by FilmInk Staff

The Lake of Scars, a new feature documentary from filmmaker/journalist Bill Code is not quite an ‘activist’ film, he told FilmInk.

Still, it has a lot to say, especially about the preservation of natural things, and the relationship between First Peoples and our colonial past.

“I do a lot of environmental work,” Code explained. “I suppose the one area where Lake is ‘activist’ is in that I am concerned about our remaining wetlands, our remaining tree cover and our biodiversity and when I meet people who care similarly, I want to highlight their stories.”

The narrative of Scars is essentially built around two characters, who share a common goal – the preservation of Lake Boort, Dja Dja Wurrung Country, in regional Victoria, about five hours north of Melbourne.

One is Jida Gulpilil [above], son of David Gulpilil; the other is Paul Haw [below], a white farmer, and Vietnam veteran who was turned onto environmental activism after witnessing first-hand the devastating impact war had on the jungles of South-East Asia.

Key to the significance of Lake Boort, the home of the Yung Balug clan, is that it has the largest collection of scar trees left in Australia. These ancient trees, many much older than White Settlement, tell a story of local Indigenous culture. Out of the trees were made canoes, shelters, and traps.

“I love the interaction in the film, between these beautiful trees and culture,” he said. “The scars can tell you how old these trees are by how much the bark has grown back and that’s a reminder of how short lived our current white civilisation is.”

A video-journalist, Code was born in the UK and immigrated to Australia as a boy. He has worked for The Guardian, the BBC and Al-Jazeera. He first saw Boort six years ago, covering a story for SBS, which was how Scars, which is his first feature, really began.

“Originally, I was going to make a much shorter film about archaeology,” Code said. “But it just kept getting longer and longer… and we found very engaging, passionate characters.”

Code films Haw and Gulpilil telling stories, at work, interacting with tourists and community, and working at beating the various ways the Lake has come under threat. They emerge as compelling figures, full of humour and a love of country (Gulpilil has the charisma of his famous father, and can be heard on the soundtrack, in music produced by David Bridie).

Co-produced by Christian Pazzaglia, The Lake of Scars received financial support from the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council, the Documentary Australia Foundation, Eucalypt Australia, ‘Djarra’ the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans, Aboriginal Corporation and the Purybury Trust.

Code shot the film, with Rudi Siira behind the camera on key scenes, and the stunning results really capture the splendour of the region, without it falling into a ‘post-cardy’ view of nature. “We did not want this to be ‘newsy’ or ‘educational’ in technique.”

The style, he says, needed to capture the strength of his main characters and be fun at the same time, which was how Uncle Jack Charles, a Dja Dja Wurrung man, entered the picture.

“About eighteen months ago, we sat down with [local] clan members and asked, ‘how do we give the film a spark,’ and out of that came the idea of a Storyteller.”

Bill Code, Jack Charles, Christian Pazzaglia

Uncle Jack Charles, actor, activist and founder – with Bob Maza – of Australia’s first Indigenous Theatre Nindethana – guides us through the action from a seat in a screening room.

“We thought, ‘let’s get him watching the movie and responding to it’,” Code said. “Aside from the obvious scripted bits, his re-actions are totally spontaneous.”

Some of these moments are the best in the film. At one point, we hear a story about small town racism, which produces a spectacularly big laugh from Uncle Charles.

In a way, it sums up the tone of the film; which is buoyant, defiant, but not angry. It’s hopeful but still troubled by the complexities at work at the grass roots and in agencies, government and in the streets of Boort.

“There is a lot of politics,” Code said. “But I wanted to highlight the positive side.”

Still, racism circles the story. There are local tensions about preservation plans and strains in Indigenous/White relations are evident. Code worked very closely with the community making the film.

“Reconciliation is really hard,” Code said. “It is going to take a lot of effort from non-Aboriginal Australians in particular. We talk about reconciliation as if it’s something Aboriginal people need to do!”

Code says that balancing the human story with the intricacies of time, place, and history and all that means, was the biggest professional challenge of his life.

His next film deals with water use. “When it comes to the bio-diversity crisis,” he said, “I think we are past the point where standing up and saying something about that is ‘activism’. It’s just common sense.”

The Lake of Scars screens at the Castlemaine Documentary Festival, July 3, 2022

Photos by Rodney Dekker for Wedge Tail Pictures

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