Punks For West Papua
Directed by Anthony Brennan
A friend's request to film a punk rock concert and a rushed drive across Sydney to do a last-minute interview with West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda — without even knowing who the twice Nobel Peace Prize-nominated activist was — was the catalyst for filmmaker Anthony “Ash” Brennan to make his award-winning film Punks For West Papua.
The deeper origins of Brennan's motivation to be a social justice filmmaker can be traced back to his childhood. Growing up in a Western Sydney multicultural neighbourhood, he had ideas of social justice at an early age: “It's in my blood to be working class and my parents were always very welcoming to anyone who came in the front door.”
This included Greek and Italian migrants, and later Vietnamese refugees. “Initially there was a bit of a stand-off — 'who are these people blah blah' — eventually they became our mates and to this day I'm still friends with them,” Brennan told Green Left Weekly.
“I remember one of them telling me his story of coming on a boat and how his father hid him and his sister under the floorboards because pirates wanted to come and take him.
“I remember going, 'I'm just a 15-year-old playing footy and my biggest worry is getting my homework done and cracking onto girls'. I didn't think that [sort of thing] happened.”
Then Brennan got involved in the mass anti-war movement and environmental campaigns. This started his interest in advocacy films. “A couple of years ago I got a bit more handy with a camera,” he said. This led to him shooting videos on community campaigns against destructive mining, such as the struggle of farmers in Gloucester against coal seam gas mining.
Brennan has spent a lot of his life working for commercial TV, which has led to a healthy scepticism of the mainstream media's selection of messages. “It is not the news of the day, it's just the news they want to feed you,” he said. “There are too many stories we just never see.”
The oppression of West Papua by Indonesia, with the support of the Australian government, is one of those stories. For more than five decades Indonesia has occupied West Papua with the complicity of multinational corporations and global powers.
The origins of the film came about when, in June last year, Brennan was contacted by friends Jodi Bartolo and Neil Carrington from Sydney band Diggers with Attitude to film a benefit concert for West Papua.
“It was just meant to be five bands to raise a little bit of awareness and a bit of money for what's happening in West Papua and they asked me if I could come and film the night.
“I said OK, let's interview a couple of people, maybe do something cool, it could be a good promo for your next album or something.”
It was never meant to be the start of a feature-length documentary. It did, however, get Brennan thinking. “I got off the phone and went 'West Papua, everyone knows there's something there, but no one really knows [much about it]'. So I started reading up on it. There's a genocide happening there.”
Other bands began to follow Diggers with Attitude's example and started planning their own benefit gigs around the country. Brennan was already travelling around the country with work, so it seemed obvious to “do my other job and I can just do interviews with the other bands”.
However, it was not until two weeks after that initial phone call that the real catalyst for the documentary came. The Free West Papua campaign in Australia got in contact with Diggers With Attitude and said United Liberation Movement for West Papua spokesperson Benny Wenda was in town and available to be interviewed.
Brennan's first thought was, “Cool, a West Papuan, that would be good. I had no idea who he was. Basically we got the phone call and had to get to the other side of Sydney in 45 minutes.
“I didn't know that he'd been nominated for two Noble Peace Prizes. But I can only say in my own experience, in that hour that he just turned me around in a heartbeat.
“He told me what's been happening there. Half-a-million people have been murdered in the past 50 years. You're not allowed to fly [West Papua's] flag, or it's 15 years' jail.
“They're killing kids there — just opening fire on people. One thing that stuck with me is that they are just north of Australia, we are practically neighbours, but nobody knows about this.”
“Once I interviewed Wenda, I knew we needed to make a documentary. That's when the word 'documentary' first came into it and so for the next two months I travelled the country interviewing people.”
Brennan began by interviewing the headline act of each of the Punks4WestPapua concerts. The documentary starts off like a punk rock music clip, it is fast with strong music and heavily stylised shots. It is not something you see often in a documentary.
Brennan explained: “I felt the need to just throw punk rock in people's faces, startle people straight away. For the most part, punk rock is about caring for your fellow people, standing up for the rights of the downtrodden.”
Using punk rock as the opening for the documentary is more than just a hook. It is also very connected to the West Papuan independence struggle. Brennan said: “There's actually a massive relationship between that part of the world and punk rock.
“In fact some of the punk rockers who have played in this benefit gig are starting to send over gear to them, old guitars and stuff. But they systemically get rounded up by the government and get thrown into jail.
“But I couldn't really have a documentary with [just] punk bands talking about the injustice of West Papua — I needed a voice of credibility.”
That came in the form of Hugh Lunn, a multi-Walkley Award-winning journalist who has written extensively about West Papua. “That [interview with Lunn] really made the documentary. He was there, he saw what was happening. Those photos in the documentary are his personal photos that he took. Hugh Lunn just gave credibility to the whole thing.”
Lunn had previously tried to get documentaries made about West Papua, but was unable to generate enough interest. Brennan said he was only able to make his documentary by self-funding, with most of its $10,000 budget going towards rights to use footage and music.
“I work in film and TV and I do alright out of it, so I started to use my powers for good rather than evil for a change,” he said.
Getting footage from West Papua was one of the film's biggest challenge, as the Indonesian government does not allow people to film freely.
Luckily, Brennan made contact with one person in West Papua who shoots video for Papua Storyteller, which can be found on Youtube and Facebook.
“He just does a lot of day in the life sort of films and his stuff is actually quite good. He was quite happy for me to use his footage if the proceeds went to the campaign.”
Brennan's main regret is that he was unable to film in West Papua. “I feel like I did cheat in this documentary a bit because I didn't go over there. That's the one thing I wish that had been different.”
Brennan feels the campaign for West Papua is finally starting to gain momentum in the past couple of years. “Just the other day, [Greens Senator] Scott Ludlum was talking about it in the national parliament. Every day there is a new social media group starting about what's happening in West Papua.”
Ultimately, Brennan is proud of the film, which allowed him to pull two of his biggest passions together.
“I had a musical upbringing. I played in punk bands through the 80s and 90s. Obviously politics was an interest of mine, so to be able to combine music and politics in one doco was pretty special.”
Punks For West Papua has just won the Award of Merit — Documentary Feature at the Indiefest Film festival in San Diego, the first festival it was entered into.
It is currently being screened around the country. You can find out more details about the screenings or buy the film at punks4westpapua.com