Marungka Tjalatjunu (Dipped in Black): Derik Lynch, Matthew Thorne, and Patrick Graham Talk About Tina Turner and Trust in This Interview

For Yankunytjatjara artist Derik Lynch, when he dances for his family and friends in the spotlights of car in a stunning gold dress in Marungka Tjalatjunu (Dipped in Black), echoing the power and strength of Tina Turner, it’s a moment of liberation and a powerful expression of self. Marungka Tjalatjunu deservedly won the Silver Bear Jury Prize (Short Film) and Teddy queer short film prize at the 2023 Berlinale, and in doing so, it shone a global spotlight on Inma, a traditional form of storytelling from the Anangu community which uses visual, verbal, and physical communication to pass along Anangu Tjukurpa (myths) between generations. Marungka Tjalatjunu also won the prestigious Documentary Australia Award at the 2023 Sydney Film Festival.

Derik’s story is one that is told after co-director Matthew Thorne and co-producer Patrick Graham forged a relationship of trust and understanding over years. There’s a level of trust and understanding that also comes with sharing your story with an interviewer like myself, and I’m forever grateful for the honesty and openness that Derik, Patrick, and Matthew gifted me for this interview. It’s that aspect of trust that opens up the following discussion.

This interview contains discussions of suicide.

I want to start talking about trust and the level of trust that’s required to tell stories on film. There is a level of trust that you, as storytellers, give to the audience and there’s a level of trust that you give to me as an interviewer sharing your story, but I’m curious if you can talk about the level of trust that you built with each other in telling Derik’s story on screen?

Matthew Thorne: You’re dealing with not only the colonial layers and the political layers at work, but you’re also dealing with genuinely different language bases. And those language bases have ontological, theoretical differences in the way worlds are perceived and how lives are perceived and how time is perceived. Value structures then bring that language into culture and into family and into life. Derik has described to me growing up in some kind of traditional Aboriginal community experience, certainly from a perspective of culture and storytelling; and of course, that’s the sad reality we live in and under the auspice of the whitefella world, but in a cultural system that is still basically as it was for over 60,000 years.

You’re really working on collaboration and understanding from so many incredibly difficult layers that it’s really kind of like a miracle. It really speaks to whatever genuine deep and meaningful spiritual connection Derik and I have that we were able to navigate that as we have tried to. It speaks to Derik’s generosity as an individual and his kindness in his heart to go on that process.

Derik Lynch: When I first met Matthew, I had a trust issue from my own personal experience. I remember giving him a call one night and just making friends with him and feeling comfortable having that chat with him, and the trust came [when] I started having conversations [with him]. We spoke on the phone from the other side of the world from each other, [and] that’s how the script came about. I still did have a trust issue around when we first started filming, and I didn’t even know where his direction of the storyline was heading. I had a completely different vision of telling the story on screen to his.

He knew from our conversations over the phone and before we shot the first half of the film, I remember him telling me, “Trust me, trust me.” Back then I still didn’t trust him. I did not trust him right up until when he introduced me to Patrick. I remember Patrick and Matthew picking me up, and we were going to have a coffee and lunch when we all first met for the first-time face to face, even though I had met Matthew nine months before we came back to meet the second time. Patrick and I knew of each other because we had a lot of mutual friends being in Adelaide and being actors. I think when we first started having those conversations, I remember Matthew coming back and saying, “We’ve got no money, but I really want to make this film. You’re not gonna get anything out of it, but just trust me, I will make the story come to life.”

I guess I just trusted him a little bit until we got home. Then when we got home, it was like, “Okay, so what are you doing?” I would say it took four years for me to trust Matthew in what he was saying, and now after five years we fully trust each other. He’s got my back and I’ve got his back. For me, from my perspective as being a blackfella there’s a lot of trust issues. From my own personal perspective, I had huge issues with trusting people, not only white people, but also my own family and my own community and my own people. I just had huge trust issues with every human being. Now I can move forward and have conversations around working with people and all sorts of things I want to do.

And having people like myself throw difficult questions for the very first question in an interview is hard.

