment, it's interesting to see that the ticket sales go out the door. People are going, 'Yep. This is the time'."

"As Australians, we often think that the cultural cringe is over. We think that it's done, when in fact, it manifests in really weird ways, and international festivals are part of that. We go, 'Oh no, it's always better overseas. It's always more produced, it's almost always got more. And it's worth spending more money on that'. Whereas, when you're saying to Australians, "Actually, look at our own stories, and look how amazing we are', they see it to be true. If anything, this pandemic has shown us we can be world leaders in a whole range of things.

"...Except climate change discussions."

To underscore his passion for all things Australian-made, Enoch has curated a collection of 10 local programs for you to stream at SBS On Demand. It's far from Sydney-centric too, by the way. A Noonuccal Nuugi man, Enoch says you can easily spot a Queensland streak to his selections. 

In casting your curatorial eye over the offerings at SBS On Demand, what were you looking to say with the choices you made?

Often for me it's about diversity; lots of different voices, and intergenerational voices. I think that, especially coming out of the pandemic, there's a real danger that we'll lose ground in these particular areas. That we'll slide back, in terms of gender discussions, in terms of cultural diversity, and especially in terms of including young people. I think that young people face the greatest danger of being forgotten as we go forward and say, “The economy is more important than anything”, when in fact what we should do is say, "Here's an opportunity to take a great step forward."

In [the collection], too, are ideas around the concerns of that intergenerational cohort: ‘What is climate change doing?’ ‘What are race relations in a year of Black Lives Matter?’ ‘Who has the authority to speak from one position or another?’

As I was going through, I was more interested in the theories behind the films, and looking for those longer formats that are trying to represent a much bigger conversation. For instance, The Family Law is one of things, it's also a very Queensland story, about this idea of a family growing up, but it's from Benjamin (Law)'s very particular perspective.

Seasons 1 - 3 of The Family Law are now streaming, Start here: 

I loved, also, the documentary about the Miss Lebanon Australia pageant (Lebanese Beauty Queens) . I just went, "Oh my god. Extraordinary." It's so...  well, retro, and the idea seems so regressive, and yet I'm also seeing a form of empowerment through it.

The standalone documentary Lebanese Beauty Queens is now streaming.

...with introduction by Wesley 

I was interested in that range of things. There was also that wonderful arc of Future Dreaming, about young people who were talking about almost a science fiction environment, where they'll be in the next few years [Editor's note: Future Dreaming is an 'immersive Virtual Reality Film in which four young Aboriginal Australians guide you through their futures, via a time-warping dream bubble']

One season of Future Dreaming is now streaming. 

I love that you've included those meaty conversations in there, such as, Is Australia Racist?


And, Who Should Tell Indigenous Stories?  You've plucked an engrossing panel conversation from the archives there.

Yeah, these are some of the discussions that have had currency for, I'm going to say, several decades, really.

Why are we still having these conversations? Why is there a lot of unfinished business, and what's occurred there? I'm fascinated by that sense, that these are, I don't even know how old that panel is, but it's a while ago.

You feel like going, "Oh." When you hear those kind of conversations, and in the context in the ideas of Sovereignty and Treaty, and the voices of Parliament, it just reinforces this idea that we have to be in charge of our own storytelling to show you the nuance of the storytelling.

It's great to have allies, it's fantastic to have people who can help you along the way, but that conversation is really about saying, when you ask us to tell the story, we tell it with a passion, a thoroughness, and a nuance that sometimes you don't get if it's not your lived experience.

There are tonal shifts across the collection: there’s light and shade, and kids programming. Was this intentional?

Yeah, absolutely. I think this is a conversation which is not the responsibility of one group or another. Also the responsibility of those with children, to sit down with their children, and go through it, and say, and unpack it for them. Well maybe sometimes it's the other way around, too. With stuff like, Little J and Big Cuz,  actually, the material that's being talked about is quite powerful, and in reinforcing and inviting. It’s fun to play, "Who's that actor?" and to try and identify the voice of a character, to think of what else that actor is in. Because there's Play School actors, there's drama actors, there's a whole lot of Indigenous voices there, and you can use that as an entry point to talk about where else can you see and talk? You'll find their representations along the way.

Seasons 1 - 4 of Little J and Big Cuz are now streaming. Start here:

...with introduction by Wesley

Yes, excellent point. And of course, you’ve included Faboriginal, which is in a class of its own.

Yeah! Yeah, it's Faboriginal! You may not be able to see it, but there is a few Queenslanders coming though here. [Laughs] Steven Oliver has a quite transgressive humour. He's not in drag, but he uses the form of humour which we've seen as drag; sometimes overly sexualised humour, that you go, "Oh, goodness gracious, that's a bit on the nose," but it is all about unpacking racism for us, and using our humour as a Trojan Horse. This notion of, yes you're laughing, yes you're going, "Oh, that's outrageous," but you're listening to the content in a different way, and you're actually understanding a little bit more about Indigenous art. You see it in a fun context. This idea of, as you were saying, shifting the tone from serious conversations that the nation has to have, through to the lighter stuff, to make sure you don't lose your sense of humanity along the way.

As you oversee your fifth and final festival, how have circumstances shaped the programming? 

Having a values-led programming conversation has been much easier this time around, because the economics have played a second fiddle to, I think, what's pragmatically possible, but also, to what's important.

For me, this notion of putting Australian artists at the forefront. Yes, it's pragmatic, but it's also important that we're putting money back into the hands and pockets of artists, venues, companies, to make work to keep going, and to help audiences by inviting them back into the theatre. That's important. It's interesting how many artists, just through osmotic connection to their communities, are talking a lot more about climate change, and a lot more about the (2019/2020) fires, in particular.

This notion of going, 'Actually, how do we, as artists, help society understand the steps we need to make to go forward?' There's a wonderful piece called Hide The Dog, a family show, talking about this intergenerational thing, where Nathan Maynard and Jamie McCaskill – an Aboriginal man and a Māori man – writing this work about a Palawa kid from Tasmania, and a Māori kid, who live on the same street together. They build a canoe from both their cultures, and they go to talk to the spirits and gods of both their cultures to talk about the thylacine, and the extinction of this animal that they found: Is it the spirit of the thylacine? The idea of Hide the Dog is, hide it, protect it, look after it. In there is a story of what the next generation has to do to look after the landscape and the animals. Beautiful. I think what works best, especially in family stories, and storytelling, is when there is a strong moral- or values-driven conversation. To be honest, I think adults need a bit of that, too, at the moment.

You can say that again. With this being your last festival, which of your initiatives would you like the festival to retain, going forward? A stamp of your legacy, if you like? I’m thinking for starters, of The Vigil on January 25 …

Yeah. I think the board have said that, too. That's a unique thing that Sydney Festival can do, because the 26th of January falls into our dates. You have to have a relationship with it. You can't ignore it, whereas, many festivals can. I think that, as an extension of ideas of The Vigil, how can Indigenous storytelling help us lead the future? 

The Vigil has captured people’s imagination because it's an artistic experience. Yes, people can see it as a protest, yes, people can see it as celebration of Aboriginal Australia and resilience. Yes, you can see it as a kind of reconciliation moment, and a bridge, building through empathy. Ultimately, it's not on the 26th of January, and it's a complementary conversation which is not about polarising the country, but about bringing people together under the umbrella of understanding. If anything, I think that's what reconciliation is really attempting to do. Now as we move forward, and we're into a Sovereignty conversation, even more so, I think, Indigenous storytelling in its nuanced way is important.

To go back and answer the question more directly-

Yes, I led you there. Sorry.

Oh, no, I love it, I love it. I think that when you have one signature Indigenous event, which is what the history of festivals tends to be: ‘Here's our grand opening with a wonderful Welcome to Country’. And you go, 'Great. Marvellous. Now, where's the rest of it?' If anything, the Sydney Festival has said, 'Don't be happy with one or two. Have 12, have 20 of it.' Have talks, have discussions, and understand that this is also a mainstream conversation. It's not something that has to be in an Indigenous environment. It's something everyone needs to do. So, I hope that the festival, and I get the sense that Olivia (Ansell, who will take over as artistic director from Enoch) is going to do that, as well.

The other thing I hope for, and I think will continue is, large scale commissions. The commissioning of artists has been devastated - especially in the small-to-medium sector in Australia. Well, it was being devastated before the pandemic... There are different arguments now about where it is, but it's the idea of saying, how are they reaching large audiences, and how they are remaining and being ambitious. Festivals can help our cultural ambitions to be realised, and aspired to, at the least.

The Sydney Festival is underway until 26 January. Stream Wesley's 'Australian Made' collection at SBS On Demand anytime  (scroll down on the homepage) 

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