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Indigenous film

Warning. Australian Stories may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased. Australian Stories also contain links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

Rolf de Heer, Still from Ten Canoes, 2006. Courtesy of Vertigo Productions and the NFSA

Rolf de Heer, Still from 'Ten Canoes', 2006. Courtesy of Vertigo Productions and the National Film and Sound Archive.

Indigenous film either portrays Indigenous people, issues and stories or is film made by Indigenous Australians. While Indigenous film is a small part, it is a highly significant part of Australia's culture. The portrayal of Indigenous issues and people in film provides a unique insight into Australia's relationship with its Indigenous peoples and heritage. Indigenous film can also be a means of expression for Indigenous experience and Indigenous culture.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, issues and stories have often been stereotyped and marginalised in Australian society. Australia's film history paints a similar picture. However, there are films that portray Indigenous people as self conscious and aware and not as a mysterious or dangerous 'other'. The portrayal of Indigenous issues go hand in hand with real world measures to achieve reconciliation.

Silence – 1920s

Still of automobile from Australiasian Gazette - 10000 miles around Australia, 1926. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive

Still of automobile from Australasian Gazette - 10000 miles around Australia, 1926. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been portrayed in film since the silent era of the 1920s. Films from this time about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies were made from a European viewpoint. They were also condescending in their view of Indigenous Australians. Fictional film, dramas and feature films, often portrayed Aborigines as threatening, but also represented them as mysterious or playful. However Indigenous people in both types of films were portrayed as primitive and inferior to the white settlers. (see Screening Indigenous Australia).

An example of how Indigenous Australians were represented in early Australian film can be found in the newsreel: Australian Gazette 10,000 Miles Around Australia (1926). A caption states: 'The collection of native spears bears witness to the automobile's peaceful penetration of the primitive north'. The film portrays white European Australians as victorious over the wild and uncivilised land and consequently as conquerors of Indigenous peoples and their land.

Un-civilisation – 1930s–1950s

Charles Chauvel, Robert Tudawali and Ngarla Kunoth in Jedda, 1953. National Film and Sound Archive

Charles Chauvel, Robert Tudawali and Ngarla Kunoth in Jedda, 1953. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

The conflict between white settlers and Indigenous peoples has frequently been a theme in Australian films. For example in the early Sound Era film Heritage (Chauvel 1935) 'black devils' attack a homestead. They are shown swarming across the landscape, killing a man and a mother with spears, before being scared off by men on horseback shooting guns. Both Uncivilised (Chauvel 1936) and Bitter Springs (Smart 1950) represent Aborigines as an undifferentiated and violent force of nature, rather than human.

A later film by the same director as Heritage presents a different portrayal. Charles Chauvel's Jedda (1955) pays serious attention to the experiences and feelings of the title character Jedda (Ngarla Kunoth), an Aboriginal girl raised by a white family. It is arguably the first film that does so, yet it is an ambivalent portrayal. The audience is led to identify with Jedda and her perspective, rather than the racist views of the white characters. Yet the tragic ending suggests that Aboriginal people and society are unable to be 'civilised' (in the context of European society at the time).

Roads – 1970s

Phillip Noyce, Garry Foley in Backroads, 1977. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

As the Australian film industry blossomed in the 1970's, Indigenous characters played a greater role in Australian cinema. In films such as Walkabout (Roeg 1971) and Stormboy (Safran 1976) Aboriginal characters are presented as helpful, kind and much more knowledgeable about the land than white characters. However, they are removed from the audience, presented as mysterious and misunderstood.

The film Backroads (Noyce 1977) coincided with social developments of 1970's Australia. One of the central characters was played by Aboriginal activist Gary Foley. Foley and Essie Coffey, who also appears in the film, were involved in the Tent Embassy, and were promoters of Indigenous land rights and culture. The film openly discusses racism and Indigenous experience. However, unlike some of the more recent Indigenous focused films, Backroads was not successful in its time.

My Survival as an Aboriginal (1979) is a documentary directed by Essie Coffey and made in collaboration with non-Indigenous filmmaker Martha Ansara. The film was the first documentary directed by an Indigenous woman and one of the first films where Indigenous people had a determining role in how they and their community were represented.

My Survival as an Aboriginal is a powerful film. Coffey has a commanding presence and speaks with authority about traditional skills and culture, her experiences as an Aboriginal woman as well as her views of the past and future. The film provides an intimate induction into Coffey's community and its message calling for the preservation of Indigenous culture is still current today.

White Australia has a Black History –1980s

Pat Fiske, Aboriginal Protest in Australia Daze, 1988. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

In the 1980s, awareness grew in the Australian public that Indigenous experience since white settlement was more complicated and shocking than had been acknowledged.

