Finding the Heart

It’s the heart of the matter.

One simple statement with a myriad meanings. For us, finding the heart of the matter is crucial to how we tell stories. When people approach us and tell us their incredible tales it becomes our mission, our passion and pleasure, to search through their world and find the story that exists within. We search to find the core element, the heart, to which every other aspect of a story is connected. Sometimes this is a challenge that sends our minds into overdrive; other times, we make our decision within minutes. We keep an open-mind, recognising that the heart could be anything, and could come from anywhere.

Like it might even be the strength and togetherness of a town, the central force that motivates a community to become something more than relative strangers sharing a geographical location. In a region that’s more than 800 kilometres north of Cairns, past the tourist beaches and eco-huts, to where the salt-washed stones and sandy mangroves tell tales of times before humanity, sits Lockhart River. It’s a small Indigenous community populated by nearly 600 individuals. It’s isolated, remote, and unblemished. Our trip there becomes a chance for us to return to our film roots. It’s a refreshing reversion to a minimalist kit, one that forces us to remain present in every moment.

As we start to develop the story, slowly getting closer to finding the heart, we have countless meetings with the Lockhart River community leaders. During long Skype conversations and extensive email chats we introduce ourselves to the town; we build up a rapport. Without that connection, without that sense of familiarity, our project would be lacking the emotive drive on which so much of our storytelling depends. After all, the heart is sacred, protected, not something handed over easily. And in remote Indigenous communities, where the past so often revolves around conflict and complications, it’s often hard to gain the necessary trust.

We get our first glimpse of this while we’re on the plane. We land at Arakoon, another small town in the region, and a casket is unloaded. 1000 people, practically the whole town, are waiting for it, standing beside the runway, some in silence, some sobbing, but all just waiting. We stay quiet, observers rather than participants in such a private event. We feel this strange sense of solidarity though, an inkling of the strength and togetherness that comes from being privy to such personal situations.

In the local Kuuku Ya’u language of the Lockhart River region, this sense of strength and togetherness is called ‘puuya’. It’s the “heart” or “life force” that has drawn the town together, helped them to become such a strong collaborative group of people. Denise Hagan, our client and point-of-call within the community, explains puuya to us as the lifeblood of the town, the thread that binds individuals together into a family.

Denise’s commitment to puuya, her mission to empower the traditional owners of the land, is embodied in The Puuya Foundation. Lead by Denise and her team of directors and facilitators, the foundation functions as a charity and community centre, guiding the people of Lockhart River to become empowered leaders who can take control of their own community. It works to make champions of people, in no other way than letting them know they are worthy of being championed.

The success of The Puuya Foundation is a testament to Denise’s own puuya. When we first met her we were immediately struck by her realness, her passion, her commitment. Our time in Lockhart River was brief, a whirlwind of interviewing and filming in less than two days. As we explored the town, as we spoke with people, we noticed how often they were bringing the conversation back to puuya, back to the power of the heart and its role in governing the community. Denise’s project had re-awakened the community’s sense of pride, re-invigorated their confidence. We saw this everywhere; this infectious idea that with a little effort, a little push, a town can rise above its failings and become something great.

It’s extraordinary to think how the ideas and passions of one woman have driven a town to reinvent themselves. The community have a newly revived spirit and mission; to take the empowerment they’ve come to cherish and build programs that enhance it for the next generation. And the effects are immediate! One of the strongest programs focuses on creating a community-lead curriculum for enhancing children’s development in their early years, a critical time-frame for cultivating healthy minds and bodies. Its success is evident in the fact that above the barrage of bird calls and crashing ocean waves, the joyful shouts and laughter of children echoes across the town. It’s a melody that fills the air, warms it. As we film inside the community centre there are children scattered around our feet, clambering over us as though we are mountains, pulling at our hands in an (often successful) attempt to get our attention. We feel accepted, included. Have we reached the heart?

The Puuya Foundation has taken a community of disadvantaged, isolated individuals and guided them, molded them, supported them through good times and bad, transforming them into a community of action, of collaboration, of love. They’ve turned weaknesses into strengths, negatives into positives, shame into pride.

All because of the power of the heart.