by Dov Kornits

Angelica Cristina Dio’s independently made Blak Douglas vs. The Commonwealth arrives at an auspicious time, NAIDOC Week, documenting its Archibald winning subject, Blak Douglas’ tracing of his grandmother’s story as he prepares a show at the National Gallery of Australia.

“We’ve always been birds of a feather; I definitely consider her a ‘sister’,” answers Blak Douglas aka Adam Hill, when we catch him on the hop and ask whether he had any issues with filmmaker Angelica Cristina Dio making a film about him, but being non-Indigenous. He goes on to correct us, of course; Dio is South American Indigenous.

“I’d had a couple of docos previously made that got considerable airtime on NITV and SBS,” he continues about the origins of the documentary. “A string of filmmakers all of sudden came to the surface offering their expertise on something I might have to offer. Cristina and I mutually knew musician Declan Kelly. She was helping him produce a documentary and my name came up to do some design work for him. I guess we Shazam-ed in that sense,” Blak says in his unique blend of authenticity and pop culture, something that is also evident in his art practice.

“I don’t think Adam ever raised concerns about my South American ancestry or identity,” says Dio. “There was just acceptance of who I am and where I come from. We were focused on making a film together – in mutual trust and respect. The experience was uplifting and deeply educational.

We did the shoot quite a few years ago, and I can’t recall there being much planning around it. It developed quite organically. Blak Douglas is certainly not a person you need to direct or prompt. He is a force of nature, so we just needed to make sure we were recording. We really left it up to him to share what he wanted, whenever it felt like a good time for him. He’s got an instinct around storytelling on camera. We did ask some questions and had really interesting conversations – which you see parts of in the documentary. Watching the film, you can get a sense of what it was like just being present in the studio with him for that time.”

The result focuses on capturing the artist in his Redfern studio, working on an upcoming show (pre-Archibald – which coincidentally hangs proudly in the Art Gallery of NSW today), which explores his Indigenous grandmother and the world that she must have lived in, before visiting the Cootamundra Girls Home where she spent her young years and then onto the National Gallery to reveal the art that her story has inspired.

“There was no budget, no funding, we were not eligible for any grants, were not bound by any broadcasters, so we had the freedom to make the film we wanted to make,” says Dio about making the film feature length. “It was truly independent filmmaking, a collaboration between Blak Douglas, myself and Rowan du Boisee [DOP and producer]. Each of us brought our creative and technical skills to the project and we went from there. We pulled our own funds together to pay for post, and the wonderful folks at ColorMaker Industries came on board with some funds at the last minute to help us pay for the colour grade.

“For me, the importance and depth of the story deserved the longer format. When editing, I made sure there was space and time for Adam’s words to sink in, so that the audience has time to process and reflect on what he is saying in the moment.

“I hope the film can find its way to a large mainstream audience. I know it might be tough truth for some audiences but with Blak Douglas, his sense of irony and candour gives viewers a way in, to connect with him, through his art and storytelling.”

Blak Douglas vs The Commonwealth is screening at Revelation Perth International Film Festival on 13 July, tix here; at National Gallery of Australia, Canberra on 13 July, tix here; as the Opening Night at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on 17 July, tix here; and at the Darwin Festival on 20 August, tix here.