Australia

Rugby league behind-the-biffo doco opens up on mental health

A Queensland filmmaker’s journey to his father’s homeland has been the catalyst for a new feature film aimed at breaking down the stigma around men’s mental health.

Luke Graham’s film, Sharko, follows the story of his father, Mark Graham, and the world of rugby league, where masculinity was revered and mental health was shoved under the carpet for too long.

Above all, it’s a son’s ode to his father.

“He’s someone who I look up to,” Luke said.

“Kids look up to superheroes these days, well my father was like a real-life superhero,.

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Auckland’s amateurs conquered the world

The idea for the documentary came in 2017, when Luke and his father travelled to New Zealand for Mark’s 40-year reunion with players from the 1977 Auckland rugby league team.

A band of amateur players pulled off three of the greatest — but lesser-known — upset wins in the sport’s history: defeating Australia 19-15, Great Britain 14-10 and France 17-0.

Mark Graham has been inducted into the New Zealand Rugby League Hall of Fame.(

Supplied: Luke Graham

)

The Auckland reunion saw former teammates meet for the first time in four decades, regaling each other with tales of their playing heydays and the ups and downs of their lives since then.

It sparked Luke’s curiosity and the result was the film Sharko, which he hopes will be released early next year.

“Coming away from the reunion, I knew so much more about my father, but I felt there was so much I didn’t know about his life and his rugby league career,” said Luke, who lives in Gladstone with his father.

Men built tough for brutal sport

The 1970s and 1980s were a period when rugby league players divided their time between laying concrete or driving trucks and driving their shoulders into rib cages and their fists into opponents’ heads.

There was only one type of emotion: aggression.

A black and white photos of a group of men in football jerseys with arms around each other celebrating.
Mark and North’s Devils celebrate a victory.(

Supplied: Luke Graham

)

Much to Mark’s satisfaction, the sport has changed dramatically since then — and so has men’s attitudes towards mental health and seeking help.

“Nowadays, it’s OK to ask for help — and lots of people need it — and I’ve actually needed it in my time,” he said.

A tall man runs with a football while another man tries to tackle him.
New Zealand Rugby League legend Mark Graham in action for Brisbane North’s Devils in 1980.(

Supplied: Luke Graham

)

Two years after that all-conquering 1977 tour, Mark, then 24-years-old, pushed aside any thoughts of retirement and ventured to Australia to sign with Norths Devils in the Brisbane Rugby League under his former club coach Graeme Lowe.

A year later, Norths won the Brisbane Rugby League premiership in 1980, the last time the Queensland Cup leaders had tasted premiership glory.

Mark went on to play 28 representative matches for New Zealand and 146 for North Sydney Bears in the New South Wales Rugby League competition.

In 2007, he was named New Zealand Rugby League’s player of the 20th Century and, in 2018, he became the first New Zealand player inducted into the National Rugby League Hall of Fame.

To entertain, encourage conversation

Sharko is a feature-length documentary about the highs and lows of Mark’s personal and professional life. It highlights the pair’s relationship, generational patterns and family grief.

Luke said the film aimed to highlight masculinity, fatherhood and mental health, and how those concepts have changed over the past few decades.

He and his production team will travel throughout Australia and New Zealand over the next couple of months to interview his father’s former teammates, coaches and some of the greats he played against, including Wally Lewis and Ray Price.

Luke’s 2016 film, Broke, was about a former footy hero turned washed-up gambling addict.

After the initial film festival and theatrical releases, a $25,000 grant from the Foundation for Rural Regional Renewal will take Luke and his production team around regional Australia to screen the film for free and provide mental health and wellbeing workshops for men.

“I feel it will be a film that can entertain but also start a conversation about men’s mental health,” Luke said.


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