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Tig Terera’s film Chenge depicts coming-of-age amongst the complexities of a white world

There’s a subtle thread of melancholy that weaves its way through Tig Terera’s films, one paired with an artistic ability to place subjects at the centre of a story that unfolds organically, through eloquent dialogue and slow-moving cinematography. Chenge, Terera’s latest film, shot with longtime friend and project partner, Jesse Lane, is one such work that yet again solidifies this talent.

As it moves through a landscape that marries themes of loss, hardship, and beginnings; it sparks a visceral reaction in its viewers, made stronger by knowing the story’s reality. That being Terera’s own immigration from Zimbabwe to Melbourne, as a young boy. 

The film follows Terera and his mother as they navigate an alien Western world. Denigrated by moments of racism, but saved by whispers of opportunity and carried by the relationship between mother and son. We follow the pair as they pack their bags, take their first steps into a new city, ponder loneliness and watch as new love blossoms. As the soundtrack swells in its poignant moments, pulling back to create spaces of reflection in others, the film delves into Terera’s experiences in a raw yet stylistic way. This astutely champions the coming-to-terms of a black-identity in a majority white space.

A film set against a grey Melbourne backdrop, one suitable for its contemplative content, Chenge delivers a coming-of-age story with a difference. We chat to Tig about the conception of his film, and the role of identity in his work.

In your own words, what is the film Chenge about?

Chenge is about the strength of mother’s all around the world, that are willing to cross seas and leave everything they know to provide the brightest possible future for their child. It’s about celebrating the light at the end of the tunnel and creating something heartwarming when the world feels quite the opposite.

This project has been a concept in the works for a few years, how did the process of turning your story into a film unfold? And how does it feel for it to finally be in film form?

Chenge is interesting because I wrote it as a feature film, but knew I wasn’t experienced or good enough for a studio to give me a few hundred thousand dollars to make it. I took my three favourite scenes from the three chapters of the film (beginning, middle and end) liaised with my main collaborator – Jesse Lane, and we decided to make a short film first. It was initially meant to be just a trailer for the feature I dream to make one day but morphed into a cute short film. Honestly, it feels great putting my story into the world and having other people with similar experiences resonate with it. 

The film intertwines multiple complex themes; immigration, coming-of-age, racism, family bonds. What was your approach to making this film, especially one so personal?

Telling such a personal story for the first time was strange – plot points were relatively easy to come up with, but balancing my characters (which I could have done much better) was difficult as I didn’t really select any scenes that put my mother or my younger self in a negative light. The experiences of immigrating to Australia with my mother and growing up in a predominantly white area whilst being a dark-skinned man, have just been my reality and from my reality, I draw inspiration for projects, so at least two of those four themes will always loosely be in my work. 

Do you think you’ve reached a period in your life where you’re coming to terms with your identity, or perhaps even ‘realising/ reclaiming your blackness’? How does this film fit into that journey for you?

Most definitely. Similarly to a lot of young black and brown people that were forced to suppress their blackness in their youth I’ve come out the other side as a fully proud black man, and stories like Chenge reflect this I hope. Not only has it helped me realise/reclaim my blackness, but I really hope my work helps other people realise and reclaim their identity. 

The championing of black culture is a dominant theme in your films. Why is this important for you?

Cause niggas is lit! No, but for real championing black culture is so important to me, because most of my experience on earth has been quite the opposite. I want to be the black Australian filmmaker I wanted to look up to when I was eight-teen. I want to put stories on screen that myself and my peers have been sharing for years. I want visual media to simply reflect the truth of the Australian demographic. 

Can you explain further your Mum’s role in the legal side of your immigration? There’s a line ‘saved me from deportation’ that I was hoping you could expand on.

Nice pick-up. My mother was part of the legal team that stopped me from getting deported. I had a holiday visa, and my mother had a permanent residency. My mother argued since she is legally allowed in the country and that I was under twelve and she was my sole, legal guardian, that I should automatically be allowed to stay in Australia too — this was not the case before 2002. Fighting the State Premier at the time, my mother won and saved me from deportation. What a woman!  

Moving into the future, will identity continue playing a big role in your work? And what’s next for you? Any projects underway?

Yeah, for the foreseeable future I can see all of my drama work surrounding the themes of identity and belonging. I think I’m at a point in my life where I can properly reflect on my late teens so most of my stories these days have a protagonist that’s eight-teen or nine-teen years old. I’m currently in pre-production for my fifth short film and have a super exciting project I’ll be able to talk about very soon. 

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