Tag Archives: Commonground


Live. or Live. How do you say it? It depends. When your crowd fund goes “live”, how does it feel? I feel relieved. It’s been two and a half years of film-making. Five months of screening, feedback, re-edits and, quite frankily, stress. It’s time to let this baby go.

Will you help her stand alone?

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A Change is Gonna Come

“I’ve never been to a festival like this before”, says Sarah-Jane, her blue eyes twinkling. “Where you start from an assumption that everyone is your friend”.
And it’s true. What is extraordinary about the Commonground Festival in Seymour, near Melbourne, is not the beautiful red gum landscape; not the soul-scoring music; not the delicious home-grown, home-cooked food; not the inevitable problems with blocked toilets… All these are already festival favourites. What is extraordinary here is the intense feeling of connection; the strong sense of purpose; the deep, meaningful conversation; the sparkly, convivial atmosphere. It’s like a huge family party, without the starched formalities which often accompany such events.

The festival is opened by indigenous elder Uncle Larry Walsh, who welcomes us to country in the lyrical language of the Taungurung people. “Wominjeka. Pallian beek.” He explains that the words are a welcome from his tribe, which stretches from East to West across this part of the Kulin nation. In my volunteer role documenting the weekend, I film him, my camera on a borrowed tripod, since I managed, somehow, to leave my tripod on the tram on the way here.

Uncle Larry, his grey hair flowing free like the  many rivers in his part of the world, congratulates Commonground on their thirtieth birthday. Thirty years since a small group of radical, like-minded health professionals pooled their resources to buy this block of land. Thirty years since they camped out, small children and all, and began to cook up a dream. They wanted to both create an intentional community and to support social change makers in their work for a more just and sustainable world. They hand built a rambling rabbit-warren of a building to house not only themselves, but groups who wanted a space to come together in. Fashioned from mud brick and recycled materials, it sits comfortably in the hillside overlooking hills and bushland. A tour takes us around the property, taking in the abundant veggie gardens, the apple orchard and the quirky octagonal structure which was their first attempt at construction.

It’s ironic that this Festival takes place the same weekend as our appointed world leaders take the stage for the G20 summit in Brisbane. Despite Tony Abbott’s encouragement for them all to be in first name terms, there are few genuine friendships there. How different might the world look if power was in the hands of those who really cared? If all our governments were working for a more just and sustainable world? Instead, Abbott is calling for focus to be kept on economic growth – a concept which has long since proved itself to be out of step with the needs of both people and planet.

Uncle Larry shares the stage with Kate Lewer, one of that small group of founders. Kate glows as he reminisces with her about the collaborations between Commonground and the Aboriginal community to decide how they could best work together to manage the land. It’s clear that he holds a fondness for these people and he stays around all night and all the next day – enjoying a yarn around the smoky fire as the music from the bands sings out across the tall gums. Whilst it’s true that this is a mostly white-face festival, there’s a general feeling that we are all on the same page when it comes to how to get along. And if we want some help with that, the workshops run by Commonground’s sister organisation, the Groupwork Institute on “Emotional Resilience” and “Working Collaboratively”, give us ideas and skills to take away.

Part of my job here is to talk to a few of the musicians about the role they feel music has in social change. I take them up onto the stony hill overlooking the festival site and frame them with the stage in the background. Mandy Connell is a singer-songwriter from Melbourne. She sits on a log and plays me a plaintive folk song which questions the suspension of human rights for the Northern Territory Intervention and asks who might be next under “Abbott’s Inquisition.” Her voice is clear and strong and those nearby lean in to listen. “Last time I read about the NT Intervention, I figured when they finished, they’d be comin’ for the nation…”

Robbie Bundle is an indigenous musician from West Footscray. He strums a song called “My Sacred Place” and it’s clear that for him, land rights and sense of belonging is one of the important social issues that music can help to articulate. “Take me back to my sacred place, take me home…”

Lying in my tent and listening to the rain on Sunday morning, I switch on my phone and pick up some news about how the G20 is going. Tony Abbott has embarrassed himself once more by boasting about his regressive policies on carbon emissions, on asylum seekers and on health care. Vladimir Putin, although not shirt fronted, leaves the gathering early. Here at Commonground, though, we are reluctant to leave. We want to live always in this warm bubble of possibility. Weekends like this show us a way to be which is inclusive, considerate and conscious.

As if to prove the theory, when I call Yarra trams to see if my tripod has been handed in, the man in the phone is delighted to tell me that they have it there waiting for me. Perhaps the bubble of possibility is, after all, for more than just a weekend.

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Intentional Communities Conference

Peering through the foggy window, I can see the tall gum trees which line the windy road up Mount Toolebewong. Max wipes his sleeve across the glass and points his tiny pocket camera out into the rain. We are headed to the Australian Intentional Communities Conference, but instead of the desert summer we might have expected, a storm has arrived and it is a dramatic welcome.

If Melbourne is famous for “four seasons in a day”, then at 750m, this mountain sees them all. The view stretches down to the sea – by day a sprawling spiderweb of a settlement; by night a twinkling performance. When we wake, the clouds have scattered and all that remains is a blue parasol over the city and bright sunshine. That’s more like it!

Over the next three days, a parade of eloquent and erudite speakers expound on all things community. Bill Metcalf gives a talk about the history of intentional community in Victoria, with pictures of earnest church people in the 1800s serving a vision and joyful kibbutz-ers in the 1950s practising for communal life in Israel.

David Spain and Peter Cock founded the communities at Tuntable Falls and Moora Moora 40 years ago. They have lived at opposite ends of Australia and never discussed policies, but in discussion find so much in common it makes them laugh with amazement.

In Jeremy Shub’s workshop, which advertises itself as “creative and fluffy”, people travel inward, sharing stories of their dreams. We play community games with Kate Lewer from Commonground– bonding over giggles and breaking down boundaries of personal space and appropriate behaviour. These spaces allow balance between the head and the heart – showing us how both are essential for us to thrive. All of life is here.

From the kitchen, comes music and joy and deliciousness. Meals are on time, plentiful and frequent. At breakfast, warm pears and home made granola; for lunch, fresh green salads with wholesome veggies and for dinner, steaming bowls of lasagne or curry. Susannah, the chef, dusts moroccan spice over a fresh bowl of humus and the table is dressed with flowers for morning tea. It’s what every conference needs – and so much more.

The community at Moora Moora manage us all with care, attention and patience. No-one seems to bristle when the tour is guided over their way. Everyone is open and helpful. For me, the conference seems to bring out the best in this community, drawing the members together around a common purpose.

Holding a conference about intentional communities in an intentional community seems like an obvious thing to do. They are set up to house many people and usually have communal facilities such as kitchens and meeting spaces. Moora Moora is well equipped. The Lodge house has dorms, a large lounge area and a dining room. The Octagon can hold fifty people comfortably. There is ample ground to set up a marquee. They even have a stage to host the evening’s entertainment! Esme, the compere, is looking forward to becoming a member next weekend after two years living here on probation. He’s both excited and nervous. It’s a big commitment.

But aside from the physical space and the obvious capability of the crew, this conference has something else which is special. There are so many people here who know how to forge relationships. They understand how to help us create connections and when you add that to the enthusiasm and passion of the participants, it’s not surprising that as they leave, people hug with shining eyes.

On the last night, the remaining delegates are invited to join the residents for a final gathering. In the state of Victoria, this is the beginning of their bush fire season. A drum circle calls the community together in ritual and small children carry hand painted lanterns into the labyrinth as the chant rises. A blessing is spoken.

For a newcomer to Australia, my eyes and ears are opened again to the very real threat of wild fire. While I wish for warm weather and a respite from the unpredictable spring rains, I see that for these people, up here on the mountain, the summer is not just a time for barbeques and swimming.

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Morning in Dharmananda

A Big Trip

I’ve been on a trip. A big trip. Two big trips, actually. The first one took me away from my lovely home at Holtsfield in Wales and right over to the other side of the world, to Melbourne, Australia. I’ve been living here for seven months now and taken many little trips to explore the area – up to the Grampian mountains in the north, down to the Great Ocean Road in the South and over to Tasmania, too. And then came another big trip.

When I came to Australia, I knew I wanted to make some films about intentional communities here. I have been making films on this subject for almost 15 years – the website tells the story of that. I had made contact with some people even before I landed, but it took six months of living here to gather what the story would be.

During those six months, I have been doing my research. I’ve been sitting in the beautiful domes of the State Library of Victoria and reading about land rights in Australia (shocking), about alternative lives here, about planning laws. I’ve made friends at two of the communities nearest to me. One is Commonground, a co-operative about an hour from the city, where their intention is to hold a space not only for individuals to live and work together, but also to host other groups who are working for social change. The other is Moora Moora, about an hour in a different direction. Their community is bigger, with around 100 people living in small clusters of the top of a mountain.

Visiting and staying at these communities gave me insight into the themes which are particular to Australia and I started to feel ready.

Then came the big trip. While talking to a journalist friend who also writes about living the simple life, it seemed to shout that I should be telling a history – a history of intentional community in Australia. So that is what I have set out to do. The big trip took me north of Brisbane, to Crystal Waters, a permaculture village near the funky little town of Maleny. From there I travelled to Nimbin, where I met, amongst others, a man associated with the Aquarius Festival in 1973, which brought not only a huge number of hippies to the broken-down town, but also the first multiple occupancy planning laws. Some of the communities established then still remain and have loads to teach us about how to live with each other and how to maintain such a project over time.

In Bellingen, further south, there are over 25 intentional communities a hotbed of activity which has spilled out into the surrounding area, including the local council, who have established radical waste collection initiatives.

Narara Ecovillage, an hour north of Sydney, is on the site of a horticultural research facility. This land will now be turned into one of Australia’s newest intentional communities.

I have some great stories to tell you and this is only the beginning. This blog will help me make sense of the film I am making and also of life in Australia, 18,000 km from the place I call home. Will you join me?

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