Filmmaker Dean Gibson says his latest documentary, Incarceration Nation, is part of a “truth series”. It follows from his documentaries, A War of Hope and Wik vs Queensland. His 2015 film, A War of Hope, documented the story of 235 Indigenous residents from Hope Vale in North Queensland, who were forcibly removed from their land to a Government settlement during World War Two.
Dean’s 2018 documentary, Wik vs Queensland, explored the struggle for native title co-existence rights for the Wik Peoples of Cape York.
Dean Gibson is a Guugu Yimithirr man. His father’s family is from Hope Vale, on Cape York peninsula. Dean grew up in Brisbane, separated from his father and his Aboriginal family, so finding his identity has been central to his 15 year filmmaking journey.
“My filmmaking has played a big part in me grabbing my own identity and sense of being, which has been a really interesting, challenging journey.
The story of the removal of the Hope Vale people was not that long ago. It was in locations that still exist today and the institutions overseeing it, are still here today.
The Wik story was a really powerful film for me. I didn’t grow up on land. I didn’t know the power of what that meant until I got into that film.
I guess, for me it’s been doing stories, not just social justice stories, quality stories, with quality characters – stories that you know matter.”
His latest film, Incarceration Nation: The History of Black Injustice, premieres on NITV this Sunday, 28 August. It examines the Australian justice system, revealing the systemic injustice and oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that began when Australia was established as a penal colony 200 years ago.
It also seeks to explore how we can do better.
“I think more than ever, Australia is at a place where truth matters. And I think, filmmakers, novelists, theatre companies, libraries, institutions, have a massive responsibility to say, ‘Let’s take a good look at the truth, and not pretend that this stuff didn’t happen or it’s just over there.’
“I think everyone in Australia recognises that we can be better. We’re an innovative nation, we can do really good things, and I think if we begin to apply that same will and strength and know-how and ability and heart and spirit, we can turn some of that stuff around.”
We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are significantly over-represented in our prison population. We know about the high incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth and children. We have heard the shocking statistics about Indigenous deaths in custody. While these facts are the underlying reality of this documentary, Dean wanted to move us beyond the statistics and give voice to the communities, the families, and the individuals behind the numbers.
The documentary also introduces us to new faces and voices.
“They are Aboriginal voices that have a really important place in these conversations and show the audience that we speak with authority. Not authority in terms of yelling or having a louder voice. This is a well thought out, well-constructed, direct, down the line kind of conversation, and I think that’s really important.”
Experts and academics featured in the documentary include Federal Circuit Court Judge Matthew Myers, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner from 2009 – 2016 Mick Gooda, barrister Joshua Creamer, Associate Professor Chelsea Watego, Professor Don Weatherburn, author Amy McGuire and lawyer Teela Reid.
Dean sees his film as a conversation starter. He says he does not want audiences to feel guilty or to feel like they have to own the history of the nation, but he does want us to take the time to listen and understand.
“I think it’s important to listen and understand where we’ve come from.”
“Aboriginal people know this story. They’ve seen it daily. They’ve grown up with it. So I think what we wanted to do with the film was bring it all together – we’ve got these 200 years of history we needed to compress into a 90-minute narrative about how we got here, what we’re doing about it today, and how we move forward as a nation.”
Dean says, while making a film, he does not know what will motivate people at the end of it.
“I want people to watch it and not be offended or not feel confronted – but to understand this needs to be dealt with. It’s a wake up.”
“All I’m asking is for people to give me 90 minutes – to be open to that. The call is about planting something in people’s hearts.”
As to changes in the law, Dean says raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Australia is the most pressing need.
“For me the hardest thing to swallow in the film, is the incarceration of children.”
“It’s really clear that the removal of children, leads to foster care, and then to the juvenile system, and then to adult prison. It is a really clear trajectory for kids. We’re just not giving our kids, all kids, not just Aboriginal kids, a chance.”
“I’ve got kids, 10 and 11, and these are the ages of the kids up in Dondale in the Northern Territory. How can we put kids in that place and think that’s going to benefit their wellbeing or will give them some level of worth?”
The film starts with the shocking death in custody of 26-year-old David Dungay Jr in Long Bay jail in 2015.
Dean wanted to empower the families to tell their own stories. The documentary team spent many hours talking with the individuals and families of those whose stories feature in the film. In addition, it was essential to have their permission to screen what is so often confronting and distressing footage.
The voices of those for whom this is lived experience include Keenan Mundine, Carly Stanley, and the families of David Dungay, Sherry Fisher-Tilberoo, Tanya Day, and Thomas “T.J.” Hickey, who share the trauma of losing a family member whilst they were in custody.
“I get a sense that it was really empowering for the people … They’ve clearly gone through the pain and still do. So I think there was some level of authorship, strength and growth for them that came out of that.”
The crew also went into the regions to explore how local communities are devising their own solutions
“I think what brings it together is listening to Aboriginal people and understanding what we want in this space and how localised responses to justice can be developed with community groups, organisations, businesses, and governments.”
I asked Dean what gives him hope that things will change.
“Our society is built around big institutions and big organisations, and clearly, there are levels of systemic racism – whether people are aware of it or not. It’s not just in football and sport, it’s in libraries, and museums. All big institutions would have some level of systemic racism or some level of lingering racism. I’m part of the Screen Queensland board and I just joined the Queensland Theatre board. I think that’s where boards who oversee these organisations need to go. That’s where I think the change can happen.”
One of the voices in the film says, “this is not about reconciliation, it’s about reckoning with the truth”, and another, “stop looking away”. So, I asked Dean what he wants a non-Indigenous audience to take away from the film.
“At the heart of it, it has to change people.”
“I’m not asking you to do anything other than give me 90 minutes of your life.“
WHERE TO SEE iNCARCERATION NATION
The film will premiere on NITV on Sunday 29 August at 8.30 pm
It will also be available to stream on SBS On Demand, with subtitled versions available in Arabic, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean. The program will also be audio described on NITV.
SBS will also air Incarceration Nation as part of the Australia Uncovered documentary series later this year.
Director and Writer: Dean Gibson
Producer: Helen Morrison
 Evidence of ‘torture’ of children held in Don Dale detention centre uncovered by Four Corners, ABC News, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-25/four-corners-evidence-of-kids-tear-gas-in-don-dale-prison/7656128
Cover image, Keenan Mundine at Parramatta Correctional Facility- Credit Joseph Mayers
Our thanks to Dean Gibson for being so generous with his time.