By Elias, 2010. Legacy links and content removed.

When I think about reFILL, the pictures in my head begin on the M5 going west at 110 km/h. If late, 120. Taking the Liverpool exit and following the trucks down Hoxton Park Rd, arriving at Miller Technology High. So much changed during the 17 months we worked at Miller, only the drive stayed the same. 2168 represent!

CuriousWorks worked on the reFILL project in partnership with Casula Powerhouse. The project was one of five initiatives forming the Generations project, spearheaded by Victoria’s Cultural Development Network (CDN), giving five local councils the opportunity to explore community based arts over a 3 year period. Liverpool Council was the only one to focus on engaging  young people through the arts. reFILL focused on engaging High School students of Arabic and indigenous backgrounds, particularly those who otherwise don’t connect to classroom activities, have poor attendance and are seen as being potential early school-leavers.

We began our reFILL trip in May 2008, hot on the heels of our recent Kinect lab and aching to share our do-it-yourself tech madness with kids from Western Sydney. Our first workshop was a tightly planned, intense 2 hour session where the reFILL kids played warm-up theatre games, introduced themselves to the camera, played with the tech we brought from Kinect, and pitched their own ideas for cool tech gear they would like to construct. This would be one of the few times we would stick to a workshop schedule so tightly, as we realised week by week we needed to adapt more readily to the interests and moods of the young people.

The reFILL kids themselves were an interesting mix of characters. An occasionally fluctuating group of 12 – 15 students from years 7-9. At first they were curious, we were new creatures in their environment and they humoured us with cooperation and even politeness. But soon enough we became another part of their landscape and they began to try to impose their own rules and anarchy upon the workshops. In time that energy would be channeled into genuine and often hilarious creative outputs, but at first we needed to learn how to adapt!

Importantly, these were also some of the earliest community workshops CuriousWorks took part in, particularly with young people. Nerves, unrealistic expectations, over-compensation and surprise were a large part of our first workshop experiences. We usually had 3 tutors present in the early weeks; Shakthi, Aimee and myself. It was particularly helpful for me to learn from watching the other CuriousWorks tutors so I could eventually lead workshops myself, but at that point I was green and anxious.

The rest of our workshops for Term 2 2008 were dedicated to building a level of trust in the reFILL kids through theatre games and performance, as well as introducing digital media into the fold. In a school without a drama subject, it was wonderful to see the kids gradually open up and embrace performance, and in particular to notice some with a real talent and passion for it, such as Khaled Mariam who would go on to have a major role in the first reFILL short film. Those who were less comfortable performing found a place behind the camera, documenting the chaotic improvisations. Daily News is a video that shows some of the earliest improvisations, with the first half being closely led by Shakthi, and the second half led by the kids in front and behind the camera. This term also saw lots of video experimentation with special effects and stop motion animations, as well as the very first Ball Game video, which has become a CuriousWorks staple for first time filmmakers ever since.

Term 3 would see us focus on the do-it-yourself technologies pitched in the first workshop. An attempt to go through a design process with the kids proved fruitless, it was probably too similar to a regular classroom structure, so we just dived right into making things! With only 5 weeks in the term allotted for CuriousWorks, this proved to be one of the most focused and hardworking sessions of the entire reFILL program. The kids had a chance to build their own speaker boxes, and learn basic circuitry to create their own Infra-Red Spray Can to interact with projected surfaces. The reFILL kids demonstrated great discipline and enthusiasm towards the projects, with projects guided by Shakthi and Peter. Those who weren’t participating in building speakers and spray cans were involved in making stop motion animations and sound recordings – all taking place in the art room! An ordered chaos that worked wonderfully.

Term 4 saw the production of what has become a cult hit short film, Attack of the Bullies. Led by Aimee and myself, the process began as a series of theatre games where the characters and scenarios for the film were created and developed. From this we wrote a rough script and shooting schedule and began production! By now there were clearly students who wanted to perform and others who wanted to work behind the scenes, and they slotted into their roles quite smoothly. Some were surprised by the amount of patience and discipline required to shoot a film, and some coped better than others. A highly improvised voice-over by Khaled Mariam was recorded to tie the film together, and Mohammad Chahal and Bilal El Saddick put in the hours to edit much of the film in Sony Vegas. The success of Attack of the Bullies gave me a real boost of confidence, and by this stage I had become comfortable in my role of “Media Educator” and was happily leading workshops. Young Dean Ammouri, one of the “nerds” in the film, often mentioned how much he loved acting in the film, and it sparked a passion in him to be an actor!

The end of the reFILL year was celebrated by a multimedia extravaganza at the Liverpool PCYC where Attack of the Bullies was premiered, and the other videos and technologies the kids had made with CuriousWorks were showcased. During Terms 3 & 4 some of the boys had also been working with Hip-Hop artist Si One to write and record their own song. MEB made their debut performance on the night, and the students’ parents finally had an opportunity to see some of the great work the kids had been doing in reFILL.

