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JustUS: Hip-Hop and The Block

JustUS is about the social justice issues facing Indigenous communities in Australia imagined through the lens of Indigenous hip-hop. The film follows the journey of Sonboy, a young Indigenous rapper from The Block in Redfern, once the black political and cultural heart of Sydney. In the rubble of his disintegrating Hood, Sonboy produces his first Hip-Hop EP at the local community centre, simply titled Kid from The Block. Through a rich historical archive of Redfern and the lyrics of one of its children, this hybrid of essay and obdoc film invites the audience into a place once feared and loathed by outsiders but loved and now mourned by generations of Indigenous families originally drawn from communities all around Australia with an old dream to make it in the big city. The Block was purchased to socially house poor and working-class Indigenous families through a grant by the Whitlam Government in 1973 to the Aboriginal Housing Company. It became the home of the Aboriginal community-controlled sector with the establishment of the first Aboriginal Medical Service, Legal Service, Black Theatre, Radio Redfern, Aboriginal Dance Theatre and it was the epicentre of black activism, where many protests took place including the infamous Redfern Uprising in 2004. Under decades of public pressure from police harassment, a powerful lobby group of middle-class white landlords with an appetite for better property prices on top of covertly planned obsolescence, The Block finally crumbled, eaten up by private developers for the development of student housing, a new business district and “affordable housing” for successful Indigenous family applicants. In 2020, The Block as everyone knew it was no more. Juggling a young family, living in social housing in nearby Waterloo, with a new dream to make it as a rap artist, Sonboy is an inspiration and the epitome of Indigenous resilience in the face of relentless colonialism.

  • Grant Leigh Saunders
    Teach a Man to Fish (2018), Michael McLeod: A Flash Black? (2016)
  • Grant Leigh Saunders
    Teach a Man to Fish (2018); Michael McLeod: A Flash Black? (2016)
  • Grant Leigh Saunders
    Teach a Man to Fish (2018); Michael McLeod: A Flash Black? (2016)
  • Tom Zubrycki
    Executive Producer
    Ablaze (2021); Teach a Man to Fish (2018); Undermined: Tales from the Kimberley (2018)
  • Duval Clear aka Masta Ace
    Key Cast
    First recorded Brooklyn rapper
  • Professor Larissa Behrendt
    Key Cast
  • L-FRESH the LION
    Key Cast
  • Steven Saunders-Carr aka Sonboy
    Key Cast
  • Mirrah Reflects
    Key Cast
  • Maya Jupiter
    Key Cast
  • Rhyan Clapham aka Dobby
    Key Cast
  • Shane Phillips
    Key Cast
  • Mick Mundine
    Key Cast
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Feature
  • Genres:
    hybrid, presenter led, essay, observation
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 11 minutes 1 second
  • Completion Date:
    July 31, 2022
  • Production Budget:
    575,000 AUD
  • Country of Origin:
  • Country of Filming:
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
    Black & White and Color
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - Grant Leigh Saunders

Saunders graduated from the Australian Film TV and Radio School with an MA(Honours) in Film and TV Documentary in 2006 and from 2007-2011, he produced over 20 TV half hour documentaries, for the Indigenous program Unit, ABC TV, as an internal TV Producer.

In 2011 Saunders won the Out There and Deadly emerging Indigenous filmmakers fund provided by Metro Screen, and as an independent producer in his small production company, Sonic Nomad produced a TV Comedy online mini-series called 'Whiteblackatcha'.

In 2018, Saunders’ first independent feature length documentary, commissioned and broadcasted by NITV, 'Teach a Man to Fish' was selected for the Sydney Film Festival. It came 5th for the Documentary Australia Foundation Award and 2nd place for the audience choice award for best documentary overall.

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Director Statement

I have been researching Australian Hip-hop music and culture, with a focus on socially conscious Hip-hop, acutely, for the past three years for my DCA (Doctor of Creative Arts) at UTS, awarded in April 2021. Before this, I was writing, recording and performing Hip-hop music, on and off, since I first heard Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s, ‘The Message’ in 1982. As an Indigenous Hip-hop auto-ethnographer (or Hip-hop insider), I am trying to make a film that visualises and celebrates Australian Conscious Hip-hop lyrics and the power of Hip-hop to expose young people to further discourses around social justice issues in Australia. The film introduces Sonboy’s personal journey to Hip-hop as the narrative spine of the film, which allows broader themes and issues discussed in Indigenous Hip-hop communities to be understood in a relatable and personal way. The film adopts an essay style of documentary filmmaking, moving in and out of Sonboy’s personal narrative, and his connection to Hip-hop and The Block, Redfern. A place recently conquered through post-colonising aka gentrification and now Sydney’s prime piece of real estate converted into student housing, a new business district and “affordable” Aboriginal Housing.

Because there are so many resonances between Indigenous Australian artists and other multicultural artists in Australia, I want to present a film that points toward the value and future importance of collaborations between cultural groups that have shared interests in interrogating whiteness, racism, and colonialism. In doing so, I want to make a film that reflects the diversity and originality of Australian Conscious Hip-hop, while acknowledging the continuing importance of international influences (and particular U.S. racial politics) on Australian artists and audiences.

I wish to film the main character, Sonboy, visiting his brother Dean in prison and his eventual release. I also want to get an interview with leading Indigenous activist Jenny Munroe who will provide the not so popular story of Redfern and how people were swindled out of The Block. The further research I wish to undertake is to find out exactly how many Indigenous families now reside on The Block and how many of those are original generational Aboriginal families.

Once a strong pathway to audience is established by way of festival commitments, I will be able to apply for finishing funds through Screen Australia's Producer Equity Program, the Indigenous strand as well as Screen NSW. This will allow me to employ a senior editor to fine cut the film, addressing all the above editorial notes, pay for music and archive licensing (acquiring original footage), colour grade, sound mix and deliver the film.

After a healthy film festival run, I wish to deploy, in collaboration with our distributor (Antidote Films), a traditional cinema run and COD event-based cinema screenings. These events would incorporate live Hip-hop performances, and panel discussions with Hip-hop heads, social activists/ scientists and criminologists discussing the social justice themes presented in the film. I also envision supporting YouTube videos of other Hip-Hop characters outside the film that discuss their music and what social issues they speak back to. These videos would be embedded within the film’s Facebook fan page for further viewing and discussion. A podcast would also help to continue the discourse around Hip-Hop and social consciousness and drive audiences to the film. I wish to have the film screened on a local broadcaster, then VOD platforms and finally to be distributed to schools with a supporting study guide through Ronin Distribution.

More broadly, I want this film to inform and continue public debate around our criminal justice system and to urge governments to set in place necessary reforms, including to stop police using excessive force and to hold authorities accountable for Indigenous deaths in custody. I want to partner with justice advocacy groups including Justice.org, FIRE and Aboriginal Legal Aid to host screenings and panel discussions to help drive this debate and get it back on the agenda for governments to action recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991). I also want the education system to see the benefits of Hip-hop Based Education (HHBE) and to conduct a school term evidence based HHBE pilot program, using some of the film’s characters driving the project, in collaboration with school Principals and community stakeholders. The intent of this program would be to demonstrate the efficacy of employing HHBE on a full-time basis within our education system in order to retain, educate, honour, heal and empower our youth.