Indigenous Australian movies.

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.

The Old

Jedda (1955)

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.

Tudawali (1988)

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.

Radiance (1993)

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.

Blackfellas (1993)

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 (1980)

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

The new

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.

Popular films

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.

Diverse titles

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.

Australia’s biggest fear.

Australia is afraid. It is home to the world’s deadliest snakes, to poisonous marine stingers and deadly crocodiles. It suffers through annual floods, fires and cyclones, and dangerous spiders lurk in its undergrowth. But something else terrifies Australia: History.

Australians are afraid of their own history. A deep fear of acknowledging its past paralyses Australia and prevents the majority of its citizens from making public statements about the colonisation of the land and the suffering of Aboriginal people.

Politicians are afraid to acknowldge the truth of Australian history.

The current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is afraid. In 2020, he publicly declared that there was no slavery in Australia. He later qualified the statement with obfuscation in order to extricate himself from a PR disaster, but he never acknowledged that slavery did exist in Australia.

On a separate occasion, the PM dismissed the suffering of indigenous Australians when he said,

“You know, when those 12 ships turned up in Sydney, it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either.”

He was referring to the First Fleet, which carried colonisers from Great Britain and began the dispossession of Aboriginal land in 1788. There were only 11 ships.

Scott Morrison is not stupid. He attended an academically-selective high school and he holds university qualifications. He is also a master of marketing (many Australians argue that’s all he is). Morrison knows the consequences of telling the truth. He knows he has to appease the ignorant, racist, lowly-educated constituency which keeps him and his party in power.

Slavery occured in Australia. It was called ‘Blackbirding’ in some places, and called ‘education’ in others – it was never called slavery.

Blackbirding lured indigenous Australians and people from islands north of Australia to the mainland with the promise of work and high wages. Upon arrival at the farm, the workers were not paid for their work, were treated horrendously, forced to work in stifling tropical heat and horrible conditions, and were prevented from leaving or returning to their homelands.

When indigenous children were stolen from their families, they were ‘educated’ in the ways of the white man then sent to work for white families. Girls were normally set to work as domestic servants, while boys were forced to be farmhands. They were not paid. This is slavery.

Wave Hill walk-off

Another example of exploitation led to the Wave Hill walk-off. Some Australians learned about it in their history classes, some learned about it through the Paul Kelly song: From Little Things Big Things Grow.

The original inhabitants of Wave Hill, the Gurindji people, sustained the vast cattle station. In return, children under 12 were forced to work, accommodation and rations were inadequate, Aboriginal women were sexually abused and forced into prostitution for rations and clothing. There was no safe drinking water, nor sanitation or rubbish removal. In August, 1966, the Gurindji walked off under the leadership of Vincent Lingiari.

Furthermore, many indigenous Australians are still trying to recoup unpaid wages to this day.

The Prime Minister is not the only politician with a selective memory. The current opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, recently omitted a crucial paragraph from a speech about indigenous Australian soldiers. Albanese recognised the indigenous Australians who have fought in many wars for Australia, but it was later discovered he had omitted the following paragraph:

“A continent for which their ancestors had fought so desperately during the frontier wars-wars we have not yet learned to speak of so loudly.”

Albanese was happy to mention overseas wars, but left out the paragraph about the war on Australian soil between British colonisers and indigenous people. He left out the paragraph which concedes that Australians do not talk about colonisation – do not talk about the truth of our history.

Why have we not yet learned to speak of it so loudly?

Albanese’s office later claimed the omission was unintentional. Maybe it was, or maybe Albanese and the Labor party also feel desperate to appease the racist majority-especially since a federal election is expected this year. Thus, the current leaders of both of Australia’s major parties have failed to publicly acknowledge the truth of Australians history.

The national broadcaster is also afraid. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) initially referred to January 26 as Invasion Day and not Australia Day in 2021. The label Invasion Day recognises the colonisation of the land, as opposed to the peaceful settlement myth perpetuated in some history books. The ABC soon removed Invasion Day from all official publications and replaced the term with Australia Day.

History is political

Politicians determine the curriculum taught to Australian school students. Until recently, Aussie school kids learned that Aboriginal people were ‘primitive’ and ‘savages’. That they were simply ‘nomads’ who wandered the continent living hand-to-mouth, devoid of science, culture or technology. Students were also taught that Australia was ‘settled’ and not ‘invaded’, that the British were ‘settlers’ and not ‘colonisers’.

