29 September 2023

Walk With Us: Connections made on Kokoda trail made into inspirational film to inspire communities

| Keeli Royle
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Man Walk and Barstool Brothers helping each other over a river on the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea.

Walk With Us: Kokoda captures the experiences of local men embarking on the infamous trail. Photos: Warren Keelan.

Powerful footage of the Illawarra men who followed in the footsteps of our World War II veterans to conquer the infamous Kokoda Trail could help others discover how the values etched in history by our Diggers are still relevant today and can help those struggling with their mental health to find strength and seek support.

At the start of this year, local charities The Barstool Brothers and The Man Walk teamed up to take a group of men to Papua New Guinea and help them build relationships and connections through an incredible shared experience.

“If you create the right environment for men to come together under the right cultural framework and there’s leaders within that group that are vulnerable then that vulnerability connects with each other,” The Barstool Brothers founder and His Boy Elroy owner Lachlan Stevens said. “We noticed that instantly.”

The 10-day gruelling trek was set to reconnect the men with Australia’s military history and reconnect with their own purpose, but rather than these rare moments of reflection being lost along the trail, each was captured on film.

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The documentary, Walk With Us: Kokoda, started as a collaboration between Lachlan and local filmmaker and director Mitchell McArdle as a way to promote the local organisations.

But it continued to grow as Lachlan and Mitchell realised the value of what they were creating.

“Literally the first night at the hotel, just sitting around meeting everyone and we had a moment where we all introduced ourselves and had to say why we were walking the trail and reasons why people were here,” Mitchell said. “I think after the second response there were already tears around the table and we just formed this really strong bond.”

“I remember looking at Lachie, I’m holding the camera, he’s sitting down, and we just looked at each other and realised that this is going to be bigger than we originally thought.”

Lachlan Stevens and Mitchell McArdle carrying camera at end of Kokoda trail.

Producer Lachlan Stevens and Director Mitchell McArdle are confident they’ve captured something special.

Each participant had their own motivation and purpose for going on the trip, with different experiences to share.

“You’ve got guys like Lachie who’ve got stories about finding renewed purpose after leaving the military, Daniel Chin from Barstool was coping with suicidal thoughts and poor mental health, and then you’ve got people who are going through this experience almost having an identity crisis, trying to find who they are, trying to find connection, trying to their place in a community,” Mitchell said.

“Everyone has something to contribute, but it all comes around community, relationship, meaning, purpose and that really intertwines everything.”

The film had to find a way to connect with the wider community while also honouring the military significance of the site itself, particularly for the veterans who led the walk.

“I was a little bit hesitant because I am a veteran and I want to do servicemen and women’s stories justice.”

“It’s really important to me and by no means do I want to say that one’s mental health experience is comparable to an experience that happened in World War II,” Lachlan said.

“But getting the balance right between honouring the story and acknowledging that story’s influence on the outcomes, particularly around resilience, mateship, courage and endurance is so important and how it all came together is what surprised me most.”

Group of participants at end of Kokoda trail.

“You walk out of that jungle as a family”: Participants formed unforgettable bonds on the Kokoda trail.

It was those four values that made the experience universal, regardless of people’s backgrounds.

“Resilience, as an example, is a really important thing that everyone needs to have an understanding of what it means and how far we can push ourselves to better ourselves, whether it’s from a physical or mental perspective,” Lachlan said.

And they shone through to make the film even possible.

“Day five fatigue starting to kick in and my body was hurting and I couldn’t move and Lachie would take the camera, run to where the shot was so I could follow behind without the camera, he’d hand me the camera and I’d get the shot,” Mitchell said.

“All of these guys started pitching in and helping and all of a sudden you could see this mateship value stick out as they went ‘This guy needs help, let’s help him achieve and get through that’.”

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Now with hundreds of hours of footage that could make a real impact on communities, Walk With Us: Kokoda is ready to go into post-production, but it’s going to be expensive so the team are launching a crowdfunding campaign to help keep it going.

“We’ve done the best that we can to financially support this ourselves, we don’t like asking for money,” Mitch said.

“But it’s at that point where we need a bit of assistance to get this onto the screen and to get this into people’s loungerooms.”

By getting the film out there the pair are hopeful it could improve people’s lives.

“It’s a call to action, and that action might be going over to Kokoda, that action might be involving yourself with one of our organisations, it might be if you’re a mother or a loved one or wife or girlfriend of someone who’s struggling it might be having a conversation to encourage action,” Lachlan said.

“If we can change someone’s life by watching stories and being vulnerable about our own stories, then that’s a massive win.”

To donate to the project or find out more visit the Walk With Us: Kokoda fundraising page.

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