Kelrick Martin is the director of the award-winning, Good Pitch² Australia–supported film Prison Songs. The subject of the film is indigenous incarceration—but it’s not what you might expect. 

Photo in header: Susie Meagher, Impact Producer (L); Kelrick Martin, Director (R) pitching Prison Songs at Good Pitch² Australia 2015


15 April 2016 was the National Day of Emergency to mark 25 years since the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.  The report made 340 recommendations and as a nation we have failed to translate those recommendations into social change.  Since 2004, there has been an 88% increase in indigenous imprisonment. The Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people represent just  3% of the Australian population but 27% of the prison population; if a young Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, you are 24 times more likely to be in detention. In the Northern Territory, 98% of juveniles behind bars are indigenous. It is shameful that so little has changed when it is within our power to make and legislate for change. There are real and practical solutions. Prison Songs, directed by Kelrick Martin is the key tool to be used in an impact campaign designed to raise awareness about proposed community-based solutions and expedite the action necessary to put a stop to this national disgrace.

See the Prison Songs website here.

For a short talk (transcript available) on a fascinating and important research study: “Predictable and Preventable” by Eileen Baldry, Professor of Criminology at UNSW. Click here.

Before We Get Started…

Australia’s first documentary musical, Prison Songs is set in Darwin’s Berrimah prison (built in 1979 and designed to hold 115 prisoners; when the film was shot in 2014, it held 800). The first time I watched, I was stunned when the young, blonde, blue-eyed Aboriginal man—the first in the film to tell us how he landed in prison—suddenly breaks into song. I wasn’t sure what I was watching but that’s the point, of course: to mess with your expectations of the genre. Released from the straight-jacket predictability of talking heads and the distancing effect of numbing statistics, the innovation in form and swift shift in tone, astonishes. You take notice. In Prison Songs, the individuals are people before they’re prisoners or ‘understood’ through the lens of an issue: their true selves are brought to life with intimacy, warmth, humour, honesty and a deft hand.

Award-winning hyphenate (writer-producer-director) Kelrick Martin is a Ngarluma/Bunuba man from Broome, Western Australia. In this interview, we go behind his impressive bio and learn about his journey into documentary film as well as his ideas about making and telling indigenous stories.  A week before the interview, I asked him to think about what his favourite films were, commenting that people are usually overwhelmed and immediately panic (or I do) if I asked that question without warning—he remarked:

I’m going to talk about the movies I love, not the ones that will make me look good.

Shazam! My kind of cinephile. I’m also sharing with you the “inspiration” for Martin’s company Spearpoint Productions because I think it’s one of the most beautiful and poetic I’ve read. I share it with you here:

In the dying embers of the 19th century, the Overland Telegraph – a technological communications revolution that carved across all Aboriginal lands including the Kimberley region of Western Australia, was conquering Australia. The never-ending trail of tall telegraph poles was a mysterious sight for the Kimberley Aboriginal people who stumbled across them. More intriguing though were the glass insulators that they found on top of the poles, like ripe fruit on a tree. Our people embraced this strange new discovery, and from shattered glass insulators, created spear points that were not just effective but intricately beautiful.  This story of repurposing technology for another unrealised use is the inspiration behind Spear Point Productions. 

A still from Prison Songs

Prison Songs

The Chat

PJB: Did your media career begin straight out of school?

KM: No! I bummed around… I didn’t even finish school. You know what teenagers are like… There wasn’t really a family business to follow. My mum worked in the public service and I figured I’d do the same thing because it was a regular pay-cheque and a stable sort of job. This was the early 90s; I was 17 years old and I worked for the federally funded CES (Commonwealth Employment Service)—we looked for jobs for people in Broome. People would come up to the desk and you’d have to extract information from them, work out who they were and what they wanted—I dealt with the whole community, across all ages, not only indigenous people. But because Broome has a large indigenous population and there’d be people for whom English was a second or third language—I was trying to help them find a job and to use the system as best I could. I worked there for three years and it was valuable experience in interviewing: getting to understand tone and how to ask questions that would elicit certain responses; there were closed questions, open questions… I was learning about it before I even knew it was a skill I would need for documentary. I had no idea what I was going to do but it ended up being incredibly interesting. It was good for my self-confidence, for learning about putting myself in another person’s shoes.

