Western Sydney director Guido Gonzalez calls for more films depicting Australia's diversity
There are millions of Australians that for years have been fed a diet of Australian TV and films that portray a narrow beach culture of our nation. That’s just not reality. People want to see something on screen that reflects their own lives, their backgrounds and their stories.
As a son of political refugees from Chile, director Guido Gonzalez has made a career from his ability to take nuanced look at lives and moments in western Sydney. We talk to Gonzalez about the appetite for stories of Australia’s multicultural communities, his career path and how he developed his first feature film, Riz.
Can you tell us how you got started in the screen industry?
In 2002, I was offered the role of camera assistant on Khoa Do’s The Finished People, a drama about Cabramatta youth. What I thought was a small community project that only local families would see, became an internationally recognised film, nominated for AFI and other prestigious awards.
How had your career progressed?
I was determined to pursue a film career, but didn’t have the money to attend a film school. So I gave up my job as a cafe kitchen hand to work with Khoa Do on two other films − Mother Fish and Falling for Sahara. The first of those was shown at the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) and the second film, about young refugees recently arrived from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia and set in Melbourne’s Flemington housing commission flats, premiered at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival.
I really wanted to tell the stories of western Sydney, so I joined CuriousWorks who share that dream and offer opportunities for young artists from local communities to develop their talents.
My first film as a director was the short CuriousWorks documentary Villawood Mums in 2010. I lived at Villawood as a child when my family first arrived as political refugees from Chile. The film compares the support and freedom my family received at the ‘hostel for refugees’ with the harsh and less humane experience for families at the same ‘detention centre’ 10 years later.
Since 2013, I’ve worked for CuriousWorks as a Cultural Leader, establishing links with local communities and running training workshops for western Sydney’s next generation of filmmakers.
CuriousWorks also gave me the opportunity to write and co-direct Riz, the company’s first feature film that showed at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.
Can you tell us about CuriousWorks?
CuriousWorks is a unique media-arts company committed to sharing the largely untold stories of Australia’s multicultural communities.
There is an Australia out there that is missing from our mainstream media. Or when it does appear, it is somebody else ‘documenting’ these communities. CuriousWorks is giving filmmakers and artists the skills and opportunities to tell their own stories. That’s what makes in unique.
In your words, can you tell us what Riz is about
Riz is based on real events in my own life growing up in Cabramatta. It’s a western Sydney coming-of-age story. It’s about friendship, betrayal and forgiveness, and the difficulty of bridging Sydney’s social divisions.
Riz is a leader among a group of teenage boys. The bond between these mates from different refugee and working class backgrounds is stronger than family.
As an 18th birthday present, they film stories of how Riz has supported them through a maze of social problems they’ve encountered during their tough high school years. He’s kept them off the streets and away from crime. Before they can show him the video, he betrays them all.
He gets into that position because he is leading a secret second life. His middle-class girlfriend, Kylie, has never met his family or friends. They don’t know she exists. He has lied to her about where he lives. He creates two worlds and the conflicting expectations of each gradually overwhelm him.
Why is this an important story to you and why do you feel Riz has found an audience?
The film’s outcome is different but the character of Riz and the events in the film existed in my own life. In real life, Riz was unable to seek forgiveness from his friends and we have never seen him since.
One of the reasons I wanted to make the film was to explore the idea that there could have been a different solution.
I think a lot of people have faced similar situations to those of the characters in Riz so they can relate to it, but they are not used to seeing films that reflect their lives in western Sydney or similar suburbs in other Australian cities.
How did Riz become a feature?
It wasn’t easy. I’d been pitching the idea of CuriousWorks doing a feature film for about four years. They were really interested in the story, but a feature film was a major commitment for a small company like us.
Somehow, all the pieces fell together one week. We figured out how we could do it on a tiny budget of $80,000, and we had the young people from our grassroots programs at a stage where they were ready to take the next step of crewing on a major production.
Everybody really wanted this type of story to be told, and when you have that kind of motivation, it’s surprising how many obstacles you can bust through.
How did you get the funding?
It was difficult. The film was originally part of a live multi-media theatrical production called Rizzy’s 18th Birthday that was performed at Carriageworks in 2014. Carriageworks and the Australian Council for the Arts backed that.
When we developed that into Riz as a feature film, we did it with our own company resources.
What were some of the biggest challenges pulling this film off?
Getting the locations and the money! All the people involved were great so that made everything else possible. Without their dedication and commitment, Riz would never have made it to the screen.
The film is set in western Sydney, how do you feel the appetite for western Sydney films is?
Huge! There are millions of Australians that for years have been fed a diet of Australian TV and films that portrays a narrow beach culture of our nation. That’s just not reality. People want to see something on screen that reflects their own lives, their backgrounds and their stories.
I’m not just talking about cultures that have recently moved to western Sydney. We’re starting to see the stories of indigenous Australia, but we’ve barely scratched the surface.
Riz has a truly diverse cast, how important is this to you as a filmmaker?
Where in our media do you see what you see by walking down a main street in Cabramatta, Liverpool or Parramatta?
It’s 2015, and we need a new generation of Australian films that are talking about our modern culturally diverse Australia. We are still stereotyping characters from particular backgrounds – every culture needs strong positive role models that aren’t restricted by this.
What has happened with Riz since its screening at SFF?
We had sell-out audiences at SFF, and we always wanted that to be its world premiere. We are now going through applications to have it screened at other Australian and international festivals.
We have also developed an education package around it for secondary schools. Kids get to see the film, talk to the filmmakers and use it to start discussions relevant to several areas of the NSW curriculum. We also want it to inspire a sense of pride in western Sydney among the young people who live here. It was sparked by interest from teachers who saw Riz at the SFF. We’ve only just got that together and we’re trialling it with our first school this month.
Where can people see it now?
Watch this space. ‘Like’ the CuriousWorks Facebook page and we’ll let you know about other screenings.
What is next for you?
I’m writing another film, which will be a drama centred around the South American football culture of western Sydney.
While that develops, I’m leading numerous community and grassroots film training programs in western Sydney for CuriousWorks. It’s my contribution to helping create the next generation of storytellers.
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