• Catherine Liddle interviewing filmmaker Rachel Perkins for Awaken at the Garma Festival 2016 (NITV)Source: NITV
Rachel Perkins discusses the responsibilities and perils of storytelling on Awaken.
Catherine Liddle

6 Dec 2016 - 3:12 PM  UPDATED 7 Dec 2016 - 10:46 AM

Rachel Perkins arrives in a bustling wave of energy. Her hair is windswept, her face is clear and make up free. Her feet are grubby from the red Gulkula dust.

She pushes up her sunglasses, kicks off her thongs and moves quickly onto the stage barefoot. She accepts a drink, but declines any powder to take the shine off her brow and cheeks. Her body language is relaxed and open. It says, ‘this is who I am, and I am happy with that’. She’s a storyteller and she’s about to tell us hers.

I look at her and know intuitively that this is not going to be an interview; this is going to be a conversation. It can’t be any other way, as we are connected on a different level.

She is my Grandmother - it is her role to guide me and it is my role to learn. We also share a secret, in her bag underneath the stage sits a gift for me.

We start her story in Alice Springs, not at the beginning of her life, but at the start of the journey that was destined to bring her to this point in time.

This moment is preserved deep in the archives of Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA), where the vision of an 18 year old girl about to conduct her first interview is saved for posterity.

Her hair is boy short, on trend for the androgynous fashion of the late 1980s. Her face is anxious and her bare feet are tucked in underneath her chair. At the end of each question, Rachel’s mouth twists in uncertainty.

It would be fair to say that back then no one knew this young cadet would grow to become one of Australia’s most influential and prolific storytellers. But you can bet your bottom dollar that those remarkable pioneers of Indigenous media who gave her this opportunity hoped that she would.

This faith of those Indigenous pioneers that our media could climb to new heights, reach new audiences and most importantly, carry the voices of Aboriginal peoples is a responsibility that Rachel takes seriously and she tells us so. “All of this” she says as she sweeps her eyes and arms around our set, “we here, these cameras, this studio... all of those opportunities have been created by Indigenous people who went before us and fought for us to have these opportunities.”

And it was a fight that Rachel was born into as the daughter of one of Australia’s most prominent leaders, Charles Perkins.

We don’t dwell on this too long as this is Rachel’s story. However, Rachel is a person that knows we can change the world, she’s seen it happen. She also knows what an incredible toll leadership takes on our spokespeople and their families.

“Attacking our leaders is like sport for the mainstream press ... and no, it’s not alright.”

Rachel also knows it’s not only mainstream media that will attack. We are a diverse community and we argue and disagree as anyone should in a democratic society, but most of us agree on concepts of self-determination, economic prosperity and the protection of language and culture.

She takes a stand as she understands the stakes.

“I’ll stand up for anyone who is being attacked… they did it to Noel, they did it to Marcia, Larissa.” Rachel also knows that this stance brings its own critics, and she’s a realist about that.

As the cameras roll, we come full circle. It’s time to talk again about what has brought us to this stage, the Songlines.

Rachel’s professional success with films like Radiance and Bran Nu Dae, series awards for Redfern Now, educational documentaries First Australians and Mabo and immersive documentaries like First Contact mean that she can now undertake a deeply personal project: saving the songlines of our Grandmothers.

This will be her biggest endeavour to date, one that will attain little if any public recognition, because a lot of it is secret, but it also so precious.

Rachel has just finished recording the Arrernte Songlines with her grandmother’s Aunties, sisters and daughters. It’s a responsibility that requires strong shoulders, because she knows she can’t record them all. It’s frustrating too, that these incredible stories that shape and form our country are so undervalued.

Night has fallen while we’ve been speaking and a gentle breeze has begun to rustle the green leaves around us.

As the conversation ends, Rachel climbs down the steps and puts on her thongs. She picks up her bag with my gift inside it and goes looking for my maternal Grandmother.

Rachel is the storyteller, not the story holder.

She will hand my Grandmother a manila envelope with a plastic USB inside. Its content is priceless.

When we finish recording for the night, Nana will give me the gift: her Grandmother's song.

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