NAIDOC Week: Off Country Directors Rhian Skirving and John Harvey Talk Filming a Documentary During a Pandemic and More in This Interview

Every year in Australia, over 3,000 Indigenous students receive scholarships to attend private boarding schools around the country. Rhian Skirving and John Harvey’s Off Country is a four-part documentary series that follows the lives of six students as they start their year away from home at one of the countries pre-eminent boarding schools: Geelong Grammar. Off Country is screens as part of SBS and NITV’s 2022 NAIDOC programming schedule, launching alongside the hotly anticipated crime drama True Colours.

With filming commencing in 2020, Off Country quickly finds the students in a turbulent world of change and uncertainty as the emerging COVID-19 pandemic unfurls across the world. In this interview, directors Rhian and John talk about the difficulties of filming during a pandemic, having to pivot when the story required them to, and the original vision for Off Country when it was conceived as a feature documentary film.

I watched this as a film last year. Seeing it being turned into a series is really exciting. What was the challenge of turning a film into a four-part series?

Rhian Skirving: It wasn’t as hard as we expected, actually, because we had enough time to use the material from the feature film. The four half hours or four 25 minutes plus you have the ends, the teasers, and the recaps. So in a way, we didn’t change very much. We did a little bit of restructuring just to make sure that every episode left us wanting to know what happens and making sure each episode had different tone throughout the episodes. So a few things were moved around in the order. But essentially, the story is exactly the same. And I think unless you know the film really well, you probably wouldn’t notice those changes.

Let’s go back to when Off Country was conceived. What was the original discussion that you both had? And what were your intentions for capturing this story of life in a boarding school for Indigenous kids?

John Harvey: I’ve worked with young Indigenous people in the past and I’ve always felt passionate about the voice of young people getting out there. In terms of Indigenous stuff, young Indigenous people get a very hard rap in the media, often portrayed negatively. There’s lots of policies and things surrounding young Indigenous people, but we rarely get to hear directly from them. [When Rhian first spoke to me about the project], that was the really exciting thing about this project: being able to hear from young people directly about their experiences through school, but also through life. And this opportunity to work with Rhian as well for me as a filmmaker and to learn from Rhian in terms of her storytelling was also obviously wonderful as well. It was very exciting.

And for you, Rhian?

RS: I initially came across the concept of the scholarships and immediately of course clicked how enormous that journey must be for a family of any student and in particular Indigenous students who might be coming from further away. And I thought, “Wow, I’d love to know more about how that works for a family and to try and capture it, that rollercoaster of the experience.” So that’s really how it started.

How do you go about auditioning kids or selecting who you’re going to follow?

RS: Well, that was a long process because the producing side of the film did take a couple of years. But initially, we met all the Indigenous students at the school or all those who want to meet, and had a chat with them and talked about the idea. And then we filmed some of them in order to show our funding bodies and our commissioners the sorts of stories we could capture. But then of course a lot of those students had left by the time we were ready to go into production.

So then we re-cast. But we were very clear. It was really those who wanted to be involved. Obviously, you can’t force something like this on anyone, let alone a teenager. So people had to opt in. And we looked for a variety of locations that the kids come from and a variety of backgrounds and family stories.

For you, John, was there a plan to have as many different people talking about their experiences of what it’s like coming from so far to Geelong?

JH: It was interesting because Wadawurrung country down there in Geelong is cold country, anyway. Then you’ve got students who are from Northern Territory or Queensland or Western Australia. So that in itself is pretty hard and a shock for them, I think, and also being so far away from family. And during COVID, there [were] restrictions and border closures and a lot of complications coming up for the young people.

Which for us was interesting too, because it also meant that we slightly shifted focus with the film. We didn’t get the traditional school year of starting the year with sports and musical tryouts and auditions and things like that. It meant we had to think on our feet which is the nature of doc but that gave us a focus on families and how families support young people through this process being so far away from home and the challenges that they go through. It was great how that came to the surface.

What were your initial feelings about the challenges that might arise when you heard that lockdowns might be on the cards?

RS: It was pretty bleak. We had only just started filming, and all of our characters were sent home and the school was shut down. It was scary for filmmakers. You have an expected story that you’re going to follow, an expected timeline and an institution in which you have been given access, and then the institution has to shut down. So it was difficult and obviously being in Victoria, the lockdowns just seemed endless. We didn’t know when we would have the students back and when the school would open.

