Tom Zubrycki finds drama and humanity in ‘Hope Road’

Zacharia Machiek and Janet Dyne in 'Hope Road'. 

When Tom Zubrycki set out five years ago to make a feature documentary on a South Sudan refugee in Sydney who returns to his village to build a school, he had no idea how the story would unfold.

Almost nothing went to plan on Zacharia Machiek’s emotion-filled mission, as chronicled in director/writer/producer Zubrickyi’s Hope Road. Funded by Screen NSW and Screen Australia’s now defunct Signature Fund, the film will have its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival.

“From the very start I knew that things wouldn’t all go smoothly – the funds were low, the committee was inexperienced – and building a school in an African village ‘by remote’ was going to be a big task,” he told IF.  

“As it was I was proved correct and the many twists and turns far exceeded my earlier expectations.  What started as a story about building a school in Africa became a profound and emotional narrative about a man holding his family together when his partner suddenly leaves him.”

In 2012 the filmmaker was tipped off about the fundraising project by a friend who knew Machiek when they both worked at a family counselling centre. Zubrycki met him and Janet Dyne, a TAFE teacher who was a member of the committee.

He got $8,000 from Screen NSW which was enough to pay for Zubrycki and Machiek to fly to the latter’s village in South Sudan, which he had left in 1985, and to make a show reel to secure Screen Australia funding.

During their three week stay in the village the bricks for the entire school were made – but not without drama. The workers protested about being paid in food bags not wages, the women argued for their right to work, and the village wells proved unreliable.  

Subsequently Machiek and Dyne embarked on a 40 day fundraising walk from Tweed Heads to Sydney, filmed by Zubrycki. The suspense builds over whether this initiative will raise the funds they need and as Machiek endures the shock of a broken relationship.

Zubrycki shot the film almost entirely by himself and recorded most of it as well, which he had done for his past four films, starting with 2003’s Molly & Mobarak. That film followed a 22 year old Hazara asylum seeker, Mobarak Tahiri, as he falls in love with 25-year-old Molly Rule and faces possible deportation as his temporary visa nears expiration.

Editor Ray Thomas, who has worked on all his films since 1989, again served as the key creative collaborator. They worked in blocks mapping the narrative as it gradually evolved in real time. All up it took 26 weeks spread over three years to cut Hope Road.

Zubrycki hopes the festival exposure will encourage an Australian theatrical distributor to release the film and to secure an Australian broadcaster.

To drum up interest in international sales he is contacting distributors he knows in Europe, reasoning, “The film should appeal to them because it’s not just a simple refugee story, it’s much more than that and it has elements that are truly universal.

“When I first started in the early 80s, a distributor like Jane Balfour took all my films without question. That was the old days of film.  Now there is a glut of product, hundreds, thousands of documentaries looking for a home. Distributors can afford to be extremely picky.”

If he doesn’t land a viable distribution deal in the short term he plans to roll out the film at festivals, aiming for Toronto and the IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam).

The filmmaker laments the demise of the Signature Fund, which was merged into the Producer Fund, observing, “It was meant to support projects of intrinsic cultural value, even though they had no distributor involvement at the time when they were pitched.  Sure, often these projects were a bit of gamble by the agency, but it made Hope Road possible.  Now such a project would be much harder to fund through similar channels given the funding landscape has changed so much.”

Nonetheless he believes this is a great time to be making feature documentaries. “The future of documentary is assured,” he said. “There are more documentaries being made than ever before here and around the world. This year there were more than 100 single entries to the Sydney Film Festival Documentary Competition. 

“Key funding programs at Screen Australia like the Producer Equity Program or the Offset Program, which can fund a percentage of the total budget, have enabled a lot of documentaries to be finished and seen which would otherwise be abandoned.

“But to sustain an industry where long-form doc continues to be made in a world where public funding is shrinking and delivery platforms are changing, it’s essential to explore and discover new ways of funding.”

'Hope Road' will screen at Sydney Film Festival June 14 and 15. Tickets available here: