Footscray-based filmmaker Amie Batalibasi has bid farewell to wintery Melbourne and headed north to the sugarcane fields of Queensland to direct Blackbird, a film that illuminates a dark chapter in Australia’s sugarcane and cotton history.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission between 1863 and 1904 an estimated 55,000 to 62,500 people from over 80 Pacific Islands were ‘blackbirded’ – kidnapped or coerced into forced labour in the sugarcane and cotton fields of Queensland and Northern New South Wales.
Blackbird also written by Amie, is a historical drama set in the early 1870s about Solomon Islander siblings Kiko and Rosa who are kidnapped from their homeland to work on a sugarcane plantation in Queensland.
This is a very personal story that connects to Amie’s Australian and Solomon Islander heritage, but also reflects her collaborative community approach to storytelling and filmmaking.
“The story of Blackbird is about a shared history, but it’s most certainly a personal project. It’s more than a film to me it’s a journey in terms of my own heritage and identity.
I can't quite pinpoint when this journey began but I feel like Blackbird is a culmination of all of my previous work, my current search to discover my own roots, my collaboration with Australian South Sea Islander community and family.
In a way, this film is a departure from my documentary films because we're making a narrative drama. In terms of the story, there are connections to my own heritage.
Some of my ancestors in the Solomon Islands were blackbirded but I only found out about this part of my heritage in recent years.
There's been a struggle for recognition.
A lot of ground work has gone before me in terms of building awareness of Australian South Sea Islander history such as Faith Bandler and the many ASSI leaders and organisations in Australia, so it's important for me with this film, to acknowledge that and try to build on it in a really respectful way.”
Amie explained that she wanted to create a story about siblings, so Rosa and Kiko came to be.
“The characters Rosa and Kiko are from the Malaita, Solomon Islands where my own family live. In excess of 9000 Malaitans were taken during the blackbirding era. So this is my homage to them, and a statement that we haven't forgotten.”
Amie's family on her step mother’s side is Australian South Sea Islander and she has worked with the ASSI community group on a number of projects for the 150 years commemoration in 2013 as well as Australian South Sea Islander Stories project in 2014 where participants wrote and directed their own films about heritage and identity.
“It's vital for me that the process of making this film is collaborative with the ASSI community.
This film could not be made without community consultation. ASSI history is held dear to so many and it's so important that I do everything I can to honour that.”
Amie says there is a thread throughout her practice that draws her to tell narratives that are under-acknowledged and underrepresented. She also involves the communities whose stories she tells through means of grass roots collaboration.
“The most important lesson I’ve learned as a filmmaker is respect - that every person, every story is important.
As a filmmaker I need to do the best I can to ensure I present a film that is honest and respectful. I guess that's why the filmmaking process is just as important as the outcome - if not more important.”