DL: [laughing] And sometimes I don’t trust journalism. I’m very cautious around talking about stuff. Sometimes you’ll hear me say, “Do you understand what I’m saying? Do you get what I’m saying?”

Patrick Graham: When a story is hard to share, then I think you’re probably in the right spot. In terms of [being] a storyteller, when you write something, if it’s hard for you to give that over, then you’re probably onto something. Reiterating what Derik said, it was such a long process. Five per cent of the film that’s in there now we shot in mid to late-2019. We all decided when we were up there that we would apply for money to make the film bigger and better. We thought it was a really great story, so we applied for finance, from the South Australian Film Corp and the Adelaide Film Festival.

We were set to make the film on a date that we all remember, the 17th of March 2020, when the whole world went into lockdown. We had to shut down on our last day of pre-production, our first day of production, and we held for two days. We all went home and went to bed. From then we had to raise finance, but during that period it was really like a blessing in disguise. We really got a chance to deepen our relationship. In a funny way, I don’t know if we were ready to make the film then, so to have that extra two years of developing Derik’s story and Matthew and Derek rewriting and reconnecting constantly on what shape this film is going to take, and it got stronger and stronger and deeper and deeper and those layers of trust were opened. From a producers perspective, and also a friend perspective, we’ve all grown to know each other well.

DL: We’re like a family now thanks to the shutdown.

PG: Derik sharing his community is like a dream come true. To shoot and be on country and make this kind of film has been such an incredible privilege to be introduced into Derik’s family and world and community.

How important is it when you’re sharing a bond as co-directors to give each other the space to tell a story? Especially when considering the notion that you’re sharing the honour of telling Derik’s story too.

MT: Derik didn’t set out to make a film with a whitefella. We really met by chance, so I think the fact that it seems to have been meant to happen that way, or at least there is some genuine spiritual connection is what we relied on. We both recognise very deeply that the film would not exist without the partnership that we have. I don’t have any understanding, really, of Aboriginal culture, and whatever I have is because Derik has taught me. By a similar token, Derik is not really a filmmaker; he’s a storyteller. He’s a performer. He’s a musician. He’s many things, but his art was not film.

There was this thing from Derik first of all of napugi napugi, which basically means ‘you give me, I give you’. It involved us making something together. I gave Derik a doorway into filmmaking or film knowledge, [which is] also an art form of some privilege, you have to have some means to go and learn to be a filmmaker; and then he also gave me a doorway into Aboriginal culture and culture in the APY lands which is where he’s from. That doorway is also a great gift and privilege, of course.

We have a great respect that this was really a work that really is napugi napugi which is my understanding that it’s a really important cultural part of his community. I think we also are coming to realise that this work that we’ve done as a whitefella and a blackfella telling a story together is also really important work itself. Yes, we must have a place for Aboriginal people to tell their story completely independently of white interference or white voice, in the same way that it’s also important that we have white Australians who try and wrestle with what it means to be a ‘white Australian’ independently. But there’s another thing that we also have to do as part of whatever this very long process of some kind of reconciliation could be, which is make work together and found out also what our shared voice is.

That’s definitely not what we set out to make, and we never thought about it in those terms. I think we both just liked each other and wanted to go to the next level. Derik just wanted to get his story told, and I wanted to make something that really connected with the underlying mysticism of the land, which of course is in many ways Aboriginal. We’ve learned that what we were doing and the reason it’s important was something even bigger than we could imagine.

I want to talk about the visual language of the film. It embraces the harsh lighting of the city at the beginning and then as you go on to country, it’s so warm. There’s also a sequence of diving into the water, which brings up a notion or rebirth and renewal. Can you talk about the style of filmmaking and the choice of imagery to present on screen?

DL: I had two roles, me being in front of the camera, and talking to the families. Andy (Gough) the cinematographer and Matthew went out and scouted locations with the permission from me and the families and giving them permission to actually film in certain areas. [Some of the location scouting Patrick and I went out with them too.]

The water and the diving into the water wasn’t even in the original script, because the second time when we went home, it rained a lot back in the desert, so that was added on. The beautiful green sceneries wasn’t all planned; that was nature giving us a blessing to shoot in those locations. But with the other locations and the landscapes and the colours, I think we reflected on a lot of the things from the first shoot in terms of the colours of the earth and the sky and the trees and all of that. Throughout lockdown, Andy and Matthew looked at all of the footage and really looked at the colours and would see how the colours would look the second time when we would go back, and the sound came about when we actually got there on country.

MT: Andy is one of the most incredible spiritual creative energies I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. We’ve worked with each other for a long time, and now we kind of almost have one brain together. We’ve now grown up somehow as artists together, so we have also influenced each other to change in certain ways. Andy just gets it. He’s one of the most kind, empathetic, spiritual individuals and his ability to relate to whatever the essential is, in the land, in the community, in individuals, is very present. He’s verry attuned, his radar is on. So I think it’s really that sensitivity that makes the film be as spectacular in that visual language as it is.

Of course, that land is beautiful, and shooting on film is beautiful, and having a Steadicam is a beautiful thing, and all these things add [up] technically, they’re like the elements. But really, it’s that deep, poetic, almost metaphysical understanding of what you’re seeing before you that informs the way it looks, the way that it is, and I think it’s something really present in the land. That’s spiritual power.

Can you talk about the first time that you got to see it in a cinema. Where was it and what was that experience like?

DL: For me I was there throughout the editing process, so to sit in front of the screen, during all of the editing, I’ve seen it so many times. I guess my first big screening was last October.

PG: We had a fundraiser. That was before we got into Berlin.

DL: That was last October. That was actually the day after my birthday. I actually saw it in Sydney, at Dendy. That was kind of like a wow factor for me because it was like, “Man, I’ve been spending all this time in front of this computer screen.” It was a good computer screen, but to see it in an actual cinema, I totally forgot that it was my story. ‘Oh, what the hell is this?’ It just blew me away. To see it on the big screen, and to be in the same room as a lot of the audience and watching it I felt like I was on a flight mode. Even though it was my story, I was just so emotional to see everything that I’ve always wanted to share on the big screen.

PG: Partially for the first time watching it with an audience, you get so absorbed in the film, like you’re saying Derik. You’ve seen it so many times, and then finally, when you watch the on the big screen with an audience, you kind of become an audience member again for the first time. ‘Ah, okay, that’s what we made.’ For me, it wasn’t until after we won the Silver Bear at Berlin, and we had that second to last screening in Berlin in the International, that awesome cinema, that I felt like I watched it for the first time.

DL: Every time I watch it on the big screen, and when you’re sitting there with a different audience, it just takes you on a journey.

Talking about going to Berlin, I imagine being away from home would give you a different perspective of the film, seeing the film with an audience who may never have been to Australia or may never have experienced an Australian film.

DL: That was very exciting for me. To take something that’s from the heart of Australia. It’s five minutes down the road from the actual centre of Australia. To take it over there to a European audience, it’s like looking through this little tiny window to this world where I come from, and where my people are, and where they still live, and where our life exists out in the desert. I wanted to share my story. I wanted it to go that far. And I was super excited. I love sharing stories, so, for me, it was a privilege to go over there and share a glimpse of Australia in our Indigenous communities and culture, the oldest living culture in the world.

PG: It’s pretty wild. To be accepted to such a big festival was off the charts. We were all so incredibly blown away by a festival that values art so much. Cinema is a commercial business, and there is so much of that that gets pushed onto you as a producer, but to produce something that I think is actually also a beautiful piece of art and that’s acknowledged is really cool. As the festival progressed, it just got more and more wild, winning the Teddy, and then the night of the closing night winning the Silver Bear.

DL: It was crazy because we won the Teddy the night before, and we celebrated for the Teddy, and then we’re like, ‘Hang on, the big one is tomorrow night, we have to wait.’ It just got a crazy like Patrick said.

I want to talk about Tina Turner. Can you talk about the importance of Tina for you as an artist and as somebody to dance to?

