Filmmaker Joanna Joy and traditional owners bring to life Judith Wright’s Generations of Men

When Joanna Joy was 14 years old, her father handed her a copy of Judith Wright’s book Generations of Men.

Little did she know it was the beginning of a long journey that would bring a community together.

The story by Wright, a renowned poet and author, is about her own family’s unsuccessful move into central Queensland in the 1850s.

Ms Joy initially saw it as a tale of the strength of women and the families they raised during colonial times.

Then she discovered Wright had rewritten Generations of Men as a new book, The cry for the dead, decades later after becoming involved in the Aboriginal land rights movement.

“It’s really investigating the Indigenous characters from the original story and the original ancestral history that she was looking at of her own colonial past,” Ms Joy said.

“I think it’s pretty bold and brave of Judith to look at what she’d written, even though it’s a fantastic book, and go, ‘That’s not good enough. I want to do it again.'”

The idea of adapting these stories and collaborating with traditional owners to create a short film was born.

“I wanted to combine those two lenses together in a film that paid tribute to Judith Wright’s legacy, but also feature the people and the language of the land on which the story was set,” Ms Joy said.

The film, Generations of Men, recently showed at a community screening in central Queensland at Rockhampton and Clarke Creek — where the film is set — to an emotional Barada and Darumbal community.

Ms Joy said she hoped the film-making process set the bar for collaboration with traditional owners.

The journey
The story takes place on the border between Darumbal and Barada country, 240 kilometres north-west of Rockhampton.

It seemed a simple process — find the original property on which the story is set and engage with the traditional owners and current landholders.

“It was the beginning of a four-year journey,” Ms Joy laughed.

With the help of well-known director Wayne Blair, a Rockhampton local, community support for the film grew.

Barada woman Margaret Hornagold helped with the initial script.

“When Jo first came, I thought, ‘This is a glorious opportunity for Aboriginal people from this land to be able to put their story out there and have it in language too,'” Ms Hornagold said.

“There’s so little of our stories, our people and our actors in the media, but there’s starting to be a body of work coming through.”

Ms Joy and her producer Elizabeth Simiard spent a week visiting Rockhampton, Woorabinda and Clarke Creek in central Queensland to hold workshops and find the right actors.

They found Andrew Young from Woorabinda and Darumbal Zalhi Hayden from Rockhampton.

Getting the dialogue right
The next step was getting the language correct — it would be in English, Barada and, predominantly, Darumbal.

Darambul elder Nhaya Nicky Hatfield worked with Ms Joy to bring the script to life and shape the local characters.

“You remember how the old people used to talk and the way they communicated through language, through sign language and body language,” Nhaya Nicky said.

For a woman who has spent decades bringing her language to the surface after years of it being underground, watching the film for the first time had a profound impact.

“I just started crying,” Nhaya Nicky said.

Following protocols
Because the film was shot on Barada country, protocols had to be followed with the help of Barada woman Nicky Muller.

A major scene where the mother gives birth had to be relocated because the original location was a sacred site.

There were also considerations for Barada people on location.

“We had to make sure that our own people returning to country for the first time were spiritually taken care of, and so that our ancestors recognised their own people coming home,” Ms Muller said.

“That was an emotional journey on its own.”

Being involved in the film has made Ms Muller’s family proud, particularly her Aunty Nancy – an elder who was born on the Isaac Plains where the story is set.

“Aunty Nance was born on that country — not in a house. She was born on that dirt,” Ms Muller said.

“She said to me tonight, ‘Oh Nick, that made our country look beautiful. It took me back.’

For Ms Hornagold, whose father was also born on that country, this story was deeply personal.

“Just how people moved across that area and survived some horrific times, but they survived, and I am standing here in front of you today because of that,” Ms Hornagold said.

“I think our family will be ever so proud.”

The film is now being submitted to festivals in Australia and overseas.