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‘Is that a mezuzah, in Birdsville, 1000km from the nearest Shule?’

Paula Towers
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Published: 11 January 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

Paula Towers talks to film-maker Dan Goldberg about the owner of the succah in the desert, and other fascinating characters in his latest documentary on Birdsville in remote Queensland

A FEW KILOMETRES BEYOND the remote town of Birdsville, award-winning film-maker Dan Goldberg sits down to chat with quirky recluse Joseph Szczepina, outside an off-the-grid shack that Joseph calls home, in an even more isolated area which only Joseph inhabits.

Suddenly something strangely familiar catches Dan’s eye: “Is that a mezuzah?!” he exclaims, incredulous. “Shalom, Chaver [hello/welcome, friend]!” Joseph warmly responds, beginning an exchange in Hebrew – much to the astonishment of the film crew standing by! “I was just stunned; one of those WTF moments!” Goldberg recounts.

The only Jew in this area of outback Queensland and more than 1000km from the nearest synagogue, Polish-born Joseph makes his desert garden bloom by growing dates and olives in true kibbutz tradition.

Bullied as a child, his preference now for the solitary existence offered by the desert makes him feel “physically and mentally safe here”.

He lived in Brisbane for a number of years, married and came to Birdsville, where his four sons attended the small school there. Though they’ve returned to the “big smoke” (Brisbane), he’s happy to continue a hermit-like existence; using solar energy for his music and TV needs while he shops for any practical needs at the “Birdsville Bunnings” (the local tip).

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Joseph is one of several memorable characters who inhabit Goldberg’s latest documentary Birdsville or Bust, which screens tonight on SBS at 8.30pm, one of three uplifting documentaries featured in the new season of Untold Australia.

With a population of around 100, this isolated Queensland town 1600km west of Brisbane borders three states and straddles two deserts. However, for the many who are drawn here to tick off this bucket list item, “half the adventure is getting there, across the desert!” explains Goldberg. The searing summer heat that hovers around 50 Celsius, plus an army of flies, can really test their patience.

Twice a year the town becomes an event destination – The Birdsville Races in September is probably the main one, renowned as the Melbourne Cup of the outback, and was the original launching point for making the documentary, Goldberg explains.

Black and white archival TV footage from 1978 shows then prime minister Malcolm Fraser attending the Races. It was the first time Birdsville was beamed into Australian loungerooms, tying into the moment when 4WDs could finally transport people safely there through the desert, which helped to kick off the Races’ attraction.

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The second big event is the Big Red Bash, held every July, billed as the world’s most remote music festival, which has featured such renowned acts as Midnight Oil, Jimmy Barnes, Dragon, Missy Higgins, John Williamson, Ross Wilson and Kate Ceberano.

“While the doco is a story following a year in the life of an outback town, it’s the underbelly that became the strongest narrative thread for me: how Don [Rowlands], the Aboriginal ranger, grew up there during the White Australia policy and effectively under segregation, and how today Birdsville is on the road to reconciliation,” Goldberg observes.

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“A wonderful metaphor landed on my lap when Don told me that he grew up as a kid inside the back of the police paddy wagon; and today, he rides up the front alongside Stephan, the outback cop.”

Local Indigenous elder, Don Rowlands, OAM, is a ranger of the Munga-Thirri National Park, formerly known as the Simpson Desert National Park. Nowadays, his advice and guidance are respected and he’s consulted by Stephan [the town’s policeman] on the environment and other local matters – in contrast to his childhood when he was subjected to almost weekly “floggings” by the local constabulary who were supposed to protect the local Aboriginal children.

And Birdsville’s lone cop Stephan Pursell, who formerly patrolled a Sunshine Coast shopping mall, now patrols an area larger than Britain.

This outpost was heavily impacted by Covid-19 and the doco not only describes this but, digging around this remote area reveals, particularly after the tourists have gone, so much more - discovering what Goldberg refers to aptly as “documentary gold”.

“What I love about observational documentaries is that you go into a production with an idea in your head and then, time and again, you get gifted gems you could never have conceived – both Don’s metaphor and Joseph’s eccentricity (not to mention his mezuzah!) were documentary gold.”

Birdsville or Bust screens on SBS on January 12 at 8.30pm, and is available afterwards via SBS On Demand

Dan Goldberg is Head of Factual at Mint Pictures in inner-city Sydney. His work includes the three Bushwacked! series for ABC3, which won the 2014 Asian Kids TV Show of the Year, plus two Logie nominations in 2015 and 2016; Code of Silence, screened on the ABC, which won the 2014 Walkley Award for Best Documentary, and Food Fighter which won two Hollywood documentary awards.

Photo: Joseph Szczepina with his mezuzah (Dan Goldberg)

About the author

Paula Towers

Paula Towers is a writer and editor, and has also worked as a political speechwriter and researcher. Currently, Paula is a presenter and producer on the Arts Thursday show at Sydney's Eastside Radio as well as a freelance writer for print publications and a travel web site.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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