The Way Back
Steven McGregor tells us about his doco – set to premiere at Sydney Film Festival – which chronicles the epic journey of the Aboriginal children trapped on Croker Island during WWII.
The official mantle for the Sydney Film Festival, emblazoned on posters across the city, speaks of ‘One Festival: Infinite Stories', and such a mantra seems epitomised within Indigenous Australian filmmaker Steven McGregor's latest film, Croker Island Exodus. Renowned for his documentary work, depicting accounts of tremendous will in the history of the Indigenous people, McGregor has brought another tale of human endurance to the fore.
The eponymous migration documented in the film is one of scarce familiarity yet epic stature, the heroic journey of four young female missionaries, and the 95 Aboriginal children entrusted to their care, across all terrain imaginable to escape from the threat of Japanese invasion: a six-week voyage from the country's north to the outskirts of Sydney.
The film itself shifts between re-enactive drama and candid interviews with those that made the journey, including three of the original infant girls and Sister Margaret Somerville, one of the original missionaries who, impressively, will turn 100 later this year. "I've never made a film quite like this," McGregor confesses, "it was very cinematic and a lot of the other stuff I've done has been observational."
It seems that his adept interviewing skill, though, was inevitably what forged a path for the film's birth: McGregor initially pitched the story in 2006 to broadcasters, to no avail, though was encouraged to resubmit, and was successfully granted preliminary funding permitting a few initial interviews. It was from there that all involved realised the engaging power of their tale. "The ladies, the way they are, how they speak, and who they are, is really what gives the film its feeling. They dictated the tone, the pace, and the feel of the film," McGregor explains. It was from these interviews that the film blossomed; interviews were all completed before the main block of shooting, and a script was subsequently woven around them.
Whilst the restaging of the exodus took place over the space of a mere week, the dual tasks of coping with the scorching conditions and hosting a bevy of young untrained Aboriginal children meant the filmmakers certainly had their hands full. Amidst educating them on the finer points of acting - "Don't look at the lens!" - McGregor notes there was a powerful kindred significance for the children involved. "A lot of the kids in the film, their great-great-grandparents were on the trip, so there was a lot of resonance with them: they were walking the footsteps of their elders."
Such is the immense respect of McGregor, the necessity to do cinematic justice to the plights of those involved proved an incredibly daunting task for the filmmaker, especially in the selection process. "The biggest challenge was condensing it into something that we could make a film out of, otherwise it's a ten-hour mini-series," he laughs, though his wavering uncertainty plagued him even up to the stage of shooting, with the filmmaker worrying over whether there was something he missed. Upon unveiling the finished product to the ladies, McGregor confides his anxiety. "We [producer Danielle McLean and I] were both a bit apprehensive, because there's some sensitive stuff in there, but they loved it. They had tears in their eyes and just said to Danielle and I that, ‘I'm glad we saved our stories for you to tell.'"
McGregor, though, believes an endless number of untold stories exist which deserve to be shared in a similar light. As an Indigenous filmmaker, one may conclude this affinity delivers a sense of personal obligation, yet McGregor denies this, saying he feels indebted to "a really good story" above all else. "The story has to grab us first," he offers. "What attracts me to films is there has to be an emotional heart in there, and I suppose when I look at [my films] there seems to be a sense of family in there: they're about a family, or loss of family, or family rivalries, and I seem to lean towards that way." The search for these untold stories persists, however, and McGregor reveals that many of these stories arise serendipitously from chance chats back home. "Our large families have a pretty cool network through the community, and sometimes it's just you having a yarn with someone," he explains.
When asked of his most fulfilling experience as a filmmaker, McGregor humbly claims he is still searching. However, he stops to muse retrospectively on the power of film and the canon of Indigenous films that exist today. "We're actually leaving a legacy...when you think about it there's a lot of people out there - all the films that have been made - there is a great vault of history there now that's been documented, and it's going to be there forever."
Croker Island Exodus has its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival on Thursday, June 14. For more information, head here.