NSW director and creator Bjorn Stewart has been hustling as a freelancer since he graduated from Wollongong University in 2009.
“I did a performance art course. We deconstructed the narrative of conventional, linear storytelling. We experimented a lot, poured milk and fake blood on ourselves while rolling around naked on stage,” he says.
“Being a freelancer means waiting by the phone and having Centrelink on speed dial, thinking ‘is today the day I’m going to get a call’. It’s a weird hectic schedule, where you’re making your own work and you get invited to work on other people’s projects. It’s about creating art to collaborate and develop your craft and skills.”
His father’s family is Kuku Yalanji from Far North Queensland and his mother is Wemba-Wemba from Victoria but he grew up in the Western Sydney suburb of Airds, near Campbelltown.
“I grew up with a single mum and three siblings in a fibro house, but she always encouraged us to do what we wanted. We wanted to get out of the housing commission, but she was like ‘just make sure whatever you do that you’re happy’. I was a drama artsy kid and she really encouraged that and for me to go to Uni, I was the first one in my family to go.”
Stewart visited Screen NSW during NAIDOC Week for an in conversation with friend and past collaborator Colin Kinchela.
The pair have worked side by side several times over the past decade, including Coranderrk at Belvoir in 2013 with the late grandfather of Aboriginal theatre, Uncle Jack Charles.
Based on court hearings about the dismantling of the Victorian mission, the piece of verbatim theatre seems more relevant and poignant than ever, given today’s discussions around black autonomy and cultural nuances.
“He had such a command, charisma and respect of treading the boards, and was able to keep us grounded in a very heavy show,” Stewart recalls.
“The mission had its own autonomy. The blackfellas made this township and were making their own income and the Aborigines Protection Board came in and put a stop to it and brought it back down to living off rations.
“Talking about the self-determination that we have and have been working for many years on was really important. It was beautiful to see one our elders, an actor of our craft, with so many years of experience and wisdom lead us in sharing this knowledge.
“I think there is a chance this year with the referendum to have a voice in Parliament that will help advocate for the arts. That would be a helpful and strong way to empower us to tell our stories and do it in a way that we want to.”
Shortly after the play, Stewart and Kinchela joined the Nula Nura artists lab on Cockatoo Island in 2015. Together they worked on a live installation piece while Stewart also sculpted an over-sized $2 coin during the 14-day live-in residency.
“I thought I’d give my hand a go at the visual art medium and wanted to experiment, but I don’t know what we were doing out there,” Stewart says.
“It was a chance to play and create work and put these ideas out. I’m always trying to push the envelope with my artistic practice and so wanted to do this piece that deconstructed the idea of humbugging out in communities where mob will essentially ask for money.
“The core themes that seem to come through in whatever I make are blackness, living in a contemporary urban setting, and the struggles of the welfare class so there was something interesting back then that drew me to currency and playing and making a comment on it.
But when the time came to repeat the experience, Stewart declined.
“I spoke to the curators and said ‘I’m not a visual artist’. I said, ‘I think this space needs to be for somebody else who is more passionate than me, I’m playing here, I’m not willing to die for these ideas, I’m just experimenting’.”
The pair kept working together, making content for the small screen during their days at Cope Street Collective in Redfern, including a parody of the 2017 Australia Day lamb ad about First Contact. While reminiscing about the shoot and discussing #ChangeTheDate, Stewart admitted his view had changed.
“At the time, the idea of changing the date had this fire and spark about it but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen there is more than can be done,” he says. “It’s a symbolic gesture but what else can bring blackfellas into having more equality autonomy and self-determination.
“Doing these videos back then, they were quite reactive but gave you a lot of eyeballs and you trended. But there was a point I was like, are we putting out a message that is universal and can stand the test of time or am I just being reactive for clinks and likes, it was a big question for me.
“After Cope Street everybody wanted to collaborate with us. There was a lot of mentorship, so it was nice to have the arts sector help guide us along but I also had?? the feeling of being overwhelmed about what direction to take. I wanted to do all of it but there’s only so much you can do.”
Kinchela came to work at Create NSW while Stewart continued to write and then direct the five-part digital series All My Friends Are Racist with creator Enoch Mailangi, and writer Kodie Bedford.
“Enoch had this idea of showcasing young Gen Z Millennial urban black queer kids, so it was great to push the envelope and poke fun by teasing blackness, queerness, social justice, sexuality. It was a really refreshing idea and I remember when I was Enoch’s age asking where are the stories for young, urban black kids,” Stewart says.
“Enoch was very much involved in the shooting process. I think it’s really helpful to have the writer on set to make sure the tone is right and the message is clear so they can realise their vision. The edit should really be the final draft of the story as you’re still working through it and finding ways to bring across ideas.
