Searching for a good movie? Forced into yet another COVID-19 lockdown, or looking to broaden your cinematic experience?
Why not watch some Indigenous Australian movies?
Movies featuring Indigenous Australian writers, actors, directors and stories depict the struggles of Australia’s first people. They include movies set in rural and remote communities, city centres, and stories from contemporary Australia, as well as life before colonisation. The list below includes various titles which tell the diverse experience of the world’s oldest surviving culture.
Jedda is the first Australian feature film to be shot in colour and the first to star two Aboriginal actors, Robert Tudawali and Ngarla Kunoth, in lead roles. Jedda is born on a cattle station in the Northern Territory, and is given to the wife of the station boss when her mother dies. Jedda is forbidden from learning her own culture and from being with local indigenous man Marbuck. The film is also the first to compete for the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or award.
We of the Never Never, Bitter Springs and Walkabout are older movies featuring stories of Aboriginal people. They recount issues of contact between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people, especially in outback regions of Australia. Many of these films show their age, and while they usually attempt to be sympathetic to Indigenous people, they do so from a non-Aboriginal perspective and sometimes perpetuate colonial assumptions.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)
Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Kenneally, the story is about an exploited Aboriginal man who commits murder and goes into hiding. It is inspired by the true story of Jimmy Governor, and involves a police chase through the Australian bush.
Where The Green Ants Dream (1984)
Miners v Aboriginal people. It’s an old story; one that is still being told. This movie explores the clash between a mining company and the Aboriginal landholders who fight to protect the site of the green ant dreaming. Stars Yolngu actors Wandjuk Marika and Roy Marika, whose own land in northern Australia was stolen by mining companies.
A movie about a movie – or more specifically, about the star of a movie. The film traces the life of Robert Tudawali who payed a lead role in the movie Jedda. Tudawali died from severe bruns at about 40 years of age, and lived between two worlds in Sydney and his humble home near Darwin. The film stars Ernie Dingo as the lead character, and examines the racism towards Aboriginal people in Australian society.
The Fringe Dwellers (1986)
A depiction of an Aboriginal family living on the fringes of Australian society, who try to move from the fringes into the mainstream.
An examination of family. Three sisters are brought together by the death of their mother, and the reunion reveals family secrets. The movie helped launch the successful career of Deborah Mailman.
An Aboriginal man is caught between his allegiance to his people and his aspirations to escape the cycle of self-destructive behaviour – a conundrum facing many Indigenous Australians to this day.
The Yolngu Collection
The Yolngu people live in North East Arnhem, in the tropical north of Australia. They retain much of their traditional culture, and share this via numerous movies:
Yolngu Boy (2001)
Yolngu Boy follows the lives of three boys from Yolngu land as they cope with the transition from childhood to adulthood, while they find their way as Aboriginal people in contemporary Australian society.
Ten Canoes (2006)
Ten Canoes goes back in time. It is also set in North-East Arnhem Land, but is set in a time apart from colonisation. It tells a traditional story of a brother attempting to claim the youngest wife of his elder brother, and the consequences of that attempt. It is the first ever movie entirely filmed in Australian Aboriginal languages, and is partly in colour and partly in black and white, with a narrator explaining the story.
Manganinnie is an Aboriginal woman who survives a Black Line raid which claims the life of her husband, Meenopeekameena. Following the raid, Manganinnie searches for her tribe with a lost white girl Joanna. The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Beth Roberts, and even though it is set in Tasmania, it features a cast of predominantly Yolngu actors. The movie is also titled Darkening Flame.
High Ground (2020)
Set against the stunning landscapes of 1930s Arnhem Land, it follows young Aboriginal man Gutjuk, who teams up with ex-soldier Travis to track down Baywara – the most dangerous warrior in the Territory, who is also his uncle. Stars well-known Australian actors Simon Baker and Jack Thompson, as well as new faces like Jacob Junior Nayinggul
Warwick Thornton films:
Thornton has emerged as one of the pre-eminent Australian film directors, and one of the most highly-acclaimed Indigenous directors.
