WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that this content may contain references, images and voices of deceased persons.
Australia has a rich history of road movies celebrating the distinctive danger and diversity of our Outback culture, from the glamours antics of Priscila Queen of the Desert to the brutality of Wake in Fright and the raw beauty of Japanese Story, alongside such influential documentaries as Bush Mechanics, Welcome to Woomera and the now infamous Hotel Coolgardie.
However, the new feature length documentary Gravel Road, looks to further elevate the sub-genre with a charming and engaging chronicle of the trials and tribulations faced by the Indigenous four-piece rock act known as the Desert Stars, as they embark on an ill-fated debut tour across the communities of Australia’s exacting outback.
Helmed by director Tristian Pemberton, who shares credit for the film with the Tjuntjuntara Community, Gravel Road is essentially a character study of The Desert Stars front-man Jay Minning, whose engaging and quiet presence guides viewers into the drifting culture of Spinifex Country, a swath of land in Western Australia’s Great Victoria Desert which nurtures a number of Indigenous communities, including those who call Tjuntjuntara and its vast uncongenial surrounds, home.
“I first heard about the community of Tjuntjuntara because my sister Fiona was working in the community back during the nineties as a community development officer.” Explains director Tristian Pemberton, currently located in LA as Gravel Road begins its festival circuit tour. “She told me about the story of The Last Nomads. The last nomadic hunter gatherers to have first contact with white Australia, which occurred in 1986.
“I thought, ‘Wow, how come nobody’s made a film about this?’ So, I started to research and sought to get permission from the community to tell that story. But as they hadn’t met me before, I was invited out to meet them. That was in 2009, I went out there, met the community, talked with some of the surviving family members and then they put it to The Board, which is comprised of representatives from all the families and communities.
“But I need to create a connection with the community, so, about a year later I reached out and told them I wanted to come and make a film as a collaborative project with the community. And they came back and said, ‘Yeah, alright, no worries. Come out’. So together, the community and I, wrote a script for a comedy about gambling, because people wanted to tell a story about that.
“We had people helping the sound and with producing and acting and all that sort of stuff, but it was just me going out there with some camera equipment, and we ended up shooting it. But when it came to time to edit the film, I realised we needed to put some music on this. And everybody said, ‘Well, let’s use The Desert Stars, they’re our local rock band’. They had one recording at that stage. And it was pretty rough. It was recorded by the local teacher. And that’s how I got to know The Desert Stars.
“But I didn’t meet Jay [Minning] at that time because he was in jail, he was in Kalgoorlie lockup. And then, I think it was about 2017, the band recorded their second album. Which was actually produced by a friend of mine. He was wondering around, he heard them playing in the hall, and introduced himself. He said, ‘I’d really like to produce some music with you guys.’ Jay said, ‘Yeah? Well, I’ve got a whole album of stuff in my head’ and so they ended up producing an album. And I was invited out to the community to produce a music promo for their single Tjuntjuntjara, a homeland tribute. I shot the promo, directed it with Jay, and then, a year later in support of the album, they decided to do a tour, which was funded by Menzies Shire Council.
“The funding helped to fly out The Re-mains, an east coast band who would mentor The Desert Stars on their first tour, and be a support act. When I heard about all this, I thought, ‘Oh, I gotta get out there and capture it’. It’s kind of a historic moment, these traditional owners from Spinifex Country and their first tour. So, I funded my own way over there and got on the bus.”
For anyone whose spent time outside of Australia’s urban comfort zones, there is a distinct realisation that our diverse landscapes and environments, as beautiful as they may be, are far removed from the homogenised drone swept promo reels of tourism campaigns and Instagram feeds. A blunt reality that Pemberton, with a healthy dose of experience already under his belt, was still unprepared for as the tour set off into the desert. In fact, as the director explains, any pretence of rock tour romanticism was quickly diminished as the two bands, their support staff and an ill-equipped bus began to comprehend the actual size of the outback’s vista, not to mention its fatalistic ambiguity.
“Yeah” Elaborates Pemberton. “It was mostly sitting in a bus on gravel road. The actual, physical, functionality of it was tedious. It was pretty uncomfortable sitting in those vehicles, driving for hours and hours and hours.
“The only time I could really shoot anything was when the bus would stop. Then I would jump out and hopefully get a bit of action. People actually moving about, maybe doing something. But mostly there was a lot of just sitting about, looking at the landscape.
“The bands doing the actual gigs though, was fantastic. And that was the thing for me, being in the communities; being invited into the communities, being able to witness that real grassroots connection that The Desert Stars had with those communities. They like black fellow bands. And here is a black fellow band who play a type of music that is like eighties rock. That instantly has some appeal and just seeing the audience and the way they engaged, that was fantastic.
“But it was very difficult and uncomfortable sitting in that bus. Then we started having problems when we got to Laverton. The brakes weren’t working properly, and the tour was starting to evaporate in front of our eyes. And when it seemed like a second bus wasn’t going come along, I thought, ‘Oh, well, that’s it I’m going home. I don’t have a film’. I was even planning to get a lift with someone; they were going to drive me to Alice Springs and I was going to fly back to Sydney from there. But when another vehicle eventually came, and we realised that this was going to be tight; that we’d maybe have two camps where we stopped for maybe three or four hours, sleep and then keep pushing… But as we got closer, Jay and the band were so excited that, you know, it was actually going to happen. That was what kept us all going.”
