Of boys and men: masculinity, fatherhood and cultural identity in Zach's ceremony.
At eleven years old, Zachariah Doomadgee wants to be a man, but he doesn't think he's quite ready. 'I don't even think I'm mature enough,' the fidgety young boy tells his father, Alec, when learning his ceremony could be just around the corner. Ceremony is a sacred rite of passage for the Gangalidda, Waanyi and Garawa peoples of Far North Queensland, during which boys in their teenage years are initiated into manhood via participation in ancient songlines and rituals to pass on secret knowledge --and it looms large in Zach's life. It's easy to see why: his father's enthusiasm for and trust in the ritual seems unwavering. Alec knows ceremony will give his sons what they need to know who they are, and to become leaders in their community. To become men.
So strong is Alec's commitment to ceremony that he started playing with the idea of creating a film to follow Zach's passage through adolescence and his eventual coming of age as a way 'to show the beauty of Aboriginal culture to the world'. (1) The dream became a reality when Alec met director Aaron Petersen while they were working together on the documentary TV series On the Edge, and bonded over their shared experience of fathering boys. The resulting feature, Zach's Ceremony (2016), was filmed from 2009 to 2014, and shows Zach's journey to find his place between his two lives in Sydney and in his ancestral homelands, slowly emerging from under his father's wing and growing into a young man in his own right.
Zach's relationship to Alec is at the centre of the film, and is one of its greatest joys. Alec is an impressive man, and it's easy to imagine Zach finding difficulty in establishing his own identity against his father's booming presence. Alec is a known Aboriginal advocate and activist, public speaker, radio presenter, actor and producer. He is outspoken and opinionated. A physically and mentally tough man who worked his way to acclaim despite a childhood many would call disadvantaged, and while raising five children he started fathering at age fifteen. A tough figure to measure up to for an awkward teenager slowly growing into his long, dangly limbs. 'I wish I could walk around freely instead of someone saying, "Oh, there, that's Alec Doomadgee's son." They only know me from Dad. They don't know my real name or anything,' complains a thirteen-year-old Zach during the film's first visit to the Gulf of Carpentaria and Doomadgee, the town that gives Alec and Zach their surname.
But the deep love between father and son is obvious. Being a good man is central to Alec's identity, yet his idea of manhood is far from the restrictive machismo often associated with the term and allows for plenty of space for nurture and weakness. His masculinity is one of responsibility and community, and we see him throw his children birthday parties, fool about in the backyard, and break down in tears when recounting his own struggle to win his stepfather's respect and love. With the mother of his children appearing largely absent, and his new wife, Amy, preferring to avoid taking on the mantle of 'mum', he has made it his life's mission to be the parent his children need--a task he appears to have achieved, as Zach recalls in the opening of the film:
The moment I was born, Dad took control of my life. He's given me the life that he never had. Every moment I can remember in my head is all these little good moments of Dad.
The dire importance of a strong role model in Zach's life is inarguable, as there is no shortage of difficulties he has to navigate. Growing up in Sydney, there are only three Aboriginal kids at Zach's high school, and he has lost faith in his teachers' ability or interest to put an end to the racial bullying he experiences. Like most teenagers, he experiments with alcohol and weed, and the allure of the opposite sex tempts him into occasionally stupid decisions. But, unlike his non-Indigenous peers, Zach's indiscretions run a far higher risk of being seen as more than just juvenile rebellion. In 2015, when Zach was seventeen, a report found that Indigenous teenagers were twenty-four times more likely to be incarcerated than their non-Indigenous counterparts. (2) Aboriginal Australians are five times more likely to die of 'alcohol-related causes', and 1.5 times more likely to 'drink alcohol at risky levels'. (3) No matter how rare or developmentally typical, Zach's public overindulgences have a likelihood of feeding into tightly held Australian stereotypes about drunk and delinquent Aboriginals, adding a layer of meaning to each drink he consumes something that most teenagers never have to consider.
