Rites of Passage, Directed by Phillip Crawford
Rites of Passage is an experimental and collaborative film about adolescence in Australia. It documents the challenges of growing up, and in its focus it counters prevailing narratives that delegitimate these struggles. The film legitimises the experiences of young people by its empathetic perspective, and it is innovative in the extent to which the young people themselves take part in the film’s creation: this is not a documentary, but the stories that it presents are based on the real life experiences of the actors, and the film takes form through their perspectives.
According to the film’s opening, ‘This film has been made according to 10 principles’.
One: The making of the film should assist people living with hardship to build new futures
Two: All key actors must be amateurs and live in the community where the film is shot
Three: There can be no traditional script and there should be more than one story line
Four: The story lines must be developed with the actors, drawing on their life experiences
Five: If an actor fails to turn up, the shoot still goes ahead, creating a new direction for the film
Six: The film must be shot in real locations in the community
Seven: The key actors and the production team should all operate cameras, sound, lighting and other equipment
Eight: Every scene should be shot with different types of cameras and in different styles
Nine: All the credits must be in alphabetical order, with no-one credited as writer or creator
Ten: The first screening must be held in the community where the film was made
These principles situate the film in an experimental and socially-aware context — aware of the difficult realities of the environs from which it has emerged and committed to combating injustice with art. This is a work that is highly concerned with its relationship to the community that created it. Indeed, it is unique for being a production of its community. It is filmed in the Illawarra, a coastal region south of Sydney, collaboratively with members of that community over a period of three years, during which time the young people whose stories and work make up the film literally grow up before the camera.
The film’s commitment to an inclusive, community-oriented process of artistic creation whose activity as well as its output work for social justice sets it apart: the process of creation becomes itself part of the marvel of the end result, and the life of the feature film does not end with its final scene. The project has affected the lives of its participants, and the message of hope that their stories impart will continue to affect the lives of its audience.
The film ‘was conceived as a community project’ by Beyond Empathy (BE), whose mission is to ‘[use] the arts to influence change and enrich the lives of individuals and communities experiencing recurring hardship’. Based in New South Wales, Australia, the organisation’s focus on communities of the same region in Rites of Passage — the Illawarra, the suburbs of Berkeley and Warrawong — demonstrates the organisation’s local approach to change and to breaking cycles of poverty with inclusive artistic projects which contest the narratives and realities of disadvantage with ongoing processes of artistic transformation.
‘Anyone who wanted to be involved was given a role’, says Phillip Crawford, the film’s director and editor. In accord with the fourth, seventh, and ninth principles, the story lines, production, and credit for the film belong to each participant in the project. ‘Everyone had to do everything’, says Crawford. ‘There was no crew hierarchy or much formality’. The process also grew out of a necessary spontaneity. According to Crawford, ‘During the making of the film, participants got pregnant, went to rehab and got locked up, so their stories needed to be adaptable’.
BE aims to ‘[create] art projects with people living on the margins of their communities’, and the story of Rites of Passage paints a picture of inclusive creativity and radical egalitarianism in the process of artistic creation. The significance of this approach is its commitment to creating art with those who are disadvantaged and marginalised — not about, for, and without them. The critical question is whether and to what extent this ideal is realised in works like Rites of Passage. Irrespective of good intentions, imbalanced dynamics of power and hierarchical structures in film production are common and problematic. A false egalitarianism might entail a claim of equality with only token participation by those without the power to steer the artistic endeavour; it might even constitute an exploitation of the status of creative democracy for the personal advancement of those with power in an insidious hierarchy disguised as a productive anarchism.
As with documentary filmmaking, a critical examination of discursive power becomes especially crucial when the film’s subject is disadvantaged (due to poverty, oppressions of various kinds, language barriers, lack of access to filmmaking technology): the advantaged filmmaker, good intentions notwithstanding, easily adopts the innapropriate role of saviour — a role constituted by condescension and misrepresentation which dispossesses the film’s subjects of their agency. To the extent that BE and Rites of Passage have created spaces for community-led art that expresses the film’s ‘10 principles’ and BE’s stated commitment to an ‘overarching principle of partnership over paternalism’ and ‘participation over theory’, the film is a model of inclusive creativity and art as social justice.
Principles two, three, and four stipulate that the film’s amateur actors, all members of the community in which the film is shot, develop the film’s multiple story lines without a traditional script and based upon their life experiences. The resulting plots are convincing and diverse, and the characters feel real. In order to protect the privacy of the actors, ‘no-one acted out their own story’, says Crawford. ‘In this way we created a drama, not a documentary’. The stories span themes of adolescent angst, self-discovery, intimacy, and coming of age. Although the stories and their actors literally span several years from the film’s start to its finish, and the distinct plots (there are several, as principle three requires) rarely coincide, they are not disjointed. They are thematically unified by their concern with the struggles of growing up, diverse as they are. The acting of these struggles is so believable that the distinction between fact and fiction becomes quite blurred. Stories of struggle, triumph, love, and art powerfully contest narratives that problematize adolescence: in a dramatic poetry piece performed by characters in the film, they verbalise this directly.
They say we have become heartless.
They say we can be cruel.
They say we give no-one respect.
But maybe when adolescence starts,
our hearts just grow faster
than our bodies can hold them.
And controlling the pain of that
is all we can do.
The main characters are overwhelmingly male, however, so the film’s plot is problematically limited. The stories that centre on the boys’ lives often depict women and girls as either victims of male violence or subjects of male rescue — rarely as agents in their own right. The camera technique and editing (principle eight), which involve colour changes and askew camera angles, animate the stories — but their unceasing and identical repetition undermines their effectiveness and acts as an unnecessary crutch. The technique ‘[revels] in a home-made, hands-on, low-tech style’ reflective of the many amateur hands that created it.
The film is amateur, but certainly not amateurish. Its subject matter is deeply relevant, its presentation is engaging, and its process of production is innovative. It softens the distinctions between the dramatic world of the film and the real world of Australian youth, the final product of years of filming and the very labour of assembling it. Rites of Passage is an honest, compelling film — and an ongoing process. ■
Runtime: 1 hour 20 minutes
Genre: Drama, Coming-of-age, Feature
Find out more
Find out more about this film and its director on the pages for Rites of Passage and Phillip Crawford in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the film’s pages on Facebook and Twitter, and the film’s website. Phillip Crawford is an award-winning independent Australian filmmaker, creative director of Beyond Empathy, and director (along with Mary Callaghan and Gemma Parsons) of Rites of Passage, a cinematic collaboration with dozens of young people.
A trailer for Rites of Passage can be viewed below:
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: A scene from ‘Rites of Passage’. Beyond Empathy Ltd.