Shai Pittman’s Karen Burden is getting out of prison. A few years behind bars has changed her life. Sure, she’s clean, but she’s also lost her daughter and has no work experience. She heads to a women’s shelter to find some stability and get her life back on track. From there, things are going to change, the future will be brighter.
Here I Am is writer/director Beck Cole’s feature film debut, after creating some great documentaries and short films. This powerful film takes a look at three generations of women – Karen Burden, her daughter, and her mother, Lois (Marcia Langton) – and how their lives adjust to Karen being out of prison. This is a story we’ve seen told countless times before, but not from the perspective of indigenous women in Australia. Familiar stories transform into something completely different when told from different perspectives.
There’s little need for extensive backstories, or the reasons why the women are in the shelter that they are in, when their stories can be read from the looks on their faces. Whether it’s getting off drugs, finding refuge from an abusive partner, or centering themselves after a stint in prison, these women have the world on their shoulders, and Beck Cole’s assured direction and empathetic writing allows their stories to breath. In lesser hands, this could easily become a film that over amplifies its themes and underlines them to ensure the audience understands what’s going on, but Cole understands this kind of story is essential for audiences to understand the lives of indigenous women in Australia.
Additionally, Cole allows the weight of the difference between generations to be felt. In one powerful scene, Karen confronts her mother – who has custody of her daughter – and asks why she can’t see her daughter. Karen’s previous life of drug use is brought up, at which Karen reminds her mother that grog was her poison instead of drugs. It’s a small line, but it reminds that from each generation, the addiction is different, even if the damage they do to families and lives is no different.
There’s a powerful resilience to Karen – even as things appear to go bad, or threaten to upturn her progress to a better life, she reassures herself that she’s going to be ok. A visit to a job office has Karen being hit with the realisation that she may have some life experience, but without ‘that certificate from the white man’, she is going to struggle to get a job. This comes after a shopkeeper clearly racially profiles Karen and denies her a basic job of delivering newspapers that he’s advertised in the shop window. Yet, she persists.
Later, in the standout scene of the film, the women of the shelter unwind with music and booze, and talk about how the proportion of indigenous women in Australia is so small, but a startling 25% are imprisoned. This film was made in 2011, and devastatingly, the statistics haven’t improved since then, with women being locked up for unpaid fines (as in the death of Yamatji woman Ms Dhu), and deaths in custody being a way of life. In turn, 80% of indigenous women in prison are mothers, with their children often heading into child protection system, or worse, in the criminal justice system.
Then there’s the domestic abuse that causes unseen scars on the soul of women. Betty Sumner’s vibrant Anita stands in the small room, demanding the radio to be turned up so she can sing at the top of her lungs along to Archie Roach’s Walking Into Doors. She sings at the top of her lungs that she’s tired of walking into doors. It’s a powerful moment as the women hug and unite. They may not always be smiles and hugs to each other, but they are there to support each other when they need it. Later, when sitting in a sharing circle, Anita shows warmth and support for another woman who has finished her meth addiction treatment and doesn’t visibly appear proud of having done so, but as Anita reminds her, inside she’s proud, and the other women in turn are proud for her.
Here I Am is not a message movie, instead feeling more like a beacon for the indigenous women of Australia to say, hey, y’know, life can be really shit, and the system works against you, and the world will try drag you down, but keep your head up as you’re not alone, and together we can get through this. Shai Pittman’s performance is initially subdued as she reenters the world, but gradually opens up with a vulnerability, showing a steadfast and proud mother who wants to reconnect with her daughter. She’s matched by Marcia Langton’s mother – fiery, protective, and clearly the mother of Karen, Langton’s performance shows the weight of generations of indigenous mothers trying to make sure that the world doesn’t tear their daughters down like they’ve seen happen to countless other indigenous women.
This kind of tragedy can be oppressive, but there’s moments of beautiful comedy – mostly from Betty Sumner’s Anita – and inviting moments of warmth. When Karen and her housemate, Skinny (Pauline Whyman), head out to catch up with some men, they down a few beers around a fire, as Bruce R. Carter’s Jeff sings a country song on his guitar. It’s a small moment, but in the lives of these women, sometimes all they have are the small moments.
Here Am I ends on a powerful moment that feels like a helping hand being invited to women in need everywhere. As Karen meets up with her parole officer after a particularly tough week, the officer asks, ‘so Karen, you’ve had a rough week, but how are you doing?’ With a moments pause, Karen looks up and says, ‘yeah, I’m going to be alright’.
Beck Cole feels like a hidden gem in the landscape of Australian indigenous cinema, but her work is definitely one you’ll feel better for having sought out.
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