Walking Through Fire with Kelton Pell at the St Kilda Film Festival


Masterful actor Kelton Pell shares his powerful take 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 ahead of the St Kilda Film Festival. “I got goosebumps,” Pell says. “I think they’re both standing with me now.” For more than three decades, Kelton Pell has been one of Australia’s greatest actors and performers in theatre, film and television, and it was Gulpilil and Lewis who inspired Pell to be who he is. “To see their faces in my mind, to have those memories and those special times together,” Pell thinks, “those are things no one can take away.”

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

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“For me, my idols were the ones I saw on TV,” says Pell, “and that’s what we lost…rest in peace, Gulpilil and his brother Tommy Lewis. They are my idols and I saw them on TV and then I got to work with them one day. They knew who I was and it was so proud – meeting your idols is a dream. For our young people and our community, black and white, who want to listen – we have a responsibility to be as positive as possible.

“We all live one life and life is not 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 an extremely hard life [Charles was sexually abused, and formerly a heroin addict and petty thief] and walk through the fire and come out the other side…with hair. His hair is not singed,” he laughs.

“For our struggling community, you can take inspiration from Uncle Jack’s book and know that sometimes the struggle is what you brought on yourself and other times you can’t control it, 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 possible.

This special event will also feature performances by exciting new Indigenous musicians. The City of Port Phillip and Creative Victoria have funded the First Impressions career development and mentorship 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,” enthused Pell. “I can’t wait to hear from these young people and these new talents, and to see what they will do with these retrospectives. It’s exiting. They asked me if I was going to do songs – we’ll see. Maybe if I can get Dan Sultan on stage,” he laughs.

one night the moon is a deeply powerful, beautifully shot film in which Pell plays the Aboriginal tracker, and he remembers how special it was to work with Ruby Hunter and Paul Kelly.

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

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

“It is still very difficult for non-Indigenous people to understand what we go through every day. Racism is something we face every day of our lives. And we are conditioned – the Stolen Generation was conditioned, and they were so conditioned that a lot of people denied their Aboriginality. I can walk the streets and recognize people who have Aboriginal blood; they don’t or they do or they don’t want to. We can make tragic stories with a strong message. We will see what the young people will tell us on the evening of the conversation.

one night the moon was filmed in the stunning Flinders Ranges on Adnyamathanha country. “Really powerful things happened where we were, which is a very spiritual place,” Pell says. “The wind made us change location for the actual revelation of where we find the little girl. I can read this country, I can read what is in front of me where others cannot. I have Got hit in the head that night – there was a marquee and the center post hurt the back of my head. It shocked me a bit. I just blamed it on of ‘okay the country scolds me,’ he laughs. “Having the opportunity to film at night with big speakers and mics and sing the songs while we were filming in these places at night around this house – it was so good and so much fun.”

Winner of the Screen Legend Award by CinefestOZ in 2019, Pell’s most recent work includes MaveriX, Mystery Route: Originand fire biteand her long list of compelling performances includes her roles in the television series The circuit and nowmovies Blackfellas and Xrossingand theatrical performances Dream of a summer night and The 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 a happy life and in a job that you love to do,” says Pell. “I think it’s very important to clarify that you can and will fall off the rails and that’s okay, but I think as long as you’re kind to yourself, that’s the hardest thing. We all have three minds: your head, your heart and your stomach – I think you always follow your gut.

One Night The Moon: A Day of Film, Music and Conversation with First Peoples is 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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