FILMING inside the Adelaide Women's Prison was ''a really big coup'' for director Beck Cole.
But she said: ''To be honest, I didn't realise how affected I'd be by it.''
Indeed, walking into the prison on the first day of shooting Here I Am was a sobering moment for Cole and her Aboriginal cast. ''It was a big wake-up call for the crew and Shai [Pittman] to be locked up in a cell,'' she said.
Here I Am will open this year's Message Sticks indigenous film festival, which premieres at the Sydney Opera House on Thursday before touring around Australia.
The festival, programmed by Bran Nue Dae director Rachel Perkins, includes films, documentaries and shorts about indigenous people in Australia and overseas, performances by Ursula Yovich and the children's stage show I See.
Written and directed by Cole, Here I Am tells the story of Karen, played by Pittman, a young Aboriginal woman who leaves prison determined to turn her life around. But she is estranged from her daughter and mother Lois, played by Marcia Langton, who refuses to trust her.
Cinema audiences are increasingly receptive towards indigenous storytelling, Cole said. ''They get it. It's not ooga-booga and freaky.''
Cole described the disproportionately high numbers of indigenous people in custody as ''a really negative part of the Aboriginal experience in this country''.
Here I Am looked at ''the reasons why as an individual you end up in prison'', she said. ''The reasons you've neglected your children, taken drugs, done all this shit and f---ed up your life.
''Also you have to take a look at yourself. You can't point a finger at other people. It's not the government that didn't feed your children or make you do drugs or break into houses. Subtly, it's about taking responsibility for your own life.''
Cole lives in Alice Springs with partner Warwick Thornton, the director of Samson & Delilah and the director of photography on Here I Am.
She said it was an exaggeration to say levels of violence in the Alice were increasing: ''We've always been exposed to what you're reading about in newspapers now.''
Perkins said Message Sticks did not have a theme. ''We just show the best work.'' The festival also features Ivan Sen's Shifting Shelter 4, the latest in a series that has followed four young Aboriginal people living in rural NSW since 1995.
Perkins said several films, including Sen's documentary and an Alaskan drama about Inuit teenagers, On the Ice, were about ''young people growing up hard and coming from dysfunctional families''.
But Perkins said she disagreed with Here I Am producer Kath Shelper's assertion that it is the first feature to focus on urban Aboriginal women in a modern setting.
''I don't agree. I've made a film about Aboriginal women,'' said Perkins, who directed 1998's award-winning Radiance, about three indigenous sisters who reunite for their mother's funeral.