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Amie Batalibasi — Winner of Sundance’s Merata Mita Fellowship

Amie at Sundance

Sundance’s Merata Mita Fellowship is named in honour of the late, great, Māori filmmaker Merata Mita (1942–2010). It’s awarded to ‘a Native or Indigenous filmmaker from a global pool of nominees' and provides a cash grant and a year-long continuum of support. 

This year, writer/director/producer Amie Batalibasi won the fellowship. I read her powerful acceptance speech, published in her blog, and asked to cross-post it. And Amie also agreed to answer some questions. Warm thanks to her.  –Marian Evans

My Sundance Acceptance Speech — Merata Mita Fellowship
by Amie Batalibasi

Firstly I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Ute peoples. And pay my respects to elders past and present and also acknowledge other First Nations peoples in the room today.

Being here with you all, the other indigenous fellows, is an absolute honor and a privilege. I am truly grateful for this life changing opportunity.

Thank you to the supporters of the Merata Mita Fellowship: the embassy of Australia, Indigenous Media Initiatives, Taika Waititi, White Feather Foundation, Fenton Bailey and Billy Luther, and Pacific Islanders in Communications.

Thank you to the Sundance Institute and the Native American and Indigenous Program- Bird Runningwater, Adam Piron, Maya Solis, Shaandiin Tome and team.

I didn’t get to meet Merata Mita but I have certainly felt the affects of her legacy. I know that she was the first indigenous woman to make a feature film in Aotearoa, New Zealand — THAT enables me. I know that she was an educator, a mentor, and shared her passion for filmmaking and storytelling- THAT gives me hope. She was an indigenous woman breaking glass ceilings in the industry- THAT empowers me.

Because you see, my island home, the Solomon Islands, doesn’t really have a film industry to speak of. And because living in Australia, indigenous women, women of Colour, culturally diverse female directors are severely underrepresented and undervalued in the industry.

Merata Mita and this fellowship lifts up my voice as a filmmaker, as a storyteller and as an indigenous woman.

Feralimae is the name of my tribe on my grandfather’s side. We are saltwater people. In the past we were warriors.

Our tribal name translates to: well, quite frankly — House of Death. What can I say, you don’t wanna get on the wrong side of me. Just kidding.

But what I take from my Solomon Islander ancestors is strength and resilience. I’m definitely a fighter. And I have to be, especially in these times.

I’m currently writing Blackbird, my first feature film — an adaptation of my recent short also called Blackbird. It’s based on a little known part of Australian history. When other parts of the world were abolishing slavery, from 1863–1904, about 60 000 Pacific Islanders were taken or Blackbirded — often by coercion and kidnapping, then transported to Australia to work on sugar and cotton farms often under slave-like conditions.

Archival Image: 'Australian South Sea Islanders hoeing a cane field in the Herbert River region, Queensland, 1902'  Source: State Library Qld via Amie's Blackbird page 
What ensued was the death of 1000s due to illness, others left at home died of heartbreak. Our people suffered under an oppressive and racist system. Generations of islanders were stripped of their family, language, culture and identity in the time leading up to the White Australia Policy.

The Blackbird feature is not a documentary but an historical drama film that follows the story of one young spirited man, his brutal kidnapping from his village, his struggles cutting sugar cane and finally his hanging at a Queensland prison.

This film is personal to me because over 100 years ago, three of my own ancestors were blackbirded and never seen or heard from again. Danitofea, Suana, Bilosi. But also this history is a shared history.
The tragedy and heartbreak of it has had a ripple effect all throughout the Pacific yet it’s a history the remains largely unknown, under acknowledged and unheard.

When I was researching and writing the first draft of the feature, there were moments when I had to stop writing to literally throw my clenched fists down in anger, and moments where the words in front of me became blurry because tears obstructed my sight. I had to shut my eyes and just write.

I come from a long line of storytellers and a tradition of oral history. I believe that storytelling through film has the power to affect change. And so, I will tell this story. Because I must.

