Francis Firebrace is a travelling storyteller. He has a big beard, dresses in traditional tribal gear and hugs pretty much everyone he meets. He is by far the happiest man I have ever met. I spent the day with him recently and for the hours that I was with him, I was entirely content, or the closest to it that I've been in a very long time. I actually mourn that feeling and miss Francis like an old friend, even though I've only met him twice. Here is what happened.
Francis opted to meet at Waterloo Station, and from there we made our way to the South Bank, which is at most a leisurely ten minute walk. It took us well over an hour. Francis spent most of that time approaching strangers, charming tourists, hugging policemen, making old ladies laugh. Generally spreading love. Every single person left Francis smiling goofily.
Along the way Kevin Lee Brown, a filmmaker who's been following him around for over half a decade, explained Francis approach to me. “It can be a little stressful going out with Francis, but then when you're actually with him it's, well...” Kevin waved at a group of tourists that Francis had grinning like stoned Cheshire Cats. "I was in a bad mood today, but as soon as you're with Francis you just think 'Thank you.'"
The trailer of Kevin and Francis' film project, which they are finishing up in Australia
Born to an Aboriginal father and a white mother, Francis spent his childhood yo-yoing between the bush and Western culture, before re-embracing his tribe's culture in adulthood. Since then Francis has talked in prisons, schools and anywhere else that will have him, teaching and telling traditional Aborigine stories all around the world, in places as far and wide as Vietnam, Alaska, Iceland and South Africa. Currently, however, Francis lives in a bedsit in Surrey.
Francis in South Africa
Francis at home in Surrey
Kevin explained how they met. “Six years ago I was at an open festival and Francis was there as a storyteller. I was just struck by what was happening and the effect he was having on people. He was making a difference right there in a way I hadn't seen before. Pretty quick I knew I wanted to make a film about him, before I even really knew about his life.” In addition to the film, Kevin is also working with Francis on a wider project attempting to find a way to address the dying out of traditional stories.
A younger, cowboy Francis
Francis piped up at mention of the film. “A long time ago, back in the dreamtime [a kind of swimming pool locker that stays closed forever and contains an Aborigine's soul] I used to be a filmmaker. I made spaghetti westerns. As a boy I always dreamed of being a gunfighter and I loved westerns, which were the only films I'd ever seen. I was bullied a lot because of the racial stuff in Australia and I had to have a lot of fights. When I moved to Melbourne when I was 17, I couldn't understand why my cousins didn't fight. I soon learned there were better methods to doing things. I became a cowboy after school, although I tended to be a bit nomadic.
Francis with a snake and dog as a kid
“At 40, I played the second lead role in and directed a film called Give My Regards To The Devil, which is in the Australian national archives now. I've got five films in there. Finally I was good at something other than riding horses! Then I lost my daughter to cancer, and not long after that my wife took her own life. I got rid of everything and went and lived on a boat for 11 years. My friends thought I was crazy, but if I hadn't done that I wouldn't have started telling stories, trying to keep people interested when I took them out on boat trips.”
Francis ended up in the UK due to, “A woman called Barbara Jane, who I love very much. We met in Australia. I kissed Jane on the back of the neck in a post office and she said 'You've got a bloody hide' and I said 'I do.' She bought me a coffee and I made passionate love to her in Madame Lash's bloody Spa bar. [laughs] That's true! Next thing I know, the Commonwealth Institute wrote me wanting storytellers from Australia to come to the UK.
Francis teaching stories with some kids
“There's not many people like me, to be a good storyteller you have to be able to hold people. Plus the full-bloods [people of purely Aboriginal origin] don't like to travel, and if you do bring 'em here they just wander off. It's a traditional thing, they don't understand structure, they just go with the flow. If they feel like walking up that alleyway they just do it. They once made a film with some full-bloods and they had to hire minders for each one so they didn't go off and get lost. Also the stories they tell can take days to tell, that doesn't always work with a modern audience.
“I need to go back to Australia now, to see my family, my son, my cousin. Unfortunately we wear out, we're not here forever. Also, I need to go to see the Elders up on Lightning Ridge. I need to go over the stories again, maybe get a couple more. They're getting older and I need to get a bit more information from them so that I can pass it on. I need to verify some stuff with them."
Francis at the first day of the Occupy London protests where he told the traditional Story of the Platypus
“Did you see me hugging those two lovely young women over there? I hope you're taking notes.” See, he can't be a hippy, his balls work.
Francis with a Korean man
"Education and intelligence are two different things. Intelligence comes from experience, from reality. You can do two things when you have a lot of bad luck, you can get pissed off, feel sorry for yourself and blame everybody else. Or you can say 'shit happens.' I'd like to say I was born a legend, but it took me a while. But, I am a legend. Every time I interact with people, everyone's different, I'm learning, I'm keeping on top of my game."
Francis went on to tell me about various aspects of old Aborigine culture such as eye-for-an-eye judgement, wrapping emu feathers around your feet to not leave tracks, magic men, the words to death-inducing songs... However, what he really taught me was to try to cast away my cynical Western mindset and allow a shred of positivity to creep into my otherwise reptilian worldview. I'm trying. It's not easy. But at least I have a New Year's resolution.
For more info about Kevin and Francis' film and their fundraising page, click here.