Memories can be an elusive quarry for the filmmaker

Sharon aged 11 in 1976 at the Finn Village in Upper Main Arm with her horse Gorgeous George. Photo Gavan Higginson

Sharon aged 11 in 1976 at the Finn Village in Upper Main Arm with her horse Gorgeous George. Photo Gavan Higginson

Sharon Shostak

A childhood grown in Upper Main Arm from 1973 has invariably fed my filmmaking, both with having access to archival footage as well as the natural link it makes to me telling stories from those days. So when Susan Tsicalas from the local historical society asked if I would be interested in making a feature doco about the early hippy settlement of Mullumbimby, given that these people were ageing and bowing out with the obvious threat that these stories would be lost, I embraced it as an amazing opportunity.

One of the things this project has really brought to light is the difference in attitudes people can have to their history. Ranging from the desire to leave it dead and buried, all the way through to the desire to reveal all, no holds barred, it’s been a challenge to know when to try to convince otherwise and when to leave people with their skeletons.

I do love a challenge, but those with the former attitude can be very difficult to shift. Even so, there’s been a few interesting twists that occurred during the course of making Mullumbimby’s Madness.

The very first woman I contacted about being part of the doco agreed initially, then texted me back a few days later to say thanks for the offer but that she was an extremely private person who has ‘no desire whatsoever to be on screen’. Since her son had enthused to me earlier about what a key person she would be to interview, I called back to try to coax her with the idea that I could just record her story. I offered to film her hands going through photographs, and that it was really her story I was interested in to use as a voice-over on photos. She relented and reluctantly agreed to the interview, but when I turned up at her place she had once again changed her mind – this time she decided she would be utterly open.

She hadn’t met me in the past at all but many of the people I subsequently filmed had known me as a youngster in the valley. Like another guy, who was happy enough to be filmed but then contacted me the next day to say he didn’t want me to use his interview at all. Once again I asked if I could mostly use his story as a voice-over and he was okay about that, with the proviso that he view the film before he would give his permission.

When it came time to view the edited doco, he seemed delighted with the way it was put together and even rang later to tell me about other photos in which he appeared where his name wasn’t listed.

I also contacted the police sergeant who was around in the 70s, hoping the doco would include a view in to his perspective. He declined, saying that he wanted to ‘leave sleeping dogs lie’, the past in the past. Unable to glean exactly what his issue was, and despite my very best powers of persuasion it was clear I had to let it go.

Documentary thrives on drama. And drama is made from – well, drama. The juicier, the more poignant, the more difficult to tell, the more interesting for the audience – that’s obvious. But how it affects people who were around that story – that’s another interesting question.

I interviewed 17 people for the documentary, and one of the interviewees’ adult children is quite upset that I included her father. She holds an enormous pain from her childhood, of watching him freewheel his way through sexual partners. He is quite open about it now, as he was then. I would like her to see it as his story, but she wants me to accept some sort of responsibility to her and the pain it may reignite.

I’d like to think that she can watch the film and, like the fellow mentioned earlier, be able to digest the content without disturbance because of the way I’ve presented it, and maybe even experience that transcendence which comes from objectifying your pain into a story.

My bigger hope is that she’ll then feel comfortable enough to tell her own story, warts, pain and all. Or she might read this and hate me forever!

I’m left with the edgy feeling that I have to work out if I’m preying on someone’s hardship or potentially facilitating therapeutic release. Ultimately I believe I’m availing myself as the vehicle through which these stories can enrich the world.

In any case, stay tuned for next year’s documentary project to be commissioned by Brunswick Valley’s wonderful historical society: Mullumbimby’s Madness – the Children of the Hippies. And if you are one of these progeny from that colourful time, please do get in touch.

Sharon can be contacted via


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