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A Modern Mutiny: Life on Norfolk

Producer Jennifer Cummins felt the ground shifting while filming in A Modern Mutiny, as what was a character-driven story quickly took on a political edge.

Bounty Day procession captured in A Modern Mutiny/David Dare Parker

The first time A Modern Mutiny producer Jennifer Cummins visited Norfolk Island, it felt similar to stepping into a time capsule.

It was years ago and Cummins, from Heiress Pictures, was on a reccy there for an entirely different project.

“Along with most Australians I knew almost nothing about Norfolk Island,” she says.

“But about half an hour after we landed I thought ‘this is the most intriguing place, why don’t I know more about it?’”

Situated between Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia, this small island is just 34.6km2 and has roughly 1,600 citizens. There’s no public transport, locals wave to all passing vehicles (called a “Norfolk wave” and although everyone speaks English they have their own language, called Norfolk.

“It’s hard not to feel a sense of nostalgia and romance when you’re on Norfolk Island, because they are in some ways in a bubble, which can also be kind of gorgeous,” Cummins says.

“Kids ride around in the back of utes without seatbelts. There is a sense of freedom and a more relaxed environment than we experience on the mainland.”

But that freedom is in the midst of being challenged. Against this romanticised view of Norfolk Island is the fact that they have been struggling.

“There is also the reality of people needing to economically survive and not having a tax system or Medicare, or a fully functioning hospital system is challenging in the 21st century,” Cummins says.

With these recent tough times, the self-governed territory has had to reach out to the Australian government for help, but with that comes certain rules and reforms.

“(So) we knew that some sort of change to the way they were governed was imminent or likely because they were broke, basically.”

When Cummins was there, a palpable sense of trepidation was in the air, as if the storms of change were brewing. Cummins wanted to capture Norfolk and its inhabitants before this arrived and so A Modern Mutiny was born.

The second part of SBS’s Untold Australia series shines a spotlight on this rich culture and people on the precipice of change. Directed by Martin Taylor, it follows a number of Norfolk’s inhabitants over the course of about a year – from descendants of the Bounty mutineers, to the island’s new administrator Gary Hardgrave, who was appointed during filming.

The edit was (unsurprisingly) long, as Cummins and the team worked hard to get the balance right between a character-driven film and what became a very political story.

“We never set out to make a political film. We set out to make a film that was about the characters of Norfolk Island and to really unveil a culture that mainland Australia didn’t know anything about,” Cummins says.

“Also we wanted to be true to the nature of the Norfolk lifestyle and the wonderful people we spent time with there. There are quite quirky and charming, so we didn’t want to make a film that was just an angry political film because they’re more than that.”

The ground and mood was shifting as the team filmed A Modern Mutiny. Comprehensive reforms were announced by the Australian government, to the utter dismay of some locals, and relief from others.

“It was met with a lot of anxiety on the island,” Cummins says, and the team felt they couldn’t go to air without acknowledging these significant responses to the new governance.

So they decided to return to Norfolk in early 2016 to shoot a post-script, so the audience could get a clearer picture of how the island is handling it all.

“We wanted this to be a film that would stand the test of time for the Norfolkers and for Australians as an audience – that we have this lovely record of where they were at,” Cummins says.

“Hopefully we have managed that.”

A Modern Mutiny is the second part in the SBS series Untold Australia and will air on Wednesday April 20 on SBS.