Because Merata Mita did and because so many others will. This fellowship means that I get the chance to take the first steps to develop Blackbird, in what I know will be a long journey. But I’m ready.

Just to simply be here in the coldest place a Pacific Islander could think of, is an absolute dream for me. This recognition and support means everything to me, my family, and my community. Because it means we can keep our stories, our indigenous stories, alive. We can own the telling of these stories, and we can share our stories through our own distinct indigenous lens.

Tagio baela. Lau babalafe rasua.

Thank you.

The Interview

ME How did you come to filmmaking? Who and what has helped you along the way? 

AB I have always had an obsession to document. My dad gave me a red Kodak 35mm point and shoot camera when I was 10 years old in 1990 and I will always remember that camera. As the years went on I would be given better versions of the same thing until on my 18th birthday I was given my Dad's old Minolta SLR. Although I always loved photography, I didn't realise that I wanted to study it or pursue it until well after leaving high school. We didn't have film or media subjects at my high school in Queensland and the arts weren't really regarded as a valuable profession. That's why now, I'm passionate about teaching what I know in a community context and always encouraging creativity when I see that someone has creative flair. It takes a lot of courage to be an artist. 

One of my biggest role models is my grandmother, in my language, Koko Geli. She couldn't read or write, she didn't go to school. She had twelve children and in the face of extreme hardship she was always so happy and so so generous to everyone she met. She was a determined, a hard worker and such a strong woman. Most people called her 'Mummy' because she was like a mum to everyone.  When times are tough I think of her.

ME Where do your visual influences come from? Favourite filmmakers?

AB During my photography undergrad I was really inspired by Tracey Moffatt's work. Right now I'm digging Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Taika Waititi and two amazing indigenous female filmmakers I met at Sundance, Sydney Freeland and Amanda Kernell. I'm inspired by indigenous filmmakers and people of colour because they're paving the way for filmmakers like myself. 

ME You graduated with honors from Melbourne University Victorian College of the Arts, with a Graduate Diploma of Film and TV (Documentary) in 2007 and a Master of Film and TV (Narrative) in 2015, and you're amazingly prolific, with short films and documentaries of your own in addition to many projects and commissioned films for others. What drew you from docos to long form narrative and historical drama?  

AB I love documentaries and making them was a natural progression from photography. When I have a camera in my hand it helps me to make sense of the world. I will continue to make docos but I found that I was watching a lot of drama and narrative and that this genre has the power to reach big audiences. Also for me, my documentary work has always been really organic and small scale i.e. me on my own, or just one or two others. I like to be really grassroots and personal when I'm making docs. 

The world of narrative filmmaking opens up a new level of collaboration for me. And the writing process is limitless – although a blank page is scary, it's also exciting because there is are no boundaries. You still have to reach a truth, but how you get there is different. That's super exciting to me. So my process with narrative has evolved from doco into a methodology of community collaborative filmmaking. Making my short films (Blackbird, winner of Best of the Fest at the Pasifika Film Fest and screened at many other festivals; and Docked, in post-production) involved not just cast and crew, but a whole community of people working together. When you're working this way, you're standing together, and that's powerful.

Amie shooting Docked, with its star, Nyawuda Chuol photo: Janise Wild 

ME You're known for your commitment to supporting first-time filmmakers in underrepresented communities to tell their own stories. How do you balance this commitment with sustaining your own filmmaking? 

AB My creative practice is a balancing act! I finished my documentary studies ten years ago. And since then it's been very hard to crack into the industry, partly due to the lack of support for emerging filmmakers. The Australian industry has a system of eligibility for funding that's really unreasonable. Before Metro Screen was defunded they did a report on how the system is basically supporting established filmmakers to the detriment of the emerging sector. Also our industry and our film education institutions have a history of being predominantly white male – and this makes it very hard on all levels to have your voice heard. There's so much the Australian industry needs to do to make changes to build an inclusive industry. We're not doing enough and it's time to take a stand. I know that I just have to going to keep making films despite this. 