Sweet Country (2017)
“I killed a white man,” says character Sam Kelly, an Aboriginal worker on a remote cattle station. The act of self-defense sets off a man hunt through the Australian desert and is filmed in the style of a western. The plot highlights the treatment of Indigenous Australians by Europeans.
Samson and Delilah (2009)
Thornton’s first well-known movie, it charts the very real experience of Indigenous teenagers Samson and Delilah, who escape their remote community and head to Alice Springs to try to create a better life. Deals with the confronting issues of glue sniffing and societal collapse in Aboriginal communities.
Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)
The story of the Stolen Generation. For many years, Aboriginal children were deliberately stolen from their families all over Australia, especially if they were of mixed ancestry. In this movie, three young girls follow the Rabbit Proof Fence, which runs for hundreds of kilometres across central Australia, to find their way back home after being stolen from their families. A depiction of a shameful period of Australia’s past, which many non-Aboriginal people still downplay or ignore.
Top End Wedding (2019)
A movie, or a promotion for Northern Territory tourism? It works as both. A visually stunning romantic comedy starring Miranda Tapsell, who plays a city-slicker with ten days to find her missing mother before she can marry. A cinematic tour of the Northern Territory, and an introduction to life on the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin.
The Sapphires (2012)
An all-star cast. Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell and Aussie pop star Jessica Mauboy star in a movie about four young Aboriginal sisters from a remote mission who are plucked from obscurity to sing for American troops in Vietnam during the war. Another movie based on a true story.
Bran Nue Dae (2009)
The musical. Bran Nue Dae was adapted by Rachel Perkins from the stage show of the same name by, and it tells the story of the coming of age of an Indigenous teenager on a road trip in the late 1960s.
Toomelah – 2011
The Tall Man – 2011
Beneath Clouds – 2002
One Night The Moon – 2001
Mabo – 2012
A film about the life of Eddie Mabo, famous for a legal challenge against the Australian government and the notion of Terra Nullius which has justified the theft of Aboriginal land since colonisation.
Contact – 2009
Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy – 1990
Goldstone – 2016
Bedevil – 1993
A ghost story. The film is the first feature directed by an Australian Aboriginal woman, Tracey Moffatt and it challenges racial stereotypes in Australian society. Moffat also directed he short film Nice Coloured Girls (1987)
The Tracker – 2002
In My Blood It Runs – 2019
Bush Mechanics – 2001
Not a movie, but a comedic documentary series with a cult following. The low-budget documentary series follows a group of young men from the community of Yuendumu in the desert of the Northern Territory, as they try to fix their beat up old cars with material from the bush. Did you know you could stuff spinifex into a tyre instead of an inner tube? Very funny, and educational.
Redfern Now (2012) is also not a film, but a TV series. It does, however, reveal the reality of life in Redfern, an inner-city suburb of Sydney home to a community of Aboriginal people. Written, produced and directed by Aboriginal people.
Many of these movies are realist drama. Many of them are not happy movies, because the experience of Aboriginal people in Australia is not happy. Many of the movies are confronting. Some feature well-known stars such as David Gulpilil and Deborah Mailman, while others showcase first-time or unknown cast members. They are all entertaining, and provide an insight into real life in Australia.
Where are they now?
Where are the actors who make these films? Are they successful, are they still performing? Yes and no. Famous faces like Ernie Dingo, David Gulpilil, Miranda Tapsell and Deborah Mailman continue to star in movies and TV series, while other actors, especially the children, seem to disappear from screens altogether.
Are the stories true?
In many cases yes. Some are direct recounts of lived experiences, some are based heavily on a real-life event. This fact alone highlights the mistreatment of Indigenous people in Australia since colonisation.
Where can I find them?
Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services carry these titles. Otherwise, just google them and you should find them somewhere.
Sit back, relax and enjoy the show.