Film: Zach’s Ceremony

Growing up in one world is hard enough – what about growing up in two?

Zach’s Ceremony is a documentary which follows the fair-skinned Indigenous Australian and Sydneysider Zach Doomadgee roughly from age 10 to 16. It charts his journey to manhood. Under the guidance of his father, relatives and Elders, he will be initiated into his culture by going through traditional ceremony in his home country in Far North Queensland and the Northern Territory.

The film is directed by white-Australian Aaron Petersen, who met Zach’s dad Alec Doomadgee while working on ABC3 series On The Edge in 2008. Alec is credited as the concept creator and associate producer of the film – he’s an Aboriginal activist, a respected community leader and a long-time campaigner for Aboriginal rights. Also of note, Angela Little, who co-composed and scored the music for Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, is the composer.

The world premiere of Zach’s Ceremony was at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival in Canada. The film then won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Sydney Film Festival in 2016, as well as awards at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Tasmania Breath of Fresh Air Festival and the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York.

It’s a portrayal of the teenage experience that’s familiar to many: straddling the divide between maturity, responsibility and desperately wanting to be taken seriously, and continuously making mistakes, rebelling and disappointing people around you.

For Zach, added to this is the diaspora of his identity, an experience mirrored for many Indigenous teenagers living in urban and suburban Australia. Zach struggles with who he is and where he fits – he’s called white when he’s in his home country, he’s called black when he comes home to Sydney. As we follow Zach’s teen years, we are witness both to the empowerment he gains when he visits his home country and family, followed closely by complete disillusionment each time he returns to life and school in Sydney. Particularly affecting is the contrast between Zach’s ceremony, strongly connected with his ancestry and culture, and his typical Aussie birthday party back in Sydney – with booze, techno beats and a hoard of excited teenagers in the backyard amongst plastic chairs and the humble clothesline.

What’s most interesting is Zach’s self-awareness of this experience throughout. And it’s the relaxed nature of filming – an upfront, no-nonsense, unromanticised documentation of family life – that make this film so raw and powerful. He’s a thoughtful kid – you can tell from some of the earliest footage in the film. “I want to be a man, not just a little boy that thinks he knows everything” he says.

Home video-style shots and real home video footage complement Petersen’s observation and interpretative style of directing. The film is intentionally presented through Zach’s eyes, which required feedback from him throughout the production and editing process.

The father-son relationship is the crux of this story. To his credit, Alec doesn’t shy away from including scenes where he is hard – maybe too hard – on Zach. In other parts, the eye-roll reactions from Zach to his overly passionate father give the film plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.

Yet it’s clear why Alec is so passionate about preserving and spreading knowledge and culture. In his home community of Doomadgee, Christian missionaries touted the opinion that Aboriginal culture was “the work of the devil” right up to the 1980s. The effects are still evident in this community, and with this storyline the film also touches on prevalent Indigenous issues like alcoholism and suicide (the rate is shockingly high in Doomadgee).

Women are on the periphery of this film, that’s inarguable. But the film is unapologetic about focusing on the father-son, “men’s business” trajectory. The female Indigenous story is a story to be told in its own right.

Petersen has explained this film’s intent was for Zach to address the audience in his own way, and lead people to reassess their ideas about the problems facing Australia’s Indigenous community, especially teenagers. The transformative message supersedes the film itself – Zach will be travelling with the film this year, to educate and inspire social change.

The film ends with us pondering about the type of man that Zach will become – evident in the scene as Zach’s 16th birthday party in Sydney is shutdown and Alec walks Zach away trying to calm him down. But as this story continues outside of the film, it’s something those who are interested in can find out about.

Thanks to the goosebump raising track that concludes the film and the heart-warming outtakes that follow with the credits, you will walk out of this film moved by Zach’s story and with a sense of optimism about Australia’s future.

When Alec Doomadgee tells his son “knowledge is everything”, he’s talking about traditional culture and Indigenous history – but in the sense of this film’s message, it means more than that. Increasing knowledge of Indigenous issues is everything in terms of making positive changes to attitudes in contemporary Australia.

Score: 8/10

Zach’s Ceremony is currently showing at Cinema Nova.

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