Tristan Pemberton takes ‘Gravel Road’ to international award success

The Desert Stars' lead singer Jay Minning.

A documentary about ‘the world’s most remote rock band’ has resonated on the US film festival circuit, winning the Best Documentary Feature award at the Poppy Jasper International Film Festival in California on Sunday.

Tristan Pemberton’s Gravel Road follows singer Jay Minning and his four-piece band, The Desert Stars, on their 2018 debut tour as they travel from their home in the remote Tjuntjuntjara community of Western Australia’s Great Victoria Desert across the punishing terrain to support their second studio album Mungangka Ngaranyi (It’s On Tonight).

In addition to the Tjuntjuntjara community, Pemberton also collaborated with editor and story consultant Harriet Clutterbuck, executive producer Ian Baird, and sound designer Phil Snow.

The director joined more than 150 filmmakers from 11 countries at the Morgan Hill festival, which is produced annually by non-profit organisation Poppy Jasper, Inc.

He told IF the Tjuntjuntjara community were an integral part of the film’s success.

“It really is a community-driven project,” he said.

“I felt awkward getting up there and accepting the award on behalf of a whole lot of people who just couldn’t be there.

“So it’s really important for me to let people it’s not a Tristan Pemberton film, it’s Tristan Pemberton and Tjuntjuntjara community film. I couldn’t have made it without community support and all the people along the way, big and small, that contributed to the film.”

Pemberton was first invited to the community more than 10 years ago to discuss a film he was making about the last Aboriginal family to abandon nomadic life.

Subsequent trips would be used to build a relationship with people from the area via workshops and short film projects, leading Minning to reach out in 2017 about shooting a music promo for a single off The Desert Stars’ second album.

With songs of hunter-gatherer life and their people’s survival of the British atomic testing at the infamous Maralinga site, the group’s combination of ’80s style rock and Indigenous culture is known for drawing a diverse group of fans.

When Pemberton found out they were going on tour the following year, he didn’t hesitate to “get on the bus”.

Behind the scenes on ‘Gravel Road’.

“Here you have descendants of the last nomads in a rock band from the most remote community, so everybody’s got stories,” he said.

“Initially, I didn’t necessarily know what the film was going to be about but I just thought I’d jump on the bus, capture the tour, and see what happens.”

A few months after the tour, Pemberton took the raw footage to editor Clutterbuck, who encouraged him to film further in the Tjuntjuntjara community, an expedition the pair of them would undertake together in 2019.

“She got to meet the band and have lots of great experiences, from which we were able to get some really lovely footage,” Pemberton said.

“Jay was obviously very trusting in sharing his life and his story, and after that, we knew we had a film.”

Minning said the award from Poppy Jasper International Film Festival was “a tribute to my People, our land and how strong we are”.

“It recognises our story and the decades of displacement we’ve gone through.

“I’m proud of what this film and the Tjuntjuntjara community have achieved.”

Prior to being selected for Poppy Jasper International Film Festival, the Flywire Films production was screened at the Phoenix Film Festival at the beginning of April, with the Australian premiere set to take place at this year’s CinefestOZ Festival in August, where the band has been invited to perform following the screening.

Gravel Road will have a theatrical release via Halo Films.