Jabiru is a mining town of 2,000 people in the Northern Territory of Australia, three hours drive from Darwin. The nearby Ranger Uranium Nine supplies 8% of the world’s uranium. Both the mine and the town are surrounded by the world heritage listed Kakadu National Park.
“Survival Tactics” is my first feature film. Based on a Hip Hop Theatre production, it is a journey through the struggles of the urban metropolis with bboys, Bgirls, free runners, DJs, MCs, spoken word, graffiti and street artists in Australia’s first Hip Hop feature film.
Last night in the music room at the back of the Kakadu Youth Centre when my workshops had finished I had a skype conference call with my two producers who had just returned from Cannes International Film Festival. In the middle of important details like “Will the assembly edit be ready for the next international market?”, “Where can we secure post production financing?” and “Who is the target market?” two of my students walked in. “Richie, Dylan! How you guys going?” I say.
Richie and Dylan are brothers who have the same father, a member of the local legendary saltwater reggae band, Nabarlek. I first saw Dylan yesterday in the school playground, tall, dark and 17 pulling a series of the craziest acrobatic flips as he played Aussie rules with some of the other fellas. “Awesome flips bro!” I called out “Have you seen that movie Ninja Assassin, we just watched it last night.” “Yeah, I’ve seen that one.” he replies “It’s got some good moves eh?” “Yeah, some great tricking.” “Tricking? What’s that?” Dylan asks, obviously not as a tuned to Youtube culture as I am “It’s what you are doing right now, all your flips.” “Oh..” he smiles “You mean doing backflips”.
I first met Dylan’s brother, Richie when we were recording a song in the Kakadu High School “Culture First” class. The song was about the six seasons of of the area in a mix of English and Gunwinku (one of the local languages). Richie walked in and it was obvious that he was pretty small for his age, had a bit of a limp and a slightly damaged arm, with what looked like burn marks. I could hear him rapping away as I helped some of the senior girls write their verse so I asked him to kick his piece. Richie launched into a fast paced delivery of his rhyme, picking up energy as he went, spitting out words and morphing into a freestyle with such momentum that he stood up and started swaying, suddenly reaching the peak of his ability he stopped, yelling “Aaaagh! Not that one, not that one, no good, no good!” “No way Richie,” I replied “that was wicked bro, great rapping, great stuff.” When you travel around the place you quickly see these young guys from time to time, they live, breathe and eat Hip Hop. It means so much to him, he works at it so much, holds onto it so hard, it’s his life line.
The next day, in the music room we record a song with Dylan and Richie; Dylan lays down a heavy one drop rhythm on the drum kit, then moves onto the guitar layering first a rhythm line then a sad hook line. Veronica, a local Mirrar woman, with a diva style voice that reminds me of a cross between Mary J Blige and Christine Anu, walked in and sung some gorgeous vocals over the top. Then Richie steps to the mike where he freestyles the whole song; his chorus goes “See every day I walk down the street I see my family struggling with this reality, with this money, with this grog, everybody can’t afford next feed, for their family, please, wont you help me?”.
The next day I spend five solid hours mixing the song and play it back to Richie. As it plays, he smiles and says “It’s a good one yeah, you reckon?” “Sure I say, it’s a beautiful one bro, you’re a great rapper who has something to say” “Yeah?” he says “I’ve done other songs before but this is the first one where I am talking about my childhood. I had a tough childhood you know, my mother was an alcoholic, she still is, and when I was a baby she dropped me in a fire, so I am sort of disabled now. But I don’t see myself as disabled because it has sort of given me something to fight against eh?”
My two producers and I pause our conversation, “I’m just doing a phone conference here now” I tell Richie and Dylan “OK, no worries” says Richie “we see you tomorrow and we shoot the video clip for our song yeah?” “Sure, sounds good, great work fellas, thanks, see ya tomorrow” I say and they wave goodbye. I say to my producers “Those two guys who just walked in, they are my target market.”
Film is a looooooooong process and a long time without an audience for the likes of me. While we were making the film I found myself fantasising about doing live Hip Hop shows – direct audience interaction, freestyling and improvised Bboying in the middle of the crowd. Now, when I record songs in Aboriginal communities, when I perform Hip Hop Theatre shows in high schools where half the guys are Iraqi refugees I use it as fuel to get back into the strange abstract world of film post production. I think to myself, “What would those guys think of this bit? Would they be bored now? Would they understand that edit sequence?”.
Survival Tactics started out as a Hip Hop Theatre Show; two weeks creative development with my handpicked dream team of Australian Hip Hop artists (Wire MC, Nick Power, SistaNative, Bboy Jay and Maya Jupiter) at the end of which we presented a one hour showcase. My starting point for the film was the sad and violent death of a friend and peer, Hip Hop artist and community worker, Stingray. At around the same time I knew a couple of other friends who had been randomly beaten up, one of which was lucky to survive. Suddenly, for someone who had grown up street performing on my city streets I was feeling unsafe in my own town, I was feeling anxious about the rise of ice (meth) in my community and I wanted to look behind the headlines. So to start the project I asked each of the cast to share stories where they had experienced some extreme form of violence in their life. From this pretty heavy starting point we moved back and away from those specific incidents to fill out and create characters and a world. After our initial creative development we had three months off, then went into four weeks rehearsal and a month long Australian tour of the production. That was in 2007, now it’s 2011 and last year we shot the film in four weeks and we are poised to do a week of final pickup shots in the next few months, post produce and finally release it.
At last the film will be released and people ask me “Where is it going to be on? Will it be multiplex, will it be arthouse, will it be on DVD, will it be streaming on the net?” Well, wherever we manage to get it released, I know I want to bring a copy back up here to Jabiru and sit down in the music room and show to Dylan and Richie.
Song recorded with the co operation of West Arnhem College, Jabiru School and sponsored by Kakadu Youth Centre Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation.