Interview: Walking through fire with Kelton Pell at St Kilda Film Festival
16.05.2022

Interview: Walking through fire with Kelton Pell at St Kilda Film Festival

Kelton Pell - St Kilda Film Festival
Words by CHRISTINE LAN

Masterful actor Kelton Pell shares his powerful perspective on the stories that matter at St Kilda Film Festival.

Kelton Pell can feel the powerful presence of David Gulpilil and Tom E. Lewis as we speak before the St Kilda Film Festival. “I got goosebumps,” says Pell. “I reckon they’re both standing with me now.” For more than three decades, Kelton Pell has been one of Australia’s greatest actors and performers across theatre, film and television, and it was Gulpilil and Lewis who inspired Pell to be who he is. “Seeing their faces in my mind, having those memories and those special times together,” Pell muses, “they are things that no one can take away.”

Pell will be a special guest at the St Kilda Film Festival’s One Night The Moon: A Day of First Peoples’ Film, Music and Conversation, where Uncle Jack Charles will host the ‘In Conversation With’ session with Pell. “My bond with him is from here to the stars,” says Pell. “He’s family. On his country, the first thing I look for is that yellow bike of his, his scooter,” he laughs. “He’s still doing very powerful work, building new bridges. I’m really inspired by Uncle Jack.

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“For me, my idols were the ones who I saw on telly,” says Pell, “and that’s who we’ve lost… rest in peace, Gulpilil and brother Tommy Lewis. They’re my idols and I got to see them on TV and then I got to work with them one day. They knew who I was and that was so much pride – to meet your idols is a dream. For our young people and our community, black and white, whoever wants to listen – we’ve got a responsibility to be as positive as we can.

“We all live a life and life isn’t straight. It’s up and down and all around and sometimes we get caught at roundabouts. I think Uncle Jack is a fine example of living an extremely hard life [Charles was sexually abused, and formerly a heroin addict and petty thief] and walking through the fire and coming out the other side… with hair. His hair’s not singed,” he laughs.

“To our struggling community, you can take a leaf out of Uncle Jack’s book and know that sometimes the struggle is what you brought on yourself and other times you’re not in control of that, but it’s about learning and becoming a stronger, better person. We’re only here for a short time, so it’s important to do the right things as much as you can.”

This special event will also showcase performances by exciting new Indigenous musicians. The City of Port Phillip and Creative Victoria have funded the First Impressions career development and mentoring program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musicians, who will perform pieces that represent their connection to the themes explored in One Night The Moon. “When they told me it was at the Esplanade, I love the Espy,” Pell enthuses. “I can’t wait to hear these younger fellas and new talents, and see what they’re going to do with these retrospectives. It’s exciting. They’ve asked me whether I’m going to do any songs – we’ll see. Maybe if I can sneak Dan Sultan on stage,” he laughs.

One Night The Moon is a profoundly powerful and beautifully shot film in which Pell plays the Aboriginal tracker, and he recalls how special it was to work with Ruby Hunter and Paul Kelly.

“Rachel [Perkins – director] saw something that I don’t know I’d even seen in myself,” says Pell. “It’s an opportunity to retell a story based on a true story. I’ve never worked in that way again – a musical type film. Also, you’re playing real people. As blackfella actors, I’m always very conscious of the people I’m playing. You want to be as good as you can, so that the family can be proud of what that family member had done, not my character. Portraying someone in the best way you can.

“What Rachel’s done with this story, it’s a powerful story. It’s a story of love and loss, and it’s a story of tragedy and there’s some beautiful messages in it. And it’s very sad, but these messages we’ve had to live with as blackfellas in this country.

“It’s still very hard for non-Aboriginals to comprehend what we go through every day. Racism is something we deal with every day of our lives. And we’re conditioned – the Stolen Generation was conditioned, and they were conditioned so much that a lot of people denied their Aboriginality. I can walk the streets and recognise people who’ve got Aboriginal blood; they don’t or they do or they don’t want to. We can make tragic stories with a strong message. We’ll see what the young people are telling us on the night of the conversation.”

One Night The Moon was filmed in the stunning Flinders Ranges on Adnyamathanha country. “Some really powerful things happened where we were at, which is a very spiritual place,” says Pell. “The wind made us change our location for the actual reveal of where we find the little girl. I can read this country, I can read what’s in front of me where other people can’t. I got hit in the head that night – there was a marquee and the centre pole wacked the back of my head. It concussed me a little bit. I just put it down to ‘okay, country is telling me off,” he laughs. “Having the opportunity to film at night-time with big speakers and mic’d up and singing the songs while we were filming it in those locations at night around that house – it was so good and so much fun.”

Awarded the Screen Legend award by CinefestOZ in 2019, Pell’s most recent work includes MaveriX, Mystery Road: Origin, and Firebite, and his long list of compelling performances include his roles in the television series The Circuit and Redfern Now, films Blackfellas and The Xrossing, and theatre performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.

An inspiration and mentor to many aspiring actors, musicians and artists, Pell seeks to remind young people to stay true to themselves. “I think it’s important to live life happy and in a job that you enjoy doing,” says Pell. “I think it’s very important to clarify that you can and you will fall off the rails and that’s ok, but I think as long as you’re kind to yourself, that’s the hardest thing. We’ve all got three minds: your head, your heart and your stomach – I think you always follow your guts.”

One Night The Moon: A Day of First Peoples’ Film, Music and Conversation is on at the Esplanade Hotel on June 5 at 1pm as part of the St Kilda Film Festival. For information and tickets, visit One Night The Moon | A Day of First Peoples’ Film, Music and Conversation | SKFF (stkildafilmfestival.com.au)

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