The Lake of Scars Director Bill Code Talks Consultation and Collaboration, Restoring and Saving Indigenous history, and More in This Interview

Journalist-turned-documentarian Bill Code spent seven years making his feature documentary debut, The Lake of Scars, a broad look at the relationship that white former farmer Paul Haw and members of the Yung Balug clan of the Dja Dja Warrung have as they seek to engage in a reconciliation process and preserve the scarred trees, middens and stone scatters that are found at Lake Boort in Victoria. In this expansive film, Bill explores the relationship that we all have with the land we live on, and how we can best protect it together going forward.

In this interview, ahead of The Lake of Scars launch at the upcoming Castlemaine Documentary Festival, Bill talks about the process of moving from journalism to documentary filmmaking, what the process of consultation and collaboration was like, and what he learned about our relationship with the environment on film. Bill is currently seeking funding for his next film, Up the Creek, via the Documentary Australia crowdfunding platform.

Find out more about The Lake of Scars, including how to organise a screening, at the website here.

Lake of Scars Trailer from Wedge-Tail Pictures on Vimeo.

Something I found really fascinating over the past couple of years is talking to journalists who have turned into documentarians. In the past, I always said that that was a bit of a rarity. But it seems that you guys are doing it even more and more and more nowadays, making the transition. I chatted to Yaara Bou Melham

Bill Code: My colleague.

And Allan Clarke who did The Bowraville Murders. And then yourself.

BC: We were all at SBS the same time, probably 12 years ago at least. Yaara as well started off in slightly longer form stuff [with] Dateline. I produced Yaara a number of times at Al Jazeera. It’s a relief to get to longer form content. You know, there’s just so much you can’t say in a three-minute news story. And at the end of the day, it’s about employability, we’ve all got to have jobs. Probably a lot of journalists would prefer to be getting into longer pieces. I found the only way to do that was to make it happen myself.

[For] Lake Of Scars people use the term “passion project”, but for me it was an indulgent learning project as well. I wanted to make a 90-minute film, and no one was coming to me saying, “Here’s a pot of money, make a 90-minute film.” So it’s something that I hacked away at with the help of others for seven years.

Seven years, wow.

BC: Seven years from filming the first shot to it being in the cinema. Five years of filming.

When you first encountered the lake, what was your initial feeling? And what sparked you to turn that feeling into a documentary?

BC: I’m a pretty environmentally-minded person, and so I was struck by its beauty. I’m always curious when I go to a new place. I was lucky enough to be sent there for SBS to cover it, I think for World News Australia and for Living Black, the current affairs program. And I was struck by the relationship between Paul [Haw] and the [Yung Balug] clan.

But I was really struck by the scar trees, which no one I would speak to subsequently had heard of. That’s non-Aboriginal people, for the most part. Paul showed me these artifacts. And for me, they were a really interesting, tangible link to Aboriginal occupation of the land. We can talk about ongoing culture and occupation. But I think for some non-Aboriginal people, they struggle to understand it until they see something tangible. People are aware of rock art and people are increasingly aware – not much – of things like fish traps and whatnot. But really, I think for a lot of non-Aboriginal people, until they see some bang in front of them. “Oh, holy crap, that’s been there since before Captain Cook arrived,” as Paul says in the film. Until they have that moment, it’s hard to recognise and understand.

I thought it was beautiful, and I’m interested in history, and I wanted to tell the story of that white guy who lives there and ask, “Could there be more people who gave a crap?” I wanted to tell a story of their unusual relationship. And I wanted to make a very short film, frankly. I used to do a lot of shorts for people like BBC Online, just get paid for a week to go and shoot and edit the kind of consumable content that drives the web. And that’s great, I got to go to some really interesting places. I was going to do a little three-to-four-minute piece like that, maybe just about scar trees. “What are scar trees?” Done.

But over the first year or two, it dawned on me and other people that were interested that it could be a vehicle to tell a much bigger story of environmental kinship or rather environmental care. I didn’t initially want to make a film about reconciliation. It hadn’t dawned on me that that was something to do. But half way through filming, it became obvious that actually maybe it is a story about that. Seven years ago when I started, allyship wasn’t the buzzword that it’s become. But if Paul’s not an ally, who is?

So it was a chance to blend in archaeology, environment, settler history which I’m interested in, Aboriginal history which I’m interested in, and moving us together as a nation, because there’s some tough work to be done, I think.

Paul Haw and Bill Code

What was the process of consultation and collaboration before, during, and after filming?

