Bourke students’ celebration of survival

Dinoo Kelleghan

Bourke High School students dance in the music video

A confidence-building project for Bourke High School students begun by teacher Shirlee Rowland has stunned the local community with the students’ raw honesty and become an internet hit with hundreds of thousands of views.

In just five days in April, the students – helped by innovative media group Desert Pea Media (DPM) and school staff – thought about their lives, the challenges they face and the future they want, wrote a song and created a video hit that gathered 92,000 views in just eight days – now totalling 300,000 Facebook views, 9000 shares and, since September, almost 40,000 Youtube views.

Ms Rowland had heard about the work Desert Pea Media was doing with other outback communities and schools. “I thought it would be perfect to somehow get them up to Bourke so the school community could give our students a voice in a medium that they understand and can be proud of,” she said.

“The students were not very confident at first,” said DPM creative director Toby Finlayson, “but then trust and relationships developed quickly.” The students and the DOM crew worked on the song for a few days and filmed it over two days.

“The end result left everybody stunned, not only within the community of Bourke but the Nation,” said Michael Graham (rap name MC Boomalli), who mentored the kids for DPM. Now, says Mr Finlayson, the school and local community are getting DPM back to do four more projects next year.

Once heard, the high, haunting chorus of “People of the Red Sunset” plays on in your head, half anthem, half a bird-call echoing across an outback sky; then the tough lyrics kick in.

I tell you it’s hard/ that violence leaving scars
Leavin’ bruises, broken families, broken homes and broken hearts
Smoking dope and getting drunk, skippin’ school and stealin’ cars
That type of yarn will get you nowhere but behind bars …

Kids pickin up bumpers lah! Drinkin’, killin’ your liver brah
Better switch this up, better go to school,
Ya foolish think this cool or wha?
Better raise them voices up. Better make better choices ya
Better respect, better keep in check, myself, my song, my culture HAH.

“The number of times I’ve cried, listening to those lyrics,” said Ms Rowland. “They show exactly how wise and mature these young people are – they see what’s going on, they know what’s going on, they know what needs to be done to change it.

“They see the violence, they see the drugs, they see the skipping school and all that negativity; they have the power to change that themselves if they want to.”

Principal Andrew Ryder said what he wanted more than anything else was for the staff and community to hear what was on the students’ minds.

“The students’ lyrics didn’t miss, absolutely didn’t miss, they were brutally honest,” he said. “I’ve never seen in 17 years of education something so honest.”

DPM works on a story-telling process that encourages participants to “analyse the real, the ideal and the bridge to communicate positive changes”. “People of the Red Sunset” is one of its proudest achievements this year, Mr Finlayson said.

DPM has produced 97 music videos in remote communities in the past 15 years. The latest, “Dhinawan Touch the Stars”, by students enrolled at Walgett Community College, earned a “This is awesome” tweet by state Education Minister Adrian Piccoli on December 2.

Bourke was described in a recent media report as a town “where children sleep in abandoned cars because they don’t feel safe in their family home … a troubled community where kids steal cars as a pastime, bricks are thrown through windows out of boredom, and domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse shatter many families in town.”

Tanya Jackson, general manager of the NSW Outback Division of General Practice, which sponsored the “People of the Red Sunset” video, said it showed clearly the students’ maturity as well as their passion for their hometown.

“I was actually blown away by the lyrics,” said Joan Dickson, who works with the school as the Department of Community Services’ Community Engagement senior leader and appears in the school video.

“It made me think about my own kids and how difficult it is growing up in a community where everyone knows you and there’re expectations on you that sometimes are a bit hard to meet. People tend not to want to hear your voices and this [video] was done great. I … I started to cry when I heard the lyrics.”

"We can make a change," said student Shavinah Mann, lead singer of the song's memorable chorus, in a recent interview. "Bourke is not that bad ... People put a bad name to it but it's actually pretty good."

Gotta keep on dreaming keep your chin up, keep on shining bright.

To view the video in full please click here.