Blog Archives - ThinkFilms

A Letter from John Pilger

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On Thursday this week, I delivered a breakout presentation at the YWCA’s She Leads Conference in Adelaide. The theme was “Owning Your Change”.

I spoke about how I changed my career from fishing to film and the journey and the lessons learned in between.

This morning, I remembered a handwritten note I received from John Pilger back in 2001 in response to a letter I’d written to him asking if I could work for him. I was about to change from one career to another and I wanted to be the type of investigative journalist that exposed social ills, like John Pilger.

In the note, John Pilger wrote:

“Dear Lara,

Thanks for your excellent letter – it reminded me of when I wrote to people in London from Sydney at your age. Alas, I can’t help; I don’t employ anyone. My TV company support a small team, and we all make the coffee! I’m sorry.

I wish you every success. I have a feeling you’ll go far! All good wishes.

John Pilger.

So, while I’m not the investigative journalist like John Pilger, I still admire him greatly. And that note was part of a train of events that lead me to becoming a purpose-driven filmmaker.

Thank you John !

Collaborative filmmaking. I love it when everyone gets involved.

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Something that’s always been important to me in my work is being able to involve those around me in the filmmaking process.

Recently, I was on assignment in Bougainville in the Pacific, working with CUFA Project Officers travelling to a number of villages to interview people who have participated in and experienced the impacts of CUFA’s projects that focus on giving young people much needed skills in financial literacy, employment skills, micro-enterprise development skills and more.

I could see how keen a couple of the project officers were about the camera, so with some on-the-job training and a lot of enthusiasm, they showed their skills in the field behind the camera.

People talk about Participatory Video, which is something else I’m really passionate about, but I think it’s also about providing opportunities for participation (and new skills) with the people I work with in the field. Giving them the chance to get behind the camera or work with audio.

I love being able to do this as part of my job. Collaborating and sharing what I’ve learnt with those around me is just part of my approach to what I do.

How an email turned into a lifelong friendship

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In 2007, I embarked on a daunting but exciting journey to make my first feature documentary. I was driven by a desire to start a new career that would allow me to make films to make people think.

If you’ve ever embarked on a project with no funding before, you know how important it is to find ways to keep your costs down. One way I did this was to look for product sponsors. One of those has now, nine years later, turned into what I know will be a lifelong friendship.

At the start of my documentary journey in 2007, I had to make various filming trips to India and Tibet and I needed appropriate clothing. I went into a shop in Adelaide to look for travel-wear clothes only to find, as usual, everything made in China. This, I thought, was quite ironic given the documentary I was making began from the point of China’s invasion of Tibet in 1949. Eventually, in one shop I noticed a travel wear brand called Earth Sea Sky whose clothing was made in New Zealand. My research later revealed that the company was family owned, ethical and sustainable. Just the type of company for me!

Months after sending my email to Earth Sea Sky telling them about my plans to make the film and how I was looking for product sponsors, and still not having received a response, I relegated the email to the dustbin of email history. One day however, not so long after this, I received an apologetic response from the owner of Earth Sea Sky, David Ellis.

That email, in 2007, was followed by many other emails, the provision of clothing for not only my Tibet documentary but subsequent work around the world, and personal meetings, catch ups for dinner and coffee with David and his wonderful wife Jane. Our visits and communication continue to this day and I consider them among my very good friends.

Back in 2007, their support felt almost miraculous. Here I was – an unknown, making my first ever feature documentary and they believed in me. The documentary was finished as planned in time for screenings just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and was even acquired for purchase by TV New Zealand as well as Czech Television. Screenings were held in theatres across Australia, NZ, Asia and Europe.

I love everything about Earth Sea Sky. The clothing they make, how they make it, their business principles and ethics, their stance towards sustainability, their integrity. Most of all, I love the fact that they are a family run business who really believe in the quality products they make.

Thank you David and Jane – for not only your ongoing support for my work but for your commitment to a business that is ethical, sustainable, professional, personal and so wonderfully family run.

Working with Relief International on their Sundarbans Mangrove Ecotourism Project

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Earlier this year I was in Bangladesh working with Relief International to make a short video about their Sundarbans Mangrove Ecotourism Project.

I got to experience the incredible Sundarbans which is a massive stretch across southern Bangladesh of the largest saltwater mangrove forest in the world. It’s also home to the Bengali tiger. I also got to see first hand the incredible impact that RI’s Sundarbans Mangrove Ecotourism Project is having.

