Magazine article Metro Magazine

Of Boys and Men: Masculinity, Fatherhood and Cultural Identity in Zach's Ceremony

Magazine article Metro Magazine

Of Boys and Men: Masculinity, Fatherhood and Cultural Identity in Zach's Ceremony

Article excerpt

In Aaron Petersen's moving documentary, we watch as a teenager comes of age and confronts the difficulties of belonging to both mainstream and Indigenous Australia. Beyond this, the film is significant for its authenticity in capturing the relationship between a father and a son, as well as for the way it presents audiences with rare glimpses of sacred Aboriginal ritual and custom, writes Hanna Schenkel.

At eleven years old, Zachariah Doomadgee wants to be a man, but he doesn't think he's quite ready. 'I don't even think I'm mature enough,' the fidgety young boy tells his father, Alec, when learning his ceremony could be just around the corner. Ceremony is a sacred rite of passage for the Gangalidda, Waanyi and Garawa peoples of Far North Queensland, during which boys in their teenage years are initiated into manhood via participation in ancient songlines and rituals to pass on secret knowledge --and it looms large in Zach's life. It's easy to see why: his father's enthusiasm for and trust in the ritual seems unwavering. Alec knows ceremony will give his sons what they need to know who they are, and to become leaders in their community. To become men.

So strong is Alec's commitment to ceremony that he started playing with the idea of creating a film to follow Zach's passage through adolescence and his eventual coming of age as a way 'to show the beauty of Aboriginal culture to the world'. (1) The dream became a reality when Alec met director Aaron Petersen while they were working together on the documentary TV series On the Edge, and bonded over their shared experience of fathering boys. The resulting feature, Zach's Ceremony (2016), was filmed from 2009 to 2014, and shows Zach's journey to find his place between his two lives in Sydney and in his ancestral homelands, slowly emerging from under his father's wing and growing into a young man in his own right.

Zach's relationship to Alec is at the centre of the film, and is one of its greatest joys. Alec is an impressive man, and it's easy to imagine Zach finding difficulty in establishing his own identity against his father's booming presence. Alec is a known Aboriginal advocate and activist, public speaker, radio presenter, actor and producer. He is outspoken and opinionated. A physically and mentally tough man who worked his way to acclaim despite a childhood many would call disadvantaged, and while raising five children he started fathering at age fifteen. A tough figure to measure up to for an awkward teenager slowly growing into his long, dangly limbs. 'I wish I could walk around freely instead of someone saying, "Oh, there, that's Alec Doomadgee's son." They only know me from Dad. They don't know my real name or anything,' complains a thirteen-year-old Zach during the film's first visit to the Gulf of Carpentaria and Doomadgee, the town that gives Alec and Zach their surname.

But the deep love between father and son is obvious. Being a good man is central to Alec's identity, yet his idea of manhood is far from the restrictive machismo often associated with the term and allows for plenty of space for nurture and weakness. His masculinity is one of responsibility and community, and we see him throw his children birthday parties, fool about in the backyard, and break down in tears when recounting his own struggle to win his stepfather's respect and love. With the mother of his children appearing largely absent, and his new wife, Amy, preferring to avoid taking on the mantle of 'mum', he has made it his life's mission to be the parent his children need--a task he appears to have achieved, as Zach recalls in the opening of the film:

The moment I was born, Dad took control of my life. He's given me the life that he never had. Every moment I can remember in my head is all these little good moments of Dad.

The dire importance of a strong role model in Zach's life is inarguable, as there is no shortage of difficulties he has to navigate. …

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