Q&A with Dr Romaine Moreton

Dr Romaine Moreton is the writer of Djurra, a NORPA Generator work based on the Three Brothers Bundjalung creation story.

Romaine is Goenpul Jagara of Stradbroke Island and Bundjulung of northern New South Wales. An internationally recognised writer of poetry, prose and film, she has published over 100 poems, prose and short stories and three anthologies of her poetry.

She has written and directed two short films and is currently working on three feature films. In 2012 Romaine was one of three Australians commissioned by the prestigious art festival dOCUMENTA(13) to contribute to their Notebooks Series. Romaine will complete her appointment as Research Fellow/ Filmmaker-in-Residence in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University this year.

What originally inspired this production and what does Djurra translate to mean?
Djurra translates to mean Lore in Bundjalung language of the Lismore region. Roy Gordon gave director Kirk Page, and Associate Producer Mitchell King and myself a presentation on the Three Brothers story, focusing on that part of the story that was relevant to Marmoonh, the second brother who arrived at Lennox Head and travelled up the Richmond River, imparting sites of significance and the lore for that part of the country. It was culturally appropriate to tell the story of only one brother, the key principles of that story as told to us by Roy, was Djurra or Lore, a principle that is relevant to all Indigenous peoples of the land now known as Australia.

Djurra is a story about belonging that is strongly connected to country. In what way does it form a part of this region and could it be told anywhere else?
Djurra na translates as ‘the lore of belonging’ as told to us by cultural knowledge holder Roy Gordon. Djurra and Djurra na is an ancient offering still significant to us in the present, where to belong to country is to uphold the responsibilities of caring for country and each other, instructing us how to belong by following the lore as given to us by Marmoonh. Our (Indigenous) stories are site specific, and while Djurra is of the Richmond River region, other parts of the country have their own stories whose function is the same or similar.

What is your approach to working with stories that belong to communities and culture holders with an oral tradition and developing these for theatre?
My approach to working with stories, in this case, ancient stories that are also Lore, is to first observe the Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property (ICIP) of the cultural heritage community, in this case, the Bundjalung community of Lismore. It is important that the rights of the Indigenous community are observed in recognition of their right to self-determination. Roy made clear the parameters of Djurra, and expressed the importance of making our Indigenous voices, perspectives and audience central to the theatre production. The role then for me as the writer, is to make Djurra for an Indigenous audience, while ensuring that it is accessible to other audiences. It is crucial that the integrity of the Bundjalung storytelling voice is sustained throughout the writing, creative development and production stages.

There is a delicate balance between protecting intellectual property, identity and expression while informing audiences and celebrating indigenous culture. What is the framework you use to guide you?
Working with a story such as Djurra has a lot of responsibility – to the Bundjalung community, to Indigenous communities across Australia, to an audience, and to myself. In order to get to the truth of the work, I use a decolonizing framework to interrogate western perceptions of who we are as Indigenous people. I then like to humanize us as Indigenous people through the lens of a Sovereign Storytelling Model that I have created for the purpose of protecting and promoting our storytelling voices as uniquely sovereign. In other words, the focus for me is how to tell our truth as an Indigenous person without compromising our cultural identities and worldviews in order to produce a work that ultimately entertains. Historically, we Indigenous people are very good at making works that have a message as well as entertain. I consider this one of the living aspects of our culture and our lore, and for it to be living it has to be practiced.

As well as being a celebrated poet and filmmaker, you also work investigating the historical dimensions of Australian Indigenous filmmaking. What do you get out of the playwriting process that you don’t in your other work?
The playwriting processes in the projects I have worked on have been very collaborative because of the nature of the stories. The stories belong to Indigenous communities and or individuals, and the collaborations have been about exploring processes that best serve these voices. I was fortunate to have collaborated with esteemed playwright Alana Valentine on our theatre project One Billion Beats, where I got to experience what it was to tell my story while respectfully representing a site of significance called Bull Cave that is situated on the land of the Dharawal people, the two narrative strands woven together to inform the plot of the theatre production. This process has given me insight in how to work with and facilitate the telling of stories important to other Indigenous peoples and communities. I see theatre as a space that is accessible to Indigenous storytellers of varying degrees of experience. These spaces are rare, and we as Indigenous storytellers have been claiming them out of necessity. Theatre is also a physical site, and the relationships that are formed when producing theatrical works that require collaboration between an Indigenous community or individual and the theatre company potentially informs the ongoing cultural dynamics of that place, in this instance, Bundjalung people and NORPA in Lismore, NSW.

What’s next for you? After this project, where can we expect to see you and your work?

I am currently working on ONE MORE RIVER TO CROSS produced by ILBIJJERI Theatre Company, about the story of jazz singer, Wilma Reading, set to premiere at Melbourne Festival in 2017. Also, our company Binung Boorigan Pty Ltd will make plans to tour ONE BILLION BEATS in 2018, with regional and remote communities as our target audience. ONE BILLION BEATS is designed as a platform for community engagement through a theatrical storytelling platform. I will also continue to write and develop three feature film scripts. The three films are all genre films, but I have had to interrogate each genre through a decolonising process, and am now in the process of ensuring they are told through a sovereign storytelling lens. These three films are very much works of passion, and the process for me will stand to be very much as important as the final productions.