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NAIDOC Week Spotlight: Travis Akbar

07 July 2023
Travis Akbar, NAIDOC Week 2023

Every year the South Australian Film Corporation celebrates NAIDOC Week by highlighting the work of First Nations screen creatives living and working in South Australia.

This year we are throwing the spotlight on the three First Nations South Australian filmmakers currently creating new and original short film projects as part of the SAFC’s First Nations Short Film Initiative. In this article we meet Wongutha writer/director Travis Akbar.

Raised on Wirangu country on the Western Eyre Peninsula of South Australia, Travis is now based on Peramangk country in the Adelaide Hills. In 2022 he was awarded the prestigious Centralised First Nations Documentary Australia Fellowship, and was selected for round two of the SAFC’s Film Lab: New Voices program. He was selected for the AFTRS State Talent Camp in 2019 and the AFTRS National Talent Camp in 2020, was a finalist for the Screen Australia Emerging Writer’s Incubator as well as the AACTA Pitch: Regional Landscapes competition, and was awarded a place in the Australians in Film (AiF) Untapped initiative. Travis has produced several short documentaries including Eskatology: Being Me, set for release later this year, was Director’s Attachment on feature film The Red, and has written for producers in Australia, Canada, Ireland, and the USA.

How long have you been working in the screen industry and how did you get started?

I had first tried to get into film upon moving to Adelaide in 2007, however TAFE required a showreel for their course, so I was not eligible having moved from a small town that didn’t generally sell video cameras, and whose school didn’t have film as a subject. The closest subject was photography.

Regardless of that outcome in 2010, I made half a dozen basic and silly short films with my friends while writing my first feature film. It was when I completed that first script that I realised I truly had no idea where to go next – so I gave up. It wasn’t until 2018 that I discovered that the SAFC existed and was available to help those wanting to break into the industry.

That realisation came after I had started to review films for an online publisher The Curb, joined the SA First Nations Writers Group, led by First Nations filmmaker Edoardo Crismani, and the first meeting that I attended was at the SAFC. That meeting, and reviewing films, inspired me to start writing film again. So I have now been working in this industry since 2018.

What do you like best about working in the screen industry?

I absolutely love being able to be creative, writing is an absolute passion. I am getting busier and busier though, which is bringing in a lot of admin work, which is pretty boring – but it’s just part of being a freelancer! I also love being able to work with mob and hear their stories. I mainly wanted to write drama coming into this industry, but having made a couple of documentaries now, I have found myself wanting to help people tell their own stories.

Tell us about your short film project Warriors. Where did the inspiration for this film come from?

It’s now called TAMBO. This is a script that has seen a ton of changes; it started as a short in 2019, of the same name, and was my answer to the question: “Why don’t we have an Aboriginal Rambo?”.

That first script was action heavy and required a huge budget, horses, guns, traditional weaponry, and a whole lot of violence. The script got great responses from those who read it, but we were never going to have the money to make it. I later stripped it back to be a film with one actor, then two, then it became something of a horror. The development of a feature script called OUTKASTE, which also features a returned First Nations soldier, and working on the TAMBO script with First Nations producer Taryn Laffer through an SAFC initiative, really helped me get it to where it is now and what it has ultimately become: an individual short and also a proof of concept for OUTKASTE.

How is production going on TAMBO? Where are you at with it and how are you finding the process?

Pre production and production felt like a bit of a breeze for the most part. We (the producers) did a huge amount of work ahead of time to ensure that we were prepared.

Post production has been a huge amount of work, far more than I expected. My co-producers in Adam Gerard and Wayne Campbell have done a massive amount of work for the film in this respect, I couldn’t have done any of this without them. We are so close to being done, just waiting for the last few elements to come together so it can be fully completed.

What are your hopes for TAMBO?

We are wanting to get an international world premiere, hopefully at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival); we are waiting to hear if we’ve been accepted. We’ve entered into about 10 festivals so far, but TIFF is the goal.

BTS on The Red - attachment Travis Akbar standing with Camera on prop vehicle, image supplied
Travis Akbar behind the scenes on feature film The Red, on which he worked as a Director’s Attachment.

Are you working on any other projects at the moment?

I’ve got quite a few projects with various producers attached; some have development funds which is nice, so I am looking to get those scripts done and push them into the market. In particular, I have written a film called Cyclone which is a First Nations-led crocodile film. This script has seen a lot of interest, and I even had an American producer cold email me asking about it. I am hoping to get this one moving pretty soon with the current team.

What are your career aspirations for the future? Do you have a dream screen industry job?

I want to get a few films under my belt as writer/director or writer/producer, and then really focus on building the film industry in SA for mob. There is such a small amount of First Nations practitioners here, and we all have so much to offer.

What’s your top piece of advice for other First Nations creatives who want to get into the screen industry?

Believe in yourself and learn about as much of the industry as you can. Understand the landscape, from writing and directing to producing. Get a basic understanding of distribution and audiences, it will help you in your decision making, choosing who to work with and why and what to work on.

There are a lot of resources available on the internet, they can help you get ahead, and always feel free to reach out to people you think can help you, or you want to meet. They may not write back, but at the end of the day you haven’t lost anything.

What’s your favourite Australian film/TV series of all time and why?

I am not really a big fan of labelling a favourite film, there are just too many, and it’s just too unfair to make me choose!

My favourite Australian films include The Proposition, Goldstone, The Last Wave, The Loved Ones, Razorback and Blackfellas. There are more, it’s just really tough to narrow it down.

Which Australian filmmakers/screen creatives do you find most inspiring and why?

My favourite Australian filmmakers include Ivan Sen, Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair, Rachel Perkins, Peter Weir, Sean Byrne and John Hillcoat, but I expect a lot of this to change over the next decade as some of the people I have come up with get their projects into the world. I find Ivan Sen’s work to be the most inspiring, he is great at blending story and genre filmmaking.

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