Last time we saw award-winning Gold Coast author, Benjamin Allmon, he was floating away down the Nerang River in a bark canoe, and looking ever so slightly nervous about it. Rightly so, as it turns out. Between many dunkings, (sort of) fighting off Great Whites and having cultural epiphanies of mammoth proportions, the intrepid local managed to carefully document a three day journey down an ancient First National maritime trade route, which has now become a book and a documentary film, entitled ‘The Saltwater Story.’ We caught up with Ben ahead of the film’s premiere at HOTA on Friday night, to see how he was feeling about the project now that it’s nearing public consumption.
“Jeff Licence is the filmmaker, and my god he’s done a good job,” says Ben.
“I’ve just come out of the pre-screening and it’s phenomenal. There are only a few people who could do what he’s done in the time that he had. He’s edited, filmed, directed. And to take this complex cultural story and make a coherent film that can be appreciated by all audiences – not just Indigenous audiences – is a real achievement.”
The cultural story being told in ‘The Saltwater Story’ is multi-faceted but it aims to present a storyteller’s unprecedented passage into a piece of First Nations culture that is rarely offered to someone outside of the Bundjalung and Yugambeh people, an honour that Ben took seriously. He was guided throughout the process by Bundjalung-Yugambeh canoe maker and cultural advisor Kyle Slabb, veteran paddler Mark Matthews and also accompanied by photographer David Kelly and several young men from the Slabb family.
“It was all really about the boys,” describes Ben.
“I had gone into this project thinking in terms of educating myself about Indigenous culture but it very quickly became about Kyle passing this culture onto the younger generation and that cultural continuity. They grew each day, grew into themselves and their roles, as they crossed that threshold from boyhood to manhood.
To watch that change happen before your eyes was a beautiful thing to see.
The 70km sea voyage undertaken by the group for this project had connected the Saltwater People across the water from the Gold Coast to North Stradbroke Island for thousands of years, but had not been undertaken for longer than one hundred years, according to anthropologists. Ben says he was floored by the depth of feeling that accompanied their arrival to North Stradbroke Island.
“[It was] a big thing to see the reaction of the people North Stradbroke when we got there. The Elders now; their grandparents told them stories but it hadn’t been done in living memory. And to see the young boys paddling into Dunwich was quite emotional. There was dance, they put on a good feed for us and we gave the canoes to them.
“Kyle said ‘We don’t own anything, these canoes are a part of all our people.’ He said to them ‘Let’s re-forge these connections, you paddle them back to us.’ Kyle‘s been telling me the word has spread and there’s this desire to reconnect as they’d always done and to get that young generation engaged in culture which is far beyond anything I’d ever anticipated when I started this.”
Of course no good story would be complete without some hairy moments, and some funny ones too. Ben recalls some of the trickier times.
“The canoe that I was in was pretty precarious given any sort of swell, and we saw sharks all the time on the trip. We had a heavy outrigger and we swapped it at South Stradbroke for a smaller one, which made it easier to paddle but much more unstable. We fell out constantly and we sank outside of Dunwich in a very bad area; a juvenile Great White, about five foot, had gone under us a few minutes before we sank, and Bijang and I waved at the rescue canoe, hoping it would make it back in time!”
Fortunately for everyone, it did. Now with interest from ABC, SBS and calls from Sydney and Melbourne to have the film toured, Ben is excited about the story being shared as widely as possible.
“I would love it if it does get out there because so many films about the Gold Coast that are received always focused on the superficialities or the clichés and all the rest of it, and there’s so much more and I’d love it to be a bit of a representative of that side of the Gold Coast that people who don’t live here are unaware of.”
Join ‘The Saltwater Journey’ in the HOTA Cinema on Friday 18 May 2018 5:30pm, including an exhibition prior to the 6.30pm screening. Tickets here. A DVD of the film and the illustrated book (written by Ben is just six weeks!) will be available for purchase on the night.