So for a while, we really were unsure what would happen. But slowly, as the lockdowns opened in WA, we could get a crew in WA to see our WA character, and John was in Queensland so he could see our Queensland character. And eventually I could get back down to Geelong as the school opened bit by bit. But a lot of our students couldn’t come back to school. So it definitely wasn’t the year that we expected.

There’s this feeling of disconnect with the story of Indigenous kids going to Geelong Grammar. And then COVID comes along and amplifies that feeling and some of the kids really, really struggle there. Was that one of the themes that you were surprised to capture on film?

JH: It’s an interesting thing because from one perspective, it’s a story of disconnect. From another perspective, it’s a story about absolute reconnection with family, with culture. So from the school perspective, definitely that sense of disconnection and all the challenges with online studying. We had a student who was in Western Australia who when they started the classes was on Victoria time, so they were getting up very early to just attend class online.

But I think the interesting thing that kept bubbling up for me was here’s this incredible, amazing opportunity at Geelong Grammar School. It’s this prestigious Western institution of learning for schools, and I got the strong sense of young people [saying] “Yes, we want to walk down that path. But we also want to learn more and walk down this path of our cultural understanding and know our people, know our language, know where we’re from, and know those stories.”

That was certainly equal, if not valued more for young people. Sometimes being at home brings up things for young people about that connection. When they’re away at school, they do have gatherings with other students and cultural gatherings with other Indigenous students there. And these are things for any young person’s identity, particularly for young Indigenous people, there are different levels of their own connection or finding out about who they are and who their family is. That idea of being home too brought that up to the surface.

RS: Yeah, I think the extended period at home highlighted the sacrifice for some families. They hadn’t had their kids home for a term or two. I think for some, it made them realise what they were missing out on. As grateful and happy as they were and keen for the opportunity. I think COVID did do that for some families.

There’s that beautiful place on the school campus where they’re not allowed to have technology. And there is that irony that because of COVID, they have to bring technology there and you can hear the frustration in the kids’ voices, “Look, we were really enjoying this connecting with one another without having technology around.” Can you talk about exploring that aspect?

RS: Timbertop is quite a unique experience. I think quite a lot of private schools — and also there’s a state school opportunity as well of a camp where you go away for a whole term, not a year but a term, and you disconnect from home. There’s no phones or technology, and I know even my own daughter is against it. And the kids that we saw in the series certainly resisted at first. No question. Having it removed is a big deal. But there’s so much going on in those places, so many other experiences being offered to them, and connection and friendship and relationships that I think that by the time they’ve settled in, they don’t miss it at all. But yeah, we should ask them.

Obviously, in between these moments of being on the school, we’ve got these great shots of the kids talking and answering questions and being on a set. When did that come in the filming process? Was it midway through at the end?

RS: Yes, it was towards the end, done over a period of few weeks around kids’ availability. John and I decided to go down that route after talking to the kids through the filming process and the many, many conversations, casual conversations off camera that we would have where these topics were brought up. And we were quite taken with their responses and their attitudes and the strength of their opinion. We thought we’ve got to capture this in a really concise way because we didn’t have the opportunity of many, many observational scenes where you might be in the classroom at the right moment to capture the moment when they are discussing racism. We decided we would do it very directly and ask the kids directly. But the questions all came from our chats with them throughout the year.

I think they’re really wonderful. After watching the film and the series, it almost makes me wish for a whole show that were just Q&A with the kids. To me, it feels like they’ve recognised they’ve got a platform and can set things straight, and that’s quite brilliant.

RS: Well, yes. Thanks for that, Andrew. The kids loved sharing their thoughts. They’re never asked. And they don’t have an opportunity to express that in everyday life. They wanted to share their thoughts and appreciated being asked. Would that be fair, John?

JH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it comes back to that thing of providing a platform for young Indigenous people to speak their truth. That’s a classic example of that. And I think the other really interesting thing about that is it’s a temperature check on where we are as a country. Because some of their responses, I could imagine myself saying that as a young person. I was a bit shocked that today after too many years since I was that age, that kids are saying the same thing.

