By Douglas Gosse (Toronto, ON, CAN)
Zach’s Ceremony Brings Aboriginal Culture to the World
I had the privilege of attending the world premiere of Zach’s Ceremony (D: Aaron Petersen; Australia; 92 min.) at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. Filmed over 6 years, we see Zach develop from an earnest boy of 10 to a young man of 16 years. A 10-year-old Zach enjoys fishing, biking, football, and hanging out with his friends, and then startles the audience by saying, “I want to be a man, not just a boy who thinks he knows everything.”
Rites of passage have existed since the beginning of time, serving to affirm membership within a group, and acknowledgement of change in status. Traditional rites of passage are of particular importance among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In Zach’s Ceremony, related themes of colonialism, marginality, sense of belonging, and perseverance, collide with the complex relationship between a father and son of Aboriginal heritage living in Sydney – Alec and Zach Doomadgee, lending this film broad universal appeal. Will Zach decide to partake of his initiation ceremony, bringing with it the heavy responsibility to behave as a leader, rather than a follower?
From birth, Alec is adamant about instilling a sense of pride in Zach, regarding his Aboriginal heritage. Zach is initially estranged from his biological mother and says, “I feel lost.” Alec teaches him Aboriginal dances from an early age, and we observe the somewhat embarrassed and unsure Zach gradually gaining confidence. Zach is one of only three Aboriginals in his school. As a teenager, Zach encounters bullying and name-calling from certain peers who call him as a “Blackie” or “Abo” – there is even a schoolyard fistfight resulting in school reprimands. As a light-skinned, mixed-ethnicity young man living in an urban setting, when Zach goes on visits to his ancestral land, the Aboriginal Shire of Doomadgee in Queensland, he is sometimes called “Whitie”.
A stylish animated sequence relates the 1788 British arrival in Australia, the subsequent pains of missionary schools, and problematic legal sanctions. While Doomadgee is a place where both Alec and Zach exalt in a sense of peace and freedom, and affirm strong spiritual connections to the land, ancestors, and traditions, it is also troubled by alcohol and drug abuse and despair. In one year alone, there were 14 suicides out of a population of 1000. Zach’s cousin (and Alec’s nephew), a young man praised for embracing his Aboriginal culture, was one of the people to succumb to suicide. Tensions between past and present traditions, values, and lifestyle are evident, and provide a springboard for understanding Zach’s teenage, cultural, and existential angst.
Overall rating (5/5): Alec and Zach are natural and unfettered in their interactions with each other and secondary film participants. This is not a perfect family but a real one. In one scene, Zach celebrates his sixteenth birthday on the family property in Sydney. There is underage drinking and neighbours call the police. However, we know that Alec loves his son, and vice versa. The dynamics between the two are riveting. One cannot help but root for Zach, knowing that he is surrounded by love and attention from his father, stepmother, little brother, and Doomadgee community. There is unwavering support, and hope abounds. Zach is introspective and articulate beyond his years.
The cinematography of Zach’s Ceremony is masterful. From the clarity of shots of Zach boxing with his dad whilst debating life’s rigours, to pristine images from the majestic mountains and terrain in Queensland, and dialogue with wise and respected elders, the visual journey astounds. David White won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). As Sound Editor, Design & Mixer of Zach’s Ceremony, White crafts an aural masterpiece. Wind funnelling through a ravine in Queensland, the gathering and scattering of earth on Zach’s grandfather’s grave, and the whisper of the wind as Alec spreads his arms wide to call to the black cockatoo, his spirit bird, are some of the auditory delights that wash over the enraptured audience.
It is often bemoaned that contemporary boys no longer have rites of passage, but Zach’s Ceremony shows how time-honoured traditions may be re-embraced, and the colonial-capitalist march of loneliness and isolation may be fought. Pride in oneself, pride in one’s heritage, and knowledge of one’s strengths and weaknesses are affirmed in Zach’s Ceremony, as a lesson for any young man, youth, or family.
Viewed Monday, May 2 at Innis Town Hall @ Hot Docs, Canadian International Documentary Film Festival
Director: Aaron Petersen
Producer: Sarah Linton
Associate Producer: Alec Doomadgee
Special thanks to Zachariah Doomadgee
Executive Producers: Mitzi Goldman and Dan Goldberg
Director of Photography: Robert C Morton
Title Design and Animation: PictureDrift, Brendan Cook
Music: Composed by Angela Little
Sound: David White
Concept created by: Alec Doomadgee
Cultural Advisor: Jack Green
Special thanks: At the premiere, before the screening, Alec and Zach danced to music performed and sung by Raven and Shoshona. Raven is Anishinabe and Shoshona is Anishinabekwe. Thank you for this honour.