PJB: As that was your first job, you probably hadn’t experienced unemployment?

KM: I didn’t have a job straight out of school and I have never been unemployed in the way that I saw there: people who’d had a job for twenty years walking into the CES the day after they had lost their job. I talked to people whose self worth had just gone through the floor; it was hard to know where to start. I was working at the CES when the meatworks in Broome, a place that people had based their livelihoods around for decades, was closed down. I remember the day the meat-workers—some of whom had worked there 20 or 30 years—came through the door registering for unemployment benefits. It was incredibly tough.

PJB: How long did you stay in that job?

KM: I was twenty years old and had been there for three years when I started to get bored and was thinking: Is this what I want to do with my life? A job came across the desk which was a radio broadcasting traineeship with the local Aboriginal Radio station.

PJB: Was that Goolarri Media?

KM: Yes— it was a serious traineeship; the job revolved around a three-year term where you would be involved in on-the-job training and off-the-job training at a college in the Northern territory called the Batchelor Institute. It’s about 100 kilometres south of Darwin, in the rum jungle there, an old uranium mining town. Batchelor is an indigenous–owned and indigenous–run tertiary college—I did the journalism and broadcasting course. Four times a year I’d fly up and do a two week block at Batchelor. It was great… but in the end, I was sacked from Goolarri—

PJB: Why?

KM: After my traineeship was up, I was no longer a trainee and they didn’t have the funds to employ me… but fortunately while I was there, I had put together freelance stories for the ABC RN program Awaye! Around the time I got the sack, the presenter for Awaye! was going on maternity leave; they did a call out nationally—I applied and got the job. Suddenly I was moving from Broome where there were no traffic lights and a couple of roundabouts to Sydney. I’d never crossed the boarder to the Eastern States. I knew no-one, I had no family but I rocked up.

PJB: Was that a bit of a shock?

KM: You could say that…I remember walking along the footpath up near Haymarket, taking the lunch-time Broome country stroll and everyone was rushing past me; I couldn’t believe people could walk so fast. Sydney was a culture shock. But I was fortunate because I stayed in one of the Aboriginal Hostels—it’s an organisation that has accommodation around the country for students and people doing traineeships. There was one in Leichardt that was specific to people like me: in their mid twenties who’d come to the big smoke for the first time. We all hung out and got to know Sydney, together, which was really nice. It worked because it was about shared experience—we got to explore and discover together. The hostel put on meals so you ate together in the morning and the evenings—

PJB: That makes a big difference when you’re in a new city and know no-one. Did you make lasting friendships?

KM: Oh yeah. And I met my wife there! It was a fantastic experience.

PJB: During the time you worked for Awaye! and Radio National, was that when you got interested in making film documentaries?

KM:  I discovered I liked working in long form storytelling rather than news or journalism but to be honest, at this point I was grabbing any opportunity that came along and I was on short term contracts. I don’t know if the ABC still does this but they used to have a guy in Canberra who would go to local community radio stations around the country and teach radio skills. I got a job working with him for 12 months. I would travel, often to remote communities, and teach radio production and program-making; I was making a good wage, learning heaps.  Then ABC TV started Message Stick, and they were looking for a presenter so with a shrug of the shoulders and washing away the shame factor—

PJB: What do you mean “the shame factor”?

KM: A lot of young indigenous people don’t have a lot of confidence and when opportunities come along there’s this feeling of intimidation… it is a shame thing: stepping outside your comfort zone is hard, it feels safer to stay within what you know and not put yourself out there. This is particularly true for indigenous kids and teenagers who don’t have a lot of role models.

