A flyer, a conversation and some lessons in filmmaking changed the course of Daniel De Filippo’s life.
From couch to couch, and job to job, Daniel De Filippo wasn’t your typical 18-year-old. Always on the move, he’d often sleep where he fell, never knowing what the next day would bring. A fast food outlet one week, a hospitality business the next, he’d long forgotten about working for money – he was working to try to improve his chances of making it onto the housing list.
At this stage in his life, his education revolved around learning street awareness. He did what he could for money or shelter, and most importantly he needed to look out for himself.
That was until one day a flyer on the notice board of his local community centre caught his attention. It advertised a Certificate IV in Live Production Theatre and Effects at ITeC and, in hindsight, that piece of paper would signify a way out. It would provide a lifeline, which Daniel clung to in order to pull himself from the cycle of homelessness.
Seven years on, Daniel received another piece of paper – this time a certificate for his Bachelor of Digital Media from the University of Wollongong.
Reflecting on it all, I wouldn’t have missed any of the steps I took. Going back seven years, I thought I had no chance at uni, I had already beaten those thoughts out of myself.Daniel De Filippo
It’s no easy feat navigating your way out of hardship. Particularly when you’re living in a place that makes you question who you are. Daniel says he witnessed people, just like him, hanging with the wrong crowds and falling into worrying patterns of behaviour during his time living among Wollongong’s housing commission residents and at the Piccadilly Motor Inn.
“Up until I got kicked out of home, I felt I had been raised correctly,” Daniel says. “I was at the top and was going to make something of myself … but all of that went out the window. The rug was ripped out from under me.
“The jobs that were sustaining me didn’t give me that fulfilment anymore. I questioned myself and had this existential crisis – how could everything be so good at one point in my life and then be shattered the next? How could people do this to me … why me?”
Daniel couldn’t put a number on the amount of beds or couches he slept on over that 18-month period. He admits there was a certain element of freedom to always being on the move, but that was in stark contrast to his experience in a youth refuge.
“Living on the street, going house to house, it’s not good for you at all, but it offers more freedom. Being inside the refuge system, that’s more of a prison in that kind of way,” Daniel says.
“The refuge system has great intentions, but you’re essentially returning to a security camera. You’re in a secure building, with locked doors, locking you away from your neighbours – for good reason. And the fact they need the locks to keep others out, that kind of tells something about where you’re living and it embeds a label in the back of your mind about who you are. Your identity becomes affected by that.
“I went to this place called Piccadilly and I thought finally, I have a bed for two weeks – it seemed like ages.”
For the first time in a long time, Daniel could sit still. But he wasn’t living the life he’d imagined for himself, and so, as a distraction, he enrolled in the course advertised on the flyer and threw himself into filmmaking.
Occupying his time with a Certificate IV was a way to avoid facing himself, but it was also a method for gaining some confidence. As a part of his education, Daniel was required to take part in a four-week project that culminated in a film. But on the day of his presentation, the doubt began to creep back in after he saw a man in the audience speaking to his teacher.
That man, although unknown to him at the time, was award-winning filmmaker Phillip Crawford from not-for-profit organisation Beyond Empathy.
“Phil came in, he was just there to watch, and I saw him talking to one of the other teachers and I thought ‘I’ve just made the most embarrassing piece of shit ever’,” Daniel says. “I thought, ‘I hate my voice, I hate how I look, I’m not animated enough, I’m not funny, I’m not even reading the script properly and Phil is going to see this’. But then afterwards he comes up and says, ‘that was really great, you should think about doing some more acting’.
“Then he introduced two projects, one of which was Rites of Passage – which is what shaped me and helped me get my confidence back.”
Beyond Empathy is an organisation driving change through creativity. It aims to use the arts to influence and enrich the lives of people experiencing hardship. Phil and Daniel first spoke at the ITeC presentation, then again at a café on the beach.
“When he spoke to me at ITeC, a lot of the kids there were from the same background as me,” Daniel says. “The pressure when you have those people around – I wasn’t going to tell Phil the honest truth of how I feel about everything, because if I do let my guard down I was worried what they would think of me, if they would judge me or beat me, or maybe I was just paranoid – but I couldn’t tell him the truth.
“But at that next meeting, in the relaxed environment with just him and me, I began to realise he was listening. I told more of a personal story, and then it became more about not what my story was, but what it could do.”
That’s where Rites of Passage kicked-off for Daniel in 2010 and he has been with Beyond Empathy ever since.
Daniel Art Maker
Phillip had many conversations with Daniel and other disadvantaged youths from the Illawarra, whose interviews formed the narrative of Rites of Passage. Crowdfunding propelled the feature-length film, which explores the interwoven stories of six teenagers, covering topics ranging from financial struggles and domestic violence to love and the joys of growing up. All of the actors are everyday people who were experiencing hardship, and while none of them told their own story, they told real stories that were altered and swapped around – to depict a side to society people don’t always see.
Daniel says the process took about three years and taught him about exploring narratives, story boarding and the creative methods of filmmaking. It also motivated him to enrol in TAFE and university.
“Having a movie that was successful meant we could travel,” Daniel says. “We premiered Rites of Passage at the Gala Cinema in Warrawong, then we sent it off to different festivals – the Warsaw Film Festival in Poland, the Thunder Bay Film Festival in Canada, and we did Q & As for the film at Fox Studios in Sydney.”
In his seven years with Beyond Empathy, Daniel continued to study. He did a Diploma in Screen and Media, then completed his Advanced Diploma during the first year of his Bachelor of Digital Media at UOW. He has also been involved with other major projects including Blue Rose, a sensory art installation designed for people who cannot communicate verbally, and is currently working on a film called Protection.
He began a blog, Daniel Art Maker, to document Blue Rose and says by taking these opportunities he was able to network, find freelance work and meet influential people, including one of his artistic role models Toby Knyvett.
“He is one of the most brilliant people in my eyes, who has experience working with sensory installations at Vivid at the Opera House – he’s done everything and is an icon of what I learnt to study,” Daniel says. “I’ve also met up with a brilliant woman, Robyn Murphy. She’s making a film that’s grounded in feminist movements, particularly to do with the history of female workers at the Port Kembla steel works.”
Through collaborating with artists and communities on these creative projects, Daniel hopes to help other people facing disadvantage, including those who are in the same place he found himself seven years ago. For him, creativity is one of the most powerful drivers of change.
“In cities like this, the nature of homelessness can breed a lot of doubt, and in those housing commissions, that’s where you will find that doubt,” Daniel says. “That was a big roadblock, and still is a roadblock for the people I work with now, but I’m in a position where I feel like I can do the most effective good possible at this moment.
“Reflecting on it all, I wouldn’t have missed any of the steps I took. Going back seven years, I thought I had no chance at uni – I had already beaten those thoughts out of myself. I think my story says you can get an education if you want one. The path is more of a struggle for some people, but what do you have to lose? This is your life you’re talking about. I think everybody should learn as much about this world as they can.
“The main thing I got out of uni was learning to adapt to new technology, and I think that has been vital. Knowing I could kick myself up the arse in that kind of way, that I could go out and learn, gave me more confidence.”
It was Daniel’s firsthand experience that gave him his story. And through Protection, he is helping the next generation to tell their stories.
“It’s called Protection because of the danger of what happens when we don’t protect younger children,” he says. “We are hoping this one, rather than being a feature film like Rites of Passage, we think this is more of an educational resource. It’s something we could walk through with a classroom of kids and ask what they learnt in each scenario.”