There Is No ‘I’ In Island

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In 2021, I attended the 10 Days on the Island festival in lutruwita/Tasmania as part of a research project exploring the social impact of the creative arts in Regional Australia. On my second day at the festival, I went to a small workshop Reaching Global Audiences with Local Storytelling led by Catherine Pettman from Rummin Productions and Rebecca Thompson. After an hour, it was clear that these two filmmakers were creating, producing and sharing some of the most interesting and community-led stories I had seen in a very long time. Their approach to respecting the communities and individuals they are collaborating with is centred on meeting participants where they are: emotionally, creatively and physically. This was challenged in 2020, and their extraordinary film There is No ‘I’ in Island demonstrates their innovative solution to enforced isolation. This short documentary series weaves the fears, dreams, reflections, and songs of the island community of lutruwita/Tasmania into a fantastical, animated landscape. Every voice heard in the series was self-recorded in May 2020, during Tasmania’s COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, and reflects in a personal way on the experience. Catherine Pettman reflects below on the process of collaborative storytelling and its potential to create change.

Tell us a bit about who you are and how you came to be working in film and documentary filmmaking?

In the southeast of lutruwita/Tasmania there’s a unique meeting of two saltwater bays, divided by a narrow isthmus with high coastal mountains that dip their wooded toes into the icy Southern waters. It was a remote place to grow up and our family activities were completely dictated by the climate and what needed to be caught or grown for the dinner table. I played in the ocean, and on the ocean. I walked through the temperate rainforest to find the waterfalls. Mostly, I rode for hours on my single speed bike, travelling here and there, exploring every nook and cranny. They were fearless years full of freedom and adventure. teralina/Eaglehawk Neck was a magical environment, which hosted a complement of curious visitors and unique local characters full of news of their adventures out there in the wilds. Listening to these storytellers, particularly my parents, was a wonderful way to spend the time. Perhaps this is where my love of story began.

I left home in my late teens. Not an unusual occurrence as we tend to leave the Island early on. It’s a migration really. For me, it was to gain higher education in the Dramatic Arts and beyond, and traveling and exploring other cultures. Journeying through the Northern Territory and then living and working with the Yolngu community in NE Arnhem Land had a huge impact on my life, and for which I will always be grateful. Filmmaking started on the other side of the camera as through my performance studies I saw myself as an actor and theatre maker. Eventually, my heart brought me home to Tasmania where I began crewing on commercial productions, gaining experience through a variety of roles, and eventually began to produce my own content for the screen. I’ve particularly loved documenting stories of exemplary people sharing their life’s passion. Oftentimes, there are themes that relate to the wicked issues that we face as a society. Funnily enough, there’s a collective interest in making and sharing these kinds of stories that build community capacity, and quite a few of my shorter documentaries have resonated in places far removed from our little island at the bottom of the world. 

How would you describe your approach to finding the stories you want to tell?

I have a strong suspicion that stories find me. At least it often feels that way. I hear or read about something intriguing, or a colleague shares an experience or an idea, and, suddenly, we’ve been talking for an hour together, building on what’s fascinating or why it’s compelling and how badly we need to capture it, and share it with others. If activities within the story are time critical then there’s extra pressure to try and solve the puzzle of how to develop the idea, how to finance the production, and how to find a pathway to an audience. That was certainly the case with There Is No ‘I’ In Island. It was developed in response to our COVID-19 lockdown and the reality of not having capacity to film live interviews. Hence, the idea to ask participants to self-record their responses was born. 

All of a sudden, we found ourselves pouring over hours of intimate stories, which we collated into story threads for our five episodes. It was a humbling experience, opening each recording full of stories gifted to us during such a poignant moment in time. There are hours of stories I’d love to share but there’s not enough time to make them all into films. Although this creates tension, I also recognise it’s a privileged position to be in. Overall, the stories that rise to the surface are more often than not those that have a strong community of collaborators and supporters all the way along. There’s an authenticity within the story, the process and the community of storytellers, which eventually translates to an authentic film that hopefully connects with the intended audience. Authenticity is probably the most fundamental aspect in choosing the story I want to tell. Truth mirrored back through story has the power to challenge our values and beliefs and, just possibly, transform the way we see the world – perhaps even offering up a renewed perspective on how we can be better citizens within it. We can but try.

