When Rites of Passage won a Special Jury Mention at the 2013 Warsaw Film Festival, the judges there noted the way in which the community and youth work aims of this film produced a unique vision. With other festival awards for editing, direction and audience choice, Rites of Passage has connected with people at a variety of film festivals internationally, and with Australian audiences via a national tour that took in 21 cities. As they prepare to launch the film more broadly into the Video on Demand space, Phil Crawford, the director of the film, talks here about the unique and different way this film was made.
Made for a Reason – by Phillip Crawford
There are many reasons why people make films: to make money, to raise awareness about something, to express themselves, to connect and entertain. The reasons why people want to make a film will, of course, have a major effect on the film that is made.
Rites of Passage was made for a different reason to most films. For us, the making of it was just as important as the final product. And while we always hoped for – and have managed to get – a great audience, the film never set out to be a money spinner. We knew it wouldn’t be competing for box office dollars with the latest Boxing Day blockbuster. We made our film for one main reason – to give opportunities for change to the disadvantaged young people who appear in it and helped to create it.
The film itself reflects that. It’s pretty out of control at the start, much like some of the kids who were involved in its making. The film starts with two minutes of chaos where you hear the sound of the kids involved in the film behind the scenes on the set calling “action”, “cut” and trying to figure out what to do with cameras and sound equipment. At the same time you have to try and read the 10 principles on which the film was made. The music is cut in and out, no nice fades or dissolves, just abrupt, in your face, rough hacks. You get a whole bunch of almost random images of young people, sticking their fingers up at you, riding bikes, jumping on burnt out cars, walking along beaches. There is no image continuity, it’s black and white, colour, infra-red, grainy, super 8 looking; shot to shot it changes. And then it ploughs headfirst into six different scenarios, hardly giving you time to figure out who is who, or what the hell is going on. First impressions: “I am not sure I really want to spend time on this or know anything about these kids.”
Then it starts to settle. The humour of the kids brings you closer to them, warms you a bit. Then we start to see their heart, the things they face and how they are trying to make sense of the difficulties of youth. You spend time with them and they start to suck you in, evoking memories and images from your own childhood and youth. It’s easy to start feeling that we aren’t so different after all.
So how did this crazy work come to be?
Rites of Passage was conceived as a community project in the Illawarra, a coastal region south of Sydney. It was made under the umbrella of Beyond Empathy (BE), an Australian community, arts and cultural development organisation that creates art projects with people living on the margins of their communities. BE’s slogan is: “We love art and we hate disadvantage.”
It’s a feature-length drama inspired by the experiences of the participants. They might live in public housing and come from families that have seen disadvantage and hardship. But with frankness and courage, these young people dip below the surface of their often tough exteriors to reveal what’s going on inside their lives.
It took three years of filming. The first shots took place in July 2009 and the final ones in October 2012. Over those years, the young people literally grow up in front of the camera, and this is reflected in the growing maturity of their performances as the film progresses. It was a tiny team who coordinated. My colleague and co-director Gemma Parsons and I were backed up by our amazing volunteer, filmmaker Mary Callaghan and for a while we had Jess Rees, who you can hear singing in the soundtrack for the film. And that was it. Everyone had to do everything. There was no crew hierarchy or much formality. Everyone just had to muck in or nothing would get done.
We made the film according to our own rules and we summarised them into 10 commandments or principles (our own little homage to Lars gov Trier, or Moses!) as a way to explain what is different about this film. I thought it might be useful to give a bit more insight into what we did and why did it by going through the 10 Principles with some stories and anecdotes about the process of making Rites of Passage.
The 10 Principles
1. To assist people living with hardship build new futures (the Mission Statement of Beyond Empathy)
Since making the film, some of the young people have said: “It kept me out of trouble”, “It helped me deal with things like anxiety and depression”, and “It was a motivational thing for me”.
The project helped two young people decide to undertake drug rehabilitation programs during and after making the film. Three people have studied film and media at the local TAFE. One young person used the experience to make a major work for her Higher School Certificate. Her short film, Legoland, was selected for ARTEXPRESS, the annual exhibition at the NSW Art Gallery featuring outstanding student artworks, received an honourable mention in the student film competition at Flickerfest 2014 and also screened in competition at a film festival in Austria. Another person was picked up by a casting agent and was offered paid acting parts in the ABC TV Series, Redfern Now, and the feature film, Around the Block, starring Christina Ricci. For others, it has simply made them more resilient, a bit more confident, with a sense of pride that they have achieved something real, that has brought praise and acclaim from their friends, peers and the wider community, including other filmmakers.