Although it's tough, I have though felt supported and connected to many independent filmmakers, as well as Australian indigenous and Pacific Islander filmmakers in Australia. Also, it's heartening that I've been able to connect with and be supported by an international indigenous film community. Whether it's through Sundance, the imagineNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto or several film festivals in Aotearoa. 

ME You describe yourself as an Australian Solomon Islander. Is there a recently arrived large community of Solomon Islanders in Australia, partly because of climate change? And/or a much longer-established community that has descended from people who were blackbirded?

AB There is a quite a large community of Solomon Islanders in Australia whether they have come here in recent years for work or study, as well as Australian South Sea Islanders whose ancestors were blackbirded from the Solomon Islands and were able to stay here. The Solomons is one of Australia's closest neighbours yet most people don't even know where it is! 

Although I grew up in Australia, I go back to my island home to work on community projects and see a village full of family. In 2009, myself and some friends and family set up a small group called Pacific Community Partnerships. We've been able to get a few small grants and set up crowdfunding projects to install water tanks and toilets; facilitate small garden workshops and disaster management training; set up a women's group in the village; initiate solar power maintenance education and we run an annual futsal comp in memory of my Koko Geli for our children and young people. My family faces the inevitability of having to move due to climate change and so we try to help out where we can.

still Tide of Change (2010)  courtesy Amie Batalibasi
Tide of Change, the short film I made about rising tides in the village actually helped us to raise some funds for projects, and to me that's the power of film to create change. I'm currently developing a follow-up documentary and I hope that it can be empowering in the same way. 

poster courtesy Amie Batalibasi

ME What's the difference, if any, between South Sea Islanders and Solomon Islanders?   

AB This website says that 'Australian South Sea Islanders are the Australian-born direct descendants of people who were brought (in the main) to Australia between 1863 and 1904 to work as indentured labourers in the primary industries'; and explains more.

Australian South Sea Islanders are descended from many different countries and over 80 islands across the Pacific. So an Australian South Sea Islander might have Solomon Islander heritage or mixed islander heritage. Some people think that 'South Sea Islander' refers to an actual island but it defines a distinct group of people formally recognised by the Australian government in 1992: Australian South Sea Islanders.

ME I long to see Blackbird, the short film already released and the feature on its way, because of your point of view as someone whose family history was profoundly affected by blackbirding. Are there reasons you chose not to have a female protagonist?

actor Jeremy Bobby in still from Blackbird (short, 2015)  courtesy Amie Batalibasi
AB My short film Blackbird is dedicated to my three ancestors who were taken from our island and never seen or heard again. The characters for the short film and the feature that I'm writing have evolved organically from my research, archival photos, oral histories and my relationship with Australian South Sea Islander communities in Australia. The main protagonist is Siosi, a young man, who is kidnapped along with his sister Malaita. I have been asked why the main protagonist is male and the answer is that for my story, it's a male and I don't really feel that I have to justify this. I'm only being asked this because I'm a woman and there is an expectation that I should have a female main character. But people forget, I am an indigenous/ culturally diverse/ woman of colour (choose whatever label you like) writer, director, producer and we are probably the most marginalised voices in film. I'm telling the story in the way that is right for me.

And I have already been penalised by the Australian industry for not having a female main character. Last year, I was unable to even have the privilege of being able to apply for the recent Screen Australia Gender Matters funding for women filmmakers. This was the best chance I had to find funding to develop my feature but I didn't meet their 'three tick test'. Although I'm a woman director, writer and they were encouraging culturally diverse filmmakers to apply, having a male character was a big cross on their list. I wrote an article about it here

I do believe in strong female characters and I will always write them. And I will continue to have a process that is inclusive and lifts up diverse voices. I should be able to write for male and female main characters. 

ME In your speech, you acknowledged that some groups of women directors are severely underrepresented and undervalued in the industry. Have you got some ideas about what might help you and others, alongside the Merata Mita Fellowship and similar once-in-a-lifetime opportunities?

