Sari Braithwaite’s latest documentary, Because We Have Each Other, is a tender and intimate invitation for audiences to spend time with Janet Sharrock and her husband Brent “Buddha” Barnes, who together raise their five kids in a neurodivergent, working-class family. Buddha, alongside son Brendan, work at a spray paint car repair shop, while daughter Jessica is a stand-up comedian, and Becky is one of 80 people in the world with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, with younger siblings Kylie and Dylan both making their place in the world.
This warm, sweet, and truly heart-warming documentary sweeps you off your feet as you get to know Janet and Buddha’s family and hear their views on life, replete with plenty of sayings that will no doubt become part of your own world-view once you’ve gotten to know them. Because We Have Each Other screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival from August 7th through to August 21st. Tickets are available via the MIFF website.
In this interview, Sari talks about her work as a filmmaker, how she went about filming the day-to-day life of the Barnes-Sharrock family, and working alongside partner Munro Melano to create a grand brass score, plus more.
I want to first of all say I’m a huge fan of your past film [censored] which screened at Revelation. It is really a brilliant film. Thank you for making it.
Sari Braithwaite: I’m glad you liked it. It’s kind of been a nice wash up in the years since you know the small audiences seeing that film. But it’s really lovely to hear when people were affected by it or interested in it. And it’s been a nice little kind of pleasure in the years since it’s come out meeting the small communities of people who’ve seen it
It was part of the history of Australian film that I don’t think many people have discussed. So it was really quite beautiful to be able to see that on screen. It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot over the years. Thank you. Which leads us to Because We Have Each Other. I really loved this film. I thought it was very sweet and it was just a lovely time with a family which we may never have ever met otherwise. Thank you for bringing it to the world.
SB: Thank you. I love that kind of reflection on that. And I think it was that was definitely my sense of spending time with them that they were very ordinary, but they had an extraordinary kind of sense of being in the world and they have a hard-won wisdom. And it was amazing to try and find a way to tell their story and I loved every minute of making so.
Let’s start off with the obvious question and how did you meet Janet and Buddha?
SB: I had just finished a film called Paper Trail, which was about a woman who was losing her memory and the process of what it was to pack up your life at the end of your life. And I read an article in the newspaper about the family and it was mostly about Becky and it turned out it was actually an article written by Trent Dalton, the year before Boy Swallows Universe came out. He had done a profile on the family and I just thought they sounded really intriguing and interesting and Becky’s remarkable memory really struck me after working on this project, which was essentially about who you are when you lose your memory. And I thought “What is it to remember everything?”
So I just kept the newspaper article tucked away for a while and I was still thinking about the month later and then I was in the process of finishing [censored], we were just on the homestretch for it. I contacted them and said I was interested in meeting them and that I was a filmmaker. And they said, “Sure, come and meet us.” And so I turned up just a couple of days before Christmas in 2017, and they were all there to meet me. I remember my overwhelming feeling, as soon as I spent time with them, was ‘what an incredible group of people’ and ‘someone should make a film about them’.
But I have no idea how you would do that. Like how do you make a film about seven people that no one essentially knows? There was there was something about them that captured my heart in a very instinctual way. And I thought it was really worth exploring, and they welcomed me so openly and that was the beginning of a collaboration that would last a year.
I love the way that the film is bookended with [Janet and Buddha] joyfully saying “This is our film. Tough luck if you don’t like, we’ve got your money now.” You immediately get a sense of what their personality is and who they are. Then getting to know them over the film and spending time with them, you just feel lucky to know these people. What I really love is that you get this feeling like they’re everybody’s neighbours in Australia. There is familiarity there that is really quite important to being able to tell their story. Was that something that you found as you were filming?