Back in Doomadgee, life is likewise far from easy. Zach sees his relatives drinking under the 'family tree' right outside the town sign to avoid being charged under Queensland's Alcohol Management Plan, which fines Aboriginals up to A$45,712 (4) for possession of full-strength beer, wine or spirits (with fines as high as A$91,425 as well as jail sentences for repeat offenders (5)). The ongoing suicide epidemic plaguing Indigenous Australians took fourteen of Doomadgee's 1000 inhabitants in a single year, (6) including Zach's cousin Brandon, who may otherwise have gone through ceremony with him. A recent study found the suicide rate of young Indigenous men to be the highest in the world. (7)
Zach struggles to feel fully at home either in Sydney or in Doomadgee. As Alec's biological father was white, he and his children have lighter complexions than most of his relatives, leaving a young Zach with the label 'whitey' in Doomadgee and 'Abo' in Sydney: 'I'm getting racist comments from everywhere. I'm not black. I'm not white. I'm sort of in the middle. I feel like I don't know myself.' But Alec firmly believes the key to creating a stable foundation for Zach and other young Indigenous men struggling to find meaning in their lives lies in education and a strong cultural connection. In a particularly effective sequence in the film, the audience listens in as he addresses Zach in voiceover, as a stunning animation sequence by James Anderson visualises the bloody history of their ancestors. 'Knowledge is the key to everything, Zach, and I'm not just talking about tribal knowledge through ceremony,' Alec stresses. The importance of reigniting tribal knowledge and culture is particularly pressing in communities like Doomadgee, where missionaries of the Brethren Church went to great efforts to eradicate traditional culture and languages in the twentieth century, forcing children--including Zach's maternal grandfather --into Christian missionary schools and doling out harsh punishments for speaking their own tongue. 'They really flogged it out of us,' a Doomadgee elder recalls.
Alec hopes that, by relearning their ancestors' traditional dances and stories, and eventually going through ceremony, Zach and young men like him will discover strength and pride from their cultural identity, which will help to define their unique place and purpose in the world. By teaching his son about the political implications of land-rights rulings, the importance of constitutional recognition and the origins of ongoing movements like the tent embassy, he hopes Zach will be equipped to be an advocate for and leader to his people, to ensure their culture will not disappear in future.
Of course, no parent-child relationship is without flaws, and no teenager makes it to adulthood without a healthy dose of drama. Alec's tight grip on Zach's life can be suffocating, and sometimes he seems to expect too much too soon. Amy expresses some apprehension about her husband's demands of his son, observing, 'Zach does want to learn at his own pace, and maybe learn his culture when he's ready.' In voiceover, Zach himself reflects, 'There's one thing I've learned: no matter what it is, you'll never satisfy Alec Doomadgee.' When Alec goes overseas for three months, the unfamiliar lack of oversight sees fifteen-year-old Zach spiralling out of control, skipping school, being picked up by police for graffiti and staying out all night, much to his stepmother's distress. When Alec returns, his anger and disapproval are justified, but the words he chooses in the dressing down he gives his son seem overly cruel:
I want you to know, you're the biggest fucking disappointment I've ever come across [...]/ expected more from you, but obviously you don't have any more. You're just full of shit.
To curb Zach's progression down this self-destructive trajectory, the family returns to Queensland, where Zach has finally been marked by elders to go through ceremony, along with his younger brother Bailey. The preparations for ceremony in Garawa country in the Northern Territory, eight hours from Doomadgee, mark the halfway point of the film and introduce one of its most significant sequences.
The access granted by tribal elders to Petersen and his crew into this highly sacred and secretive ritual is extremely rare, and makes Zach's Ceremony an important and unique cultural and educational text. While some of the more intimate moments remain reserved for only the eyes of the young men and their teachers, we follow along as Zach and the other so-called darn boys ('initiates') visit a sacred site marked with their ancestors' handprints, are honoured by their mothers and sisters, and are adorned with paint, handmade weapons and jewellery by the older men. Some parts of ceremony are solemn, like the passing on of an ancient Dreamtime story. Others are joyful, bursting with energy and humour, like when the boys, equipped with wooden clubs and boomerangs, hunt down and flog other young men--known as their 'opposites'--to make them dance, in what plays out as a slightly rough-and-tumble game of catch.
It is undeniable that Zach appears markedly more self-assured and mature after he completes his ceremony, although it is hard to say for sure how much of this can be attributed to the ritual and how much is purely owing to the passage of time. The film avoids the pitfall of pretending that ceremony marks the end of all teenage problems for Zach, which may have cheapened such an important cultural stepping stone into a mere reinforcement of the still-prevalent trope of the 'magical native'. Rather, ceremony is shown as a call to action for Zach and the other daru boys to take ownership of their culture's heritage, to protect and represent it, and eventually pass it on to coming generations. After being entrusted with this responsibility, Zach appears to finally find his place within his community, no longer doubting whether he is truly part of it.
Zach's Ceremony's story of a young man finding purpose and identity between two worlds is one that is mirrored frequently in recent Indigenous screen works. The gorgeous art feature Spear (Stephen Page, 2015), adapted from a Bangarra Dance Theatre stage show, explores much the same story via dance, and its tagline--'A foot in each world. A heart in none' (8) --could have fit Zach's story just as well. On television, the ABC's groundbreaking Indigenous superhero show Cleverman sees protagonist Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard) struggling to find his place between humans and 'Hairies', a fictional race bearing many similarities to Indigenous cultures and their problematic relationship with the Western mainstream. Initially estranged from his Aboriginal culture and people, it is only once Koen accepts his position as Indigenous community leader and protector to the Hairies that he can fully harness his powers as the Cleverman.
