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Bill Code is a producer and director of photographer with a background in journalism and short documentary for Al Jazeera English, the BBC and others.
Starting his career with SBS, he went on to head up video at Guardian Australia following its launch.
The Lake of Scars, which he has been producing since late 2015, is his first feature length film and it’s simply a must-see documentary about an important Australian location that must be protected and preserved.
In a corner of Australia exists the Lake of Scars, a place of astounding natural beauty, archaeological significance, and age-old culture. But the Indigenous scarred trees and artefacts found here are at risk – until an unlikely intergenerational partnership comes forth to save the site for future generations.
“I want Australians as a whole to respect the natural environment and the cultural sites within it. So in making a film about this special place I guess I hope it can be a template, a touchstone, for people across the country; this is how you can care for country, this is how reconciliation can work.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
The film is ultimately about the importance of preserving Australia’s aboriginal heritage, and the landscape and natural beauty of this particular area plays a huge part in that. Have you always been interested in the environment in general?
As a journalist I’ve always sought out stories on the environment simply because I love to be around forests, lakes, waterways and mountains. I’m at ease in the natural environment and want to focus my creative efforts in this life on sharing that passion for preserving what little pockets of the untouched natural world we have left.
When were you first introduced to the lake of scars site?
Many years ago, perhaps 2013, I was working for SBS as a reporter and was sent to Boort to report on the repatriation of some Yung Balug ancestors from a museum in Melbourne. It was a process Uncle Gary Murray had driven, but when I got to Boort I found an old white couple helping run the event. They were making cups of tea and showing people where the bathroom was, letting journalists use their internet, basically running the show along with the Yung Balug clan. It was unusual to say the least.
After I finished my short TV ‘package’ I went out on the lake with Paul at his insistence – and I’m glad I did; I’d no idea what a scarred tree was until Paul showed me. I know now that sharing that knowledge with newcomers is what keeps Paul going. A couple of years later as a freelancer I went back with a half-formed idea for a short doc, and here we are now.
There is some mention of vandalism to the site regarding general litter and vehicular destruction. Do you know how often this site is affected by natural disaster?
The site and the trees is at risk from fire or vandalism, or accidental damage – duck shooting is popular here, simply because it is out in the elements. Scar trees won’t be with us for ever, they’re organic things. So part of the push from Paul and Gary and others is to preserve the trees which are there. But it’s also about letting new trees grow – and the Yung Balug (the clan) and Dja Dja Wurrung (language group/nation) having time and resources to scar new trees, as well.
The two main protagonists here, Paul Haw and Jida Gulpilil, are extremely passionate about this site. Did their passion rub off on you? Did you leave this project more determined to back their cause than when you began on the project?
They’re so passionate. Paul, Gary and Jida all love the country in their own ways. As a filmmaker I have some distance from their cause. There are politics circling this film and the narrative at every turn, and not everyone involved in it, or backing it, sees things identically. I do support the aim for recognition of the site, absolutely. But my main aim has always been slightly more meta. I want Australians as a whole to respect the natural environment and the cultural sites within it. So in making a film about this special place I guess I hope it can be a template, a touchstone, for people across the country; this is how you can care for country, this is how reconciliation can work. We might fall out at this point or that point, but really, it’s ‘eyes on the prize’ stuff.
Describe their passion and energy for us. What was it like to be in their presence?
Paul and Jida are pretty similar characters in some ways. Both energetic, talkative, big dreamers. Yeh, that is infectious. This film was a monumental challenge. State and federal funding bodies weren’t interested. This is my first feature and we weren’t a large team. It was also problematic for us given that a large part of the content is obviously ‘Aboriginal content’ and one of our key creatives was not Aboriginal,so that was a hurdle. In fact, this was really a two-person team. Me and my co-producer Christian Pazzaglia. Although we worked really closely with the clan, had people from the clan involved as EP and cultural advisor, were backed by the VAHC and Dja Dja Wurrung Corp…there was a lot that wasn’t ‘standard’ and did not fit too easily into a mould.So with that giant challenge – of me shooting most of the film (with some help from the talented Rudi Siira) and producing it, too- perhaps it helped making a film about others facing very large hurdles!
I also admire Uncle Gary Murray’s leadership – which is he passing on to his daughter Ngarra – he’s the slightly rabble-rousing one forged in the black/student politics movements of the 70s. I’ve been knowing to hang out at a few rallies myself over the years so I liked working with him.
Uncle Jack Charles has such a commanding energy on screen. How did Uncle Jack become involved in The Lake of Scars?
We needed a storyteller. Not a narrator, but someone who could get into our story we’d had going for five years at that point and bring people along. I was sure we needed the ‘final voice’ to be a Dja Dja Wurriung person. Much of the film features Paul, a white Australian, and I’m white too. While we’d worked with the clan really closely I asked them what they thought about an elder from the community being able to comment on the film as he or she watched it. A bit like going to the movies with an Uncle. In the end, we couldn’t have found anyone better. I’m sure of that. Some of his lines are scripted out of necessity but much of it is straight ‘live’ reaction to the scenes unfolding.
Why do you think places of historical significance, like aboriginal rock paintings for example, are considered more important than a place like The Lake of Scars? Does it come down to tourism?
Boort’s a long way from a big population centre, for starters. But frankly, most people haven’t got a clue what scarred trees are. There are very few resources, so I wanted to record them for posterity, have this film available as an education resource, and we have big plans there. But when you are confronted with a huge scar – a spot where you know someone used a stone tool to remove some material right on that spot, maybe two or 300 years ago in some instances, well for me it sends a shiver down my spine. It’s amazing, But they can disappear purely from ignorance. If a landholder in country Vic or NSW doesn’t know what it is it can be gone without ever being recorded. And they’re such a remarkable, tangible link to culture. I know though there are people in Boort convinced that this can become a tourist draw card. And I think they’re right
Now that you have your first feature documentary under you belt, are you eager to move onto your next project?
My next film will be about water. I’m teaming up with Christian Pazzaglia again, Cathy Rodda, as well as scientist and farmer Anika Molesworth and Wonnarua traditional owner Scott Franks as EPs. How do we value water in this country, what is it being used for, where is it going? The plan is for an impactful film to draw attention to the topic; but really this is all about storytelling, so we’re giving some thought to the characters involved. As well as how we might fund it!
The Lake of Scars will screen at the upcoming Antenna Film Festival this Sunday, February 13. Details here.