Lousy Little Sixpence (Morgan 1982) is a documentary in which Indigenous Australians recount their experience of being forcibly sent away from their families and communities to work for the Australian Government without pay. It is provoking to watch these elders tell their stories, in the knowledge that, to this day, the issue of stolen wages' has not been entirely resolved.

One of the most successful Australian films of all time, Crocodile Dundee (Cornell 1985), does not acknowledge this history. However, it presents a complex view of Aboriginality and uses humour to subvert stereotypes. 'City boy' Neville, played by Australian screen legend David Gulpilil, tells the journalist Sue (Linda Kozlowski) that she can't take his photo. She assumes this is because he believes the camera will steal his spirit, but he replies quick-wittedly: 'Nah you've got the lens cap on'.

Australia's Bicentenary in 1988 raised the question of whether the public should celebrate two hundred years of white presence in Australia or Indigenous survival during this period. The documentary Australia Daze (Fiske 1988) reflects this ambivalence. The footage of the documentary was filmed on the day of the Bicentennial in various locations around Australia. It includes a section on the Aboriginal Protest. An Indigenous speaker describes the day as both the mourning of a genocide and the 'celebration of a survival' and criticises the lie of 'terra nullius' and its devastating results.

No More 'Terra Nullius' – 1990s

The 1992 Mabo Land Rights Case exposed the myth of 'terra nullius', and recognised the rights of Indigenous people to land. The documentary, Mabo: Life of an Island Man (Graham 1997) provides a window into the struggle of Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo to have his rights to ancestral land recognised. The landmark decision was only achieved after his death. The Mabo Case influenced the portrayal of land in many films that followed including Vacant Possession (Nash 1994) and even The Castle (Sitch 1997). The fictional court case in The Castle relies on the Mabo decision, although the characters are largely ignorant of its real repercussions.

Perhaps more confronting is the strange, the surreal, terror, the unknown turned upside down and reflected back in Indigenous film. Tracey Moffat’s Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1990), is a short film of an Aboriginal woman nursing her dying white mother. The film is in part a response by visual artist Tracey Moffatt to Charles Chauvel’s celebrated feature film, Jedda (1955).

Indigenous Australians had called for land rights long before Mabo's victory in the High Court. Tent Embassy (Peters-Little 1992) was made by Indigenous filmmaker, musician and academic Frances Peters-Little about a site of Indigenous protest that stands to this day: the Tent Embassy in front of (Old) Parliament House. The documentary follows the lives of the activists that established the Tent Embassy twenty years after its initiation. The film asserts the impact the activists had on government policy and the Australian public's perception of Indigenous issues.

One of Australia's stand-out film successes of the early 1990s, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Elliot 1994), depicts Indigenous culture as communal, vibrant and adaptable and subtly advocates its endurance. An Aboriginal man, played by didgeridoo legend Alan Dargin, invites the three central characters (drag queens Felicia, Bernadette and Mitzi) to his camp.

A number of camp members are playing instruments and singing. Felicia, Bernadette and Mitzi decide to perform for the camp and the two groups collaborate in a energetic and moving rendition of 'I Will Survive'. The performance evokes a complex array of meanings. The song was originally performed by African American woman Gloria Gaynor and has been associated with women's empowerment, gay rights, HIV awareness and now, through this performance, Indigenous survival and self determination.

For more information about Indigenous film in the 1990's, especially those relating to the experience of the Stolen Generations, see the article Sorry Day and the Stolen Generations.

The funding of an Aboriginal Film Branch saw the first drama initiative with six short films released in 1996 under the title From Sand to Celluloid. The short experimental films released included the drama Black Man Down which offers a spiritual alternative to fighting the system; Payback (1996), a black-and-white short about the Western and Indigenous legal systems - one of Warwick Thornton’s earliest dramatic works; and Round Up (1995), a lighthearted short drama that deals with the cultural clash between a white stockman and an Indigenous stockman.

In a visually stunning film, Two Bob Mermaid (1996) set in the 1950s, a fair-skinned Aboriginal girl gains access to the local swimming pool where Aboriginal people are legally denied access.

Reconciling the Nation – 2000s

Ivan Sen, Danielle Hall in Beneath Clouds, 2002. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

A number of Indigenous films were broadcast by SBS as part of Unfinished Business: Reconciling the Nation in the year 2000.

Since Unfinished Business, SBS in partnership with the Adelaide Festival has helped to produce a number of film that address Indigenous issues and experience including: Yolngu Boy (Johnson 2000), Australian Rules (Goldman 2002), The Tracker (de Heer 2002) and Beneath Clouds (Sen 2002).

Director Rachel Perkin’s film One Night the Moon (2001) uses haunting songs and music to tells the true story of white parents who refuse to use a black tracker to find their lost child.

