Telling Indigenous incarceration stories through song

Samantha Jones in conversation with Kelrick Martin
Through storytelling and song in Australia’s first musical documentary, Prison Songs, Kelrick Martin has humanised the statistics on Indigenous incarceration. Right Now’s Samantha Jones spoke to Kelrick ahead of Prison Songs’ screening at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival.

Right Now: How did the idea for Prison Songs come to you?

Kelrick Martin: I would love to claim credit for the idea of a documentary musical. It is something that has been around for a number of years. The guy who originally came up with it was a guy by the name of Brian Hill out of the UK. He has done a number of films including a film called Feltham Sings, Songbirds, Drinking for England … all with this kind of form of having people singing their stories rather than being interviewed. He was the Consulting Executive Producer of Prison Songs, so I got to actually work with him on this particular project.

Prison Songs is Australia’s first musical documentary. How did it feel to be making an Australian first?

I haven’t really thought of it that way to be honest with you.

My whole background is telling Indigenous stories and wanting to portray Indigenous people and Indigenous culture in new and different ways, and in ways people haven’t seen before on screen. And I think that is what I was trying to achieve more than anything else.

The fact that it was the first Australian musical documentary was nice, but for me what was important was what people take away from the film at the end of the day.

… putting music into the mouths of these inmates was my kind of strategy to try and break through the ambivalence of an audience watching this type of film.

How intentional during the planning stages was using the film as a platform to highlight issues experienced by Indigenous Australians?

I think the whole involvement of Good Pitch and some of the other social impact campaigns around Prison Songs weren’t exactly in the planning stages from the beginning.

In the beginning, what it was about was wanting to make a film for SBS and wanting to tell the true story, or the real story, behind the statistics we hear so often in the media about Indigenous over-incarceration. Most of the time people turn a blind eye to them because they just can’t deal with it. And what I want to do is dig beneath that, beneath the statistics to really show a human face, a human voice to those numbers.

Being Indigenous, and being prisoners, I knew that was a battle in itself, so putting music into the mouths of these inmates was my kind of strategy to try and break through the ambivalence of an audience watching this type of film. So that was my goal from the outset, not necessarily to try become a platform by any means.

The fact that it has become one is incredibly humbling and I am really excited about all the adventures and all the things that this film is going to do from here on in. I hope it does change a lot of lives, to be honest with you. But if it does change one life, that would be enough for me.

The song about alcohol really stood out to me. It confronted a stereotype with humour and playfulness. Can you tell me about that?

At the end of the day, as an Aboriginal film maker, and someone who has been working in this area for many years, I’m always looking for ways to subvert the image and subvert the stereotype. Even our own stereotype, the way Indigenous people portray themselves on the screen.

I knew that the issue of alcohol was one that was hugely prevalent through a lot of the background of the inmates but I didn’t want to do it in a mournful type song about alcohol. Because that is to be expected, it’s the kind of stuff you would see anywhere else. I wanted to do something that was completely off the wall, completely cheeky, completely sort of stereotype smashing in a way. And in reality, mainstream Australia drinks to have fun. In fact our entire society is almost built upon alcohol in a way. So I want the Aboriginal people to share in that, and to share in that sort of joy and enjoyment and party and fun of having a drink.

Obviously there are consequences and we depict that within the lyrics of the song. I don’t think Aboriginal people should be disallowed from alcohol in any way, like anybody else is… I think it’s more about the other issues that are behind the symptoms of alcohol abuse that need addressing more than anything else. Again, it is more about having a bit of fun and just trying to be a bit smartarse to be honest with you.

How do you think the music helps in breaking down negative stereotypes?

For me, music is just one of those things that allows people to be seen on an even playing field in a way that allows people to connect with another human being in a way that they don’t normally, or aren’t normally able to in an everyday scenario.

With Prison Songs, that was something I took on board. In order to have people see these people not just as prisoners, or Aboriginal people, or people that are part of the statistics, but to actually hear them sing, to sing their story and do it in a way that was eloquent and beautiful and fun and cheeky and benevolent. I think it humanises people.

