Moving incredibly fast, it’s Family Rules for Karla Hart

An interview with the Perth-based creator, producer and director of NITV's gorgeous documentary series 'Family Rules', now in its third season.

NITV’s landmark observational documentary series Family Rules is now in its third season, and that says something about its broad appeal. In six half-hour episodes this season follows Noongar mother, Danielle, now turning 50, and her large, close-knit family of daughters, most of whom live in suburban Perth. Don’t mention reality TV or the Kardashians. Yes, these are strong black women who love to glam up for photo shoots, but mostly their lives are ordinary. They take their husbands to ultrasounds, hoping for baby girls after a string of boys; they grapple with issues like career, education, travel and fitness. They’re warm, fun, middle-class, and also proudly Indigenous.

Karla Hart is the WA-based creator and producer of Family Rules, together with Renee Kennedy. Their companies, Karla Hart Enterprises and Metamorflix, made the show with support from Screen Australia, NITV, Screenwest and Lotterywest. Hart is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, director, producer, Noongar dancer, teacher and singer, actor and event coordinator. She was awarded the Perth NAIDOC Artist of the Year in 2017. It seems there’s nothing she hasn’t tried, and in this season of Family Rules she’s extending her skills, hands-on with the cameras, directing episodes as well as producing. 

‘The beauty of this family is what you see is what you get and they just get on with things as usual.’

– Karla Hart

We covered this groundbreaking show back in 2016, when its first season was unveiled to celebrate the tenth anniversary of NITV. At the time, station manager Tanya Orman said, ‘A lot of NITV is about inspiration and pride… And for us, it was really important to have a series that was real and just showed us: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. When I was growing up, I didn’t see “us” in anything. …This series is a factual, observational series that is heartwarming, but entertaining. It really reflects this new era of NITV.’ 

Three years later, these sentiments remain relevant, as does the statement from producer Renee Kennedy talking about the series: ‘Rarely has an urban Indigenous family opened their doors to Australia in this way. This is not Redfern or Western Sydney; it is not the remote Northern Territory or the Kimberley, but an unassuming suburb 12 kilometres east of Perth. So what happens here, with this family, is all the more important because this story has never been told.’

We caught up with Karla Hart to talk about this latest season and how it’s affected her and the family whose lives she’s documenting. 

Q: How is the third season different from the others, and how has it extended you as a producer, writer and director?

Karla Hart: I think the third series is different in terms of production as of course you find better ways to do things and do those things creatively, however in terms of story we are still on our journey with the Rules as they navigate life. Obviously new adventures are being had, but the family thread of love and resilience remains the same.

With production, I feel like the partnership with myself and Renee Kennedy has truly hit its stride. After three seasons I have really learnt a lot from her on the business side of things and she really is a force that delivers. I really enjoy working with her.

I have learnt so much more about production every season, as I have learnt on the job over the years. As a writer, the formula remains the same, based on real events in each of the girl’s lives. As a director, it is and always will be about trust and respect for them as real people, and instinct in shooting enough to tell the story and knowing when to put the camera down and let the family have some part of these moments for themselves.

Having shot three of these series now (and learning to operate a camera) I actually really enjoy capturing moments that I know people will really be able to relate to. Knowing what you have shot really helps in the edit. If something is missing, you know what is there and not there. Overall it has been a wonderful learning journey for me as a filmmaker.

Shenika’s maternity shoot. Karla Hart on right. Image supplied.

Do you think the process of being filmed has changed the women in the Rule family and the ways they relate and live their lives?

I think being filmed gives the Rule family a greater understanding of how important their stories are – so many people around Australia and the world have reached out and shared with them how their stories resonate. I don’t think it has changed the way they live their lives; the beauty of this family is what you see is what you get and they just get on with things as usual.

Read: Warwick Thornton’s big time-out at the beach: an interview

Can you tell us about why you wanted to make Family Rules back before the first season? What were your motivations and desires around making the show?

I knew from spending time with the family, that the dynamic between all the sisters, their relationship with their mum and the range of ages with varying life milestone moments all happening at the same time – that they had a fascinating story that needed to be captured for the world to see.

