Five Questions with Peter Cousens

Five Questions with Peter Cousens

Australian musical theatre icon Peter Cousens is the director of the film Freedom, which tells the incredible story of the Underground Railroad in the 1850s and two men separated by 100 years, yet united in their search for freedom.

Lee DunstanMar 20, 2023, 12:41 AM

1. What Did You Learn From Making The Film?

It was an extraordinary journey because I only had a vague knowledge of the history of slavery in the Americas and John Newton’s involvement in the slave trade, and it’s these two elements that make up the film. So I learned a lot about African-American history in terms of that trade and also the role of the Underground Railroad, which was the network of ordinary people who helped carry these slaves to Canada, to freedom. Those elements then played into what I also became aware of, which is the modern-day slavery and human trafficking. So although it’s a period film, it has this resonance with the idea that there is a role for us ordinary people to continue to [make a difference in the lives of others], because there are more people enslaved today than there were 150 years ago. 

2. Where Did Christianity Fit In With The Issue Of Slavery?

People like John Newton continued to trade in slaves for some years and still called himself a Christian. Christians of that time certainly were part of the economics of slavery, as it was seen very much as a business, a bit like trading livestock. So in the context of the time, parts of Christianity hadn’t dealt with that from a moral or ethical perspective. But having said that, Christians were part of the driving force that changed that view. It’s a bit like Christianity—and society—is today. There are differing attitudes and levels of awareness, different ethical approaches and responses to what goes on in the world, and whatever faith you may belong to, there are, within that faith, different perspectives.  

3. Why Did You Use ”John Newton’s Amazing Grace” For The Film’s Secondary Title?

One of the characters in the film uses John Newton’s story and the song—and what it represents—to provide some stimulus to her son to find some sense of faith, because he’s filled with bitterness about the unthinkable treatments and violence that his forebears experienced as slaves. His mother has found a way to release herself from the shackles of hate and therein lies John Newton’s amazing grace—the ability to forgive, to love, to show compassion. 

Once Newton came to terms with his involvement and his conscience drove him out of the slave trade, it was some years before he really came to terms with it and became a supporter of William Wilberforce. But he was certainly haunted by the whole experience. And in a reverse sort of way, the slave character in the film 100 years later, had to come to terms with the fact that the only way he could be free spiritually, emotionally and psychologically was to forgive, to find the grace within himself. And Christianity provides that for us, the concept of forgiveness and grace. 

4. What About The Idea of Justice?

Some people think the only way to be free [of an offence] is either to sue someone and get something back from them, or to get them punished. But this idea of revenge as freeing yourself is misguided. There’s a line in the film where one of the character says, “With forgiveness comes true freedom.” It’s an interesting concept because for those of us who haven’t lived with the issue of racism, you can only imagine the bitterness that some people may feel.

5. The Film Sounds Like It’s About The Conversations We Have After Watching It too.

Other than the elements of faith driven by the characters in the historic story—the film is a parable, to a certain extent—the film doesn’t sermonise in any way, but viewers can have a conversation about a range of issues, either faith-based or around slave activism and racism. 

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