2. All key actors must be amateurs and live in the community where the film is shot
The film was mainly shot in locations around the Illawarra. Many of the young people come from the suburbs of Berkeley and Warrawong which are the most disadvantaged postcodes on the NSW south coast. With the aim of creating new opportunities for the participants, we accepted everyone who was referred by a local youth worker or health worker. Anyone who wanted to be involved was given a role – so there was none of the usual casting process. Once they said they wanted to do it, it was up to us to find a role for them and make them look their best in whatever part they played.
Prior to Rites of Passage, BE had been working in Berkeley and Warrawong for four years conducting music, film and street art workshops with young people. Some of the cast came from these workshops, often bringing their friends with them.
3. There can be no traditional script and there must be more than one story line
By developing multiple story lines, we aimed to spread the opportunities among lots of people. If there was only one story in the film featuring one main character, then only one person would have received all the attention – and acclaim.
4. The story lines must be developed with the actors, drawing on their life experiences
Non-actors often turn in good performances because they’re playing a character close to their own personality and life story. Once we knew who was going to be involved, we could develop a story to include them … but it wasn’t easy to conceive of stories about multiple characters that are all the same age and all wear their baseball caps backwards!
All the stories originated from the participants and then developed in different ways:
i) Some stories emerged when we asked people about the rites of passage they had experienced. But to protect their privacy, no-one acted out their own story. In this way we created a drama, not a documentary.
ii) Other stories grew out of the real life personalities, characteristics and interests of the actors. We started working with a group of kids who were really into skateboarding and because they carried around cameras to record their tricks… they also fell into recording other things that happened to them in their community. This developed in our film into a story about how they inadvertently film a domestic violence scenario with their neighbours and then wonder what to do about it.
iii) Or stories just arose from needing to have a dramatic moment for a character. Kane, who plays the boy who writes a poem about his grandmother, doesn’t have a grandmother with dementia, but we developed this to give Kane and his character a “highlight” moment in the context of the “school class” type story that features in the film.
5. If an actor fails to turn up the shoot continues, creating a new direction for the film
This principle was created out of necessity. During the making of the film, participants got pregnant, went to rehab and got locked up, so their stories needed to be adaptable. The flexibility in the stories allowed people to come in and out of the project depending on their changing circumstances. Being spontaneous often added interesting elements. One of the stories is about an isolated boy questioning his identity and integrity. A number of times our filming plans went pear-shaped because someone else we needed couldn’t turn up or was running late but we didn’t cancel, we went and shot something anyway. We realised later that we created an accidental pattern of filming this character through “reflections” in these unplanned moments (a reflection on the back of a spoon or a pool of water by the side of a road). It ended up being a strong visual choice considering the narrative, but it was accidental in the sense that we just took advantage of what seemed to present to us in the location where we were.
6. The film must be shot in real locations in the community
People who experience disadvantage often lead isolated lives. The exposure of shooting in the community often drew other people into the project or broadened the social connections of participants. It also meant people from the general community became aware of the film and were keen to come to see it when it was completed.
The skateboarders’ story was shot in the Bundaleer Estate, a housing commission area on the northern side of Lake Illawarra. Much of the dog story was shot in Berkeley. Roman’s story was shot in a semi-rural area about 20 minutes away called Marshall Mount. The interior scene of Roman’s story and the party scene were shot in a house owned by the community organisation, Barnardos.
Being on set would probably make most people raise their eyebrows and wonder how on earth the film ever got made. As director, I got a bucket of water thrown on me by an irate man who lived next door to where we were filming the boys doing graffiti with condensed milk. The man got sick of the noise the boys were making. It was all sorted out and afterwards and I went into the man’s house and had a cup of tea and looked at his paintings.
The fire scene was shot in bush just north of Wollongong. Chaise, who plays the lead role in that scene, was picked up at 6am and went all day. Daniel helped Lou, the special effects guy (who had worked on The Matrix), operate the smoke machine and the fire pipes and ran around lighting little flames on the side of trees, which the Rural Fire Service guys (who were also on board to help us) duly put out when the take was finished. At the end of the day we found ourselves locked inside this protected area so we didn’t get home till well after 8.30pm. It meant an extra-long day for everyone, especially Chaise, aged 14. But what an incredible challenge. We managed to film a scene which featured a raging bush fire!
7. Key actors and the production team should all operate cameras, sound, lighting and other equipment
Often people didn’t want to be in the film but were happy to work behind the camera. This helped them to build their self-confidence and their capacity to work in a team. With our tiny budget and basic equipment, we couldn’t hope to match the big blockbusters. Instead we went our own way, revelling in a home-made, hands-on, low-tech style.
