This small Victorian town refused to let the pandemic kill their film

Robinvale scene.jpg

Community co-created miniseries Stories Beneath the Vale tells the story of a young Aboriginal dancer and choreographer Annette, played by Robinvale resident Emily Egan alongside comedians Nazeem Hussain, Denise Scott and Steph Tisdell.

The project has been driven by Melbourne-based not-for-profit arts company Phunktional in conjunction with the local First Nations community.

“We just got to the point where we were happy with the scripts and were ready to go into filming,” Phunktional artistic director Gerard Veltre says. “Then COVID hit and we were like, ‘what do we do?’”

Director Oriel Guthrie (whose work includes 2005 hip hop documentary Skip Hop) drew on the dedication and energy of a committed team to keep the project alive. Community Elder Aunty Annabelle Sharman, a Mutti Mutti woman, teacher, counsellor and social worker, helped corral the four-year project, alongside teachers, parents and grandparents.

During the shoot, Sharman sanitised equipment and dropped it to the various participants’ homes so they could record their part on an iPhone (an approach used by Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh on Unsane).

Veltre, Guthrie, Robinvale-based choreographer Phil Egan (Emily’s uncle) and others offered notes via Zoom from an iPad. “You realise how important every step of the film process is,” Veltre says. “Oriel’s been absolutely amazing. She’s so patient with everybody, so it’s been lovely, with people also increasing their digital literacy skills.”

Sharman says she learned just as much as the enthusiastic kids. “It’s excited and inspired me, because it’s about young people having a voice. It changes lives.”

Dubbing her co-ordination efforts as “legit Uber filmmaker”, Sharman says the production has been transformative for the town. “I’ve been working with kids in the community for about 20 years and I’ve been very proudly surprised. As an Aboriginal person, that element of ‘shame’ just isn’t there.”

They posted the choreography on Phunktional’s Facebook page so everyone could learn the moves, accruing thousands of views. Sharman even spotted kids practising in the park, and says locals have been star-struck by the celebrity involvement. One lucky lad got to duet with revered singer-songwriter Kutcha Edwards.

“When Emily first came down to Melbourne, she was really shy and didn’t say a lot,” Veltre recalls. “Later, when we asked her to be the lead, her response was, ‘Let’s do it’. She was confident to give her suggestions and to have a lot of ownership.”

Veltre says this kind of connection is more important than ever, while so many arts companies struggle to stay afloat worldwide. “It’s invaluable. This is the hardest project we’ve ever had to do, in a way, because you’re not there. But that strong relationship with the community makes it possible, and that’s precious.”