Sydney Film Festival 2016: Aaron Pedersen talks about Goldstone

Sydney Film Festival 2016: Aaron Pedersen Talks About Goldstone

Aaron Pedersen plays indigenous detective Jay Swan for the second time. Photo: Nic Walker

Aaron Pedersen has just driven through the night. After a family funeral in the country, one of the country’s best-known indigenous actors had to get to the city to launch Goldstone, his latest film with kindred spirit Ivan Sen.

“We’re brother boys,” Pedersen says of the acclaimed writer-director-cinematographer whose potent films about black-and-white relations include the outback western Mystery Road, gritty mission drama Toomelah and touching romance Beneath Clouds.

Sydney Film Festival 2016: Aaron Pedersen Talks About Goldstone

Outback western … Alex Russell and Aaron Pedersen in Goldstone.

“The great thing about Ivan is we seem to sit down and have the same great conversations,” he says. “We seem to sit down at the same table and have the same meal without really feeling like there’s a distance between us. I think it comes across in our storytelling. It comes across in our collaboration.”

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The actor who shone as Aboriginal detective Jay Swan in Sen’s Mystery Road four years ago, well-known for TV’s Water Rats, The Circuit, The Code and the Jack Irish telemovies, is all restless energy over a coffee in the Fairfax cafeteria. Talking, talking, talking. It’s a striking contrast to Swan, a detective caught in the tension between black and white Australia, who cares deeply but speaks sparingly.

Sydney Film Festival 2016: Aaron Pedersen Talks About Goldstone

Jacki Weaver and David Wenham in Goldstone. In Mystery Road, he investigated the murder of an indigenous teenage girl whose body was found in a drain.

This time round, hurting from the death of his daughter in the intervening three years, Swan heads to a remote outback town on a missing person’s case that reveals deception in the mining industry, corruption in the local Aboriginal land council and the trafficking of young Chinese prostitutes. Sen considers Swan such a strong character that he wanted to tell another story about him.

Sydney Film Festival 2016: Aaron Pedersen Talks About Goldstone

Outback tale … Michelle Lim Davidson.

“He’s full of socio-political elements which I don’t think you could ever get to the bottom of or stop talking about,” he says. “He’s someone of Indigenous background but upholding white law in an ever-changing political landscape where Indigenous people are being tempted with corruption at a level that we haven’t seen before, which is largely what Goldstone explores.”

They shot the film largely at Middleton, a small town in outback Queensland, with a cast that includes Jacki Weaver as the local mayor, David Wenham as a mining company boss, Alex Russell as a young cop, Tom E. Lewis as a land council executive, David Gulpilil as a station hand and Michelle Lim Davidson as a Chinese prostitute.

With Sen developing a big-budget science-fiction movie, it was Pedersen who suggested another Jay Swan film.

Sydney Film Festival 2016: Aaron Pedersen Talks About Goldstone

Aaron Pedersen … stars in Goldstone. Photo: Nic Walker

“I planted the seed and he watered it,” he says. “I said ‘ya bro, we should follow up on this energy.’ Obviously people loved Mystery Road, people loved the storytelling aspect of it, people liked the character.

“I think I asked him three times. That’s the most you want to ask someone like Ivan. I just said ‘c’mon bro, let’s just do number two, a sequel.’

“It was a big risk but it feels right to continue the conversation. It feels right to bring the character back to life but starting in a different place.”

Pedersen, 45, grew up mostly in Alice Springs with time in Tennant Creek, Port Augusta and other remote parts, with seven brothers and sisters. He summarises his early years as “travelling around, came from broken homes, grew up as a ward of the state in welfare”.

“It was a hard start considering I was born in 1970 and my mother was [regarded in the constitution as] flora and fauna until 1967. I’ve always said I was born in the storm. I just had to find a way out of it, find the clearing, and believe the clouds would blow away and the darkness would become something else.”

Pedersen trained as a journalist at the ABC before starting to act at 25 in the Ernie Dingo-Cate Blanchett drama series Heartlands. “I’d always wanted to do it; I just got into it later. I always say ‘my career started with Cate Blanchett.’,” he laughs. “Obviously I’m still lagging in it but I’ve stuck to my guns about a lot of stuff.

“I’ve chosen the projects wisely and I’ve ended up with projects where people choose me to be in them. So I feel like I’m on the right path.”

