• Aboriginal filmmaker Dean Gibson. (NITV)Source: NITV
Dean Gibson has been making documentaries for over a decade, telling stories of historical wars to political landmarks. But his latest project, capturing Australia's brutal systemic incarceration of First People, is arguably his most challenging yet.
Dan Butler

6 Aug 2021 - 5:09 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2021 - 11:02 AM

Filmmakers don’t often ask about viewers’ mental state after a screening of their movie.

But lately, documentary maker Dean Gibson has been asking a lot.

“This is always the first question I ask … I’m keen to know how everyone's doing after it. Because it's intense.”

The film is Incarceration Nation, a visceral examination of the relationship between First Nations people and the Australian justice system.

Some of the country’s leading advocates and academics examine the systemic issues that have seen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people become the most imprisoned on earth, and community members like Leetona Dungay and Keenan Mundine recount their tragic first-hand experiences with the police and prisons.

Most devastating of all is the footage; from cells, taser cameras and bystanders’ mobiles, of First Nations people experiencing the full weight, often literally, of the law.

It is a harrowing film, and making it took a toll.

“Any edits (we) had to do, an hour into it, we had to just go for a walk around the block, because you realise you’re not breathing,” Gibson tells NITV.

“So it’s hard going, but it needs to be.”

It’s been a long process, more than three years in the making. The project started as a conversation: how could they make sense of the information deluge around deaths in custody, and the trauma and sadness that came with it?

“Is there a way that we can ... give us our audience— Aboriginal Australia —a really good sense of where we are today? In terms of our incarceration rates, and the justice system, and the inequality within the justice system.

“And particularly ... how we got to where we are today.”


Unpacking the criminal system cycle

To tell that story, intellectual luminaries like Associate Professor Chelsea Bond and barrister Joshua Creamer rely on the histories and the data, going back to Australia’s penal colony roots.

“It’s to make you think hard about its place in our history, and the role that has in regards to the trauma that Aboriginal people (have).”

The film builds a case for the level of disadvantage faced by First Nations people, and the crossover that then has with the punitive system in this country, from the genocides on the Frontier Wars, to the ongoing trauma of the Stolen Generations, into the modern day’s statistics of Indigenous children being removed from home.

“Our people start … with a lot of disadvantage over their shoulders, particularly children," Gibson explains.

"And I think that's a really sad indictment on our society, that clearly through our research, and through the film, we highlight that tragic pathway of out-of-home care, into juvenile justice, and then into adult prison.

“And that pathway is clear. The numbers are indisputable, the data is there. And it's a really sad indictment that we choose to just keep that pathway going with young kids at the start of their life.”


Exposing the truth, exposing emotions

Gibson, an Aboriginal man, says he has been “fortunate enough” not to have come into contact with the law as his film’s subjects have.

He says he was unprepared for the true depth of pain in the community.

“I was probably quite naive because of the amount of trauma that really, truly (is) in the space.

“You read things and see things, but until you actually delve into it and see (the) vision that exists ... it is highly traumatic, and it can come with really harrowing emotional baggage.”

The film, of course, is not just a history lesson, or an explainer. Naturally, Gibson would hope to effect change with his documentary. But in the context of decades of research, royal commission findings and the pain and suffering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities being ignored, what hope does Gibson hold on to?

He says it’s about flipping the script.

“(All those reports) point towards Aboriginal people, and the ways that Aboriginal people behave and the way that Aboriginal people live ...

“But not many reports flip it back at the system... the way the system treats people.”

Gibson hopes to contribute to that conversation with Incarceration Nation.


Capturing peoples' stories

His love of starting conversations and telling stories started young, growing up in Queensland. 

“I grew up in a house full of the National Geographic magazines, beautiful photos, and photography and framing and people and portraits. And I really love that stuff.

“And I was probably that geeky kid at school, who carried the camera around and filmed the musicals and (went to) film club things at school.

“I just loved the idea of capturing people's stories.”

After high school, he attended Griffith Film School, honing his craft. He says the advent of NITV came along at just the right time in his career.

“Here you have a national broadcaster who ... was clearly to get Indigenous creators and production companies front and forward to try and get opportunities and tell stories.”

In his time as a filmmaker, he has made children's television, short films and in 2018, Gibson made headlines with his powerful feature documentary Wik vs Queensland, telling the story of the historical court decision in 1996 by the High Court of Australia, granting native title to the Wik People of Cape York, including the fall-out that followed at the hands of politicians and media. 

“I've lived a life where I've travelled and met people who I never would have thought to have met and heard fantastic stories," he reflects.

“So it's certainly a privilege to go into peoples' lives and listen and understand and gain that trust and help people share their story.”

It’s a guiding principle for him as a documentary maker, one that not every creator shares.

“My thing is to listen," he says.

“You can quickly understand where the magic in the story lies if you just actually listen." 

“You can quickly understand where the magic in the story lies if you just actually listen. I think we all know that … We sit with the Elders, we sit with our family; the best thing you can do is actually not talk and listen and you will quickly learn where the gold is in people's lives or where those points of tension sit.”

It’s a lesson that could be learned on a national scale. At the urging of First Nations peoples, Australia is now inching closer to Makarrata, truth-telling, where society will listen to the story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s pain, and admit culpability in that history and its propagation.

“And I think that's an important part of moving forward. And it's always not going to be comfortable.

“I think coming to the table with empathy... is a really important part of the maturity of people in this nation.

“It's like a family, you know, families are full of people with all different things. And until you actually sit down empathetically and try to understand what your family is going through you can’t heal.”

Stream Incarceration Nation on SBS On Demand:


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