Growing up around strong women and family I wanted to share the story of incredible strength and resilience with our people.  My mother lived on a reserve and as did many of my first cousins. My grandmother had her kids taken from her. Yet, here I stand, having bought a home and studied at University. The stereotypes that a lot of people have, when they are stuck in the past – we have actually moved incredibly fast.

‘My grandmother had her kids taken from her. Yet, here I stand, having bought a home and studied at University. The stereotypes that a lot of people have, when they are stuck in the past – we have actually moved incredibly fast.’

Our mothers and grandmothers wanted us to have a better life and to take every opportunity – opportunities that they didn’t have. And this family is a prime example of this. They are hard-working, ambitious and striving towards better futures for themselves and their children, as so many of our mob are that you just don’t see on television or in the media in general. They’re also still very passionate and strong about their First Nation identity – as Noongar and Ngadju people.

What has the response to the show been in terms of the NITV audience? Do we have insights into how it’s been received?

Through the passion for the show we have been able to record three series and this speaks for itself. The show has had incredible media coverage over the years from a four page spread in Vogue, to a billboard and so many magazine, radio and TV appearances and across social media. The overwhelming love for the family has been beautiful. They do get recognised and people are often sharing with them how much they relate to them. To me, how pleased they are to see our women on television like this, to see our faces and to hear things that we all go through, I think that has been really beautiful.

How important is the concept of glamour to the appeal of this show? 

I love fashion and the girls also love fashion, which was great for me. Part of the appeal too is that yes, following a real family you certainly have your less than glamourous moments, but when we roll out to style up, this is how we do it. Film titles and promo shoots are incredibly important to me as a Noongar woman as it gives us the opportunity to support First Nation fashion design (which is featured in our promotional material and our show titles). To see all of the beautiful and unique pieces showcased from so many First Nation designers around Australia is also a win for me, as when we have any platform, we should be taking our brothers and sisters who are talented and worth that space with us.

Karla Hart shooting Family Rules on location. Image supplied.

You’ve talked about this being ‘deep access documentary’. Can you explain a bit more about what this means in a very practical way?

Not only is it non-fiction or documentary, as we say, but we follow the family for a long period of time, across life events, travel and for many hours that become days and months in their homes, capturing everyday life as it happens.  So, in that regard, we delve a little deeper.

What was the filming period of this season – and how many days shooting?

70 days shooting, starting 13 May 2019 to 12 September 2019.

What were your key challenges or problems with the making of this season? And what are you most proud of?

Key challenges, as with all seasons, is wrangling their schedules. When we try to get them all together [for things like] titles shooting we come up against the fact that the girls have work schedules, Kiara lives away and they are all busy with sport and kids, etc.

This season I am proud of a several things (although ask me on any given day I could answer with different things): 

Shenika’s episode, and seeing her family of boys and husband Trent, and the way she and Trent share their life, seeing their love, the softness and strength Trent has as a father and husband. I see so many brothers like this and where do we get to see our men like this on national television?  We are bombarded with negative stereotypes and to me, this is just not what our brothers are. Even though I shoot and am across the edit and know the episodes so well, when I saw it on TV for the first I was crying. Our kids, our men and our families need to see this and see themselves represented accurately on screen.

‘Where do we get to see our men like this on national television?  We are bombarded with negative stereotypes and to me, this is just not what our brothers are.’

Daniella’s episode where she travels to remote Warakurna is also special for me as I have spent a lot of time in remote communities and I wanted the world to experience how generous and inclusive the people are and just how special it is. I really think we showcased this.

In Kiara’s episode, we travel to my Goreng country which is part of the Noongar Nation and film with my uncle and aunties in country I grew up in and seeing the cultural practices I was doing as a kid (and still as an adult) so to share that is really dear to my heart.

In general though, I love all the girls and Daniella and I love seeing them on their journey. I’m just so proud of them and very protective too, they feel like family to me.

What’s next for Karla Hart Enterprises? Anything you’d like to share?

At the moment I am learning a lot and having a lot of fun producing Yokayi Footy for NITV and AFL, however I have a few fires burning so watch this space!

The third season of Family Rules premiered on NITV Sunday, 5 July at 7:30pm. Previous series also available on SBS On Demand. Follow the conversation on social media using #FamilyRules and #NITV 

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram