Every time you look around it seems that Amiel Courtin-Wilson is winning another accolade. The most recent is for his short drama Cicada, produced by Sally Hussey, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Directors' Fortnight, a parallel program dedicated to auteurs. The short also screened at the St Kilda Film Festival where it was one of two shorts awarded the SBS Television Award. Now Amiel's debut feature documentary, the award winning Bastardy begins its national theatrical release. Bastardy is a portrait of Aboriginal actor, cat burglar and heroin addict, Jack Charles a Koori Elder living in Melbourne. The film charts Charles' life of drugs and criminality, homelessness and ongoing dance with incarceration.
Q: In the opening moments of Bastardy, we see Jack shooting heroin into his arm in a Melbourne housing commission flat. He says, “I feel that that if I was to hide any of this, the doco wouldn't be a true depiction of my lifestyle. … Because this is so important in my life. It's what a fella lives for.” Is it right to say that from the beginning Jack gave you his blessing as his storyteller?
Amiel: Absolutely. Jack grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me into his world. Jack was the one who instigated looking at all those potentially less than savory elements in his life. The film was initially going to be more conventional, stylised, dramatic recreations, looking at his early childhood and his acting, but he shifted the balance and turned it into that more raw, current day story.
I certainly had no point of reference. Like a lot of people, I'd never sat down and had a conversation with a Koori person at that stage. It was ridiculous. I was coming to it from a position of ignorance and total naiveté. But I think that at least, if nothing else, I was upfront with Jack rather than pretending that I had any knowledge about his world. I had a little trepidation I suppose, but he's such a charmer that it's hard not to take to him pretty much straight away. It was lovely.
I think Jack's grown into the idea of the film as an opportunity to spread his story. When we started the film he spoke often about thinking that he was going to be a user for the rest of his life and certainly not ever thinking that the cycle was going to break. I suppose that idea of wanting to use the film as a tool, or him wanting to take it into prisons now, hinged upon his ripening or “redemption” as he would call it from drugs and crime. When we started we used to often joke about filming until he died. It didn't seem that there was ever going to be an end to the path of crime and drugs.
The intimacy that developed over seven years of production between the two of you appears to have influenced your filmmaking process...
Amiel: In a weird way the structure mimics Jack's actual storytelling technique. Early on, I noticed Jack has a great hopscotch way of jumping ahead and back that is absolutely non-linear. It may seem piecemeal but in a broader sense it's beautifully, strangely, poetically woven. It's fractured but it has a great shape that's unwieldy but very satisfying.
Was there a dialogue between Jack's life story and your multi-format filmmaking aesthetic?
Amiel: I had an existing love for super-8 so I brought an existing aesthetic to it. It was deepened and given it's real meaning between the lovely reciprocity between the two of us. Just sitting with this man for a long time listening to him talk.
There's one scene where you warn Jack a mutual friend is going to call the police. Were you ever concerned about risks to your own safety during the making of Bastardy?
Amiel: There was probably a year there in the middle where it got pretty rough. That was around the time of that whole sequence with the stolen ring and getting involved with the cops. Jack was on the slide into inevitable incarceration. That had other symptoms — there were times that I had to retreat because the filmmaking had totally disappeared and what was left was a man who was in a very desperate place who needed money. And I didn't have money. It put a real strain on our friendship and it was tough. But luckily these were isolated events over a period of six or eight months.
In terms of moving through his world with various criminals or thieves, I found that given peoples actual circumstances, there's lightness and a lot of humour in that world. There's warmth despite peoples pretty desperate situations. I never found that environment heavy. The hard part was when our personal relationship was brought under strain.
In production from September 2001 – July 2008 and filming for the most part every few days… just how much has making this film affected you?
Amiel: It was profoundly important. I didn't really realise how important Jack had become in my life until 2004 when he was sentenced to two years jail. I was helping him with his legal case and getting character witnesses together. When I heard the sentence and thought that I might not ever see him outside again, that he might not survive that jail sentence and he was just gone – that's when I realised he'd become one of the most important people in my life, at that point. I can't speak about it with enough weight. It really, fundamentally changed my whole life. From being Australian, my take on humanity in general and Jack's inspirational optimism.
Bastardy screens nationally from June 25th see http://www.bastardydocumentary.com/