“Working in the short form space is very different where you have to condense a lot of the story down and lead with cliff-hangers to keep people engaged. The show was racy, with strong language and lot of sexual themes but we had to live up to such a biting title and winning the AACTA Award reaffirmed it was a story we had to tell.”
And just this month, Stewart’s latest work – he directed two episodes of Gold Diggers – aired on the ABC.
“I’m really happy with the series. I really loved the people on board, the consultations that happened, and working with the blackfella actors on their scenes,” he says.
“I will say, being a director for something that might have elements of blackness in it, you’re carrying a cultural load as well as telling the story. Your double and triple checking that everybody is okay and safe and feel like they can talk.
“I think everybody has the right intentions and they want to make the story but there’s cultural nuances that sometimes people in heads of departments might not understand and it becomes a conversation where you’re trying to find how you can articulate that an idea, perhaps one with perceived negative connotations, might not quite historically fit.
“I’d love to see more of is that there are opportunities for, coming through there was opportunities to do short films and web series and initiatives and programs in place.
“Once you’re in a position and working on mainstream television series there still needs to be those opportunities to bring blackfellas and people of diverse backgrounds into the roles behind the scenes.
“I think that takes away the cultural load, you can look at someone and nod nod and automatically both be on the same page as to why something might not work instead of spending that energy and time to try and find those words and a way to say ‘this is why I don’t think this works’.”
And what’s next for Stewart? Well, he’s going back to his roots, this time working on scripts for three feature films.
“I’m at the start of the writing process so they're still in early development but two of them are horrors. I’m interested in telling, blackfella ghost stories and re-imagining, exploring Australian history but from the horror genre. I just can’t escape blood but this time I’ll be pouring it on other people.”
After the conversation, we grabbed Stewart to fire off some rapid-fire questions.
Given this year's NAIDOC Week theme is ‘For Our Elders’, what inspiration did your upbringing have on your work? The elders that I grew up with that inspired my artistic practice had a lot of humour, a lot of wit and didn't take things seriously. They were kind of just very playful and really kind of helped me try and do the same. They also taught me that you can experiment and if things don't work out, that's okay as well. There's just a looseness with how they approach life and I’ve kind of taken that relaxed vibe on.
How did growing up in Western Sydney affect your storytelling? “I guess it was a massive cultural hub, you know this melting pot of people from different backgrounds and growing up with a lot of mates from different cultures you have this understanding, a kind of fluidity with our cultures and finding the similarities and differences. And for me, that's what I want to represent on screen, having that diversity in front of and behind the camera, and bringing it to the Australian audience.
I want to tell stories that reflect where I grew up in Western Sydney. I want to tell more black urban stories, that show my experience of growing up, showing the classism in Australia and poking fun at it all.
What was it like working on Black Comedy and Redfern Now? They were both massive for me in my career, both for being on screen for the first time on Black Comedy and writing for television, seeing how a production works. I remember I was terrified of the camera when I first got onto set because I was so used to working in a theatre with an audience, but then there's this kind of glass eyeball looking at you the whole time, and I was kind of weirded out by it. But both were really helpful in meeting other blackfella performers and finetuning my craft.
Why is it important for the industry to continue to support black authored film and tv? I think it's important for the industry to support black arts and artists because there’s a cultural duty to Australian storytelling. It’s very much part of our history and story, for all Australians. And it, it's only going to make our storytelling a lot more richer, a lot more diverse and nuanced in how we live in this country.
How has your craft changed over the years? Looking back at stuff that I've made, I can see how I’ve grown, and how my views may have become a bit more in depth or more layered. But I think that at my core, it's always been the same. There hasn't been a massive shift in what I believe. I think that I'm always going to be a person that will fight for the rights of blackfellas, always support advocates in the arts and poke fun at class systems in Australia. I think those elements are always going to be there but how it’s presented that can shift in the future.
Can you talk more about what you mean by carrying the cultural load? From my experience when telling black stories, there is a cultural load that comes with making sure that the story you're telling is done properly, and appropriately for black audiences. There's cultural nuances that you want to make sure you're hitting and doing correctly. It can take a lot of time and energy that could be used elsewhere. I think that having more people trained in that cultural workload and cultural competency can help streamline a lot of the communication.
Tell us about your Gold Digger episodes? I directed two episodes. In the fourth episode we're introduced to a Pacifica character named Sampson, and I really enjoyed working out the relationship to their cultural background. And in episode five, we meet the Chinese Australian miners, and see their relationship with the blackfellas which is also a piece of history that fascinated me.
And finally, comedy or drama? Comedy. I just love like being able to switch off. I mean, no drama. Oh my God, I'm just picking two sides now. I mean, I love both. If the story's good, the story's good.
Watch a short video with Bjorn Stewart.
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