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The long road to Zach’s Ceremony

The filmmakers behind Zach’s Ceremony talk about the importance of Good Pitch² Australia and crowd-funding in helping their documentary get made.

Zach's Ceremony

Embrace. That Sugar Film. Chasing Asylum. Gayby Baby. Frackman. These are just some of the feature-length documentaries whose creators have turned to crowd-funding or partnered with philanthropic organisations to help their films connect with as many people as possible.

For Zach’s Ceremony it was a combination of both, along with government support, that is helping it reach audiences.

At the inaugural Good Pitch² Australia event in October 2014, Zach’s Ceremony director Aaron Petersen, writer/producer Sarah Linton and concept creator/associate producer Alec Doomadgee were the first group to take the stage.

Linton says the support that came from this pitch was vital for their documentary, which went onto win audience awards at film festivals in Sydney and Melbourne, and will release nationally in cinemas on 30 March.

“I’d say it’s absolutely crucial. That (support) enabled us to complete the film, to go through post-production, but more than that, it actually gave us a platform to send it out into the world with outreach funding,” she says.

Documentary Australia Foundation gave us our first lot of funding and from there it rolled on…

“(But) it’s not just money – it’s the organisations and the people and platforms that come behind it. If you can get engaged with a partner that already has a database and an outreach within their organisation you can dovetail into their existing system. You can both work together with the same goals in mind.”

Zach’s Ceremony had sponsorship from the Foundation for Young Australians (fya), Reconciliation Australia, and Indigenous educational mentoring program AIME.

Their messaging matched with Zach’s Ceremony, which follows an Aboriginal boy over ten years as he becomes a man, both physically and spiritually, under the strict guidance of his father. It’s a coming-of-age story, but one which looks at the unique challenge of growing up both in modern day and in an ancient culture at the same time.

Zach's Ceremony

The idea for Zach’s Ceremony first came about in 2008, when Petersen was working on ABC3 TV series On the Edge, which Alec Doomadgee was a presenter on. In between voice over sessions they got chatting and talk turned to their kids. Petersen had two young children and Alec began talking about his son Zach, who was excited to one day take part in an ancient Aboriginal rite of passage – his initiation ceremony.

“It’s not something you plan to base a film on. Zach was always going to go through his initiation. Alec just thought it would be great to capture that in a film,” Petersen said.

Filmed over six years (but incorporating home video footage from even earlier), the filmmakers became like an extended family to the Doomadgee’s. They would all catch up once a month and try to be there for key moments in Zach’s life – big boxing matches, birthdays at home in Sydney, or trips back to his country in Far North Queensland, which culminated in Zach’s initiation ceremony.

Great care was taken by the team to not just make sure Zach and Alec were happy with the film, but that they followed all the necessary protocols and checked the footage with the Aboriginal elders during the edit.

And once the film was finished, they took it up to the three communities in Far North Queensland (where they had filmed) to host several free screenings.

“The final screening was at Robinson River where the majority of the ceremony footage was shot and we had the screen set up underneath the stars out in the open. There were about 250 people there, which was pretty much the whole town,” Petersen says.

“And in the film there’s a moment where Zach acknowledges his sense of belonging and says his grandfather’s name and as he said it, a shooting star flashed across the sky, right over the top of their country, and it was just remarkable. The whole crowd gasped and burst into tears.”

There were a number of other important pieces to the financing puzzle that helped Zach’s Ceremony reach screens. In 2013, Screen Australia came on board with development funding and the documentary also had support from Screen NSW and a presale commitment from NITV (where it will air later this year). But because it was filmed and edited over such a long time, Petersen and Linton also launched a crowdfunding campaign through Pozible to help raise additional funds. The campaign finished in October 2014 – around the same time as Good Pitch² Australia.

Petersen says: “The story was quite alive. We didn’t have an end date or an ending at that point, so even though we (got government) funding and what we were receiving was fantastic in getting us over the line, it felt like we just had to continue filming a little bit longer. So just those little bits of extra funding helped deliver the film and the ending that we got.”

(In late 2015, Screen Australia also provided additional support for post-production through the Producer Program.)

Zach's Ceremony

Screen Australia Senior Manager for Documentary Liz Stevens says over the past five years they have been seeing more finance plans coming through that have been pieced together through non-traditional means, whether that’s through crowd-funding, new commissioning channels, or Video On Demand services.

A key point in this evolution was the beginning of Good Pitch² Australia some three years ago, which Stevens says has added a lot to the local documentary scene, “not just in the funding that it’s raised through philanthropic organisations, but also people’s understanding about what outreach can be, for filmmakers and institutions alike.”

“That knowledge is now filtering throughout the documentary community and people are building finance plans based on a variety of things that perhaps they didn’t do in the past,” she says.

“I think people were moving in that direction but Good Pitch² just came along at a really perfect time and added a lot of extra knowledge and influence to the documentary industry. It’s also provided valuable content which has made an important contribution to the national conversation.”

It’s worth noting that a number of the films that have been financed this way have also been seen by far more than niche audiences. The highest-grossing Australian documentary (excluding IMAX) is another 2014 Good Pitch² Australia alumni: That Sugar Film, which earned $1.71 million at the box office. And in 2016, Taryn Brumfitt’s Embrace, which led a successful crowd-funding campaign, earned $1.1 million to take no. 5 on that list.

Zach’s Ceremony releases in select Australian cinemas on March 30 through Umbrella Entertainment. Click here to find out if it is screening near you or Fan-Force your own screening here

It will also air Sunday July 2 at 8.30pm on NITV as part of NAIDOC Week.