2009 began with decisions – what next for reFILL? A lot of ideas were thrown around but for CuriousWorks the answer seemed obvious – we need to take a step back and let the reFILL kids take ownership of the program. This meant supporting them and their newly developed skills, developing them to a point where they could be independent media producers long after reFILL is done. Firstly, this meant consolidating their skills on equipment they will have access to at the school in the future. Windows Movie Maker became the editing software of choice – free, readily available and easy to use – and the MEB group created their own clip to their song Pain, editing for the first time. To help solidify their knowledge of camera techniques and language, another group or reFILL boys created the reFILL Film School series. I now use these videos as introductions to almost every beginner’s film class I teach. The videos include Using a Tripod & Camera, Rules of Lighting and Shots & Framing that you can see here:

But where the reFILL kids truly came into their own was in developing the notorious reFILL Sketch Comedy series. With four episodes produced so far, each episode would begin with a brainstorming session where the group put all their funny ideas together. The best ideas were agreed upon and roles assigned. Mustafa Raad would jump behind the camera, Mohammad Jawabreh and Khaled Mariam would take on directorial and lead performance roles, and Dean Ammouri, Mohammad Chahal & Alaa Malti would fill out the supporting roles and additional crew. Watching them create more and more insane ideas for the camera was a real joy, and seemed so far removed from the young people a year earlier shyly getting into theatre games. (Big thanks to Jeremy Cassar for getting the ball rolling on the Sketch Comedy stuff, and Dan O’reilly-Rowe for keeping the ball going!)

As much as the boys delighted in filming their sketches, they were reticent to edit. One of my personal challenges was making sure I had given the kids enough to be self-reliant media creators. And when they realised that nobody could watch their hilarious sketches unless they bothered to edit it themselves, some of the students started taking editing more seriously and by the end were extremely proficient video editors. With their work being published on and kids at school watching them and complimenting, the Sketch Comedy shows were a total hit. Most importantly, they were almost completely generated by the reFILL kids alone. Many teachers expressed surprise at this, particularly considering the behaviour of the kids in their regular classes. The same teachers mentioned a growing maturity in some of the group, and considered that reFILL may well have been a contributing factor to that change.

From July-October 2009, the works of the reFILL kids were given their very own gallery space at Casula Powerhouse! The exhibition featured lots of video content, the songs the kids had recorded with Si One, the speakers they had constructed, and an interactive spray can wall where the IR Spray Cans that were created were used by the general public!

The final reFILL sessions took place in August and we celebrated with a private screening of works from the last 2 years, Subway and soft drink. It was here that it actually started to sink in to the kids that reFILL was coming to an end, and I was surprised to see how sad that made some of them. Daniel Ammouri started asking me lots of questions, about reFILL’s future, about life and university, and I started to realise how important reFILL was to these kids and how strong a connection we had made. reFILL had been a part of their week they all looked forward to, a time when they could take a break from their regular school activities and do cool stuff! I hope to hear more from the reFILL kids in the future, I’m sure they will take the skills they’ve learned and natural creativity they’ve nurtured and create their own self-motivated media. At least another reFILL Sketch Comedy, yalla!

reFILL came to an official close in Melbourne at CDN’s Regenerating Community conference, where the five Generations projects came together to share their experiences of the last 3-5 years. Khaled Mariam, Mohammed Jawabreh & Jasmin Groves all flew down to speak on behalf of the reFILL kids.And of course MEB performed and blew the roof off! A lot of people spoke of the merits of the program and the valuable outcomes, but nobody spoke as honestly as young Mohammed Jawabreh:

“I started reFILL in 2007 but I thought there were too many nerds….and I left reFILL. About late April my friends which were in the refill project were very excited and came telling me about how they were doing. I was interested but I didn’t wanna look like a loser and come back. Eventually it was the next year which was 2008 and I thought to myself that I could do something other than sport so I joined the refill program again. We made a comedy video which won the Academy Award, Attack of the Bullies. Then we made more videos, not academy award winning, but they’re really funny. And we got a lot of hits. I’ve learnt a lot over these years and its been a great opportunity. Never thought I would have an opportunity like that. ”

Mohammed represented to me one of the great successes of reFILL, a student who didn’t see the value of the reFILL activities at first, but returned when he realised he could learn skills he actually enjoyed putting into practice. As a bonus, it would get him out of a few classes. Despite his initial lack of interest, Mohammed became a reFILL leader and spearheaded many of the Sketch Comedy pieces single-handedly.

Almost all of the participants showed a real progress and change over the course of reFILL, a change which we have rarely been lucky enough to witness in the community arts field. The reFILL program afforded us the opportunity to work with a group for an extended period of time and effectively build skills and sustainability. As well as gaining invaluable experience, CuriousWorks’ All Around You program was highly influenced by our work at Miller Technology, affecting our model for working in communities and using digital media to affect personal and social change.

I’ve left out a million things. A million awesome moments. And writing this reflection has made me realise how much I will miss reFILL. I was at all of the workshops over the 17 months. Starting out as a nervous video guy and becoming a new media educator. Starting out as an ugly duckling and becoming a less ugly duckling.

When I drive West down the M5 these days to visit my parents in Bankstown, I often come close to missing the exit, my instincts still remembering the weekly drive out to Miller….

On behalf of CuriousWorks, some big thanks need to go out to; Panos Couros who supported us and kept reFILL rolling on the council end, Khaled Subsabi who brought us in and returned to the project to gloriously demolish all obstacles, Principal Bruce Axam and the staff at Miller Technology High for supporting the project, and HUGE thanks and worship to Sally Atkins, the art teacher who looked after the reFILL kids from the outset and whose commitment and hard work made reFILL a success.