Syd explains his path from making VX skateboarding films to directing indigenous music videos.
Words & Photos by Britten 'Syd' Andrews.
My journey into filmmaking began 15 years ago when my wonderful parents bought me a Panasonic 3-Chip video camcorder. From there, I got really into making skate edits and uploading them to file sharing sites. For context, this was an era when DVDs were all the rage and even the concept of YouTube would have been mind-blowing.
I bought my first VX a few years later from a disgruntled wedding videographer. It was a thing of beauty and, accompanied with a big Century fisheye lens, the footage turned to gold. Everyone around me was getting really good and I really enjoyed filming, editing and working towards something grand.
I soon made my first feature, a video called Positive Energy. The premiere was at Federation Square in a 300-capacity cinema and attracted around 800 people. The manager lost control and instead of putting a few more screenings on, decided to call the riot police. After the prem’ I received a life ban from ACMI. It was a pretty good start to filmmaking. The video sold really well to shops, both in Australia and abroad. I filled my car from front to back with boxes of the DVDs, somewhere around the 2000 mark, and eventually sold them all.
Glory Ride was my next project, and was also a period when everyone involved was getting properly sponsored and at a ripe time of their lives. The unlikely concoction of Manowar and Jimmy Buffett fueled everyone to produce exceptional lifestyle and video parts. A good portion of the cast went on to become professional skateboarders, and this video contributed to the lettering of these names on boards. The premiere was at a Korean karaoke bar, and we arrived on horse and carriage. The video came free with Slam [Issue 185, 2011] and then proceeded to sell to shops around the world. I still get orders today. They were really fun times, and watching it still emits good feelings for me.
I continued to do film work both inside and outside of skateboarding. We did some great trips backed by some good companies, but it was a stage where I was in limbo with what I wanted to be doing creatively with my work. I love being completely absorbed in a project until it becomes obsessive. I have a huge desire to work on projects I’m really passionate about. But skateboarding had moved towards web clips and tricks being released immediately for commercial purposes. It was hard for me to navigate a satisfying route in this world.
Four years ago, Timothy Hillier recommended me for a job with a company called Indigenous Hip Hop Projects. It’s part of a movement called ‘Arts for Change’, which is partly focused on creating music videos in remote Aboriginal communities. It began as a few weeks at a time and now has developed into a large part of my life. We rack up the miles driving, flying or boating across large distances from state to state. I have worked in over 100 magical communities across Arnhem Land, The Kimberley, The Pilbara, The Central Desert and the Tiwi Islands. I’ve travelled from as far south as Esperance, WA, up to Cairns in Queensland and a whole lot in between.
The goal is to make music videos with a high level of production. We take a recording studio and music producer into a remote community. We help write a song, then we record it, send it to Melbourne to get mastered, and then I shoot, direct and edit a music video. It’s interesting how different the vibe can be: some places will be all about a 2Pac beat and approach, whereas other places will have more of a Saltwater Reggae island beat. Everywhere gets to choose their approach and the communities have complete ownership over the project.
The videos are vibrant and show the families, landscapes, culture and language from a particular area. It’s always an incredible journey. I film hard for a few days of the week – climbing mountain ranges, driving through river crossings or riding in boats to small islands to get to some incredible locations. We usually showcase the ceremonial dance, which is unique to each language location. These are very special moments and have been some of the most incredible experiences of my life. We play the music videos on the Friday of that week at a big community premiere. The crowd goes completely wild; screaming, crying, laughing, and always calls for “again”. It’s incredibly rewarding to see how proud everyone is and how it will get played non-stop for years to come.
There is a lot of negative media, racism and health issues surrounding Aboriginal communities. These places can be plagued by tragedy. Our videos are empowering for the communities to show off the beauty that exists and gives the people something they can be proud of. It also provides a window for the rest of Australia to look into and develop an understanding.
Our YouTube channel has had six million views with worldwide fans and subscribers. Two videos I’ve shot have won National Indigenous Music Awards for best music video. Ngukurr “Break the Silence” (2016) was a collaboration with White Ribbon in taking a stand against domestic violence. Halls Creek “Save the Ngaba” (2017) was in partnership with the WA Department of Water, highlighting the importance of water. This was a huge achievement for our team and for the respective communities.
Understanding culture and having connections and trust from people has also led me to create feature documentaries. It takes a lot of time and a level of understanding to approach these projects. Sometimes I interview people who have English as their third or fourth language, or old people who have seen huge social change within their lifetimes. I’ve been face to face with some incredibly brilliant, compelling stories and some very tragic ones as well. It’s naturally a storytelling culture, and there is a world of important stories to be told.
I really enjoy being out in the bush, working with people in their country. Everyone is very welcoming, and returning to visit is like seeing family again. Aboriginal culture and knowledge is something I’ve become fascinated with, and it is something I feel wider Australia needs to understand a lot more in order to form change and face its underlying problems.
Filmmaking for me has developed into a ride. I just follow my predilections and it fuels my passion to create. In the future, I’ll be working on some longterm feature projects from the bush. I’ll be in touch...