Excerpt from Sharon Shostak’s first adventure in filmmaking
About ten years after we buried my mother on someone else’s land, I was gripped by the somewhat sacrilegious urge to dig up her bones. I wanted Helen closer, and fantasised about re-burying her remains on the land my brother and I inherited from her. Though we had already complied with burial regulations that stated we hadn’t enough acreage for a gravesite, ignoring the rules was stock-in-trade where I grew up.
Mine is a long history in Mullumbimby, having relocated here with my mother in 1973. My brother and I were in tow as Helen went barefoot from man to man and settled with one on ex-banana land in the furthest reaches of Upper Main Arm.
She may have been exultant with her liberation from suburban housewife confines, but this nine-year-old wasn’t able to make much sense of the experimental culture around me. Ironically, at the age of 50 I’ve now been asked by our local historical society to make a documentary film on the history and legacy of the hippies from them thar hills.
It’s an obvious choice, I suppose – I’m a filmmaker, and I was around in the early days with the formative players of the Main Arm valley. And of course Helen urges her way into the story: within a few weeks of beginning the interviews and looking for leads, a new friend I’m beginning to spend time with mentions that her long-ago-ex, then a student filmmaker, was up here from Melbourne in the late 70s shooting the hill-dwellers on 16mm film.
After she tracked him down, my new friend reminds me of an extraordinary coincidence: I realise her ex is the one who encountered Helen riding a motorcycle down the windy dirt road, frangipanis in her dark hair flying unrestrained by any helmet, a pillion passenger balancing a rainbow umbrella over their heads. I can picture the shock of colour against the verdant green of the rainy season, the magnetism of her lovely smile, and why he was so taken by the image.
For some reason this shot was never re-enacted for their improvised film; instead my mother had urged me forward with tales of my teenage prowess as a puppeteer. This evolved into a setup where I played a hitchhiker that the main actors pick up and are entertained by, via puppets whisked from my bag in the back seat.
We shot the scene on the southern end of Coolamon Scenic Drive, in those days still treeless, and I was impressed how their long lens could encompass the progress of the car on the sinuous road winding up the mountain in one stable frame.
But the tableau of the cameraman suctioned to the bonnet of their car as he shot the scenic entrance to Mullumbimby particularly enthralled me. It’s no surprise that this was one of the very early images I captured with my own first movie camera – an Elmo Super 8 – some five years later: the seminal travelling shot of Mt Chincogan rising out of the road in all its sudden grandeur and lush beauty.
Much to our disappointment it turns out the ex may have binned the unfinished film, negatives and all, in an overwhelm-moment years ago. There’s a slim chance that an ‘assembly edit’ may be stored somewhere, so we are yet to hear the final outcome of this peculiar serendipity.
The lingering verdict is that my past, as well as my present, is inextricably woven into this history that I am beginning to document. Already it’s summoned my mother’s image back in Technicolor; one that inspired a fellow filmmaker, who then gave me my first taste of being part of a film crew. It reminds me that bones aren’t what are left of my mother. It’s her story – at once epic and ordinary, and ultimately far more appealing than digging up a grave.
The feature documentary Mullumbimby’s Madness – the legacy of the hippies is anticipated for release this time next year.