It’s like yes, we’ve come forward as a nation in many ways. But there’s obviously still a lot to do. I think the film also shows this cross-intergeneration effects of colonisation and trauma on the young people. We have to acknowledge that we have this intergeneration impact for non-Indigenous people in this country. These things come from some place. When things are said within the playground or whatever, it’s rooted in this history of this country. That’s a thing that we’re constantly battling with.

And to the school’s credit, I thought that they were really open with our access, but also open to have those conversations and to acknowledge that they don’t get everything right. But the important thing is that we have these conversations and try to keep moving through together.

I love that moment where the kids object to singing the national anthem and there is this almost awkward moment between the teachers who are standing there going, “Oh, that’s perfectly fine.” But also you feel that they want the kids to be able to share the pride of singing a song about Australia. Were there surprises in capturing moments like that throughout the series?

JH: I don’t necessarily think that’s a surprise from an Indigenous point of view, about people’s reluctance or disconnect from that anthem that’s supposed to represent everybody that clearly doesn’t represent Indigenous people. I don’t think there’s a disconnect there or a surprise, rather.

On that, I went [to] the screening here in Queensland, and there was a young person who’s in grade five, a young Indigenous person. And he said to me afterwards, “I’ve always felt uncomfortable about singing the national anthem and I didn’t understand why and couldn’t articulate it.” Again, to have these very young, very articulate Indigenous people speak about these things — it gave him words for his own experience. Kids right across this country are going through similar experiences. That was amazing to have them articulate that. There [were] definitely surprises in some things that were said. But for me, [I] was sort of surprised that “Oh, really? That’s still an issue?”

With that in mind, I would love to see a film about the experience without the impact of COVID, but also in five years’ time to see if things have changed or if frustratingly, we’re still in the same spot. Is that something that you would be interested in doing? Or is there a plan to kind of revisit this story over the years?

RS: There’s no plan at present, but we never say never to those sort of follow-up ideas. I’d be fascinated to see where the kids end up and to follow them further or follow another group. I think it is evolving. I think the programs of scholarships in the schools are really working to improve things all the time. I hope some of the discussions are also moving forward. That’s not for me to say. But I hope that hearing from young people can penetrate people who might have stopped listening. I know that there have been some non-Indigenous people watch the film and report back to me that they’d never thought about it that way. I had someone say, “Of course, we should change the day. I’d never thought about how awful that must be for an Indigenous person to celebrate that day.” So yeah, I hope it can say something new for some people.

And John, is this something that you would love to kind of see carried forward? Even if it’s Zoe who is interested in doing acting and moving into filmmaking and stuff? Maybe this might be something she might want to pick up in the future?

JH: I think people will see Zoe’s story as they go on, [and also] a few of the students. Zoe’s now studying acting. I think she’s just been cast in her first role for a professional theatre production up in Queensland. I think we’re gonna hear more from Zoe and the other students, anyway. It’s quite inspiring to see. Their journey is starting out. We’ve spoken a lot about challenges, but the incredible thing too is the resilience of the young people and the resilience of them going through some of these challenges and working with their family and with the school. There’s so much positivity and hope that we can take away and go, “You know what, this place is in good hands.” These young people, they’re not buying into stuff. They’re walking their own path. I think that’s really wonderful.

RS: It was such a pleasure getting to know the students and their families and learning about their family story. They really are resilient, they’re carrying a lot. They’re carrying a weight with them, each family, of different policies that they’ve lived through. We mustn’t forget that and we mustn’t underestimate that weight, and we should applaud them with every challenge that they overcome there. They really are great kids.

One of the questions which I love asking Australian creative people, Australian filmmakers, producers, directors, is about what it means to be Australian. And I think that for something like Off Country, maybe that question might mean something a little bit more. I’m curious for you both: what does it mean to be an Australian filmmaker working today?

JH: I think part of this story is First People’s stories first. There’s over 60,000 years of stories in this country. And so how we develop our identity is stemmed in that. The more connection we have with that identity that’s been tens of thousands of years and is still there, I think the more confident we become as a society in ourselves and in our own identity. For me as a filmmaker, that often is something I think about.

RS: Yeah, I agree. For this particular film for me, it’s been fantastic working in collaboration with John to be able to explore a First Nations story. I’ve learned a lot and I appreciate that opportunity to collaborate into capturing these stories.

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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