SB: I think you put it really beautifully because when we were filming it, sometimes Buddha would say to me, “I have no idea who’s gonna watch [this].” And because I was very honest with them, I said, “I’m just following my gut and we’re just filming the things that you want me to film and the things that I think would be good to film.” It was so loose most of the times in terms of our approach to shooting. I just always had this firm belief that, number one, it was such a gift to be with them. And I thought that they had an incredible amount of wisdom about what it is to be in the world and suffering to live with disappointments, to live in a world where you are constantly ignored or disrespected. It was his idea to do an introduction and we collaborated to figure out the best way to do the introduction and to do the conclusion, but I thought that it was really vital to me that we did that one because it was a great idea from him.
But two, it was this idea that this family are welcoming you. That you’re not a voyeur. You’re not here to kind of judge as an outsider. They’re saying to an audience, straight up, that you’re an invited guest here. “[These are] our lives and this is how we live our lives.” And then at the end of the film, they’re saying “Thanks for coming. Now, head off on your way.” Often when we tell stories of people who are marginalised in some ways, there’s this sense of that, even when it’s with the best intention, of limiting their agency or dehumanising them into the issues that they face in their lives. And we were never going to approach this film like that. It was always about the lives and the people first. And the wisdom that can be gleaned from people who know exactly who they are, even if the world often doesn’t look at them.
What were the conversations that you had with them before filming or during filming? There are scenes that feel very personal where we see them waking up in the morning. Were you present in those moments?
SB: Part of the intimacy of the project is that for a couple of years, we didn’t have any money. So what I would do is I would fly up to Brisbane and I would record oral history – I would call them oral history because that’s my history background. I would record these really free flowing audios with people, and we would just sit in the room of every member of the family and do hours and hours of these audio interviews. I would come with a couple of questions, but largely it was just space for people to talk. We talked about everything important and everything trivial of life.
And I think because we did that for years and years, that was part of this growing intimacy and understanding of the deepness of who people are in a very casual way and a very profound way. And so when it came to our year of filming, I had this relationship with the entire family that feels like a kind of extended member of the family. The camera person had known the family for years as well because it was the stop/start of having a little bit of money and then not having any money to continue. So we were all very comfortable with each other. And we spent a lot of time not filming, just having coffee and hanging out, mucking around.
When it came time for filming in those intimate spaces, there was such a level of trust there that everyone was okay with it. Everyone was so used to being filmed and used to staying around, they were they were just completely accustomed to the camera and our presence. And also they’re people who know who they are and they’re not going to pretend to be anyone else for a camera. It’s the uniqueness of their sense of self and their position that they can be so comfortable with a camera right up in their faces. But in those cases, I had a key to the house, and we would just come in early in the morning and I would drop a mic on them and then the camera person would just start rolling. And that’s how we got it.
Not to get too deep into the talk of finances, but I imagine the support for the MIFF premiere fund has been pretty important. How did that come into the process of the?
SB: It’s probably a better question to ask Chloé Brugalé, my producer, [who is an amazing collaborator in seeing the project with me and making it happen. Smart, compassionate, creative producer are where it’s at. I couldn’t have done it without her.]
But when we were trying to get money for this film, it was really hard. It was hard to say like, “Oh, they’re not famous, and there’s seven of them, and it’s an observational documentary.” It’s not like we’re filming this great event. All the structures that make it easy to finance a film, be it people who are well known, or a filmmaker with a great track record, or something around a clear event so you know that you’re not going to just film forever. These are difficult films to fund because they’re risky films. We didn’t know what was gonna happen and we didn’t know what we were aiming for. So it was really tricky to convince people that we had this hunch that we wanted to follow through.
[It was Film Vic and Logan city council that came on board first to support us, and the MIFF Premiere Fund was such a crucial moment in pushing us out of development, and believing in the possibility of the project.] Because we worked to get it funded during 2020, so we were all locked down in Melbourne, have no possibility of being in Brisbane to work on it. And so the fact that we got it up at that time felt like a little miracle really.
All films like miracles and then when it finally gets out into the world, it’s wonderful. Especially getting to experience these kinds of stories.
