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Vancouver International Film Festival 2010 Interview – “In My Father’s Country” director Tom Murray

In My Father's Country - At VIFF 2010
by Jason Whyte

“In a remote part of Australia, a small homeland community is fighting for its life. Community Elders can see their culture in decline and abuse, and worry that without the security and foundations of their ancestral lands and culture, their people are becoming weak in the newly globalized 21st Century world. This is the story of a family struggling to assimilate a richly complex traditional culture with the demands of life in the Post-Modern world. The film shows, in a stunningly intimate way, how a traditional culture hopes to raise their kids with the dignity, insight, and self-respect necessary to succeed in both of these worlds.” Director Tom Murray on “In My Father’s Country”, which is screening at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend Vancouver for the screenings?

I would love to attend the festival for a range of reasons, but coming from another harbour city (Sydney, Australia) I have often been told what a wonderful harbouring city Vancouver is. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend, but I hope that “In My Father’s Country” is as well received as I am told was my last film to screen there (“Dhakiyarr vs the King”, from VIFF 2005).

Could you give me a little look into your background and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

My background is in environmental science and the politics of land, and I first made radio documentaries for ABC Radio, the national broadcaster, on these issues. These feature–length works also engaged with Indigenous relationships to landscape and ecology. By the late 90s I’d made some short fiction films, and began to work on stories better suited to film and video, than to radio. Then I was lucky enough to have my first feature doc “Dhakiyarr vs the King” selected for Sundance 2005 and a bunch of other festivals, which has enabled me to get funds for my last few projects.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …”

…Footballer, or a professional surfer.

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.

This project grew from a desire on the part of Dhukal and Wuyal Wirrpanda (Yolngu Indigenous Elders), and myself, to tell a story about contemporary life in a remote Aboriginal community so that a wider national and international audience could appreciate the joys and challenges of such a life. We had already made a big historical film about one of their ancestors and subsequently we wanted to make a contemporary film. I have made five features with the same family so it was a natural progression, and it certainly allowed us to capture intimate personal and cultural material in a way that would not be possible without that relationship history.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production? What was your favourite moment of the process?

It is a great privilege to be invited into the lives of others with such generosity of spirit and appreciation of the process. Myself, along with cinematographer Leonard Retel Helmrich and producer Graeme Isaac, spent weeks in the communities of N.E. Arnhem Land during the shoot, and went hunting and were invited to witness inspirational ceremonial events that will remain with us forever. Yet, living in tents in the bush for long periods is never easy. I experienced cyclones, rolled a Toyota Landcruiser and ended up in Hospital, and so on. All of this added to the experience!

Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

We shot on a Sony Z1 camera and used HDV tape which was secure in the humid and hot conditions of the tropics. The cinematographer, Leonard Retel Helmrich, is an extremely innovative person and we used his Steady Wing camera rigs, built cranes from locally sourced bamboo, and used a small Sony A1 to get intimate footage inside cars, or when collecting small crustaceans in kids’ yabby nets.

Talk a bit about the experiences that you have had with the film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?

Generally audiences feel a similar sense of privilege in watching this story unravel, in its intimate homeland surrounds, as we did in making it. The dignity of the Elders and their struggle for legal and cultural rights in the new marketplace of society - that has seen their capacity to exercise their rights compromised by new laws and ways of thinking - is genuinely felt by most of those who see this film. Yet the film is no cultural hagiography, and the challenges faced, and some of the cultural practices depicted, also provoke a range of audience responses.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

I have many inspirations from both fiction and documentary film. I have always responded to filmmakers that communicate a sense of wonder, playfulness, and of poetry and landscape. I love the films of Terrence Malick, Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexander Dovzhenko, and the cinematography of Robbie Muller, Nestor Almendros and Christopher Doyle. The documentary films of Dziga Vertov, Jean Rouch, and the Maysels’ Salesman and Grey Gardens were early favourites, and when making this film I was inspired by the techniques of Leonard Retel Helmrich’s film “The Shape of the Moon”.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?

Writer. Beach comber.

Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

Christopher Doyle, Seamus Heaney.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

It is always important that your work doesn’t sink into the void, and instead engages a public. Media and critical opinion is important in this.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

There is a skidoo drive-in theatre in Sweden that projects on to a screen made of ice. I would love to see my film there.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

You probably can’t get it at your local DVD store. And: there are things you’ve never seen before. You might enjoy it, eh?

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start, and especially for those with films in the festival circuit?

The most important character trait in filmmaking is stamina. Even vastly experienced filmmakers struggle from film-to-film to make the work they hope to make. Keep going, but make sure to enjoy it.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

This week, having just seen it again, it is Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch.

This is one of the official selections in this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to

Be sure to follow instant happenings of VIFF ’10 on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a Tweetphoto or two. #viff10 is the official hashtag.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 10/08/10 11:14:40
last updated: 10/15/10 09:41:03
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