Author: Kelrick Martin
Originally posted on The Guardian on Friday 29 April 2016 12.16 AEST.
Voiceless no longer – striving for Indigenous success through film
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Being Indigenous is not a disadvantage, but something that drives us further, harder and with courage knowing how lucky we are to be this country’s First People writes @IndigenousX host Kelrick Martin
My name is Kelrick Martin, and my family are from the north west of Western Australia, but we call Broome our home. My mother is the second eldest sibling in a family of nine children, and I am the eldest grandchild. Mum’s parents – my grandparents – knew the value of education from a very early age, and worked incredibly hard to provide for their children. When my grandfather, the patriarch of our family, passed away when I was 15-years-old, it was a huge blow to us all.
Starting out as a radio trainee at Goolarri Media in Broome, an Indigenous owned and operated media organisation in Western Australia in 1997, I was incredibly shy. It took me six weeks before I went anywhere near the studio. Part of my job however was to document Indigenous voices and broadcast them to our local audience, effectively preserving these stories for future generations. I had to get over being shame pretty quickly. Having already lost the stories of my grandfather, I realised how vital it was to retain the stories of our elders and culture before they too were lost forever. I also learned that media technologies like radio, film and television were the key to promoting this. It was a calling for me, and one I was keen to pursue as far as I could.
One of the most important things to ever happen to me in my career occurred at Goolarri. The CEO invites me in for a chat. Having just recently completed a diploma in broadcasting and journalism from Batchelor College in the Northern Territory, and winning the college’s Student of the Year ATSIC Yilli Rreung Award, I was pretty confident that good things were coming my way.
- After some pleasantries, the news couldn’t be worse. Because I had completed my Broadcaster Traineeship I was no longer a “trainee”, and Goolarri could no longer afford to pay my wage as a radio broadcaster.
They were letting me go.
Sounds bad, right? But looking back it probably was the best thing that ever happened to me. I needed a job and as fate would have it, one appeared at just the right time in a place I would never have considered – Sydney. ABC Radio National was looking for someone to host their Indigenous arts and culture program Awaye!. What this presented was an opportunity, a chance to embrace something unfamiliar, overcome feeling shame and push beyond that which I felt comfortable with. It was bittersweet when I was informed I had secured the ABC job, because it also meant I had to leave behind things I loved – my home and my family – to take a risk and see how far I could go in this media career pathway.
It was a wonderful experience being exposed to the “professional level radio” of ABC Radio National, and when that contract was over I sought out any opportunity I could to further myself and my career, quickly learning that I had to be open to anything if I wanted to succeed. I applied for a job on ABC TV, and became the inaugural host of Message Stick. I met incredible people, from inspirational young people following their dreams, to elders and leaders of our community, many of who have now passed away. Thankfully we were there to capture their stories.
At the time Message Stick was the lowest rating TV show on ABC’s schedule, and I was curious why Indigenous stories that were important to our community had no apparent value to the rest of Australia? I spent a lot of time questioning the role we had to play at the ABC – making these programs about Indigenous role models and our unique stories becomes a defeated exercise if no-one watches them.
Feeling under skilled at the ABC and needing to learn more, I successfully applied for a scholarship to the Australian Film Television and Radio School to gain my Master of Arts (Film & Television). AFTRS was another education altogether, and I learned about the history of documentary, the way filmmakers of old from around the world adapted important social issues into stories, applied creative techniques and added creativity in order to peak people’s interest. By the end of AFTRS, I had redefined what I had assumed a documentary was or could be.
Using these new-found skills, I ventured into the world of freelance filmmaking. What a horrible life. Hopping from one job to the next, there was no security, no regular income and I spent months travelling away from home. I did this for around 4 years and by the end I was spent. But it was yet another opportunity knocking on my door that would push me even further outside my comfort-zone.
In 2006, National Indigenous TV was gearing up to launch their service, and they need experienced production executives to be their commissioning editors – decision makers who decided what should or shouldn’t be on the network. I was tapped on the shoulder and asked to apply for the job. My typical first response was “no way”. It was a leap beyond the level I thought I was at, but again I took a chance and applied on the assumption I wouldn’t get the job but I would learn something along the way.
I got the job.
It was a baptism of fire, working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous filmmakers to forge a pathway forward for NITV with a very small budget, helping to establish shows like The Marngrook Footy Show, and broadcasting cultural and sporting events like the Koori Knockout, Naidoc Awards, and Survival Day concerts for the first time on national television. Along with the others at NITV, we quickly learned that despite being Indigenous, our tastes were varied and we would often disagree about what we should be programming on our national network. This was reflected in our audiences too – on more than one occasion we would be both loved and hated for the same programs! But I felt that we needed to take lots of risks in order to find out what works. A lot of what we were doing was for the first time and there was no proven formula for an Australian Indigenous TV network.
After three years in my role at NITV I felt like it was an opportune time to strike out on my own and start my own production company. I formed Spear Point Productions in 2010, and in the beginning it was incredibly tough – there aren’t any instructions for starting your own production company. But our vision was clear, to make Indigenous films that not only pays respect to our culture and identity, but does so in a way that entertains and engages. We were determined to change hearts and minds about Indigenous characters and stories, by presenting something that was completely unexpected. Over the following six years, we produced for ABC, SBS and NITV, including a TV series, short dramas, and short and long form documentaries like Yagan, Outside Chance, and Prison Songs. We screened here and overseas at countless festivals and picked up some incredible acknowledgements of our work.
Most recently, I was presented with a chance to work more hands on with developing new Indigenous filmmaking talent here in Western Australia. Contracted by state film funding agency, ScreenWest, my current role is to develop and support WA Indigenous filmmakers, both new and old. It’s an incredibly rewarding job that allows me to share everything I’ve learned and help guide our mob toward their career goals.
Screen technology has comes forward in leaps and bounds since I started my own career. Today I see new, excited, passionate young Indigenous people – voiceless for so long – using mobile phones and uploading their films to the internet to share instantly with the world. It’s one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve witnessed and I can’t wait to see the next amazing Indigenous filmmaking talent emerge, and continue to tell our stories.
One of the key messages I’m consistently passing on to new Indigenous filmmakers is to have the confidence to believe in your own vision, and to never be afraid to ask for advice. The film and television landscape is packed with generous, friendly, helpful people who would love the opportunity to provide support and advice, connect an ambitious Indigenous filmmaker to their own networks, or even become a mentor. Most of the time, all it takes to create your own opportunities is to put yourself out there and be ambitious – no matter how impossible your idea sounds. Life is too short to have regrets, and nobody ever died from being shame – even if it feels like it at the time. I’ve learned that we only have one shot in this world to try to realise the things we are capable of.
Despite the constant statistics and messaging that bombard us, being Indigenous is not something to be regarded as a disadvantage, but something that drives us further, harder and with courage knowing how lucky we are to be this country’s First People. I hope I can honour the sacrifices that were made by my parents, my grandparents, and my elders to give me this chance to strive for Indigenous success in the media industry. And to encourage others to do likewise.
“Our stories, our way” – each week, a new guest hosts the @IndigenousX Twitter account to discuss topics of interest to them as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. Produced with assistance of Guardian Australia staff.