This recurring exploration of coming of age between worlds can arguably be seen as a metaphor for current Indigenous cinema as a whole, which, in recent years, has found increasing confidence and commercial success, bringing Indigenous stories of the past and present into the Australian and global mainstream. Actors like David Gulpilil, Aaron Pedersen and Jessica Mauboy have become household names, while directors like Ivan Sen, Rachel Perkins and Warwick Thornton have created some of Australian cinema's most acclaimed works of the last decade. These artists, much like Zach, continue to gain strength and inspiration from their heritage, and act as protectors and ambassadors for their culture.
Zach himself may yet earn his place on this list of Indigenous celebrities as the years go on, as Zach's Ceremony does not seem to be the end of his story. In interviews, Petersen has confirmed he will continue to work with Alec and Zach to document the teenager's ongoing passage into adulthood, although it is unclear whether another feature is planned. (9) The team has also built strong connections with the First Nations peoples of Canada following the film's premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs documentary festival, (10) which may result in collaborations on and off screen.
No matter what path Zach's life takes, the seventeen-year-old we see walking through Sydney's crowded Circular Quay and across red-desert streets up north at the conclusion of the film cuts an impressive figure. By all accounts, he has achieved his younger self's ambition: 'I want to walk around with people saying, "There's Zachariah, the man.'"
Hanna Schenkel is a freelance writer, editor and critic with particular interest in creative nonfiction and documentary about diverse societal and social issues. She lives and works in Sydney, m
(1) Wangala Films, Zach's Ceremony press kit, 2016, p. 1.
(2) Inga Ting, 'The Australian Children 24 Times More Likely to Face Jail than Their Peers', The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 April 2015, <http://www.smh.com.au/nationai/the-australian -chiidren-24-times-more-likeiy-to-face-jail-than-their-peers-2015 0430-1 mx021.htmi>, accessed 13 February 2017.
(3) Jens Korff, 'Aboriginal Alcohol Consumption', Creative Spirits, 8 May 2016, <https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginaiculture/ health/aboriginal-alcohol-consumption>, accessed 3 March 2017,
(4) The film cites A$44,175 as the maximum fine due to recent re-indexing of penalty units. For updated information on the possible charges under the Alcohol Management Plan, see 'Doomadgee', 'Community Alcohol Limits', Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Queensland Government, 11 September 2016, <https://www,datsip. qid.gov.au/programs-initiatives/community-alcohol-limits/ doomadgee>, accessed 13 February 2017.
(5) It is important to note that, even though a first offence does not officially carry a jail sentence, those who are unable to pay the steep fines may be imprisoned as a consequence, or must agree to participate in unpaid community service; see 'Penalty Units and Fines', 'Sentencing Fines and Penalties for Offences', Queensland Government, 17 July 2015, <https://www.qld. gov.au/law/crime-and-police/types-of-crime/sentencing-fines -and-penalties-for-offences/>, and 'Non-custodial Sentences', 'Sentencing', Queensland Government, 16 December 2016, <https://www.qid.gov.au/iaw/sentencing-prisons-and-probation/ sentencing-probation-and-parole/sentencing/>, both accessed 17 February 2017,
(6) David Lewis, Town Being Tom Apart by Suicide "Epidemic"', ABC News, 17 February 2012, <http://www.abc.net.au/ news/2012-02-17/indigenous-suicide-epidemic-in-small -town/3835760>, accessed 13 February 2017.
(7) Siobhan Fogarty, 'Suicide Rate for Young Indigenous Men Highest in World, Australian Report Finds', ABC News, 12 August 2016, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-08 -12/indigenous-youth-suicide-rate-highest-in-world-report -shows/7722112>, accessed 13 February 2017.
(8) CinemaPlus, Spear press kit, 2015, p. 2,
(9) See 'Interview with Aaron Petersen: Zach's Ceremony', Screen NSW, <http://screen.nsw.gov.au/news/interview-with -aaron-petersen-zach-s-ceremony?enews=225>, accessed 13 February 2017.
(10) See Lindy Kerin, 'Zach's Ceremony, Film About Aboriginal Identity, Shown at New York's Margaret Mead Film Festival', ABC News, 26 October 2016, <http://www.abc.net.au/ news/2016-10-26/film-about-aboriginal-identity-strikes-a -cord-in-new-york/7967328>, accessed 13 February 2017.
Caption: This spread: Zach Doomadgee (two images)
Caption: This spread, L-R: Zach awaiting the commencement of ceremony in the Northern Territory; Zach with his father, Alec
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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