SB: Absolutely. And I think that’s why it’s so wonderful to have the film festival back and to see the work that everyone was able to do during this really tricky time. I feel like filmmaking is tricky enough and then you add COVID on top and it’s a tricky gig. That being said, I think no matter how tricky this was, and how hard everyone worked – from my camera person who did handheld camera for days on end filming the little moments of life [Jeremy Virag], to the editor who worked with me to find a story amongst all these little moments [Patrick McCabe], and then working with the sound designer who just gave his heart to it [Lachlan Harris] – all these extraordinary filmmakers came together because they just fell in love with this family and this project. It was one of the many things that I feel really humbled about in making this project. It was to bring together some of these fine creative practitioners who just gave it their all and we worked so hard because we really love this family.
And it shows on screen. That leads nicely to the discussion about the score because the score is so reverential and adds this prestige to their life in such a beautiful way. Can you talk about the creation of it and the choice of the [brass] instruments for the score?
SB: My partner, [Munro Melano], he’s composed music for all of my films. And from the very beginning, right before we even picked up the camera, I had said to him, “I hear a brass band. I hear brass instruments and I hear the low sounds of euphoniums and tubas.” And his response was “Oh God, how do I do that.” We moved to Queensland with my toddler to do the filming and so he was the primary carer, but he was also taking lessons to get his head around how to do a brass score and getting lessons from someone up in Queensland. And so it was just very clear for me from the very beginning that that was the sound.
It was a combination of things, but I felt like there was something about the music and sound that’s formed by human breath. This idea that a sound that is so low, but then has the ability to float and to transcend. I always heard that in my head because I felt like there was something about the family that despite all of the shit that they deal with, they float, and how remarkable that they can do that. And so that sound was always there and with me and then we finished the edit and poor Munro had a short window of time to build this just incredible score.
And he did it in, I don’t know, four weeks. Something crazy, where neither of us slept and he would wake up at 3am to work to get it across the line. And he did it. I think it’s so beautiful. He worked really closely with the sound designer, which was also a really special part of it, that we kind of played with the sound design to create that ethereal, otherworldly feeling because it’s so rooted in the everyday this film, but I wanted an audience to feel the magic that I felt when I was with them and we really use the techniques of cinema to help reframe how you would see this kind of story
What does it mean for you to be a filmmaker working in Australia today?
SB: That’s a good hard one. I love being a filmmaker. And in making this film, the process that we went down, I felt like I learned so much about what is important to me as a filmmaker but also what is important to me as a person. And I think a lot of the members of our team felt that making a film like this, you can’t help ruminate the perspectives you have on your own life and what you will do in life. And so, without a doubt, it’s something that means so much to me.
But then I think that being said, it’s very difficult to be a filmmaker in Australia right now. I can’t earn a living wage doing it. And I haven’t been able to earn a living wage doing it. And so I always take a bit of a line from Janet in that it’s important to dream and it’s important to know what you love to do but also sometimes you can’t do it. And I think if I was going to be honest, that’s how I feel about being a filmmaker in Australia today is that it means so much to me but sometimes you’ve also got to figure out how to pay the bills and be a parent and find the other ways that you find meaning in life. And I think at the end of the project, that’s definitely what I’m wrestling with.
Thank you very much for that honest answer. I really hope that I get to see more of your films going forward because I love what you do as a filmmaker. I really love the way that you see the world and get to engage with the world and that shows so completely here in Because We Have Each Other.
SB: And in saying that answer, it’s not ‘woe is me’, but I think it’s just an appreciation of everything all at once is not always possible. I feel like making this film, I would say that since it was really hard on me, because I didn’t know what I was getting into and watching those images, I found it a really kind of complex, difficult process. And I would say that this was a very difficult film to make in so many kinds of technical and creative and even emotional ways dealing with how to find a way to tell stories of trauma but also tell stories of how wonderful life can be. It was very hard, but it was so affirming and important to me, and I’m so thankful to be a filmmaker to be able to do that because I think it’s the fundamental lesson of making this film is that by being with this family, you can say that just because life is hard, doesn’t mean that it is not absolutely sublime. And just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean that you’re not happy. And they live that so fully and it was such a gift for them to share that with me, but now but share that with audiences.
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