Imagine for a moment that you were unable to read your phone bill. Or write down how you felt about someone in a birthday card. Or even look up that word you don’t understand on a menu. How do you participate in a democracy when you can’t read the ballot paper?
Less than 1% of the total Australian population would struggle to read this review according to the official literacy rates. However, recent reports indicate that 30% of Aboriginal adults lack basic literacy skills. Other studies push that number higher, claiming 45-65% of Aboriginal adults are functionally illiterate. This massive failure of the broader society is not strictly the subject of IN MY OWN WORDS, with writer/director Erica Glynn instead focusing on one of the possible solutions.
The work of a small community in the Australian outback town of Brewarrina is nothing short of inspiring. Glynn focuses on the inexhaustible Mary, an Aboriginal woman who is determined to help teach her own community to read and write. Based on the Cuban literacy program “Yes I Can” (Yo, sí puedo), the approach also insists on using a local facilitator to foster the learning. The 1961 campaign in Cuba managed to drop the illiteracy rate from 23.6% to 3.9%, an undeniable achievement in any book.
Yet these are only numbers, and the strength of IN MY OWN WORDS comes from the personal stories. A vision board on the wall shows that everyone has reasons for wanting to learn, from getting their driver’s licence to being able to read stories to their children. Clarence, an older fellow in the community, has to take his utility bills into town to get them read, and dreams of being able to write a love letter. There is a moment towards the end of the film when he does just that, and the raw emotional response Clarence has in reading the response himself won’t leave a dry eye in the house.
As the title would suggest, suddenly being able to tell your story in your own words is transformative. Although Glynn’s film is a short one, coming in at just over an hour, it is a powerful one. Indeed, the documentary’s shorter form is further proof that a massive impact can come from small acts. IN MY OWN WORDS is a testament to what small groups can achieve when they work together for a common cause, and one that will hopefully give others the courage to do the same.
IN MY OWN WORDS is playing at the Sydney Film Festival 2017. It also airs on SBS & NITV Sunday 30 July at 8:30pm