Shot over the course of seven years in the life of young indigenous man Zachariah Doomadgee, Aaron Petersen’s remarkable debut documentary feature Zach’s Ceremony should be mandatory viewing for all Australians.
Capturing the formative years of a boy caught between two worlds, Zach’s bullied for being one of the few black kids at high school in Sydney, then ribbed for being too light-skinned when he visits his father Alec’s community in far-north Queensland. “Not black, not white, sort of in the middle,” he sighs.
With Alec’s occasionally overly authoritative guidance, this spritely young man with a wise head on his body travels backwards forwards between these realms as he prepares to undergo a traditional coming-of-age ceremony. But with adolescence comes resistance and also temptation.
Now 18, a calmly assured Zach says with a beaming smile says the film is a reminder of just how far he’s come. “I see a lot of the mistakes I made, and I definitely won’t be making those again. You just have to keep your head up out of the sand because a lot of people come into your life and lead you down a certain path, to teach you a certain lesson. I guess I just want to focus on learning all of them.”
As Zach makes clear to his father during the course of the film, the mistakes he made - including getting drunk, doped up and caught spraying graffiti in a railway station – were his to learn. “I guess dad’s sort of come to me with the warnings, upfront notice, and if I made that mistake, I go, ‘oh, well, maybe he was right.’ Usually half the time he was,” he grins.
"We’re basically just an everyday father and son that had a very special story to tell, a very strong connection to our cultural, ancestral roots."
Alec’s not claiming "I told you so" though. “As parents, we all try to do the best we can for our children, but sometimes we probably are a bit overbearing, go to far, and we regret that,” he acknowledges with the same disarming honesty and affection so clearly shared between father and son.
“You’ve got to keep your authority as dad, but there comes a point where that transition has to happen and the relationship changes, because now he’s a young man and I have to respect his boundaries,” Alec adds. “We’re not perfect. We still butt heads. In the course of making this film we didn’t become Ghandi or the Dalai Lama. We’re basically just an everyday father and son that had a very special story to tell, a very strong connection to our cultural, ancestral roots.”
Petersen feels humbled he was allowed to follow their journey together, capturing rarely seen footage of the ceremony that marks Zach’s passage into adulthood. “I have a whole newfound respect for the culture that exists and is alive here and I speak positively about it now to everybody,” Petersen says. “That translates to my boys too, who were newborn and two when we started and are now eight and 10. They look up to dad, see what I’ve got from Zach and Alec, and it’s amazing how much washes off on them.”
The experience was a revelation for Petersen, filling him with hope for reconciliation if only more Australians can come to understand the richness of Aboriginal culture.
Alec notes how much the filmmaker had to learn. “We actually had to unplug him from the matrix and re-educate him, because that’s what it’s about and we’re hoping this film sparks that, to go, ‘hang on a minute, how we can possibly move forward together?’ We’re an amazing country, better than what we’re putting up with right now.”
As a respected member of the Doomadgee community, Alec earned the trust of the elders over many years and, in so doing, was able to gain access for Petersen and his team, including hands-on writer and producer Sarah Linton. “They saw that I had good in my heart and my intentions were nothing but pure,” Alec says.
Petersen had to navigate walking a respectful line alongside Alec with following his filmmaker’s guts too. “I didn’t want to feel like I was walking on eggshells, but I had utmost respect for Alec, his family, the community and especially the elders, so he had to make sure I didn’t overstep the line, and I did a few times and quickly got pulled back in.”
In fact, Petersen was so embraced by the elders he was presented with ceremonial boomerangs on completing filming. That led to an inadvertent hiccup, he shares sheepishly. “I was so proud to have them and Sarah was up there and I was like, ‘wow, these are amazing,’ and handed them straight to her. Alec said afterwards, only you and your boys were allowed to touch those. I got home and explained them to my sons and their eyes just lit up.”
Alec says that while Zach’s Ceremony is an eye opener about Aboriginal culture, it’s also a universal story about family. “It’s a story that will resonate with all walks of life, all cultures, creeds, nationalities and religions. Family is the foundation of our society, the rock which we all go back to.”
Taking time out after completing high school to travel the world with the film, hoping it can pick up the slack of an education system that doesn’t teach Australians much about his people, Zach’s not letting the experience get to his head. He has ambitions to use music as a means to help other young boys keep on the right path, including working with drug and alcohol addicted kids, and those in the criminal justice system.
“We can start pulling black kids out of prison and putting them in school, giving them qualifications and jobs so they can become something in their lives,” he says. “In the words of Tupak Shakur, the most gangster hoodlum from Compton man, ‘this film ain’t gonna create change, it’s gonna spark those who will.’”
'Zach's Ceremony' premieres on NITV Sunday 2 July at 8.30pm
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