Meet the Film Maker Interview
Strongfala Kalja – Jarryd O’Keefe
” I’ve personally never had a more rewarding experience as a film maker…”
Meet Jarryd O’Keefe, Director of the incredible short documentary Strongfala Kalja, which follows Kalories Robert, a Warrior Chief of Santo, Sanma, Vanuatu and his preparations for an ancestral war dance ceremony that honors the culture of his people.
Jarryd is currently completing a degree of Screen and Media Production at Griffith Film School, as well as managing his own production company OK Media Productions. Strongfala Kalja, is one of many internationally sourced documentaries Jarryd has worked on, he also produces a web series “Southern Warriors” and feature length documentary “Muay Thai: The Spirt of Ram Muay”. We recently had the opportunity to interview Jarryd about this beautiful film, here is what we learnt.
What was your biggest inspiration to make this film/How did you get involved or attached to the project?
During my degree at Griffith University I was selected, along with fellow students, to travel to Vanuatu as a part of the New Colombo Plan, Scholarship Program (a program which provides students the opportunity to undertake semester-based study in the Indo-Pacific region) with our teachers; who were also the film’s producers. Once in the country all students had the opportunity to pitch an idea for a film, fortunately mine was chosen.
Before I visit any country, I research their culture, history and traditions in hope that i will connect with something and spike my interest to investigate further. For me this came from the warrior culture and dance we were treated to on our arrival, as a way of welcoming us into their village.
Instantly I started asking myself a lot of questions. Why do they look the way they do? Does the body paint represent anything? Why do they continue to do this dance in this day and age? This excited me because I knew there were a lot of questions that go deeper than what you see in the dance. I felt that if there’s questions there’s usually a story.
What was it that attracted you to Kalories story in particular?
I happened to be living in the same hut as him during my stay there. He was also the newly appointed warrior chief, a very calm and warm character. I also thought this was a great contrast from what people may assumed they would get from a story about a warrior chief. I’d also like to point out that, I never viewed this as my story. It was always Kalories and the villages story. We were just the vessel for them to be able to share it with the world in an engaging way.
As a filmmaker there are many ups and downs in the process, what was your absolute favorite part of making this film?
I really enjoyed being part of this community and learning the values of its people. My favorite shoot day was shooting the climactic scene of the film with the warrior tribe all dressed in traditional cultural attire and performing the dance and sounds. It was quite amusing recording each village individual and animal sounds for Foley. We all had a good laugh at some of them and the awkwardness of this process.
What does a film festival like Byron Bay Film Festival mean to you and your work?
We very keen to share our film with as many people as possible and being a part of festivals such as BBFF means a great deal. It’s such an extensive festival that offers great exposure for the film. We believe we have a truly transportive experience to offer an audience such as this and hopefully, this will leave them wanting more and spark an interest in visiting Vanuatu themselves one day.
If some or all of the team is coming to the festival at Byron Bay. Who is coming and what are you looking forward to?
At this stage it looks like most of my crew members will be able to attend. This will be my first BBFF so I am looking forward to experiencing all of it for the first time and hopefully networking with some fellow filmmakers.
What drives you as a filmmaker?
Film making’s what I’ve always wanted to do with my life. I was particularly first drawn to the creative and experiential aspects of it. I always wanted to create, tell stories, have unique experiences and travel the world. Now that I have a diploma, a degree and some experience under my belt with my own production company, I am driven by a burning desire to always challenge myself, improve and create at all times. I’m obsessed with all aspects of film making and cannot imagine myself dedicating my life to anything else. I love what I do, and I love the people and unique experiences only this field can offer.
Any upcoming projects for you, your team or key creatives involved in your film?
I am currently transitioning into the feature length documentary world and am in post-production on my first feature, which was shot in Thailand and has been 2 years in the making. And I am in development on my second, which will kick into pre-production next month with production starting towards the end of the year.
Anything interesting or unique about the film making process for this film, any hiccups or happy coincidences that changed the films direction?
Oh, lots haha, I’d probably say there’s two main things outside of production that influenced the direction and tone. The first, is as previously mentioned the first day we arrived and were greeted with a warrior dance.
The other, was actually a 100-day death ceremony for the previous chief who had passed away, which involved the whole village coming together to pay respects to the man and his family. It was a very interesting outpouring of emotion involving the ancient tradition of sacrificing three of their sacred animal the pig.
These were both filmed and documented during our research phase but ultimately weren’t included as we decided to go down a different path with the style and tone of the film we ultimately wanted to make.
However, a pig screams from the death ceremony did make the final cut as Kalories himself screams as he attacks the camera. This had great meaning to the family and villages as they saw it as a passing of the torch moment in a way and a great way to include and honor the memory of the previous chief.
What is the story behind the name Strongfala Kalja?
The title Strongfala Kalja translates to Strong Culture. I named the original title in the native tongue of the Vanuatu people; Bislama, which is the only language spoken in the film. Bislama is pigeon English so not all words translate differently. I searched for a fitting title that was in the native language. As a result, we used Strong Culture, which at the end of the day is the perfect title for the film as it’s about the strong connections Kalories has to his culture and ancestors.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
The audience reaction from festivals around the world has been amazing. We have been selected in 30 festivals thus far in 16 countries with 5 awards. But regardless of all this, the most touching response I’ve had to this film is from the villages and family in which we shot it. I’ve personally never had a more rewarding experience as a film maker than experiencing their reaction.
As we were all brought to tears, hearing how much it honors their culture and ancestors. I was presented with a statue from the previous chief’s family. And told a touching story about how the statue represents the previous chief channeling his spirit through me. As a result, giving me the creative direction to make this film the way I did. Words cannot do the experience justice, but I doubt I will ever have a more touching audience experience as a filmmaker.