Dr Nicholas Godfrey, Senior Lecturer in Screen at Flinders University, considers David Jowsey’s career, and the impact of the works he has enabled in the annual Don Dunstan Award Essay.
David Jowsey is one of the most influential figures in shaping Australia’s screen landscape over the last decade. Establishing Bunya Productions with frequent collaborator Ivan Sen, and working closely with co-managing director and head of television Greer Simpkin, Jowsey has been instrumental in developing many of the most memorable film and television projects of recent years. Jowsey’s films have been awarded at major international film festivals, where he is renowned for his commitment to bringing the work of Indigenous storytellers to the screen. The Adelaide Film Festival is proud to recognise David Jowsey’s achievements, and showcase his storied career and collaborators, writes Nicholas Godfrey, Senior Lecturer in Screen at Flinders University.

Producers in this country rarely receive the plaudits that directors do, and one gets the sense that Jowsey is most comfortable on the sidelines. In his few interviews, Jowsey cuts an understated, self-deprecating figure, but his passion for his work, and his clear-eyed sense of its significance, are unmistakeable. To survey the list of titles bearing Jowsey’s producer credit, is to be reminded of some of the most significant Australian films over the last decade or so. So quintessentially and singularly Australian are these titles, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Jowsey is, in fact, a New Zealander: that distance providing the perspective to see Australia for what it is, as has been the case with the indomitable outsider visions of Roeg, Kotcheff, Law. It is fitting too that Jowsey began his Australian career in the country’s red centre, at the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) in Alice Springs, an institution which has proved a remarkable locus for developing and introducing the careers of Erica Glynn, Warwick Thornton, Rachel Perkins and Stephen McGregor, all of whom would be involved in future Bunya productions. Jowsey spent the 2000s as a commissioning editor at the ABC, where he credits the experience of “touching television every day,” with fostering a “grounding in production”, providing a period of stability in which he developed his craft as a producer.[i]

Central to Jowsey’s work are the relationships he forges and maintains with filmmakers. The most enduring of these has been the ongoing creative partnership with Ivan Sen, which extends back to Jowsey’s time at the ABC, when Sen was working in documentary. Together, the two took a leap into the unknown, Jowsey leaving his job at the ABC, jointly financing Sen’s mysterious and still-little seen science fiction film Dreamland (2009) which was shot in black and white in the wilds of Nevada. With this unorthodox production, the Bunya brand was established: confidence in the filmmakers’ vision, and the willingness to take risks of unconventional subject matter; a committed social agenda, built on developing and sustaining Indigenous stories; a slate that successfully walks the line between the prestige and the popular; a desire to both embrace and revise genres; and a constant drive for reinvention. Sen’s next two projects with Bunya would repay the investment in spades: Toomelah (2011), an unflinchingly intimate portrait of disadvantaged youth in the titular town, was selected for Un certain regard at Cannes, while Mystery Road (2013) expanded Sen’s personal concerns onto a more expansive genre canvas. Speaking with IF magazine at the time of the film’s release, Jowsey confessed of his working relationship with Sen, “Our tendency is to talk one another into doing slightly crazy, arthouse stuff and to go off on tangents that are interesting to us rather than being more business-like. We’ve tried to become more focused on that and Mystery Road was a direct result.”[ii]

Like many Bunya projects, Mystery Road showcases the harshness and extraordinary beauty of the Australian landscape, which provides a dramatic backdrop against which the complex legacies of the colonial past are explored.

Developed the careers of some of the most consistently interesting Australian filmmakers to have emerged in recent decades. Its genre hybridity is another Bunya hallmark: the reappropriation and recontextualization of genre has been a recurring feature. Of course, genre filmmaking has long been a vehicle for repackaging unpalatable political truths in a digestible format for broad audiences. Bunya’s films have long done this: familiar formats are transplanted to Australia, and acquire new meanings when told from an Indigenous perspective: Mystery Road takes the police procedural and crafts its narrative around the ambivalent figure of an Indigenous detective in outback Australia. Sweet Country (2017) takes the Western, a genre with its historical origins in the genocidal mythology of westward expansion across the Continental United States, and transplants it to the Centre of Australia. High Ground (2020) is fundamentally a war film in the beautiful surroundings of Arnhem Land, attempting to understand Australia’s brutal frontier wars from a range of perspectives. Jasper Jones (2017) provides a dark inversion of the teen film while The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (2021) reappropriates Henry Lawson’s colonial gothic to relitigate histories of abuse. Of the urtext, Mystery Road film, Jowsey’s Bunya partner, Greer Simpkin, directly acknowledges the interplay between genre and audience, by “using the genre of the western to bring audiences in. They know the world they’re getting into but then have this Trojan horse in the middle of it that’s actually revealing something about Australia’s identity.”[iii]

Fellow New Zealander Simpkin’s 2015 appointment to Bunya was a timely one for the company. Jowsey has spoken of his eagerness to expand Bunya’s output beyond a single feature film per year. Simpkin brought with her substantial television expertise: in her time at the ABC, she oversaw adaptations of popular works such as The Slap (2011) and Jack Irish (2012-2021). For Bunya, the television format provides a more stable production base for long form episodic work, fulfilling a desire to tell more expansive stories, enabling Bunya to build and expand its audience, creating series that have achieved international broadcast success and acclaim. The move into television has been a savvy one on a number of fronts: Mystery Road has forked off into two television outings, the latter of which achieved Australia’s highest ratings for television drama in 2020, and yielded international sales.

