Mirene Igwabe is an African-Australian filmmaker who fled her home country of Democratic Republic of Congo during the devastating civil war in 1996. Her family moved to Australia in 2007 and after initially studying business at university, she found her true passion in filmmaking. She went on to study film at SAE College in Brisbane. Adele is her graduation film about a 14 year old African girl forced into a child marriage in Australia. Adele has been chosen to be featured in the touring Flickerfest Short Film Festival.
Congratulations on your film Adele being included in Flickerfest. I can’t think of any other film made in Australia that deals with the issue of child marriage or even arranged marriage in our country. Why do you think no other filmmaker in Australia has told these stories?
Quite simply, they are not aware of this. When you live in a country such as Australia where human right is inalienable, it’s difficult to think that issues like child marriage still exist here in the modern world unless someone opens your eyes to it.
When I described Adele’s story in class for the first time, students approached me after the pitch, and they truly did not believe child marriage was actually happening in Australia. I remember sitting with some of them for almost an hour talking about underage marriage. They thanked me for educating them on this subject as a lot of people shy away from it, because it is confrontational and very sad and often taboo.
According to the United Nations’ own research, 37,000 girls under the age of 18 are married every single day, and that number keeps increasing. Right here in Australia, more than 70 calls regarding child marriage cases have been made in the past two years alone and that is just the tip of the iceberg as most of them are sadly not reported.
Adele is just one girl that will be arranged into marriage before she is 18 and she is not alone. If we don’t make changes and act now, more than 140 million girls will have joined her before 2020.
I was shocked to learn that arranged child marriages even exist in Australia given it’s an illegal practice. You have said that had you not come to Australia, that would have been your fate also. What stopped this from happening to you after you came to Australia?
I was always that kid with big dreams, and I wanted to do things that boys did. I wanted to drive a car, go out with my dad, express my feelings, but as a woman living in a country that is full of tradition, I was unable to do all those things, so I was forced to accept the fact that getting married under 18 was the best and the only option for me. In fact, any girl that is over 18 and unmarried is considered less of a woman, and I wasn’t going to bring that shame to my family.
My life was not the easiest as at the age of 5 the war in the Congo started and we had to literally run for our lives. My mum picked up my brother and I, and we started running on our own, as my dad was away on business in Uganda. All around were bodies and trauma of people at war, and the images were memories were something I never wanted to see again. It was horrendous but we were one of the lucky families that got out as a family.
From here, my parents were extremely driven to get us back up on our feet from having nothing after leaving it all behind as we had to start from zero as everything was pillaged or destroyed back home in Goma. My parents had gone from a good home and business before the war to living in refugee camps and having to get ourselves back on our feet from nothing.
I think that these experiences made my parents understand that it was not the only option to have to marry off daughters, and there were other ways of solving problems. In Africa, it tends to be the very poor families that see child marriage as a way out of financial difficulties even if temporary and they genuinely believe that what they are doing is right for their daughters as this is ingrained generation after generation and thus it is normal and this is just part of what we need to change.
Luckily when we moved to Australia, I was given an opportunity to rewrite my life.
There must be so many diverse stories about the African / Australian experience. Is this a genre you wish to pursue in your filmmaking?
Every filmmaker has a voice, and I believe that when I am making films that I should respect the power of being able to get important messages across for subjects I deeply care about. So yes, I always wish to make films about my origins and my life now and will make ones that pulse with life and contribute positively to people’s lives.
It is a genre and indeed a life experience that I have been exposed to extensively and this have given me deep insight where perhaps, other filmmakers and documentarists perhaps do not have a background such as mine. Thus I feel, as an artist, that we have a need to get the message out there to truly broaden other people’s awareness of other cultures which are so different to Australia’s open and transparent way of life. As I integrate two such diverse cultures, there are always going to be oil and water moments where the interests can be peaked and the excitement can be aroused from this mixing of two completely different upbringings.
Obviously, I am not at this stage able to completely immerse myself in to this one domain, and thus I have to support my career and arts by supplementing this with commercial enterprise such as corporate and private events but these allow me to follow my passion.
Tropfest Short Film Festival introduced blind judging this year and the number of female finalists increased to 50%. This has been attributed to what has been termed ‘unconscious bias’ toward the representation of male filmmakers in film festivals. Adele discusses issues associated with an overtly male-dominated culture in Africa. While Australia may have the appearance of more outward equality between men and women than Africa, have you noticed or experienced an ‘unconscious bias’ against women in your industry? If so, how?
I think in every industry there has always been bias on both sides of the fence, against women and against men. The reality is that certainly the male directors dominate the industry but I feel this is not helped because many females do not choose this career path, although this has changed in recent years and I think as more women choose directing, more women will naturally come up in the ranks.
There is for sure bias when it comes to certain jobs such as cinematography whereby they see men as stronger and thus more suited to holding the historically heavy camera equipment. As we see equipment get lighter but still offer incredible cinematography, I think we will see more and more roles move to women and the balance will naturally adjust.
Do you have plans to make Adele into a feature length film?
I would love to, but quite simply, I do not have the money to do it and feature films are not cheap.
At the moment, I am writing a new feature film and am immersed in the research and scene writing daily. It is really exciting for me as it will be my foray in to writing a full length feature.
On a more serious note, if any of your readers would love to fund us then they can reach out to me with pleasure.
What is your advice to young filmmakers trying to enter short films into film festivals?
Start with a great script.
If you don’t have this, then there is no point. If Adele was not a good script, we would not have received the support of Canon and SAE to make the film possible. A lot of young filmmakers would rather jump into the production first without having done all the hard work which is necessary, but not glamorous.
In the end, follow your dream and do it.
I was someone that came to Australia not speaking a word of English at 15 and never did I ever believe in my wildest dreams that I would be able to write a script in English, let alone a script that won the support of so many industry professionals who worked on Adele for free, and made her story come to life.
With luck, hard work and passion; I believe we can do anything if you never give up.
Flickerfest’s Best of Australian Shorts 2017 will be at the Gold Coast Arts Centre March 10th.
Image (c) Samuel Vision