PJB: Role models are so important.

KM: Absolutely.

PJB: Did you have role models or mentors in your career?

KM: Not really. There were people in authority positions at Goolarri and Batchelor when I was younger—their job was to be in charge but I didn’t have the kind of mentor you meet who introduced you to networks or advised and supported you—nothing like that. It was frontier land. At that time in the 90s there weren’t many role models in indigenous media. It’s a relatively short history and there’s still a lot of work to do in that area but there’s been some great results, not only due to the individual filmmakers but as a result of funding initiatives and support via funding bodies and broadcasters.

PJB: I don’t think individuals can prosper without a system that supports them. It has to be about systemic change. If the system doesn’t make room for other voices, other people and transforms that into sustainable employment,  things don’t fundamentally change. The evidence is there for everyone to see… When did you decide to go to AFTRS to study Writing and Directing in Documentary?

KM: The Message Stick period was when I made that decision because I got bored with presenting and started series producing (thanks to David Jowsey) so I was much more hands on with the filmmakers, editors, producers, freelancers and ABC staff who were making content for this TV show, figuring out how to put the show together. It was another kind of apprenticeship but in television this time and I really loved it, I thought television was wonderful.

PJB: What was so wonderful about television?

KM: Radio was lonely (for me)—you have a tape recorder and could make programmes but a lot of the time you were doing it on your own. And I didn’t have a lot of people giving me feedback or a critique of my work and I like that; I don’t have any problem with people telling me they don’t like what I’ve done and why. I want to take it on board. Television was so much about team-work and being in it together. I loved it but I felt like a pretender—everyone I was a boss of was doing the filmmaking and I was judging them but had no experience making short form documentary content for television. I thought: I need some education in this area. I applied for the Myer Indigenous Scholarship to study at AFTRS—I applied and got in. I was lucky.

PJB: I don’t think it was luck—you did the work, and you pursued opportunities: this is interesting but that looks more interesting; you were driven.

KM: Is that what it’s called? I thought ‘driven’ was fixating on an end goal and going for it; I was just responding to opportunities.

PJB: Yes but you were driven to learn more, to do more, not everyone is like that even when the opportunities are there. People blow opportunities—

KM: I think you’re right, for me…having come from a community (and it comes back to that shame factor) where people never realise their full potential because of their insecurities. One of the things I learned from this process very early on was that it was only by putting yourself out there and being in a position of vulnerability that you actually grow and by doing that, more opportunity comes to you. I always said to myself: No-one has ever died from shame or embarrassment—

PJB: I think I’ve come close.

KM: If you put yourself out there, the worst that can happen is people say “No”.

PJB: And plenty of people don’t put themselves out there for that very reason. I think to be that open and up for it takes guts.How was your experience at AFTRS?

KM: It was like going back to High School.

PJB: Really? Do tell.

KM: I was doing Writing and Directing, Documentary and they only took two students (this was in 2001). It was me and Bec Barry.  We shared an office, made films, hung out… but as the doco people we were like the band geeks and computer nerds; all the drama people wanting to make features were like the cool kids, the jocks hanging out together…. They even had the cafeteria, we were out the back quietly eating our sandwiches.

PJB: (laughs)…It does sound like an American teen movie…

KM: It was but the film education was intense, focused and the people who taught us—Trevor Graham, Pat Fiske, Jane Roscoe—they were incredible. For a boy from Broome whose film education consisted of what I could find at the local video shop which were mostly pirated Hong Kong DVD knock offs—

PJB: Yes but very Quentin Tarantino—

KM: But then to go to film school and be exposed to Man Bites Dog, Battle of Algiers, to learn about Errol Morris and Brian Hill… When Jane Roscoe showed us Drinking for England—it blew my mind.

PJB: How so?