The project was designed to provide local communities with an alternative economy so that they could reduce their dependence on the natural resources of the Sundarbans. To do this, RI established pilot ecotourism sites that bring tourists to the area and provide community members with various employment roles and incomes.

It was a challenging mission. An unscripted video that involved extensive travel to remote locations over a short period of time but the aim was to show, as authentically as possible, how the project has positively impacted. It was also an opportunity, for me, to meet some of the most warm hearted and wonderful people of Bangaldesh and to work with the dedicated team of RI Bangladesh.

Congratulations Relief International Bangladesh ! It’s a brilliant project with real outcomes providing benefits on many levels.

Languages and documentaries – celebrating diversity and telling stories.

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I was raised in Australia by Italian migrants. The first language I spoke, until I went to school at the age of 5, wasn’t the native language of Australia but the native language of my parents. My parents gave me a lifelong appreciation for languages, their intricacies and nuances and a love of the sound of different languages.

A lot of the work I do in my documentary production is working with people for whom English is either a second language or who don’t speak English at all. I interview them, with a translator, in their native language and then translate and subtitle their words. Of course, it’s always a tricky process making sure that the integrity of someone’s words in their language is not lost in the translation and it’s a time consuming process to get this right but it’s also very rewarding.

I’ve worked with languages from the Pacific, Asia, China, Tibet and across Australia. In Australia, prior to colonisation, there were around 250 different languages spoken by the many Aboriginal tribes across the land. At the beginning of the 21st century, those numbers have declined to around 150 and around 13 of them are highly endangered.

An independent documentary I’ve been working on tells the story of Alyawarr elder Banjo Morton from central Australia. Banjo and a small handful of other Aboriginal stockmen who walked off from their place of employment in 1949 demanding wages instead of rations. My research uncovered it was the first time in the Northern Territory that Aboriginal stockmen did this. It’s a piece of history that few in Australia know about. As part of this project, I’ve been fortunate to spend time in Banjo’s remote community of Ampilatwatja – about 350 km North East of Alice Springs in Australia’s centre. Here, I’ve been working with Banjo’s language – Alyawarr (pronounced “alyawarra”) which is a language spoken every day by 1500 people in Central Australia. Most speakers live North East of Alice Springs, spreading over the Queensland border.

I’m lucky that I get to experience the richness of diverse languages and the people who speak them, in my work. As the world moves faster and faster and with this comes the challenges of modern life, I think languages need to be celebrated and cherished. Documentaries that incorporate languages other than English are a great way to not only tell those particular stories but also a great way to record those languages forever.

Why simple things are the best things. (Development documentaries can show the power of simplicity…and that’s why I love making them)

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I think simple things are the best. It’s cliche, I know but in this chaotic world of ours, it’s a thought that often gets lost.

Last year I worked with the UNDP Solomon Islands SWoCK Project team to produce a series of videos demonstrating the impact of their SWoCK Project.

In Pidgin, SWoCK stands for Strongem Waka lo Community for Kaikai which translates roughly into Developing Resilience in Agriculture and Food Security. It was a project with simple objectives – and great impact. The Solomon Islands, like many Pacific Island nations, is highly susceptible to the effects of climate change and in particular rising sea levels. It’s a serious concern for the many communities scattered along the coastlines and elsewhere.

As part of our travels, we interviewed John Thomas from the small community of Rade Aekoa. John and his family are dependent on the range of vegetables that John grows for their food. The SWoCK Project helped John expand his range of vegetables as well as provide infrastructure for his chickens whose manure fertilises his garden.

Across the Solomon Islands, the dedicated team of the SWoCK Project worked closely with a number of communities providing support (ranging from growing workshops to food banking, seed planting and more) and simple infrastructure (such as chicken coops and water tanks) to assist communities develop resilience to climate change by maintaining their own food supplies.

While the SWoCK Project had a number of simple aims, they were aims that produced great results that will have great impact. It’s projects, and people, like SWoCK and farmer John Thomas who remind us that the simple things can be the most important.

Especially as we all struggle with the demands and challenges of our daily lives in this often crazy world.

A Walk Off before Wave Hill – a new documentary in the making

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In August, 1966 Aboriginal stockman Vincent Lingiari led about 200 Gurindji, Mudburra and Warlpiri workers in their strike and walk-off from remote Wave Hill cattle station. They demanded rights to their own land.

