John Kirkman,
Information and Cultural Exchange

Made in the West

This is personal. Subjective. I am suburban, with fibro in my veins. I come from Western Sydney, South Granville. My house was War Service, my Father was an ex-Army truck driver, and my Mother worked in retail. Our home had few books and no art. My schools were State. Rough. There was a library, the cinema, radio and TV.

My heroes were Angela Davis, Germaine Greer, The Easybeats (who’d lived up the road in a hostel that became a prison) and Gough Whitlam. For me Whitlam was once, twice, three times a hero. He gave me a university education (no scholarship required), ended conscription and brought the troops home from Vietnam.

I work and live in Western Sydney. I like its diversity, ambition and drive. I also like its aggression and mess. In his seminal work The Australian Ugliness (1960), Robin Boyd critiqued the gimcrack aesthetics of the Australian suburb. He argued that to find rare elements of beauty you had to search. Let’s search.

For generations artists have worked and created west of the harbour—Aboriginal people for millennia. Tom Roberts, Elioth Gruner, Sidney Long, Reinis Zusters, Gerald and Margo Lewers, Richard and Pat Larter, Vernon Treweeke and Wendy Paramor all created work in the region. Some even lived ‘west’. It should be remembered that Patrick White lived, wrote (and bred dogs) just north of Parramatta. Then he went to town.

Today there is a diverse and complex range of artists, activists, communities and arts organisations working across the region. 1 Each contributes depth, nuance and richness to the cultural vibrancy of Sydney by ensuring artists and communities from Western Sydney have the opportunity, means and resources to be cultural producers. Together they enable community and artists to define and guide creative process and deliver artistic outcomes. They are cultural catalyst, creative crucible and audience builders.

Importantly, the 2015 Deloitte Report ‘Building Western Sydney’s Cultural Arts Economy: a key to Sydney’s success’ nailed Western Sydney as ‘a microcosm of Australian culture, with the art created in the region reflecting the nation’s diversity, aspirations, individuality and uniqueness’ and that the region ‘continues to break new ground, sets new standards, and rivals in excellence, art created elsewhere in Australia, and overseas’. It also made the point that Western Sydney represents 1-in-10 Australians, yet receives only 1% of Commonwealth arts program funding, and 5.5 % of NSW arts, heritage and events funding.

Information and Cultural Exchange (I.C.E.) is a key part of the Western Sydney arts ecology. It is also part of a rich history of Australian community art and cultural development: a discipline and practice honed from the late 1960s through to the mid-1980s.

Based in suburban Parramatta, I.C.E. is a digital arts organisation working in cultural development, community engagement, screen culture, digital technology and training. I.C.E. commenced in 1984 by providing resources and information (via a mini-bus, part-time staff and pamphlets) to local migrants and refugees.

I.C.E. has expanded into a technology-focused creative and educative catalyst that specialises in cross-disciplinary community cultural development programs. We have retired the bus, but remain on the road.

I.C.E. works directly with communities (usually at point of need) to facilitate and create art that is bold and relevant. Our vision is for our communities to have the confidence, resources and opportunity to create self-determined art that provides opportunity and drives change, and speaks with their voice. Our job is to enable this to happen.

I.C.E. production includes making digital/screen-based work for TV, cinema and multi-media platforms; creating music (including Hip Hop/ Rap, Electronic, R&B); presenting film festivals; producing cultural tourism events; offering training, education and professional development initiatives and nurturing social enterprise development. Our work is local, national and international.

In 2014 I.C.E. developed and produced Villawood Resident Voices, a community engagement project working with residents of the Urana Street, Villawood East housing estate in Western Sydney. Funded by Woodville Alliance, the project was initially intended to engage residents in digital storytelling, address media stigma and build community pride. What followed was an intense, facilitated creative engagement process that developed into an ambitious community-based movie to be titled Lost in the Woods: A Fiction.

Community engagement is tough work: experience, flexibility and cultural fit are essential. Lost in the Woods was led by Producer Christian Tancred (whose experience included filmmaking projects in Timor Leste and with Aboriginal communities), cinematographer Vanna Seang (local filmmaker) and dramaturge/performance director Nicholas Lathouris (whose work includes Mad Max, Wild Side, Phoenix, Heartbreak High).

After six-weeks of serving food, washing up and meeting community via a weekly Food4Life lunch program, the I.C.E. team recruited a group of men interested in participating in a screen-based creative project. Some live with physical disability, mental illness and long-term unemployment, most have hard-core lives, all wanted to devise, film and star in their own cinema fiction to be titled Lost in the Woods.

Next was an intensive four-week creative development workshop program where the team built trust, mutual respect and strong personal relationships with participants. From this sharing, and based on local stories and characters and the daily lives of the participants, a story/ script synopsis emerged.

‘The people have to have a say about the community and about breaking down stigma about Villawood being a hotspot for drugs and crime.’
Son Sriratanakoul. Script workshop participant

Raw story and script synopsis formed the basis of performance and character development workshops. These examined, explored and developed plot, structure, action and character. Workshops were well attended and established a cohesive, creative and confident performance ensemble.

With the storyline established, a shooting synopsis was devised.

Importantly, it was decided that there would be no script, that performances would be improvised, rehearsed and subsequently filmed. With this in mind (and based on the work of Stanislavsky) Lathouris, Tancred and Seang delivered a twelve-week performance development, rehearsal and technical skills development program. No actors were required.

‘I reckon it’s awesome. It has a lot of different plots and turns in it, I like the main actor, he reminds me a lot of myself.’
Grant Everts. Performer

What was produced and filmed was a raw, evocative twenty-minute work for cinema. The finished work contained all the hallmarks of successful community engagement: truth, pride, integrity, trust and the voice of the community. As a work of cinematic excellence it also succeeds. The production values are high, the story intriguing and the performances extraordinary. From writing, to rehearsal, to filming, to red carpet launch, Lost in the Woods: A Fiction was a cracker project.

Working with Western Sydney’s most vulnerable communities (at-risk youth, Aboriginal and culturally and linguistically diverse communities, asylum seekers, refugees, migrant families and people with disability) I.C.E. creates art and capacity, facilitates social inclusion and builds community cohesion. At its core our work is about respect, integrity, truth and impact. We aim high and punch hard.

‘Just watching the film is pretty powerful. It might touch a few nerves …about what some people actually go through… To me it was honouring, so I really wanted to do the best I could do, without no script or words just delivering… As a kid you always dream of being some kind of star… The biggest kick I got of all was hearing my Mum say Good onya son, you know.’
William E. Paratene, Performer

  1. ‘Brand’ Western Sydney includes Paula Abood, Peter Anderson, Bankstown Arts Centre, Bankstown Youth Development Service, Blacktown Arts Centre, Blue Mountains Theatre and Community Hub, David Borger, Campbelltown Arts Centre, David Capra, Casuala Powerhouse Arts Centre, Cultural Arts Collective, Curiousworks, Fairfield Museum and Gallery, FORM Dance Projects, Kon Gouriotis, Katherine Knight, Lena Nahlous, National Theatre of Parramatta, Parramatta Artists Studios, Parramatta Riverside Theatres, Peacock Gallery and Auburn Arts Studio, Penrith Performing & Visual Arts, Richard Petkovic, Powerhouse Youth Theatre, Riverside Theatre, STARTTS, Sweatshop Western Sydney Literacy Movement, Leo Tanoi, Maria Tran, Jacinta Tobin, Urban Theatre Projects, Varuna Writers’ House and Westwords.