Pedersen says he learnt from veteran ABC journalist Jim Rivett, “whom I dearly, dearly loved”, a phrase he still carries with him: inform the truck driver without insulting the professor.

“It’s a really beautiful motto for being an intelligent writer and an intelligent storyteller,” he says. While racism has been a fact of life for him, Pedersen reflects on it thoughtfully.

“I’ve faced a lot of different stuff, like Ivan,” he says. “That’s because the country wasn’t educated properly. The education department and the government failed a lot of generations of people by telling lies like saying ‘Captain Cook discovered the country.’ I always say I don’t know what he discovered because we weren’t f—— lost.”

While working steadily, Pedersen has enjoyed having a life since shooting Mystery Road.

“I was obviously ambitious in my twenties. I ran the gauntlet really early. I chased it and I dreamt it and I made it happen.

“So in a lot of ways, I’m OK just to sit back and just see whether I can make that transition into film a lot more permanent. And a lot more peaceful too.”

The more Pedersen talks, the more he reveals about his bond with Sen and their unique working relationship. This natural talker draws on Sen’s quiet calmness to play Swan.

“I’ve modelled it half on Ivan and half on me,” he says. “I say ‘I’m more the conversation and you’re all the silences, Ivan.’ His silences are incredible, empowering. I feel like I’m working with an elder.”

While Sen focuses on directing and shooting the film, the man he calls “Azza” keeps things rolling on set.

“I’m crew morale, man,” he says. “I’m on set every day and I’m joking every day.

“I’ll always go far and beyond my job as an actor. When the actors turn up, I’ll make sure I spend time with them, make them feel welcome, make them feel like you’re in amongst a really special filmmaking process because that’s how Ivan works.

“I was even pulling down sets on this one. Making sure we’re feeding people.

“I make sure I have a smile every day for everybody because our stories within it have a darkness and we don’t need to bleed it into real life because people have got their own issues going on. So I’d always come in and be the biggest idiot on set.”

Pedersen believes films like Mystery Road and Goldstone can help change attitudes and policies to indigenous Australians.

“It’s treating audiences with intelligence,” he says. “It’s giving them the ability to realise their knowledge and their spirit can actually help force change. If people come to see the films with one attitude then leave with another then the job’s done.

“If they go there and be entertained, they’re not feeling like you’re pointing the finger at them. They’re not feeling like it’s a guilt trip. It’s just a conversation.”

That conversation feeds into a deeper mission.

“We want the next generation to be better off than the last,” Pedersen says. “We want them to be smarter, we want them to be stronger, we want them to be more empowered and we want them to be more educated because our families will have a better life.

“I can’t even begin to imagine how my mother was treated like flora and fauna until 1967. And my grandparents and great grandparents.

“So we’re a privileged generation to say we’re getting a better go at it, we’re getting a better start at it. Things aren’t great but let’s make it better for the next mob and the next mob and the next mob.”

Pedersen is already talking with Sen about another Jay Swan film, dealing with the federal government’s closure of remote Aboriginal communities. He wants to keep the conversation with his brother boy going.

“As long as we keep making the stuff that matters to us, we’ll become better and stronger and lighter older men in a lot of ways,” he says.

Goldstone opens the Sydney Film Festival on June 8.

OTHER AUSTRALIAN FILMS

Of the crop of other Australian films having world premieres at Sydney Film Festival, one of the most keenly anticipated is Abe Forsythe’s Down Under, a black comedy set against the backdrop of the infamous Cronulla riots a decade ago. It takes place the night after the first violent clash and centres on three cars of hotheads who are out for retaliation.

Sydney Film Festival 2016: Aaron Pedersen Talks About Goldstone

Black comedy having its world premiere … Down Under. Also debuting are Stephen Sewell’s erotic political thriller Embedded, Craig Boreham’s gay drama Teenage Kicks and Craig Anderson’s “spooky thriller” Red Christmas. Sam and Tom McKeith’s Australian-Filipino boxing drama Beast is also screening. The documentary competition features six films having world premieres including two about refugees making new lives in this country Ros Horin’s The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, about African women performing a stage show based on their own traumatic experiences, and Belinda Mason’s Constance on the Edge, about a Sudanese woman in Wagga Wagga.

The International Documentaries program includes two more: Ian Darling’s Suzy & the Simple Man, about the challenges facing a couple on the land, and Rohan Spong’s Winter at Westbeth, about a New York building housing ageing artists.

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