Documentary-maker Don Parham has been making films since the late ’70s. He became a Christian in his late teens and endeavours to bring light and redemption to all his films. Bron Williams talked to Don about his work, including his latest project on Dr John ‘Bullfrog’ Smith, more commonly known as ‘Smithy’ from God’s Squad.
What got you started down the filmmaking track?
After college, I became a photographer and have been an indie filmmaker for about 25 years producing an eclectic mix of films, mostly for the ABC and SBS. One of my early films centred on the issue of homelessness. I approached David Eldridge, who was working with homeless youth through The Salvation Army’s ‘Crossroads’ program, to see if they needed any videos made and David asked me to make a training video for his social workers. With his permission, I turned that into a documentary which SBS picked up.
I shifted away from social justice to more general social issues with Deadly Hurt in 1994 which looked at the issue of domestic violence through an unusual and controversial lens of critiquing the feminist analysis of male violence. I’ve also made biographies—Life is Too Serious, about composer George Dreyfus—and historical docos—Riot or Revolution, looking at the Eureka Stockade.
You talk about ‘redeeming’ a topic—what do you mean by that?
I take those topics and try to ‘redeem’ them, by bringing perspectives that wouldn’t normally be brought by a non-Christian filmmaker. When I made We’re All Independent Now in 1995, around the issue of divorce, rather than just focusing on this from the perspective of the two adults involved, I wanted to address the impact divorce has on children, something that was largely being ignored or whitewashed back then.
How has your faith influenced your approach to work?
My faith informs all I do. I determined early in my career that an artist needs to find their voice. I’m reminded of the words of Paul in the Bible that talk about not being tossed around by every wind of teaching (Ephesians chapter 4, verse 14). I had to find my solid ground and stand on it, to be strong and not be knocked around by the forces which act upon you in your work and your life.
Why are stories so powerful?
As a young man, I read Malcolm Muggeridge’s Christ in the Media. Muggeridge wrote, ‘Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message.’
Our lives are a kind of parable whereby we can discover higher meaning. That’s how I approach people’s stories and why I’m a documentary film-maker, not a ‘fiction’ filmmaker. I look for the meaning in people’s stories and, through that process, hopefully help myself and others to see more of how God speaks to us.
You’ve just finished working on another powerful story at the moment—tell us about Smithy.
Smithy is a film which honours God’s Squad founder John Smith without shying away from the more difficult aspects of his life. I’m attracted to stories with light and shade and John’s story certainly has that. He is a flawed genius and prophet, which makes for good biography.
I didn’t want to just present a ‘horizontal’ story that got bogged down in the details of his life. I looked for pivotal moments—such as his ‘Damascus Road’ experience in the ’60s when the inadequacies of his fundamentalist faith to deal with the ‘times-are-a-changing’ world were challenged and the John Smith we know now was ‘born’.
John is larger than life and I hope my film has done justice to his story.
(See our feature on John Smith for more on the documentary Smithy).
What has brought the most satisfaction in your work to date?
After Deadly Hurt, feminist commentator Beatrice Faust wrote in The Australian that if someone was going to tackle this subject of domestic violence from a man’s perspective she was glad it was me, because I brought a ‘remarkable blend of reason and feeling’. It was a joy to have a significant thinker understand the essence of what I was doing in the film. I try to bring that delicious balance between engaging the head and the heart in all my films.