If Mystery Road may be Bunya’s signature production, then Ivan Sen is its emblematic filmmaker; indeed, as complete a filmmaker as Australia has produced, typically writing, directing, shooting, editing and creating the music for his films. Sen’s early works take in the dusty backroads of the regional New South Wales of his youth, while his collaborations with the taciturn Aaron Pedersen in Mystery Road and its sequel, Goldstone (2016), provide an occluded self-portrait of sorts: of this indigenous cop figure, Sen says, “I identify with that conflict of being torn between two cultures.”[iv] That tension of navigating competing demands and expectations, and addressing different audiences, is the productive tension at the heart of Bunya’s works. Mystery Road’s narrative motif of unsolved killings of Indigenous Australians resonates with personal tragedies in Sen’s own family history, and is a returning story element in Sen’s forthcoming Bunya project, Limbo.  Sen’s last film, Loveland (2022), takes a similarly fractured approach to identity, extending its portraiture of loneliness to the neon-soaked streets of a dystopian future Hong Kong. It was Bunya, and Jowsey, who were prepared to travel with Sen into such unfamiliar territory, as they had many years earlier in the Nevada desert.

As Bunya has expanded Sen’s horizons, its films can perform a similar function for their viewers. At a 2017 Adelaide Film Festival screening of the From Sand to Celluloid (1996) anthology of Indigenous short films made for SBS TV, Warwick Thornton spoke with Margaret Pomeranz about the importance of not just representation, but the political potential of Indigenous stories onto screens in non-Indigenous Australian homes:

by turning the channel on or coming to the cinema, we are connecting, we are having emotions together when we cry or laugh or whatever. Cinema is doing that, and I think it helps in much more mysterious ways than any Federal or State government with a pamphlet with a box to tick… so it’s incredibly important for us to tell our stories and to see our point of view, but whether it’s subliminal or not, it actually does change perspective and it does change people’s lives. And anybody who watches indigenous cinema is obviously going to have a better understanding of who we are.[v]

For Thornton, each film is an exchange in an ongoing dialogue between Indigenous and colonial Australia, attempting to reconcile where we have come from, and understand how we might proceed. Jowsey, through his work at Bunya, has contributed important entries to this ongoing dialogue. His belief in this project is evident from Bunya’s origins with Sen, who has said of this collaboration, “We funded it from our own pockets and that set up a model of working which was very efficient and intimate. Both of us developed multitasking abilities, which we have carried with us into larger projects. I guess it’s been David’s strong belief in me and my potential that has taught and encouraged me to be brave and push boundaries.”[vi] Jowsey too credits this collaboration with setting the parameters for Bunya’s subsequent working method, saying, “He [Sen] brought an ethos to our company to run a very low overhead, to be really frugal in our spending patterns. But also to have a very strong sense of the identity of Australia. About acknowledging Indigenous Australia. About the journey that is still to come in that acknowledgement.”[vii]

Such serious, soul-searching work can only emerge from genuine collaborations, relationships sustained over time, and long-term gestation periods: The Drover’s Wife was adapted from Leah Purcell’s 2016 play and subsequent literary iteration, while Stephen Maxwell Johnson developed High Ground with collaborator and star Wityana Marika and the late Yothu Yindi vocalist M Yunupingu, over a full 20 years. One of the most moving moments of the last Adelaide Film Festival was the gala unveiling of High Ground, where Maxwell Johnson, Marika, and Jack Thompson were joined triumphantly on stage by Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil, in one of his final public appearances. The Adelaide Film Festival has consistently showcased Bunya titles over the years: Mad Bastards (2011), Sweet Country, The Leadership (2020), and Loveland playing at previous AFF events.

As Bunya has grown, so has its international profile, taking its distinctively Australian film and television projects to the world. At the same time, Jowsey and Simpkin have taken Bunya’s success as a platform to provide opportunities for newcomers: the remote production of Mystery Road season 2 (2020) hired some crew locally, bucking the typical move of flying in experienced crew from major centres. In recent years, Bunya has hosted development workshops for newcomers with Netflix and Screen Australia. And as Bunya’s films receive plaudits at major international film festivals, the company has been increasingly taking on sales and marketing, and developing interests in distribution in its own right, building a sustainable industrial base for its continued operations. Few production companies have contributed as consistently to the development of Australian screen culture in recent years as has Bunya, and Jowsey and Simpkin are now developing a framework that will further consolidate that vision. As Bunya expands, its values remain evident: confidence in its filmmakers and their vision, amplifying their voices. Simpkin states it simply: “Choose projects that have something to say.”[viii] Jowsey puts it in terms to inspire the next generation of filmmakers: “If you want to express yourself, if you want to be in the business, let nothing stop you. Give yourself permission to make your films.”[ix] The Adelaide Film Festival have been proud to present the many films that David Jowsey has brought to the screen over the years, and is honoured to recognise his ongoing contribution with the Don Dunstan Award.

[i] David Jowsey, in Caris Bizzaca, host. “Podcast – Bunya Productions: David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin.” Screen Australia Podcast. January 29, 2021, https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/sa/screen-news/2021/01-29-podcast-bunya-productions.

[ii] Ivan Sen, in Emily Blatchford, “Take Two: Ivan Sen and David Jowsey,” IF Magazine, June 20, 2014, https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide/citation-guide-1.html.

[iii] Greer Simpkin, in Bizzaca, “Podcast – Bunya Productions: David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin.”

[iv] Ivan Sen, in “Mystery Road: Meet the Filmmaker.” Podcast. June 12, 2013, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/mystery-road-meet-the-filmmaker/id661286448?i=1000160983835.

[v] Warwick Thornton, in conversation with Margaret Pomeranz, From Sand to Celluloid Screening, Adelaide Film Festival, October 7, 2017.

[vi] Sen, in Blatchford, “Take Two: Ivan Sen and David Jowsey.”

[vii] Jowsey, in Bizzaca, “Podcast – Bunya Productions: David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin.”

[viii] Simpkin, ibid.

[ix] Jowsey, ibid.