KM: It’s not what you expect documentary to be. Let’s assume your idea of documentary is dry, talking heads, voice over… Brian Hill’s docos I found invigorating. As a maker, the challenges you can choose to put in front of yourself in order to tell the story… it’s like being given a new box of tools so you can construct a narrative in ways you hadn’t expected or known was possible. After seeing Drinking for England, I worked my way through the rest of his docu-musicals and it was probably the highlight of my discoveries while I was at AFTRS…What influence did it have on me in terms of making Prison Songs? None whatsoever.

PB: That’s not what I was expecting….

KM: What I mean is: the idea of Brian Hill making an Australian film was always in train before I was part of the equation. It might not sound very romantic, but I was a director for hire and it had been set up at SBS.

PJB: So who instigated the project?

KM. Producer Harry Bardwell and Brian Hill had worked together on the ABC/BBC co-production Sylvania Waters and have known each other a long time. When Brian had spoken to Harry about wanting to make an Australian film set in the prison environment, I had already made a couple of docs about prison… Harry approached me to co-produce originally.

PJB: At that stage was it a film about indigenous incarceration?

KM: Yes. And because of the indigenous angle and people involved, essentially it became a question about whether Brian was the right person to direct this. Harry introduced me to Brian and ultimately he chose to take an executive producer role and I was asked to direct Prison Songs…Having seen Brian’s films at AFTRS and then to be working with him… Holy crap.

PJB: What is your view of rights to authorship? It’s complex territory as we both know but my question to you is not only as an indigenous man who is a filmmaker but also about how stories are made and told i.e. who has the “right” to tell a story?

KM: I think it’s counter productive to have a rule that says only indigenous people can tell indigenous stories because non-indigneous or whitefellas just as legitimately can tell a story about indigenous experience as an indigenous person… Why not? There’s some good examples

PJB: Like what?

KM: Rabbit Proof Fence by Philip Noyce. It’s a seminal work about the stolen generation.

PJB: It is very good… but he did meaningfully consult and involve the indigenous women, and the community, in the making of the film—

KM: And that’s what indigenous filmmakers have with regard to the process and the respect they give to the communal nature of a story and not necessarily the western idea of singular authorship. With much of the indigenous experiences, it is communally owned and you have to be respectful of how you negotiate those relationships and how to interpret those stories in a way that respects where these stories are coming from and the experiences these people have had. And indigenous people have a better sense of that because they grow up with it as part of their culture; it’s who they are. It’s not that non-indigenous people can’t have that empathy or understanding… it’s about education more than anything else.

PJB: Looking at your body of work and the slate of your production company Spearpoint, they are all about Aboriginal stories and experience…Do you want to make films that are about non-Aboriginal experience?

KM: I could but to be honest with you, there’s heaps of other people already doing that. There’s only a handful of people doing indigenous stories. If I’m going to be really pragmatic about it, there’s a market for indigenous stories so why wouldn’t I be in that market?

KM: I don’t want to sound like a heartless tycoon—

PJB: Go right ahead

KM: It’s just a reality. Not only for business, it’s about where my passions lie—I do have a passion for indigenous experience and putting them on screen. And not only factual stories, I’ve begun to push into fictional areas and really very keen to explore that. For me, it’s always coming from the place: How do I tell indigenous stories that firstly, connect with an audience, then entertains and then educates. There’s been an overly worthy value that’s been put on indigenous documentary and fictional filmmaking. It’s almost critique proof—no-one wants to criticise a bad indigenous film, no-one wants to be that person so I’m always thinking: how do I make this a good film first and it happens to have indigenous people in it sharing their experiences

PJB: I think that true—but there’s few Australian critics who constructively criticise Australian films be they by indigenous or non-indigenous filmmakers and that helps nobody: not the filmmakers, the audience nor the culture. On the other hand, the good films that have been made by indigenous directors have had significant commercial success and critical kudos in the international arena—

KM: Like The Sapphires and Samson and Delilah. 

