Coming-of-age books and movies - the label elicits a usual-suspect set of stereotypes: close ups, grimaces, high-stakes drives in the night, runaways, love, family and a healthy dose of experimental hedonism. A thread of ancient culture and tradition, on the other hand, is not your typical coming-of-age fodder. This is where Aaron Petersen’s Zach’s Ceremony surprises its audience. The film is a curious fusion between a thoughtful, mature documentary and an intimate, boyhood-esque movie that ponders questions of culture and identity through the frame of a modern youth’s teen years.
Zach Doomadgee is an Aboriginal Australian boy growing up in contemporary Sydney. Snapshots and interviews with the boy, his family and his father Alec document Zach’s growth as he moves from 10 to 16. The film features Zach’s Initiation ceremony, the imperative Aboriginal rite of passage to manhood.
Zach’s problems kick off when he moves out of his boy years and into middle school. Under his dad’s tough surveillance, he feels trapped and babied. He’s angry at his school for allowing racism to permeate the students. He misses his passed grandfather and reflects on the impact of his biological mother’s departure – she is never present in any of his “good memories”.
Seeking a sense of liberty and belonging, Zach joins the teens of the night streets, and thus begins his run with debauchery and crime. A series of incidents involving drugs, alcohol, school absences and violent retaliations to racism ensues. But Zach’s behaviour is not completely condemned – it’s easy to feel empathy for the teen’s emotional stresses.
He narrates his thoughts in a vulnerable and youthful way that drives the documentary’s non-dogmatic and conversation-sparking approach to the issues in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander realities. Filmmaker Petersen addresses some somber issues affecting Aboriginal Australian communities, including teen rebellion, suicide rates, the government’s Alcohol Management Plan, and the flow-on effects of colonisation.
Primarily, with regard to problems among youth, the documentary is interested in the effects of a clash in cultures. The contrast between the ancient, autonomous Indigenous Australian culture and the world of cosmopolitan city-life seems stark. Events such as celebrations for Australia Day and Survival Day, Initiation Ceremonies and 16th birthday parties are not only separated by location but are polar in their nature and customs.
Called a “whitefella” among Indigenous peers and a “blackfella” in cosmopolitan Sydney, Zach feels “somewhere in the middle” and utterly lost. The figure of his father, Alec Doomadgee, vividly depicts the pressure of an ancient heritage. Alec is older and wiser than his young son, well meaning though sometimes peremptory, and proudly Aboriginal. His wish to share his passion for Indigenous culture with Zach, sometimes, rushes ahead of his young son’s understanding of the world.
The comparison between their relationship and mismatching cultures is evidenced in the constant battle between Zach’s teenage curiousity for freedom and burning need to fit in, and his father’s principles and protectiveness. The documentary keenly captures the facial expressions and the body language between the pair, and these are universal forms of communication that speak to all viewers, regardless of language.
As an attempt to calm Zach and to prompt him into maturity, Alec takes Zach to take his Initiation Ceremony. The film crew took to the red sands of the Northern Territory and Queensland, where such traditions and rituals are carried out. Here, the long-established, warm sense of community found in culture is clear. The elders’ patient explanations of the dreamtime stories, customs and roles, emphasise the importance of tradition and of land, within Aboriginal culture and identity.
Stories of Christian missionaries told by actual survivors of the time are merged with excepts of old news footage that give context and impart the destructive history. When the grim impact of the missionaries is compared with the footage of life in these remote communities, and with the purposeful Initiation ceremony, it appears doubtless that Aboriginal culture is as fundamental to wellbeing, as is faith to the religious.
For the teen searching for a sense of belonging, this is irreplaceable - together with Zach’s ties to his father and finally, the mending of his relationship with his biological mother. Thus, in classic coming-of-age style, Petersen brings the exploration of identity to its profound and complex, deeply personal core. At the heart of the documentary, is the idea that different cultures and communities each have an impalpable and incomparable influence on human lives, regardless of what type and who. Its angle is hopeful and a mature, and proud Zach Doomadgee is the face for the documentary’s view that different cultures can uniquely exist in harmony, both in communities and within individuals. From this, stems an empowering call for Indigenous Australians to embrace and champion their ancient customs.
Zach’s story is a tender, grounded base on which to build an understanding of what it’s like to be straddled between two very different cultures, and its effects on one’s sense of identity. The film has earned Best Documentary awards in the Sydney and Melbourne International Film Festivals, and has screened nationwide, as well as in New York and Bali - coming a long way since its debut to the remote Aboriginal communities of its inspiration, in 2016. Zach’s Ceremony conscientiously promotes thought and understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.