Michael Joy addresses Indigenous identity in drama ‘Smoke Between Trees’

Elly Chatfield in ‘Smoke Between Trees’

Filmmaker Michael Joy knew he had to tread carefully when he embarked on Smoke Between Trees, a drama involving an Indigenous woman, her grandson and the boy’s grandfather.

As a non-Indigenous man he wanted to ensure the film would ring true for Indigenous people as well as relating to audiences generally.

So he consulted closely with Indigenous actors Elly Chatfield in her first lead role, Damion Hunter and numerous Indigenous Elders.

The producer/director/DOP/co-writer showed the film to a group of Elders with some trepidation and was both relieved and delighted when they gave thumbs up.

Tiriel Mora plays Mathew Higgins, a middle-class whitefella who is consumed with grief and anger. When his estranged 10-year-old grandson Ari (newcomer Robert-Joseph Slockee) re-enters his life, he has the chance for reconciliation.

Artist Elly Chatfield, a Gamillaroi woman from North-West NSW, is Francine, the boy’s maternal grandmother. Joanne Samuel is Matthew’s wife Therese, Georgia Adamson is their daughter Sarah and Damion Hunter is her boyfriend Jayden.

The film was inspired partly by Joy’s childhood in Perth, where racism and racist tension were rife, and his desire to address the health challenges facing many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

He first worked with Chatfield when he made a training video for NSW Health on Aboriginal nursing. Subsequently Mora and Chatfield appeared in Cul-de-Sac, a TV pilot which Joy shot about corruption in a small town.

Robert-Joseph Slockee and Tiriel Mora.

“Elly has a wonderful, natural on-screen presence,” he tells IF. A member of the Stolen Generation, Chatfield describes the film as a life changing experience.

“The role of Francine allowed me to search deeper within to explore the raw crevices that harbour my biggest secrets, desires and needs,” she says. “There was no way to escape the soul piercing questions that were brought to life; the only way forward was through them.”

Joy despaired of finding a boy to play Ari until Elly suggested Slockee, a family friend. Joy rang the boy’s mother, arranged to meet up at their Canberra home and cast him the following day.

The filmmaker, who co-wrote the screenplay with his partner Mieke van Opstal, self-funded the production filmed in the Blue Mountains, taking advantage of the Producer Offset.

Explaining his efforts to consult widely, he says: “I wanted to make a film which gives non-Indigenous people a glimpse into an Indigenous world they know little about, and a film which is authentic for Indigenous people.”

It is his second feature following Men’s Group, a 2008 drama about six men who convene weekly in a self-help style group and are confronted by tragedy.

He funded that film, which was distributed by John L Simpson’s Titan View and screened at the Sydney, Melbourne, Rotterdam, Warsaw and Singapore International Film Festivals, on a co-operative basis, with cast and crew awarded points. Those points translated to returns of $690,000.

Titan View will release Smoke Between Trees in early 2020. Joy will aim to lock down a sales agent after the film screens in international festivals.