People tend to look at Aboriginal people as a kind of very strange, kind of other, that exists out in the community. And I think that the film is a way of showing that they are Aboriginal, they are inmates, but they are also human beings at the end of the day, who have genuine feelings, who laugh, love, hate – all those sorts of things that anyone else does.

What was the process for creating the music and were the prisoners involved?

We tried to involve people where they wanted to be involved. There are a couple of inmates who actually wrote their own songs – the two rap songs within the film are both authored by the guys themselves.

The others songs were written by Shellie Morris and Casey Bennetto. Those guys actually came into Berrimah Prison. They met the prisoners, we discussed the tone of that particular inmate and their story and how that would be depicted in the film. And that was represented not only in the lyrics that were sung, but also in the style of the song as well.

It’s funny because I did give people opportunities to change lyrics, to change songs, to hear the songs and tell us if they liked them or not. And it just is testament to the skills and the quality of the two song writers that we had on board, because none of the inmates wanted to change a thing. They loved the songs that they were given, that were custom made for them to perform. Phil, the older guy who had been in and out of jail for many years, he loved his spoken word song.

Ideally, what did you want the viewer to take away from the film?

I know that people would have been going in with certain types of expectations of what the film was going to be. For me that was about trying to flip that on its head a little bit and trying to take them by surprise. But at the end of the day I am really happy if people are able to look at the situation that these inmates are in, and have a real think about what we are actually doing in terms of our current process and policies for incarceration.

Obviously there are crimes that exist within the justice system that do need to be punished. And there is no doubt that some people commit bad things and need to be put in jail. But there are also a huge number of Indigenous people who are entering the system on such minor things that are addressable without incarceration.

There really needs to be something done with the justice system itself, and better strategies for taking all the money that is used to build prisons and trying to figure out a way to invest it back in the community. I believe that is the way forward. So if people are able to see the folly of some of the reasons why these people are in jail, then that would be fantastic.

Talking about expectations, pre-viewing when I read the synopsis, I didn’t get the impression it was going to be about Indigenous incarceration. Was that a conscious choice to not highlight the Indigenous aspects of the film?

When we were going about researching the film and trying to find people to be involved in it, we didn’t have this kind of goal of saying, “it’s only going to be Indigenous issues” or “its only going to have Indigenous characters”.

We actually had a number of non-Indigenous guys very early on indicate they wanted to be involved, and we were going to give them the opportunity to be in the film and tell their stories. But for whatever reasons, people sort of fall away, or they lose interest, or they change their minds, and who we ended up with was mainly Indigenous Australians.

In a way I think that is kind of fair, because the representation, particularly in Berrimah, of Indigenous people inside that prison is incredibly high. And to have a majority of Indigenous voices talk about Indigenous incarceration issues is very important. Not necessarily a conscious effort to cloud or disavow that kind of information, or that knowledge, but I think circumstantially it happened that way.

What about not highlighting the Indigenous aspects of the film from an empowering perspective, as opposed to clouding and disavowing perspective?

For me it is not important to stress the ‘Indigenality’ of the film, because for me it’s not an Indigenous problem, it is an Australian problem. And it is one that needs to be tackled as a nation, not necessarily left up to a minority cultural group within this country to deal with. For me, that is one way to look at it.

How important do you think films and documentaries are as a medium to discuss human rights issues?

They’re absolutely vital. I think it is more so now than ever before. There is a kind of tone within the documentary world at the moment about the demise of the authored or one-off documentary – particularly here in Australia. But there are some really fine examples of films out there at the moment– such as The Surgery Ship, Frackman, Gayby Baby – that are singular, authored documentaries, that are incredibly vital to the whole process of who we are and where our society is and what we have to do to change things to make them better. For me, documentary is absolutely critical for that sort of thing.

Prison Songs screens at the 2016 Human Rights Arts and Film Festival on 6 May and 9 May in Melbourne, 26 May in Sydney and 8 June in Darwin.
Read a review of Prison Songs
View the trailer for Prison Songs:


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