Francis Firebrace is a travelling storyteller. He has a big beard, dresses in traditional tribal gear and hugs pretty much everyone he meets, whether they're the most intimidating person in the whole wide world or merely just little old helpless you. 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 happy. Like, really happy. Entirely content, or the closest to it 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 gormlessly, as did I through the entire day.
Francis' approach is pretty hard to explain, but only because it's so effective. Essentially all he's doing is engaging with people. This sounds boring. It isn't, it's exciting. Every time. Along the way Kevin Lee Brown, a filmmaker who's been following him around for over half a decade, explained to me what was going on. “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 Chesire cats. "I was in a bad mood today, but as soon as you're with Francis you just think 'Thank you'."
Born to an Aboriginal father and a white mother, Francis spent his childhood yoyoing between the bush and Western culture, before reembracing 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, though, Francis lives in a bedsit in Surrey.
Eventually we managed to pull up at a cafe. By this point I was becoming convinced that Francis was some sort of angel. “I've spoken to a few people, but that's normal for me. I just love people and I have a passion for life and to change peoples' lives. I can see through much wider vision because of the lessons I've achieved in life. My approach works, the average person can't understand why it works because we're conditioned into believing it won't work. You can be charming, but you have to speak the truth as well.”
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.”
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 and that, it was part of the initiation to me, I didn't know any different. When I went to Melbourne, when I was 17, I couldn't understand why my cousins didn't fight. I soon learnt there were better methods to doing things, though. 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 started taking people out on boat trips.”
Francis ended up in the UK due to, “A woman called Barbara Jane, who I love very much – and I do mix business with pleasure because I sleep with the lady and occasionally make love to her, occasionally meaning that I'm 75. 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 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
As well as the film, which Francis and Kevin are planning to finish after they've returned to Australia (see the trailer below), there's a wider project attempting to find a way to address the dying out of traditional stories.
“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. I live in London and it's really cold right now. But at least I have a New Year's resolution.
"Sometimes you get different things going on. One guy was having a bad day on the tube the other day and told me to fuck off when all I said was 'hello'. But then, on the other hand, I stopped a robbery on a train in my fifties, against five street kids in Sydney. I've been like this a long time. The University in Canberra did an experiment with people about personal space. They'd get all up in your face and threaten you. They said to me, "You're very unusual, you don't have any personal space," which is true. I find if you keep calm there's never any problems. People say some funny things to me, but I'd say over 90 percent of people, I win round. One thing I've learnt, and it's a hard lesson to learn, is what other people think of you is none of your fucking business. Forget about it."
For more info about Kevin and Francis' film and their fundraising page, click here.