“Very privileged”: Bunya Productions co-founder talks success of Mystery Road franchise

David Jowsey: “There’s a real yearning to understand our real history”

Australian ABC drama Mystery Road has continued to break records and make history at the AACTA Awards.

Over the history of the awards, the three television series’ have received a total of 40 nominations, making it the most-nominated TV franchise ever.

The AACTA Industry Awards yesterday saw Mystery Road: Origin dominate, taking out Best Editing presented by Spectrum Films, Best Direction in Television, and Best Sound in Television.

See also: 2022 AACTA Awards: All the winners of the AACTA Industry Awards

Additionally, The Mystery Road film also received five AACTA nominations, and the sequel film Goldstone received six nominations.

The production company behind the franchise, Bunya Productions, has also become the most nominated production company in an AACTA Awards year.

Mediaweek spoke to Bunya co-founder and producer David Jowsey ahead of the AACTA Awards about the history-making nominations and what’s next for the company.

“The people we work with are amazing. They’re like family, they come back again and again to work with us because it’s been three series and two movies, and it’s a lot of the same people, and we’re really thrilled that they’ve been acknowledged,” Jowsey said on the mass nominations for Mystery Road.

David Jowsey

In 2009 Jowsey formed Bunya Productions alongside award-winning filmmaker Ivan Sen.

“I think what we’re really proud of is every one of our films and TV shows are first rate, first class, really high production value, tell a great story and are entertaining.”

Mystery Road: Origin delves into the early years of Detective Jay Swan, with proud Nyikina man Mark Coles Smith cast as the young police officer.

The series’ showcases an exciting new generation of Indigenous filmmakers, including director Dylan River (Robbie Hood), DOP Tyson Perkins and producer Penny Smallacombe. Bunya is renowned for bringing the work of First Nations storytellers to the screen.

“We [Sen and Jowsey] talked a lot about what our company meant, its ethos, its way of operating, and its processes. One of those things was to talk about Australian history and identity.

“It really was a deliberate strategy. Ivan wanted to focus on telling Indigenous stories. We wanted to put that perspective forward, to write the people being written out of history, to tell people’s side of the story, and to rebalance the education system where just one side of the story was being told – creating a perspective and a voice for his people.”

The second series of Mystery Road was the top-rating TV show on any network in Australia. Additionally, ABC announced that Mystery Road: Origin was the highest-rating drama launch ever on ABC iview.

When asked what he thinks makes the franchise so successful, Jowsey said, “I think, deep down, there’s a real yearning to understand our real history, our real identity, the outback, and what Indigenous culture means.

“I think people want to know about that stuff. I think that’s why Mystery Road has been so successful – because it does give access to those stories and that world. And that’s what I’d like to believe; that it’s a yearning inside people to move forward and to move on in a positive way, that there’s a real desire to have the recognition of our First Nations peoples.

David Jowsey, Greer Simpkin, director of Mystery Road: Origin Dylan River and Mark Coles Smith.

Jowsey said he wants to see more representation of Indigenous actors and creators in the media. 

“I really think that we should be using film, television, video, new media, all the stuff that’s around at the moment to much more widely spread local Indigenous languages into our society. That would be a really good stepping stone.

“If you take any time at all just looking into history, you’ll see these incredible First Nations stories, heroes, victims, and those stories need to be told and need to be embraced by the wider Australian community because it’s who we really are.”

Earlier this year, Jowsey was also awarded the 2022 Don Dunstan award at the recent Adelaide Film Festival.

“It’s pretty phenomenal. I’m a bit surprised because of the level and the extraordinary nature of the people who’ve done it previously. I never sort of see myself amongst those legendary characters. I’ve just sort of been hanging around a long time and happen to make some pretty good films along the way, I’ve been pretty lucky, really.

“To do something that you love and then, on top of that, to be singled out and given an honour for that, feels pretty lucky and pretty special,” he said.

Mark Coles Smith as Jay Swan; Hayley McElhinney as Max, Mystery Road Origin – Photograph by David Dare Parker

Alongside Mystery Road, Bunya has worked on a number of historical feature films over the past few years, including High Ground, The Drover’s Wife, and Sweet Country.

“We have just made three feature films back to back and their history films, so I think we’ve completed that stage. It’s been quite a few years making those three films about our history, we’re sort of looking to move into more contemporary stuff.”

Jowsey said the team at Bunya have some other TV series in the works, putting more of a focus on TV productions, instead of film.

“We do have some other TV shows that we’re looking to do that are more contemporary. The business itself has made a move more into television and drama production rather than movies because they’re just a hard business post-pandemic.”

“It’s been a long journey. To still be given the opportunities and to be supported, with the subsidy that we get from the Australian film industry, we feel very privileged, and we don’t take it for granted.”

The Bunya/ABC production is nominated for six more AACTA Awards which will be presented during the AACTA Awards Ceremony on Wednesday, 7 December.

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