AB To me, the Merata Mita Fellowship is groundbreaking and shows that the Sundance Institute is dedicated to lifting up the voices of indigenous women. And right now, our stories are vital. The Merata Mita Fellowship is kind of like a lifeline because I know that this kind of opportunity doesn't exist for me in my own country. I really feel empowered and hope that there will be more opportunities like this for others, in Australia and internationally. 

Merata Mita was an amazing woman and the Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Film Program is really doing something revolutionary with this fellowship because it's open to a Native or Indigenous filmmaker from a global pool of nominees. I'm so grateful for the opportunity because I sometimes feel like I've fallen through the cracks. 

Just as there is currently a movement towards funding and supporting women in film, on the other side of that I'm seeing the same thing that happened with the feminist movement. The voices of indigenous women and women of colour are being left behind. Last year I was at a Melbourne International Film Festival event a forum celebrating and discussing women in film. Whilst the panel was filled with amazing women, it was only when I sat down and looked up at the stage I realised that, just like the films Australia makes, just like the television I grew up watching in Australia – I did not see a reflection of myself up there on the stage, it was 100% white women. At one of our biggest festivals, at an event meant to empower women, I felt defeated because of the brutal lack of diversity. 

It’s clear to me that we need more platforms for diverse women to have access to film education, mentorships, directors/ producers attachments - and this support needs to be specific to the diverse needs of the individual or group. I know from experience, even if you get to the point where you find an opportunity to study or learn within the industry, it can be a very alienating being ’the only woman of colour in the room’. I know that when I was editing my short at film school, I had to seek an indigenous producer from outside of the school system because I was struggling to stay afloat and finish the film. Having that indigenous perspective provided the help and support I needed to get through. 

Diverse women need greater access to funding and filmmaking opportunities. I believe that there needs to be eligibility criteria that specifically encourages diversity. I know that this type of system exists in Australian arts funding (or at least it used to, which is why I’ve been doing film projects in community arts context for the last 9 or so years) but not in our film funding. I feel that we need to have funding specifically targeted at diverse women writer/ directors if we are going to make any changes. 

Last year my short film was included in the NZIFF’s Ngā Whanaunga Māori Pasifika Short Film Programme for Māori and Pacific Islander shorts. And Sundance has the Native American and Indigenous Program. I would like to see more mainstream film festivals recognise and provide showcase platforms for indigenous filmmakers, diverse voices, and people of colour in this way - especially in Australia. I'd also like to see festivals such as imagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival, the world’s largest presenter of indigenous content, be added to the list of Screen Australia/ state funding bodies lists of noteworthy festivals. There are currently no culturally specific festivals on their lists in the open categories for funding. 

My experience is mostly an Australian perspective but I'm sure that this sentiment rings true elsewhere. I feel that there is so much we can do to lift up the voices of those who need to be heard and it's really up to our funding bodies, film institutions and organisations to start making changes. In the meantime, my fight is simply to keep making films and sometimes because of the climate we're in, this feels like a revolutionary act. 

Amie at work, with Sharmane, a volunteer photo: Colour Box Studio

ME You founded Colour Box Studio and you're involved with exhibition and distribution there. Can you imagine developing  a system for distributing films from the communities you work with, something like Ava DuVernay's Array? 

AB Colour Box Studio is a small creative venture I set up four years ago. It's run by mostly volunteers and I also have volunteered in my own business. We've done a lot of crowd funding and we operate on a budget of $0! I set it up to provide a platform for artists and creatives to share their art with others and also make a bit of income by doing so. We've showcased over 300 artists so far through exhibitions, workshops, creative events, forums, public art, art crawls and more. My next short film will be a Colour Box Studio production so I'd like to steer this venture into film production and potentially distribution of diverse media content. That's the goal, but it's a long way away because I need to develop a more sustainable business model. Volunteering isn't a good business model, hence four years being a suffering artist! But when I believe in something I have to do it. Ava DuVernay's Array is a great example of what I'd like to do and something that is so needed in Australia. Any angel investors out there wanna help a woman out!?

Amie and her bike photo: Rachel Main



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