BC: Right at the very start, the two people who were key were Uncle Gary Murray and Paul Haw because if nothing else, it was a story about scar trees and those two guys. Paul and his role at the lake as the former farmer and the enviro guy and self-published historian. Gary [is] also a kind of historian, his family tree is amazing, and his past history of activism and being involved in so many different family groups across the state, he’s multi-clanned. That’s very important to him. It couldn’t happen without either of those two.

The first time I really sat down with Gary and spoke about it, it became clear that for Gary as a leader of the Yung Balug clan that he has big aspirations for that place, as do other members of his family, Uncle Bobby Nicholls. They want that place to be recognised, they want a cultural center there. More broadly speaking, we found something where we agree on, [being] the chance to use this as maybe a blueprint for how cultural heritage can be recognised elsewhere. So from the very start, it was clear that Uncle Gary had a reason that he would like someone trusted to make a film about that place.

He wasn’t named as [an] EP initially [because] I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was finding my feet making a doco. It was only a year or two later that it became obvious actually [he’s] doing everything that an EP does anyway. And I said, “Do you want to be EP?” and he said, “If it helps get the film made, call me what you want.” And so it was clear that he was doing what an EP was doing, introducing me to people and writing letters of support from the clan to get this grant or whatever. He was instrumental from the start.

Paul as well is just a kind of Energizer Bunny. Anything that can convince his countrymen and women, especially locally, to respect Aboriginal history he was on board with. So once those two were happy, that was the main thing. Later on, we got the support of the Dja Dja Wurrung Corporation as well, which is the registered Aboriginal party for the area. Gary is Dja Dja Wurrung but there are some political machinations going on there, as you can imagine. But it was wonderful to get the support of them as well, because not everybody sees eye to eye in this space. To have the backing of all those disparate and different partners and people, at that point we realised, “Oh, everyone is behind this and everyone cares about this.” It seemed almost like people were amazed that someone was maybe doing a film as vast and sprawling and as ambitious as that for what would end up being $90,000. Drop in the ocean.

What I found really fascinating is that conflict does arise. How do you personally keep your distance from that story?

BC: It’s been such a long process. And I know the people well now. I don’t think you can always fully keep your distance. I mean, let’s not pretend, really. There’s different kinds of documentary-making, right? With this film when it started, the crew was one. When I first started making kind of shorts, I made a film about Aboriginal in imprisonment and incarceration in northwestern New South Wales, Inside Out [and it] was on NITV and The Guardian.

I remember at the time, Uncle Isaac Gordon who the film was about offered for me to stay at his house on the first trip. And I didn’t do it, because I had in my mind all these notions that a journalist holds dear, “Oh, that’ll make it biased if I stay at his house.” What a ridiculous notion.

For this film, I stayed at Paul’s house a couple of times. Because I was less interested in in trying to not get close to participants. I mean, you make a film with someone for five years, you’re going to get to know them, and you’re going to be sometimes more involved than you want to be. When Paul and Jida [Gulpilil] fall out in the film, it wasn’t actually difficult for me to draw a middle line there because I could see both of their points of view. And I think other people involved could see both of their points of view. I hope that the audience can see both of their points of view. Because at the end of the day, these kinds of stories which are happening across Australia is just one of them. It’s a shared story being told, and maybe shared stories aren’t being highlighted enough at the moment. But they both make some pretty good points in their falling out.

They’re both strong characters. And at the end of the day, Jida moved on. He likes moving around anyway, like he went to Bendigo after that, and now he’s getting a pilot licence on the Sunshine Coast. He’s a polymath, and he’s interested in a lot of different things and he’s good at a lot of different things, so he pursues that. And Paul is an old man and stayed in the same place.

But yeah, I guess it’s impossible not to get too close. And I think that’s fine. It’s not like a Four Corners. You have to get to know your characters, and there’s lots of cups of tea. There’s lots of times you put your camera down and it’s 11 o’clock at night, and you’re tired. And then all of a sudden, people start saying interesting things and you think, “Do I have to pick up the camera again? I’m exhausted, but this might be a good bit.” And that happened a few times. I think that can only happen when you’re a tiny crew. It was a bigger crew at the end. But for the first shoot, it was one person. For the second shoot, it was two people. For the third shoot, it was three people. I don’t think we ever have more than three crew members on site.

I want to talk about the appearance of the water in the film as well, because there’s discussion early on about “Look, if the water is here, then certain things can happen with the lake.” And then the lake fills up and then of course it disappears. Was there an anticipation of that rain coming, the water coming and the lake filling up? And when it arrived, did you immediately think “Okay, I’ve got to extend the shoot another two years so we can see the fallout of what happens when the water disappears?”

