Drug dealer sees the light, camera, action
The Sydney Morning Herald/2002-11-30
By Ben Hills
The Rev Kent Williams lost the plot in his youth, but in doing so he found a winning screenplay, Ben Hills writes.
So there's this handsome young drug-dealer, right, who gets involved with a loony cult, is rescued by his doting dad, sees the light and decides to use his ill-gotten gains putting himself through theological college. He's ordained as a priest and moves to the North Coast where ...
Nah. Forget it. No one would ever make that into a movie. Too improbable, even for Hollywood.
Except that it is not a work of fiction, but a documentary the little-known real-life story of the Rev Kent Williams, the parish priest at St Paul's Anglican Church in Byron Bay for the past seven years.
Mr Williams publicly revealed his sordid past when he was named winner of Australia's most prestigious prize for aspiring screenplay writers, the Screen Producers Association of Australia award, by an international panel of judges at a black-tie dinner in Melbourne.
"I suppose some of them [his parishioners] might be horrified by it," Mr Williams says.
"But nobody's come up to me yet and said, `I'm appalled that a man of the cloth should have dealt drugs.' I don't think they are that self-righteous or judgemental."
As well as the praise and the publicity, the 39-year-old clergyman, who is more often seen in board-shorts than a dog collar, wins a trip to Cannes next year to pitch his movie idea a 90-page third draft by now to producers and distributors at the annual film festival.
"I thought I was right out of my depth when I saw the other entrants. When they announced the winner I just sat there at the table stunned," he says. "Now I'm starting to think, `Which producer might be interested? Who might be good as the priest?"'
If the screenplay, a comedy with the working title Keeping it in the Family, has a ring of truth about it, it is because Mr Williams has drawn liberally from his own life and crimes, particularly when he was in his 20s and working for a stock and station agent in rural Victoria.
"I was keen on making a lot of money, and I got involved in distributing Turkish hashish smuggled in through the Melbourne waterfront. It came in big blocks with a gold seal on it, and we used to carve it up and sell it. Well, we'd sell what we didn't smoke. I realise now it was totally stupid; we could have got 500 years [in jail]."
Mr Williams wasn't caught by the police, but while he was spending time with his parents at Currumbin, on the Gold Coast, he was trapped by recruiters for one of the most noxious cults of the 1980s, the Children of God.
Their founder, "Moses" David Berg, preached a perverted gospel of prostitution and pedophilia, using attractive young women called flirty fishers to recruit men into the cult and part them from their money.
After several days of indoctrination in a safe house, Mr Williams, by now brain-washed, was rescued by his father, who took him to a Church of England group in Murwillumbah, northern NSW, for help. "This little old blue-rinse lady took me into the church and prayed for me, and that was it. God spoke to me and changed my life."
Mr Williams enrolled at Ridley theological college at the University of Melbourne, initially using the profits from his drug-dealing to pay the fees. He graduated after five years, was ordained, and was appointed to the Byron Bay parish in 1995.
He got the idea for the movie while meditating on his colourful past at a convent at Yamba two years ago. "What if?" he thought. What if a certain priest was caught smoking marijuana by a very strict mother superior of a convent?
The convent is in dire financial straits and is going to be closed and sold, so instead of denouncing the priest, the nun decides to blackmail him. To save their convent the nuns grow a heap of marijuana $500,000-worth and the priest tries to find a market for it. He seeks help from his two brothers-in-law, a cane farmer and an Aboriginal boiler-maker, and they make contact with a gang of criminals. For the rest ... you will have to wait for the film.
Mr Williams, who has never had anything published, jotted his ideas down and thought nothing more of it until he and his wife were sitting on their veranda drinking wine with one of Byron Bay's film people. The man listened to the story and suggested Mr Williams enter it in a local film script contest.
He won that, and the prize was a trip to Melbourne to give a 10-minute presentation to the screen producers association. Mr Williams did not reveal the end of the story at the pitch, but the idea was declared a winner anyway.
Some critics around town have muttered that he is treating lightly a serious social problem; police this week began their annual helicopter sweeps of the so-called Green Triangle on the NSW far north coast, looking for marijuana plantations.
But Mr Williams insists he no longer smokes the drug, and that the movie "doesnt glorify drug-taking; it doesn't say here is a licence to do it because even a priest can smoke pot".
The one thing he is worried about is how all this will go down with the army. Mr Williams is due to leave Byron Bay next year to take up a posting as an army chaplain, because he found parish life had become "a bit routine, a bit ho-hum", and he was looking for a challenge.
But he has learnt enough about the movie business in the past few weeks to know that if his film does get off the ground it will eat up a lot of his time. "I'm just hoping they will find the project interesting and will be a bit understanding."