DL: Oh, Tina was my biggest inspiration growing up. Of course, she was a role model and an institution and a driving power. She was just phenomenal. She is a legend. For me growing up, I was in grade one at the time, and seeing the senior kids doing the Nut Bush City Limits line dance, and rest of the grades were not allowed. They would perform everywhere in the community. When school was over, and the senior kids were staying back to learn the dance line for Nut Bush, and I remember I didn’t go home, I used to run over and jump in the water fountain and like peek through the window and watch the senior kids practice. I was about five at the time, and I remember putting all the routine together in my head. We had this big celebration opening up the new Women’s Centre and the art centre in Aputula and the senior kids standing up to do the dance, and all of us little little kids were out sitting in the front row. I remember our teacher saying “Do not get up, just sit and watch the big kids do the dance.”

And I did not listen to him. I got up and I did the whole routine. I was one of those kids who just got up and danced.

For me, growing up [I listened] to a lot of Tina and [watched] a lot of Tina and [was] doing it all behind closed doors and practising singing with the brush. I started practising. I didn’t have heels. We didn’t have heels in Aputula, so I would do a dance, which I still do, and I would do ‘invisible high heels’ rather than visible heels, until I wore actual heels and realised it feels very natural.

I’m a firm believer that every film is made better if there’s dancing in it. The beautiful moment with all the car lights on you as you dance must have been quite a powerful moment. What was it like to shoot that sequence?

DL: Oh hell, it was a powerful moment for Patrick and Matthew and everybody else. For me it was like “I’m not doing this!” I wanted to go out and do it somewhere out of the community, on the road, in the sunlight. I did not like it at all. I was super nervous because we shot the first bit and I did not like the heels because they was shorter. And so, the second one in this film, I’ve got six-inch stilettos, so I felt comfortable with that, but at the same time, I was very nervous because I’ve never performed in a dress in front of my community and it’s something that no one has ever seen in the remote community ever.

People see it on television, on stage, but to perform in a gold dress with a six-inch stilettos in the dirt, for me, I felt nervous, because my mum was there, my brothers were there, my entire family was there. My other cousins and sisters were telling mum I think a day before the shoot. I was telling them, “I don’t want mum to be there, I don’t want these certain families to be there when we’re shooting.” I remember on the day of the shoot, my sister Sharlene came and said, “I’ve spoken to them, and they really want to see you. They’re really excited to see you. Everybody knows, you know, your mum knows, your brothers know, everybody’s really proud of you and respects you of your sexuality. This is your story.” Even my mum said, “You tell your story however you want to tell your story. I’m very proud of you.”

That gave me the blessing to actually finally get out there and really bust a move and do it. There’s a part of me that I really wanted to express. Not that I do it all the time. It’s something that I, as a child, had a had a dream to one day wear a gold dress like Tina and do it, but I never got the chance to do it on stage so I may as well do it through film, and why not do it back home on country in front of my people and family.

PG: When we were there in 2019, we shot a bit of that sequence, but we all knew it just has to have the community arrive and be part of it, which we wrote.

DL: When we were there, it was just [an] abandoned [building]. And then when we went back, it [had] turned into a church.

PG: It’s really such an iconic scene for the film now. From a technical perspective, it was really difficult film scene to shoot. There was such a short amount of light to get it right. It was the hardest sequence to shoot and with the shortest amount of time, so it was really hard to emotionally gauge what you’re doing. “This is what we’re doing and we have to get into it.” Derik was far more emotionally involved at that point. Then when we saw it in the rough, we were just like ‘This is phenomenal.’

MT: Navigating the relationship between being co-directors, and Derik somehow being like an educator, I’m culturally out of my depth and I don’t understand what people are saying, and then also sometimes Derik had to be the subject to me and step back from being a director. It’s a really interesting dynamic where in some moments, I sensed with Derik that he had a lot of fear of acceptance by his community. We all kind of shy away from moments that are really tough for us, or that we feel a fear of rejection or failure. We talked a lot about it before we left, it was always an important part of the story, even from the first time we went out in 2019. When it came for us to shoot it, it was my job to support Derik and encourage him, and to be there and say, “This will be safe. We’ll make sure it’s safe and we’ll protect you, but it is important based on everything you’ve told me and based on everything that I know about you, I think it really is important that you do this.”