Beneath Clouds uses the road movie format to explore what it means to be Indigenous in contemporary Australia. Beneath Clouds is Sen's first feature length film. He wrote, directed and composed for the film and won the 2002 Best Achievement in Directing AFI award. This achievement is made more significant by the fact that 2002 was the same year veteran film director Phillip Noyce was nominated for Rabbit Proof Fence.

Rabbit Proof Fence (Noyce 2002) was based on the true story of Molly Craig and her sisters' escape after being forcibly taken from their family and taken to a distant Native Settlement. Rabbit Proof Fence lays bare Australia's racist past. It is a telling development that so many Australians are now willing to embrace films with an Indigenous focus and to identify with Indigenous characters, even if this means siding against the white characters.

The 2006 Adelaide Festival helped fund and hosted the world premiere of Ten Canoes (de Heer 2006). It is Australia's first feature film to be made entirely in an Aboriginal language (although narrated in English).

Ten Canoes occurs both in the present and the past, portraying the Yolngu relationship to land and stories as an ongoing experience. The setting and central story are parts of David Gulpilil's country and traditional stories. Gulpilil was heavily involved in Ten Canoes behind the scenes as well as featuring in the film as the storyteller. Ten Canoes has been successful internationally winning a number of awards including a special jury prize at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2006.

Warick Thornton’s Cannes award winning Samson and Delilah (2009),takes a stark look at life in Alice Springs' desert communities and out-stations for two teenagers. Without bludgeoning audiences with a moral, Samson and Delilah spotlights people for whom there is no 'track', no place of relative opportunity.

Unfinished business – Mabo and musicals

Over the past hundred years or so, the representation of Indigenous Australians has broadened, including complex and varied portrayals of both issues and characters. The increase in Indigenous people working behind the scenes in film has also been an important development, both providing a means of expression and aiding reconciliation.

Mainstream television, notably ABC and SBS, broadcast or help produce more films that address Aboriginal issues and experiences and what it means to be Aboriginal in contemporary Australia. The joint initiative between SBS and the former Australian Film Commission, Bit of Black Business (2007), funded five minute long dramas 'that explore individual notions and experiences of contemporary Black 'Business'.

Set on the west coast of Australia in 1969, Bran Nue Dae (2010) is a road movie, a coming of age comedy musical which celebrates the adventure of finding home. Adapted from a musical written by Jimmy Chi, the film screen play was written by Rachel Perkins and Reg Cribb. It starred Aboriginal actors Ernie Dingo, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy and Ningili Lawford.

Rachel Perkins’ film Mabo (2012) is a telemovie that chronicles Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo’s ten-year battle with the High Court to overturn the concept of terra nullius and recognise native title in Australia.

The Sapphires (2012) directed by Wayne Blair is set in 1969 and tells the story of the McCrae sisters, four Aboriginal singers from country Victoria whose biggest dream is to become as famous as their Motown idols. The film is an adaptation of the stage musical, where four talented singers from a remote Aboriginal mission are discovered by an unlikely talent scout. Plucked from obscurity and branded as Australia’s answer to The Supremes, The Sapphires grasp the chance of a lifetime when they’re offered their first real gig – entertaining the troops in Vietnam.

The film took $14.47 million at the box office in 2012, putting it into 14th place of the most successful Australian films and the biggest Australian film of 2012.

In a relatively short space of time, Australian films have jumped from depicting Indigenous peoples through racist clichés to Indigenous creatives using film and television to document their cultures, promote social change and to entertain, thus entering the mainstream...
Films like Perkins’s Bran Nue Dae (2010) and Thorton’s Samson and Delilah (2009) cast Indigenous characters in the lead roles and set their stories within an Indigenous community and cultural context. In doing so these filmmakers have completely repositioned the on-screen presence of Indigenous characters, taking them from peripheral to central roles.
A Short History of Indigenous Filmmaking

Useful links

Listen, look and play

Online resources - general

Online resources - on specific films

Indigenous film directors

Resources for filmmakers

Indigenous media organisations

Print resources

  • Bryson, Ian. Bringing To Light: A History of Ethnographic Filmmaking at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Canberra; Aboriginal Studies Press. 2002.
  • Collins, Felicity and Davis, Therese. Australian Cinema After Mabo. Melbourne; Cambridge University Press. 2004.
  • Ginsburg, Faye and Myers, Fred. 'A History of Indigenous Futures: Accounting for Indigenous Art and Media', Aboriginal History; Volume 30; 2006; [95]-110.
  • Graham, Trevor. 'Trevor Graham on Mabo: Life of an Island Man', Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine; Issue 112; 1997; 17-18.
  • Langton, Marcia. Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television...' Sydney; AFC. 1993.
  • Meadows, Michael and Molnar, Helen. Bridging the Gaps: towards a history of Indigenous media in Australia. Media History; Volume 8 Number 1; 2002; 9-20.

Last updated: 30 June 2012
Creators: Shevaun O'Neill, Kathryn Wells

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