It was and remains a significant part of Australia’s history.

But few people know that 17 years before this, a small group of Aboriginal stockmen in central Australia also walked off but this time from the Lake Nash Cattle Station located on the NT/Qld border over 1000 km from Alice Springs.

The small handful of men included Alywarr elder Banjo Morton who’s now around 83 years old. The event was documented in February, 1949 by Constable Jack Mahony in the Lake Nash Police Journal.

I first met Banjo out at his home at Honeymoon Bore in remote central Australia in 2010. I was so intrigued with Banjo’s story that I decided to turn it into a documentary.

In 2011, I received some development funding from the SA Film Corporation which meant I could travel to the Archives in Darwin and Alice Springs and find the Police Journal record, and other information.

The project then stalled because well as most people know, trying to find funding for a documentary isn’t easy.

But now in 2016, my documentary project is back up and running. Banjo’s story will be told by Karen Downs – the daughter of Banjo’s nephew Richard. It’s a story not only about history but about family and connections. It’s a story about the past and the present and a story about the contribution of Banjo and the other Aboriginal stockmen so that their contribution to history won’t ever be forgotten.

The next stage of production will involve trips to Alice Springs, Ampilatwatja and Lake Nash filming Karen on her journey to uncover Banjo’s story. I’m currently on a mission to raise funds for this stage of the project.

In Australia, donations to the project are 100% tax deductible and can be made via the Documentary Australia Foundation

The Day I Made an Accountant Cry

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Last weekend, I was invited to lunch. On Saturday I sat at a table in a room of 300 people at a fundraising event. Next to me was an accountant. We’d never met before but we were connected that day by one thing – our support for the work of Sight For All, a charity founded by Adelaide Ophthalmologist Dr James Muecke.

I first read about James and his work with Sight For All a few years ago in the national Australian newspaper “The Australian”. Being inspired by what I’d read, I emailed James to offer my help should the opportunity arise, to work for Sight For All using the skills I know best – documentary filmmaking. Earlier this year, I had that opportunity and travelled to Vietnam and Bangladesh documenting James and his work with Sight For All.

During the lunch, the accountant sitting next to me was asking me questions about my work. We both laughed at how our lives and our work were at polar opposites.  He was curious to know about where I’d been and what I’d done and he asked me the question: “what’s something that has made you cry?”. I thought about it for a while and then I told him:

“When I was in Hanoi working with James and filming his work with small children in the operating theatre at the Vietnam National Institute of Ophthalmology, on my first day there I was filming parents with children who’d come in to have examinations under anaesthesia. This is a common screening process that’s undertaken. After the examinations were complete, and the children had recuperated in the small and crowded recovery room, a grandfather came in to talk with James and two other doctors there, Dr Chau and Dr Trang (who do amazing work). The grandfather was holding his small granddaughter. She was about two years old. There was an emotion so intense in that room as I stood behind the camera filming the doctors telling the grandfather that this small child would have to have her eye removed in order to survive. The grandfather looked down at the small child he was cradling in his arms and began crying. It wasn’t so much the sadness of the news he’d just learned that then made me cry, although that’s horrendous news to have to receive, but it was the immense love the grandfather had for his granddaughter which I could literally feel. That love and his reaction to the news made me turn away from my camera and cry silently.”

As I was talking I watched the tears welling in the accountants eyes.

It’s emotionally and physically draining work that the doctors of Sight For All do on a daily basis. Doctors Chau and Trang in Hanoi are two of the most compassionate and dedicated women I have ever met and Doctor Muecke continues the important work of Sight For All in a number of developing countries in his quest to ensure that all children receive the best ophthalmology services possible.

For more information on Sight For All visit www.sightforall.org

To find out more about me and my work visit www.thinkfilms.org

Photo:  a screen grab taken from some of my footage. The grandfather holds his small baby granddaughter in the waiting room pre surgery in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Keeping Migrant Workers Safe. Tearing Down the Human Trafficking Industry.

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Each year, around or more than 400,000 Bangladeshi’s migrate overseas for work. They fill employment demands in countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Lebanon, Malaysia and Liberia.