Derik was very nervous about how his community would receive it, because like anywhere, queer identity is something that has a complex reality in every community. But his community was incredibly moved and supportive, and I’m very happy that Derik got to see that.

I think he’s someone really his story has come. I think in Derik’s story there are a lot of important lessons for Australia. I say that obviously for white Australia, but also I think for Aboriginal Australia and for his mob. Also, in a general sense, I think he’s a pretty impressive ambassador for his mob. The reality is that white people, me included, we’re all learning all the time about this stuff. We’re writing some kind of new book while we’re also learning, and hearing him speak at the Sydney Film Festival, so many of the questions were, not intentionally, but were often inappropriate. And seeing Derik navigate them with so much grace and charm and kindness was impressive. I think he’s an impressive individual, and that for me is what makes the film so special.

If I can pivot to talking about one of the heavier aspects of the film, which is talking about the way that trauma acts an echo and reverberates into the present. There are actors playing earlier versions of yourself Derik, and I’m curious if you can talk about presenting that fractured harmony that might have been created by the trauma that you have experienced. What was the process of representing that on screen and seeing somebody else carry your story along?

DL: For the two young boys and one young man, they were all right into it. I was very nervous, because I chose three or four of those kids, but I didn’t have much interaction with those kids, because they know me, and I’m a friend of the family, so I handballed it over to Matthew and Pat to build that relationship with those young kids. From my perspective, they really enjoyed being around the camera and really enjoyed the shoot, and they did a really good job to carry those stories from my past.

What discussions did you have on set about the story?

DL: For most of the shoot with the trauma events, I wasn’t present. For the sorry camp and the hanging, I wasn’t there because that was just so painful that I just wasn’t around for those shoots. I would come in and direct a little bit, I remember coming in and directing some of the hanging scene. Not directing but telling families about what the scene is all about, and then I walked off, and I wasn’t present or else it would have taken me right back to that place where I didn’t want to be anymore. I’ve come out of all of those dark places throughout the pandemic as well. [I’ve been] working on myself and [have been] really taking care of my mental health. But, I was strong at the same time. The way it turned out was perfect for me, because I remember after the shoot, the guys came back and they showed me the footage, and I was like, “Wow.” I was just like, “Wow, wow, wow, wow,” when I saw the footage.

I’ve also had a suicide experience myself having tried to take my own life, and I’m looking after myself in a mental health capacity, so getting to see that you’re still here, and I’m still here, and that we can survive these events is really important and powerful. I found that quite a beautiful thing to witness. Thank you for being open and sharing. It means a lot to me and I imagine to a lot of other people too.

DL: Coming out of the pandemic there were so many of my friends, Patrick’s friends, your friends, people that we know that couldn’t handle the pandemic who have departed. Coming out of the pandemic and regrouping and shooting this made me more stronger, and to look back and to see so many people that went through it in isolation, and that couldn’t handle that and have departed, and [by] defining those bits in the film, I just wanted to tell a story and to share a story that it is okay to feel the way you feel. It’s okay to seek help in a professional way.

Thank you for being open and honest and for sharing your story. Patrick, how did you help to create a safe space on set to explore these emotions and themes?

PG: In the period before we got there, and with Marcellus [Enalanga] who was our cultural adviser and a relation to Derik, it was slowly getting to know the community while we were there, and shooting at a pace that was allowed for those conversations, and not pushing anyone into a place that they didn’t want to be, and just making sure that consultation was open and culturally respectful.

DL: Marcellus was very helpful. He’s my nephew and a cultural producer and he worked very closely, with the family, with Patrick, with Duncan, to get everything right and getting things together, and having that awareness about the community and the team as well.

Can you talk about what it meant to have Marcellus as a cultural advisor for the film?

DL: It was a big support for me, because it was my personal story in the film, having Marcellus [there] took some of the load off to support in those dark moments I was shooting around. Also, getting the families in and helping Matthew and Andy and everybody that was shooting when I wasn’t around was hands down to Marcellus. A cultural producer is important to have around because they are the bridge, they will keep the communication flowing in-between and letting each side know what’s happening. If this side doesn’t agree, then they go back and forth like a bridge, they’re a person that goes between both parties.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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