Often we would explain to someone how to operate the camera, how the focus worked, how to monitor the sound. The person would operate the camera for one take and then say: “My back is sore, can someone else do it?” We would have to repeat the whole routine again with someone else (you hear a bit of this chaos in the opening prologue of the film).
8. Every scene should be shot with different types of cameras and styles
Our process was often opposite to the usual way of making feature films, which have a central character and a short shooting period to overcome any continuity issues. We decided to match our more collegiate process with a similar visual style. For example with the classroom scenes, some were filmed on sunny days and others on cloudy days. To bypass the need for continuity in the weather, we often filmed in colour or black and white or infra-red. This added a dynamic edge to the film and exploited its rawness, adding to its authenticity.
We decided to make the film resemble a collage, stitching together shots from different cameras and approaches. This enabled us to work quickly and make the most of our basic equipment. We may not have had controllable lights or big frames to diffuse light but we still wanted the shots to have character and look striking and beautiful. A rundown of the different elements:
- Two old Super 8 cameras with black and white stock. I find that Super 8 is so evocative of memory… the way the grain swims and how it doesn’t reveal everything, even aggressive adolescent pimples…. which makes it very useful indeed when you are trying to make people look their best.
- An old 16mm Eclair film camera, a heavy old beast. All the 16mm footage was shot on Reversal Stock (slide film) but processed as if it was negative, which increased the contrast and saturated the colour. It works great with flat lighting, which was perfect for us. We used the short ends from old stock and exploited its imperfections to add to the rawness.
- After seeing the 1950’s film Soy Cuba by Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov which was shot on infrared 35mm film, we worked out how we could use a similar approach using a Sony A1 HDV camera. This created the infra-red black and white footage with dramatic contrasts. It makes the leaves on the trees go extremely white, almost like snow. We wanted to find the beauty in the locations and this footage really added to that. It also proved to be great in the fire scenes, helping the flames stand out against the backgrounds.
- The main camera was the Sony A1, the cheapest HDV camera. We added a Depth of Field Adapter so we could use old Canon FD stills camera lenses, allowing us to work with a shallow depth of field in a far greater way than these cheap cameras permit.
- During the three years of filming, digital SLR cameras became much cheaper and were used towards the end of the shoot. They were a real lifesaver when working with low light.
- We used iPhones and a Flip camera to film in places where we wanted to be inconspicuous. Sometimes it was just fun to give one of the kids hanging around who didn’t seem to be doing anything useful and see what they captured.
- We also used a Lens Baby and a Tilt Shift lens. Some of the Super 8 was done using Stop Motion i.e. taking a single frame at a time.
9. All the credits must be in alphabetical order, with no one credited as writer or creator
The stories were developed by many people, making it impossible to credit any one person. We decided to put all the participants, cast and crew in alphabetical order so no-one’s role was given more prominence than any other.
10. The first screening must be held in the community where the film was made
We wanted all the participants to get a big buzz from the response from their own community. The premiere screening was the first time many of the young people had ever been acknowledged for doing something positive. We didn’t make the film to get brownie points from the film industry, (though we did end up winning some international awards). And we didn’t want to exploit the young people by making a film with them and then walking away. So instead of us, many of the young people were called upon to present the film at all sorts of forums and venues. One young participant travelled to Warsaw for its Polish premiere (and collected a prize on stage at the end of the festival). Another went to a film Festival in Canada, where the film took out a People’s Choice Award. He got to attend a film making workshop associated with this Festival, and has since collaborated with some Canadian Film makers on a short film. Most of the young cast got to travel somewhere in Australia and host a screening, running question and answer sessions about their work. For most of them it was the first time they had been on a plane, and a real horizon expanding opportunity – something they didn’t imagine they would ever do. One boy asked us if he needed a passport to travel to Brisbane and another whether he needed different currency when going to Melbourne. All these experiences have helped build the cast and crew’s sense of connectedness and self-worth and broaden the horizon of where they feel they can go in their lives.
The film is called “Rites of Passage” because we were working with a group of adolescents and in the making and screening of it, we were trying to give them their own rite of passage in their community. They certainly went on a journey during the making of the film and when it was screened they were recognised, accepted and applauded. You see some of this in the final section on the film.
It was such an honour to work in this way with such remarkable people, who all held cameras and booms and burnt their fingers on the film lights and sometimes caused mayhem when we were trying to concentrate. I had been thinking about making a feature length dramatic work using this community-based approach for many years, and it was fantastic to get the opportunity to actually make it happen. So many things happened over those three years in my own life that are reflected in the film, in much the same way as the stories of the young people. In this way, making that film became my rite of passage and a great learning opportunity as well.
You can watch Rites of Passage via Vimeo on Demand
A featurette where you can listen to some of the young people talking about the film can be viewed at: