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New narratives.

Josie Hess and Stephanie Sabrinskas think a lot about narratives, their power over people and also how they can shape what people are ready to hear.

Apr 19, 2022

Words: Gippslandia
Images: Josie Hess

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One of the joys of a quality podcast is finding yourself utterly immersed in the discussion. All barriers are seemingly removed and you perceive that you’re right there amidst the conversation with the hosts.

Such rapport between podcast hosts can be rare, which is why listening to best friends and friends since high school Josie Hess and Stephanie Sabrinskas on Coal Face is damn cool.

Originally from Morwell (Josie) and Moe (Steph), like many artists before them, they fled to the City to learn and create in a way that they just couldn’t here in Gippsland at that time.

Returning in 2016, they found the area in a state of flux. While the Hazelwood mine closure had been announced and the impacts of this decision still lingered, they felt a genuinely tangible energy here stoked by the many great activists who has stayed behind to make their home a better place.

“We saw how the City misunderstood the region,” say Josie and Steph. Josie, in particular having studied a Masters in Journalism, soon witnessed that the “students from the City didn’t paint the area with the nuance that we saw unfolding”. This further fuelled Josie and Steph’s belief that it should be “Us, people from the Latrobe Valley telling our own stories”.

"...It provides the seed for an inclusive energy revolution.”

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With a suffocating volume of reports continually being published through the past five years, Josie and Steph knew that they needed to understand, then compress, this irrepressible deluge of information into more digestible chunks.

Serendipitously, they participated in a pivotal project with creatives PollyannaR, Mark Hooper and Grace Ware as they explored their Coal Hole artworks in late 2019. This was proof that “art can communicate these ideas… and is a great assistance in taking others on the journey” of understanding what is happening in their backyard. A facet that gained further prominence for them as they better understood how the chasm of classism was influencing the discussion.

As Steph says, “[There are] many vulnerable people living near the Valley’s mines, and when you’re stuck on survival mode, who gives a shit about mine rehab.”

Before sharing the poignant realisation that “you can use narrative in order to help forge new identities,” which can still be negative for residents and outsiders alike.

Josie and Steph think a lot about narratives, their power over people and also how they can shape what people are ready to hear.

Their flourishing careers in storytelling, community consciousness and the ‘wicked problem’ created from the increasingly redundant (yet no less flammable) mines have all collided to form a powerful seam of creativity.

They have gained a highly-regarded fellowship through the Doc Society, a non-profit based in London and New York that is committed to enabling great documentary films. Which is a mentorship to assist them with the impact of their film, Life After Coal. Described as: Morwell sits on the precipice of one of Australia’s largest coal mines — in the wake of industrial collapse, the community activates around art to discover a new identity as it transitions towards an unknown future.

To expand the stories and further the reach of their learnings from the project, they created their podcast, Coal Face.

And, this director/producer combination were one of 11 collectives selected by the ABC to produce a documentary for the Your Planet Short Docs Initiative for their film, After The Smoke. This will feature a collage of artists’ interpretations to illustrate the story of Wendy Farmer: housewife turned activist and founder of Voices of the Valley, [as] Wendy recounts how the devastating Hazelwood mine fire led her to find her voice as an activist, fighting for a new identity for the Latrobe Valley as a renewable hub.

From the 'End of Coal' photographed by Josie Hess.
From the 'End of Coal' photographed by Josie Hess.

As we said, both Josie and Steph are in the midst of an outburst of creativity and are obviously tenacious creators.

Given the sheer volume of conversations they’re enjoying and the horrendously dull mining reports they’re reading, it became imperative to hear Josie and Steph’s vision for the future of the Valley’s mines. Their optimistic or best-case future scenario is for, “Safe, sustainable and useable land.

“It’d be great if it could have some form of tourist or cultural value… a beautiful lake… but, from what we have learned about what is possible, without destroying the waterways, that really isn't an option, without immense investment in an additional water source.

“The realistic scenario is that the batters are stable and non-burnable, so potentially covering the whole mine face with clay. Then for Gippsland to become the new renewable energy hub; for the Latrobe Valley to benefit through new jobs. Considering the growth of the community and co-operative power, the potential return of the SEC (State Electrical Commission) and the corresponding waning influence of privatisation, is a more interesting narrative and more expansive than just rebranding as a renewable power hub. It provides the seed for an inclusive energy revolution.”

From the 'End of Coal' photographed by Josie Hess.
From the 'End of Coal' photographed by Josie Hess.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 26

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