Although Gravel Road could easily be categorised as simple tour film, to do so would be reductive, offering a disservice to the authenticity, humour and the almost Taoist philosophy that Jay Minning brings to the films intimate narrative, not just as the documentaries central character, but as a representative of a culture that is often portrayed in the media as a cautionary tale. Instead, Pemberton’s personal ethics working extensively with the community coupled with Minning’s generational insights, are a celebration contemporary Aboriginal society, one that thrives from its heritage, sense of tradition and a respectful coexistence with land. Gravel Road and the story of the Spinifex mob, expressed through the songs, art and daily life of Jay Minning delivers a multifaceted and rewarding experience that earns, and deserves attention.
“I first met Jay at the local store, but I didn’t even really know who he was.” Reflects Pemberton with a wry smile. “I was doing another film and needed someone to walk into this store, and so I gave one of the oldies, who happened to be Jay’s father, a $50 note to use as a prop. Then this old fella walks off and then he sees Jay and just hands him the 50 bucks. And then Jay starts to wonders off in the other direction and here I am trying to shoot. And I’m yelling out, ‘Hey, can I get that 50 bucks back? It’s just a prop in a film.’
“But the first time I really got to meet Jay was when I was shooting the music promo for The Desert Stars. Jay came over and we sat down, and we talked about what he wanted to do. He’s really creative, he’s got lots of clear, creative ideas. The way he communicates is very different to what I’m used to as a white fellow.
“My Aboriginal friends, traditionally the way they look at things is by ‘place’. Even when you tell a story, you talk by place, not by time. It’s not like ‘this happened, this happened then this happened’. Its more like ‘there’s this place and things happen. And then there’s this place and things happen and then there’s this place’. It was a little bit confusing for me at first. But I discovered that he had really good ideas. He’s a good person to work with. And he takes direction well. He wants to part of the process.”
Apart from capturing the idiosyncrasies and communal traits of the remote settlements, Pemberton’s lens also manages to effectively capture the duality of the Australian outback, often contrasting the beauty of the Western Desert with glimpses of industrial trespass and the scars of colonial Australia, recalling the impact faced by the Spinifex under the British atomic testing program at the Maralinga site. In a similar fashion, Pemberton also allows his camera the freedom to present some of the rawer aspects of Indigenous life, including the hunting and preparation of meals that reflect the First Nations traditional methods; methods that may be a little uncomfortable in their bold and bloody execution for the gentrified public, but which the director admits remains intrinsic to the authenticity of Indigenous truths, and culture.
“I wasn’t sure how audiences would find it. Our festival circuits only just started. But it’s been received really well. The Q&As always been really lively. After I leave the cinema, people come up and want to chat and ask questions. The main comment you get is people just love the fact they can see parts of Australia they’ve never seen before. Everybody’s seen the opera house and the Harbor bridge, but those red sand hills of Spinifex Country are really as iconic as anything else in Australia.
“Then audiences are really seeing part of Australia, not just the landscape, but also the people and culture and stories that they’ve never seen before. And you know, a few people have commented that it was wonderful being able to see into a community, not knowing what that’s like. Most Australians have never seen a remote community before. That was the real opportunity. Here we have a black fella telling his story.
“They’re really proud people. They’re proud of their stories. They’re proud of the fact that they managed to survive so long without contact. And in fact, if our prime minister and the British prime minister, hadn’t struck up that secret deal with atomic weapons, I have no doubt there would still be people living out there in a traditional way now. In fact, people still whisper that there’s people still out there. They reckon there’s still people out there that just don’t want to come in. Everybody’s always looking for signs. And 1986 was when the last family came in, which wasn’t that long ago.”
As Gravel Road begins to grace screens across a number of American Festivals, including a successful run at Poppy Jasper International Film Festival in California, Pemberton admits that the film was only released after securing the blessing of the communities involved, foremost the Tjuntjuntjare Community who he proudly shares his director’s credit with.
“The community got to see the film first before anyone else.” He reveals “There’s no other way I’d allow that film in the world without the community getting to see it and approve it. That’s really important to me, with any project I do. They’re collaborations. They’re not my films. I just see myself as a conduit.
“The first person who got to see the edit was Jay when we had the first rough cut. And then, when we had the final cut, we had the community screening where we invited everybody along. The idea was there would be representatives of all the families and communities attend, along with The Board. And they would all watch it and then approve it. They’d make sure that there is nothing in there, no cultural things we have of concern, and are happy for that to go out, and then for the world to see it.
“Four festivals have accepted the film so far. Obviously, it’s not a film for everybody, but we are targeting about 85 or 90 festivals across the world. We’re hoping that it gets into Europe as well, to some festivals there. We’re targeting audience-led festivals. It is not the sort of film that’s going to win awards in a technical sense, but it’s the sort of film that audiences like to see. These stories that you get a glimpse into worlds that you don’t usually get a glimpse into.
“They’re very proud of the fact that their culture is still very intact. They’re headlong into postcolonial, intergeneration trauma – and we’re really seeing the effects of that – but still, the culture’s pretty strong out there. So, seeing themselves in film, knowing that these are their stories and that they have control of the narrative, that they are genuinely being collaborated with, means that there’s a real sense of ownership.”