Imagine being a villager from Bangladesh, going away to a foreign country to work. It’s your first overseas trip, first time on a plane, first time in a totally foreign country, first time with a completely foreign language. If you were unfortunate to fall into the clutches of an unscrupulous migration agency or an unscrupulous employer because you were unable to distinguish between those that are safe and legal and those that aren’t, or even worse, into the clutches of the global human trafficking industry because you weren’t aware of how such a thing could be possible, where would you turn for support ? Then imagine having your passport taken from you. What could you do ?

Cases like this, I found out afterwards, are not unusual and unfortunately human trafficking (the trade of humans, most commonly for sexual exploitation or forced labour) is a concern in a country like Bangladesh where so many men and women migrate for work each year. Human trafficking is thought to be one of the fastest growing activities of trans-national criminal organisations. The UN estimates the total market value of illicit human trafficking in 2005 was around 32 billion US dollars per annum. The International Labor Organisation (ILO) estimates here are 2.4 million people globally who are lured into forced labour.

When I was in southern Bangladesh recently, on assignment for Relief International Bangladesh, I experienced first hand the story of what can happen to Bangladeshi migrant workers. A woman from a village I visited told us about her husband who had gone to work somewhere in either Liberia or Libya four years ago. She didn’t know exactly where he was, only that it had been four years since he had left and she felt she had absolutely no way of helping him to come home.

Relief International Bangladesh has implemented programs to promote safe migration – where migrant workers are educated about their rights, are assisted through the migration process, have an avenue for redress and communication, are not taken advantage of by unscrupulous migration agents and more.

Ri Bangladesh has collaborated with Bangladesh-Korea Technical Training Center  to set up a Migration Resource Centre. It’s also working with other training centres in Dhaka to educate migrant workers and promote safe migration.

Promoting safe migration, especially in a country like Bangladesh where so many men and women migrate for work each year, is critical. It’s a big task when you think about the numbers of Bangladeshi people migrating annually to work overseas but programs like those that are being implemented by Relief International certainly go a long way to making migration safer.

Photo: women at the Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib Women’s Technical Training Centre in Dhaka in their daily Arabic language lesson. They are just a small group of Bangladeshi women who will work overseas.

How one NGO is shaping a new economy for local communities in Bangladesh (and creating an experience of a lifetime)

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Two weeks ago, I arrived home after an intense 24 days in Vietnam and Bangladesh shooting for 3 different projects for 2 NGO’s. One of these was Relief International Bangladesh’s Mangrove Ecotourism Project in the Sundarbans.

The Sundarbans is the larges saltwater mangrove forest on earth. It’s home to the Bengali tiger and a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s also home to many diverse local communities who have relied heavily on the natural resources of the surrounding forest and river for their livelihoods.

The Sundarban Mangrove Ecotourism Project has found a way to reduce the human impact on the forest and waterways – hence maintaining the biodiversity  of the unique Sundarbans environment- and at the same time, provide villagers and communities with a new and sustainable economy.

This new economy – ecotourism – offers visitors from Bangladesh and around the world an incredibly unique opportunity to experience the magnificence of the Sundarbans while developing real connections with local people. I sailed down the river with Paritosh, the boat man who was lucky enough to survive a tiger attack in 2010. I enjoyed the first ever Sundarbans barbecue cooked by the enigmatic eco-entrepreneur and cottage owner Shripathi at his house one night. I drank fresh honey collected from the Sundarbans by the famous honey collectors. I watched women cooking in their family homes with fresh, organic food creating smells that made my mouth water and nose tingle. I stood mesmerised one dark night as I watched trees laden with fireflies twinkling like christmas decorations. And this is only just a small taste of what I experienced.

I developed friendships that were authentic and wholehearted. I saw a part of the world that is magnificent. I met people who opened up their homes and their hearts to me and I walked away with an experience that I’ll never forget.

This was one of the most memorable assignments I’ve had. Thank you Relief International Bangladesh. If you’re in Bangladesh, and you’re into unique lifetime experiences, do yourself a favour and spend some time at one, or more, of the ecotourism sites. You’ll not regret it !

You can find out more about the Sundarbans Mangrove Ecotourism project here: http://sundarbans-ecotourism.org

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Image:  I wanted a photo with the women and children who were around on this day  when we were filming at one of the ecotourism sites in the Sundarbans. Just after our group pic was taken, this older lady looked at me and I at her and we couldn’t resist the urge to hug each other. This is the heartfelt experience you get when you live with the locals in the ecotourism sites scattered along the amazing Sundarbans in Bangladesh. Photo by Reema Islam.