BC: There’s a long – perhaps corny – history of the Australian landscape being a character in Australian film. But if I’m honest, that didn’t dawn on me towards the end of the film, and I couldn’t care less. I dived wholeheartedly into that because it is a film about a lake and the people that care about it. Anyone who knows anything about wetlands and that part of Australia is that they’re ephemeral. They’re not supposed to be filled all the time. If they are filled all the time, they die. And if they’re empty all the time, they die. They’re supposed to go up and down. It’s our management or rather mismanagement of them that has them in the perilous state that they are.

I never thought I’d have to keep filming for two years until this has naturally filled up again. Or quasi naturally because it’s dammed or managed. But when it happened, yeah, it became obvious that not only was that an interesting storyline moment, but it also meant that we could get all this extra beautiful stuff. It became more of an environmental film in a way, because you had that opportunity to get the water birds returning and things like that.

For one or two of the shoots, I was overseas, because I was still working. My friend is in a rock band, and he had a gig in Melbourne, and I knew that he was driving down. So he went around to my partner, he collected all my gear, gave it to someone who was an up-and-coming cinematographer at the time who is Rudi Siira who shot Geeta and won the ACS. I think him and Rodney the drone guy had been up once with me before. They went up there and got this bit because I was in Qatar. They got some really good parts and obviously Rudi did just a beautiful job.

Like I’m proud of the parts I shot and I probably shot about 60% of the film. But Rudi shot my favourite scene in the film which is when Paul is replanting the lake. It’s at least my favourite scene visually. So I’m really stoked we could get his eye because obviously now he’s an award-winning cinematographer. At the time, he was the guy that could do it. At every stage of the film, it was really kind of hacking, “How do we get this? No one wants to give us any money.” The usual funding avenues were not happening.

Let’s talk about the drone shots, because there are so many drone shots in the film. And that’s kind of become a thing with Australian cinema, that drone shots are there because we have such a unique landscape. Can you talk about what sets a good drone shot apart from a bad drone shot?

BC: I don’t know if there are too many drone shots in this film, let’s put it that way. With a lot of things in this film, because it’s taken so long, the themes and ideas and trends and styles have developed in that time. The first time a drone went in the air for that film was probably 2016. With hindsight, maybe we would have treated it differently. I run a video production company on the side which specializes in drones. Drones get overused.

I think with this one, I’m really interested in the landscape there which is this series of lakes. I was always trying to get an image of these lakes in a row and sometimes we got close to it. But there are altitude requirements with CASA. It’s a tough country to fly a drone in actually because Australia loves rules. I’m grateful for the interesting question because no one’s asked me that. It is inherently related to the space and size of the landscape you’re trying to capture. But it’s also related to budget as well.

Initially it was Rodney shooting and then later on I became a drone pilot as well. You get it going because you need that certain shot, but then you realise it gives you a small drone. There’s no messing around with whatever Ronin gimbal item there is, which are a pain in the arse. There are just so many shots down low which were done with a Phantom or Mavic, which is like a pretty pro Zuma drone.

It’s cliche to say [the drone has] revolutionised filmmaking. But I think one of the reasons it’s revolutionised filmmaking is because it saves a lot of money and time. I’m not ashamed to say that we had to use a lot of tricks to get this film finished for 90 grand. But the drone has played a big role in that. There’s probably ten, 15 minutes of the film which is probably drone, which is a lot. You send it up in the sky, you press record, you’ve got a great shot. There was a bit of going back to cover our tracks and “What can we use here? Do we need one more shoot?” If we had a proper budget, we probably would have done more shoots, but we didn’t. The editor and I thought we found a balance. I’m certainly getting a lot of compliments on it. But yeah, drones, you do have to find a balance.

I wanted to show if you’re on the ground between these red gums and black box at sunset, a wallaby goes past and you think “It’s amazing, beautiful.” But you only have to go a little bit up with a drone to see that that’s just a tiny little patch, and for 50 ks in either direction, any direction for 100 ks, we’ve devastated the landscape. A drone was a good way to say, “Look at this lovely little patch of forest that’s still here, and then look at all of this which is cleared and gone. And that’s why we have a deforestation crisis or an extinction crisis.” That part of the country is obviously so heavily farmed. So yeah, it was good to show the small pristine area compared to what most of central Victoria is which is this farmland.

What have you learned over the years of filming about our relationship with the environment?

BC: It’s a good question. I didn’t start to make a film about reconciliation. But that’s very much what it’s being held up as and a lot of interest is coming there, and that’s fantastic, but that developed later. I think, if anything, what I’ve learned is that environmental work in this country has to be done collaboratively. I just founded a small company recently with my friend Scott Franks who is a Wonnarua traditional owner. We formed a video and heritage consultancy company, Kawal Pictures. That’s happened since Lake Of Scars started. I’ve learned that collaboration is key not just in the filmmaking process, but in getting anything done. Involving First Nations people is paramount in any kind of environmental work.

I’m not inherently an optimistic person, my friends and family would probably tell you that. But there has to be space for optimism. This is someone who’s worked at Al Jazeera for a long time, doom and gloom on a global scale. There cannot just be doom and gloom stories. If we don’t find a space for the solution-based stories, then forget it, we’re done, we’re cooked. But we have to find those stories, and they’re out there. Those shared stories are out there.

I’m talking about not just the enviro stuff, but the stories involving Black and white Australians as well. There are people doing stuff together. We fall easily in this country into things like culture wars, yuck. But let’s figure it out. Because it’s not just a social issue, it’s survival of the species. Let’s figure this stuff out.

There’s that beautiful moment where they roll out the sheet of paper and basically plan how to do the cool burning and stuff. That was really nice to see, because it is that collaborative approach, communication and working together to make sure that we’re doing the right thing together.

BC: Yeah. And look, they’re learning because I think the scene you’re talking about, that was a Dja Dja Wurrung event. They’d be the first to say that was an experimental burn. People are figuring out how to redo this stuff after a very long time. For us, it was kind of fortuitous there because that burn happened just before the black summer on the East Coast. That burn stuff might not have made it into the final cut.

But not only obviously did it affect relationships in the film, that was probably the moment that it became clear to me that all of these things are interlinked. You can’t just make a film about scar trees or you can’t just make a film about ephemeral lakes. It’s all interlinked, the stories are interlinked, the people are interlinked. Each time it got longer, it was usually because some exec I was pitching it to or some person who knew more about docos than I did said, “Oh, this should really be a half hour.” And so I’d make it a half hour, and a year later it would be, “Oh, this should be an hour. Oh, this should be 90 minutes.”

I want to talk about the beautiful score with David [Bridie] and Jida. Can you talk about the creation of that? I assume that you had the film cut and then they scored to picture. How did they create the score?

BC: I wasn’t as involved in that as I might have liked to have been, thanks to lockdown really. I mean, I was really grateful that Jida is an extremely creative person and wanted to do the score. He had said he can do it in Dja language which is amazing to have the soundtrack in a language which is being revitalised on a day to day basis. It’s happening now in Victoria. And some of it is in Yorta Yorta as well, so different central Victorian languages. Jida obviously speaks Yolngu, his dad’s language, but has a good knowledge of Victorian languages too.

He and David didn’t do all of it. A guy called Russell Goldsmith did the backing music for what became the title track. There are bits of music that were mostly bespoke for the film. But to have Jida involved was really important, because I wanted to make sure that different members of the clan did different things if they wanted to. Ngarra Murray was the cultural adviser.

And then David polished it off remotely. He was in Vic, Jida was in Queensland at the time, and I was in Sydney, and everyone was locked down. I understand that’s how modern music gets made. (laughs) We were pretty close to deadline. I said, “Where’s this music?” And when Jida sent it, it was really beautiful. Especially that title track, people seem to like it. For me, it’s just a cherry on the cake that it’s in Dja. It’s amazing.

Where to from here? Are you going to continue exploring these kinds of themes?

BC: I am intending to make another “impact film.” I do want to generate discussion and ideas around work that I do. We have a team who have come together around a project which has just been approved by Documentary Australia Foundation [Up the Creek], again. Their support was just absolutely instrumental for a first-time filmmaker. That project is around water use, around how we are managing our water in Australia, whether that is setting us up for trouble in the coming years, what that means for our unique environment.

But I very much want to make it an entertaining film. A lot of environment docos come and go, and they have a showing at the Environmental Film Festival and that’s kind of it. I’ve been really inspired by Damon Gameau and Anna Kaplan’s work. I might not have been 10 years ago in my kind of serious journalistic side. But for me, it’s become ever more apparent that there is an appetite for fun documentaries. I’m not putting Lake Of Scars up there as a fun documentary, by the way. I think what I’ve learned from Lake of Scars is let’s keep those serious messages. Let’s do what Uncle Jack did in the film. Jack was brought in to make it more engaging and more accessible. And for this next film on water, let’s make something impactful and entertaining and thought-provoking on how we manage water.

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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