What innovations in the ways that community stories can be made and shared are most exciting for you?

The There Is No ‘I’ In Island series was a break away from the conventional, and I suppose we considered it innovative as it was new ground for us as creatives. Myself and co-creator Rebecca Thomson prompted experiential responses from the community by asking specific questions around a particular subject, and participants self-recorded their answers rather than having a filmmaker present to guide the narrative – quite an untraditional method. By doing this, the authority transferred across to the individual and already we can see the impact of community ownership of their ‘voices’ in the way There Is No ‘I’ In Island  has been embraced and joyously shared through physical space and online. The production most likely felt innovative as it occurred during a very uncertain time during lockdown when we were all unsure how production could continue. It became this very nimble and explorative way that we could keep producing content and share human experiences and stories from our own community, with community participation being at the core of the process. 

Everything about the project made perfect sense and the community responded in kind with openness and enthusiasm. We could sense that the community were feeling ‘seen’ and ‘heard’, which gave their stories even more weight as it was clear how valued they felt being involved. It was hugely exciting to develop from the ground up using this pool of natural, charming, exotic, and relatable characters who were completely anonymous to us, yet who also became extraordinarily familiar throughout our production process. 

As There Is No ‘I’ In Island was conceived during lockdown in May 2020, it was also designed so that we could pair five visual artists each with an experienced animator.

It was hugely satisfying to match these creative teams with an episode that best suited their tone and style, creating a rich and valuable opportunity to build their skills, push themselves creatively and to form new professional collaborations. This network of participants and creatives has resulted in a multi-faceted cross-section of community participants, artistic collaborators, supporters and viewers.  

Do you think stories can create change?

One of the most beautiful things about stories is they have the power to open us up to new perspectives. The question I tend to ponder is how exactly is the story creating change in a person? Is it conscious? Or are these archetypal themes resonating with our subconscious selves, shifting our deepest values and beliefs in a new direction? What happens when new concepts and ideas settle in and relax our learned perspectives and prejudices? Do stories somehow deliver intangible meanings that nurture us and provide sustenance for personal growth? Stories deliver such rich meaning to our lives, they connect us to higher ideals whilst, at the same time, they also connect us to our own hearts. 

Stories have the capacity to make us care deeply about the world and the wicked issues that we face in society. Stories help us understand how to tackle the challenges around us, they inspire us, and remind us we are not alone. Stories provide a pathway to express our emotions and our dreams, which is the perfect combination when you think about it. When stories create change in people, they become empowered to make change. A story that communicates a call to action is probably the most powerful tool in making change. We need to get active to see the changes we want beyond talking, listening and sharing as these activities aren’t enough by themselves. But they are a fantastic start to the conversation towards meaningful action.

Which are your favourite or most impactful projects and why?

Doing it Scared was one of the most beautiful projects I’ve produced, it was a deeply meaningful story featuring rock climbing legend Paul Pritchard and his attempt to finally conquer the ‘Totem Pole’, a “fearsome sea-stack”, which 18 years prior had almost cost Paul his life. Paul was one of the world’s leading climbers and mountaineers of the 1980s and 90s, renowned for his hard and extremely bold first ascents. In 1998, Paul was abseiling in to climb the Totem Pole in Southeast Tasmania when he dislodged a rock, which hit him on the head, causing a severe head injury that he was lucky to survive. The aftermath of the accident left him with hemiplegia, which means he has little feeling or movement in the right side of his body. Despite this disability, Paul continues to live a life filled with adventure. So much so that when Paul decided to return to the Totem pole to finish the climb and asked us to film this extraordinary attempt, we leapt at the chance to support his ambition and help document the final chapter of this remarkable story. 

The resulting edge-of-your-seat film is just 12 minutes in length. It has been seen all over the world in every major outdoor adventure festival, and still continues to screen in cities throughout Europe, China and the US. Paul has been invited to speak at many of these festivals and uses the film within his own presentations to large NFP and Governmental organisations, and within smaller classroom settings, sharing his story and demonstrating his physical and spiritual experience of life through leading practical activities with a goal of breaking down prejudice with empathy, education and inspiration. 

You can find There is No ‘I’ in Island here:

Donna Hancox is an Associate Professor in the School of Creative Practice at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. Her research is focussed on transformative creative practice and social impact, particularly the role of stories and creative technology in supporting healthy and inclusive communities.

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