PJB: Looking at your slate, the common theme seems to be about challenging stereotypes in the representation of Aboriginal people and stories. What would you like to see more of on screen?

KM: I know what I’d like to see less of: the misrepresentation of our mob as mystical and mythological… We just have to look at the sky and rain comes down…Because we’ve been living in this country for 50,000 years it’s as if we have this innate ability to know these things and it’s not true. Really what it’s about is that indigenous people have worked out how to live in this country having been here so long—and to live here without destroying the place; to live within the cycles rather than impose ourselves and waste our energy trying to change the landscape.

… What would I like to see on screens? Indigenous actors that are sexy, cool and heroic. To be seen the same way people see non-indigenous characters in roles that are about that. A mate of mine who’s hilarious and a “clown doctor”, among other things, goes to schools and takes workshops on cultural experiences… his daughter overheard one of the kids saying, “I wish my dad was Aboriginal”.

That’s what I’d like to create ultimately through filmmaking: that people don’t see being Aboriginal as a disadvantage but as something to aspire to, and getting the mainstream audiences on board with that. You can’t change the hearts and minds of a nation overnight but I’d like to change how indigenous people see themselves and their Aboriginality: as something to be proud of, to be cool for who they are and what they know.

PJB: What films do you love watching?

KM: I grew up with pop culture films and that’s what I enjoy watching over and over again: the old Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee stuff, Alien, The Terminator… boy films. I was indoctrinated early—when my parents wanted to see Werewolf in London, they dragged me along. Back in those days, they didn’t care if you brought your kids to see an adult movie. And I remember hiding behind my mothers back and looking over to see my father on the other side hiding behind her too. Being taken to see John Carpenter’s The Thing at the Drive-in and having to find the toilet in darkness while on screen the thing was breaking out of a dog’s body… I have fond memories, I love genre. I think Cleverman, the series that has been developed by Goalpost for the ABC is going to be intriguing. I think those indigenous characters can really break through to an international audience—I hope it sparks a wave about how indigenous characters on screen are perceived, and become a part of the cool thing.

PJB: You love cinema as escape and fantasy, pleasure and excitement but documentary is about the real. How do you reconcile the real and the entertaining?

KM: Prison Songs is an example of trying to create something entertaining, despite the heaviness of the subject matter. I don’t know if we succeeded but people seem to have responded. You look at the success of documentaries like Sherpa, That Sugar Film, Gayby Baby, Frackman—they have audiences, people want these stories and authored one-off documentaries; people are pulling away from serialised factual content you see on the ABC and SBS. I think story over-rides the categories of fiction and non-fiction because that’s what audiences want and engage with.

PJB: I can’t let you go without asking you about the Good Pitch²Australia experience. How was it for you and what did it mean for the film?

KM: For me, the Good Pitch experience was one of re-learning what documentary could do.  Meeting Ian and the Shark Island crew, the other filmmakers during our workshops, and the incredibly generous supporters from Documentary Australia Foundation, there was a real sense of taking films out beyond the TV screens and cinema screens—to promote films not just as one-way narratives, but as game-changing catalysts for important social issues.

In relation to Prison Songs, this has meant that our film – critically applauded but viewed by very few – will now become part of a national campaign for changing the conversation around over-incarceration of Indigenous people.  I thought once we had made the film it would sit on a shelf somewhere, but Good Pitch has made it so, so much more.

Postscript: At the time of posting this interview,  news came of  Tiga Bayles death.  A Birri Gubba Gungalu man and a Dawson River Murri, Tiga Bayles contributed much in his life. An early chairman of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, and named Queensland Father of the Year in 2005. He raised nine girls, and was Australia’s most prominent – and awarded – First Nations broadcaster.  A statement issued by the Brisbane Indigenous Media Association on behalf of his family can be read here.  Our condolences to Tiga Bayles’ family, friends and colleagues.


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