ZACH’S CEREMONY, Australia, 2016. Zach Doomadgee, Alec Doomadgee. Directed by Aaron Peterson. 97 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language and a brief depiction of drug use).
This Australian documentary offers 97 minutes of information, emotions, conscience-challenging for Australian audiences, both indigenous as well as descendants of those who settled, and for international audiences who have questions about the place of aboriginal people in Australian society.
As the title indicates, the centre of the documentary is Zachariah Doomadgee, son of Alec.
Initial information tells the audience that while Alec took home videos of his son Zach, of his daughters, of his young son Bailey, it was only when Zach was 10, in 2009, that he began filming more consistently and in earnest. This means that the audience sees a portrait of Zach from age 10 to 16.
It is important to note that there is an introduction to aboriginal history, done with stylish and effective animation, to remind audiences what has happened in aboriginal history, in post-British settlement history, and the aboriginal sense of country and belonging to the land.
In order to appreciate this portrait of Zach, the audience has to remember that it is based on quite an amount of film stock, that editing decisions have been made, what to include, what to exclude, and the director’s perspective on Zach’s story as well is that of his father who was one of the producers.
At 10, Zach is extraordinarily articulate, thoughtful, giving a young boy’s insights into his family situation, the lightness of his skin (too light in the aboriginal communities, too dark in Sydney), his desire for understanding his background in aboriginal culture and the beginnings of his talking about experiencing the rituals and ceremonies which will mark his rite of passage to adulthood.
In these years, father and son have an extraordinary relationship, Alec very affirming, able to express emotions, love of his son, urging him to great things – and practically illustrated by training his son in boxing, Alec winning a bout, Zach also doing some public boxing. This bond between father and son is quite moving (a counterbalance to the famous cartoon by Bill Leak indicating that aboriginal fathers did not even know their sons’ names).
This is all the more moving because, as the years go by, Zach becomes a not untypical adolescent, stealing out of the home at night to meet girls, experimenting with alcohol and drugs, feeling resentful towards his father, stating that his father has too much in his attitude to shaping his son’s future. Zach wants to be free.
While he goes to Concord Boys High and suffers some bullying and racial discrimination, he is able to go to his father’s home country in the Gulf of Carpentaria, meeting his cousins, experiencing the bush, meeting some of the elders, avidly listening to the traditions and becoming more at home there. One of his main regrets is not often seeing his mother who has separated from his father and keeps her distance. In 2010, Alec marries again, a sympathetic white woman, Amy, who does her best to be stepmother to the children.
In 2014, Alec has the opportunity to go to the United States and sharing the experience of Native Americans – and, it is during his absence, that Zach begins to throw over some of the traces.
Nevertheless, Zach has this perpetual yearning to experience the Ceremony. His father arranges this, visits to North Queensland and to the Northern Territory, contact with the elders, with the keepers of the lore, taking some time to prepare the ground where the Ceremony will take place, a group of boys increasing the numbers with Zach, including Bailey. Zach still has some mixed feelings, especially wanting his mother to attend the ceremony.
The elders have given the director permission to film aspects of the Ceremony. Most audiences will have wondered about the Ceremony and what it means, what happens, as the advertising tag for the documentary says “awakening the warrior”.
While the film is very much male-oriented, there are glimpses of Zach’s sisters, a finally happy visit to his mother, the support and love Amy and her participation in the Ceremony, and interviews with a number of older women, their presence at the Ceremony, their singing.
Of course, this story is open-ended. Zach is only 16 (and, in many ways, his 16th birthday party, the crowds, drink, the police intervening, Zach wanting to control it, is a great disappointment). On the one hand, he seems more settled, even has a happy visit to his mother. He also participates in dancing at an aboriginal celebration at Circular Key. What he will do with his life is still open. But, the audience sees that he has been given more opportunities than so many aboriginal young men, with a comment of the number of suicides even in the town Doomadgee, 14 in the year, including one of Zach’s cousins.
It would be interesting to see what has happened to Zach in five year’s time and how he has begun his adulthood.
Umbrella Films. Released March 30th.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.