Learning to read can be hard enough without a camera following your every move. The director of a moving new doc tells us how she convinced a brave group of Indigenous adult literacy students to let her film their journey.
31 Jul 2017 - 1:36 PM  UPDATED 31 Jul 2017 - 1:36 PM
Tell us how the film came together

I was interested in the subject of adult literacy and I’d sort of been thinking of ways to deal with it. I looked into who was working in the space and it literally took me a ten second Google; it brought up the Literacy For Life Foundation, who are of course are the people who are behind all of this amazing work.

Was it hard to negotiate access to the classroom?

I went out and did some research with them for a couple of weeks, and watched the last four or five classes towards the end of an intake, and based on that and talking to the community and elders, and the Foundation members, we thought, 'Let’s see if we can make this happen and get it moving', and they were all in agreement. It was a difficult thing - imagine asking to shove a camera in people’s faces as they’re trying to learn to read and write, but they agreed. If there was a way to get it happening we’d try, so that’s what we did!

The program tackles the difficulty of convincing people to come at all - let alone to come and be filmed during this challenging time... Were you worried your presence might affect their participation?

Yes. it was a very tricky one! A proper filmmaker dilemma. If you were in, you were going to be filmed, because there’s no way we could shoot around people, so when signing up, they had to be aware that there were cameras there and they had to be told that they would be filmed. It was awful for me, because i didn’t want to rob anybody of an opportunity, and there were some people who did make the choice not to join that intake and come at a later one. So we did and we rode along with it, but they got used to us pretty quickly!

The program co-ordinator Mary is the heart and soul of your film, reassuring the classmates and sharing her own struggles to give them hope that they too can grow. Tell us about how first encountered her, and got her involved in the the film.

She’s one of the people i met in Brewarrina, obviously because she’s one of the coordinators of the program. She’s a very special person and that’s kind of instant. She plays a pivotal role in the organisation obviously because she’s coordinator, and kind of like the conduit between the on-the-ground, grassroots people who are there, and the Foundation. Mary herself is so dedicated, a very, very special human being and very very warm and genuine, so i think that audiences respond to people like that. They love that kind of company which is hard to find! She just rose to the top because of her very special qualities.

The film premiered at the Sydney Film Festival - and the graduating class was there to see it. Was that the first time they’d watched the film?

Oh, no, we took it out for them to look at, and to say what they liked and didn’t like. It’s all part of the process. I don’t want them to feel bad about it. It’s been a real process of involvement. I don’t want to lie - that’s what i had to say to them, ‘I don’t want to lie but I don’t want you to feel bad about it either’. There’s not been any huge conflict or tension around that stuff because of the process and their understanding of what we were doing - and trying to do.

It must have been special to witness the change upon someone you’ve watched struggle, then suddenly realise they can write.

Well, we cried! Yeah, I cried quite a few times! All of us, watching it happen and you see them just go, “What?”. It’s how it happens, you know, just one day a light bulb just goes on.

Watch 'In My Own Words' at SBS On Demand


You sort of leave it with Mary not knowing what’s going on and whether the program will continue. Do you have an update?

They did have another intake - they’ve just finished that in Brewarrina. I’m not sure that they’ll do another one, but I think there would be room to do another one there. I think there’s still plenty of people in Brewarrina that need it, but the Foundation - part of the Cuban method of doing it - is about a spread of intakes across the country. It’s up to them and where they put their focus next.  There’s another one in Bogabilla, or .

Hopefully the film can show what’s possible

Yes, that’s the hope.

You've got a real skill for telling intimate stories - here, a person literally learning how to read and write,but in a way that touches on the wider themes stories about communities, access, opportunities. How do you draw the line from something individual and touch on those bigger issues?

Well, that’s the trick isn’t it? I don’t think there’s one formula, it depends on they way into the story, you know? But that for me, is the point of it all. Those big, broad issues affect people in a very micro way, and micro issues affect people in a very broad way, you know? For me that’s what I think is worth discussing in the country.

What’s next for you?

I'm directing a little bit of Little J and Big Cuz, and apart from that just a lot of research and development, looking into my next project, which isn’t confirmed yet... so I can’t talk about it.

The next film in NITV's You Are Here series of films is Connection To Country, Sunday 6 August at 8.30pm on NITV and 9.30pm on SBS

You Are Here: Warwick Thornton collection at SBS On Demand
He's one of our most celebrated filmmakers, and you can watch his work across NITV, SBS and SBS On Demand.