Textbooks soften the truth. Many Australians learned that indigenous people died in large numbers due to the introduction of disease for which they had no immune system, and not as a result of murder. Many politicians fought, and continue to fight, to keep this version of history in the school curriculum, and while the teaching material has changed, it is not always becoming more truthful.

Apartheid

Apartheid existed in Australia. Most Australians don’t know, or don’t want to admit, that this is true. The incident at Moree pool proves the existence of apartheid. Aboriginal people were officially excluded from the public swimming pool in the rural NSW town of Moree. Summer gets very hot in Moree. A group of Aboriginal activists visited the town in 1965 and attempted to enter the pool with local indigenous children. Three hours of debate and tension followed, during which fights broke out and non-Aboriginal locals threw eggs at protestors.

Moree Council eventually rescinded the by-law and Aboriginal people were allowed to swim at the pool. Aussies are happy to criticise South Africa for its apartheid, but are largely reluctant to admit its existence in Australia. Or, as one white South African once told me,

“South Africa is not the only country with apartheid, the mistake they made was giving it a name.”

Why is Australia so afraid of its history?

Why are so many Australians afraid to tell the truth about their past?

Racism.

Australia is a racist country, and the worst of this racism is directed at indigenous people. Racism justified the invasion of Australia by the British. The notion of Terra Nullius, or uninhabited land, justified the dispossession of the land from the original inhabitants. If no one lives here, they believed, then it can’t be stolen – it belonged to no one. Terra Nullius is supported by notions of cultural and racial superiority. The colonisers saw people on the land. They interacted with them. However, they claimed the land was uninhabited because it was devoid of structure and buildings which in European minds constituted habitation.

Racism is not going away. News outlets carried images of a large group of Caucasian Australian men celebrating their membership of a neo-Nazi group on Australia Day weekend this year. Many citizens and even elected politicians have publicly declared their support for Trump and his rhetoric. Fringe political parties with a platform of racism and bigotry, such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, are winning more votes in elections – which is why mainstream parties are so keen to appease the racists.

Lies

Australians are also fed lies about the consequences of telling the truth. Australians have been convinced that officially acknowledging the truth will cost them their homes, as indigenous people will make endless land rights claims and take back possession of suburbs throughout the nation.

Image:www.worldatlas.com

Playing Tip With a Buffalo.

Have you ever played tip with a buffalo? The kids in Yirrkala do it all the time. For fun.

A group of children from as young as four years old will wander through the bush and search for one of the many Asian water buffalos which roam free in Arnhem Land. Not the domesticated buffalo which plough the rice paddies in Asia, but the feral, wild, big and dangerous kind of buffalo which infest the tropical regions of northern Australia.

Once the children have located a buffalo, they line it up. One or more of the children will pick up one of the bauxite stones which cover the earth in north-east Arnhem Land and will place this stone into their slingshot.

The children will hold their collective breath in anticipation and get ready. The slingshot draws back to its full length. The fingers pinching the slingshot ease then…SNAP! The slingshot is released and the stone goes flying towards the unsuspecting buffalo which is happily munching on the grass. In the split second that it takes the the stone to travel from the slingshot to the buffalo, the children stand on full alert, their senses heightened and their eyes widened to capture the charge of the massive buffalo.

WHACK!

The stone strikes the hind of the buffalo and the huge angry creature charges into the bush in the direction of its attackers. The wild, muscle bound animal powers head long into the throng of children who scamper in all directions with the buffalo at their heels. In bare feet, the skip across stones and thorns and twigs in a race for their life, knowing full well that the beast behind them can squash the bonnet of a SUV upon impact and could trample them to death. They charge through spindly trees and over fallen logs while screeching and laughing and hooting in fear and glee. Slightly older children grab slightly younger children to save them from impending doom and the bush comes alive with the streak of junior humanity.

The buffalo snorts and grunts in disgust at having its lunch disturbed and sets its horns on its target – any of the children who broke it from its reverie. The buffalo has only revenge on its mind and dedicates every ounce of energy to that task.

Somehow, all of the children find safe ground as the powerful buffalo tires and ceases its pursuit. The children re-gather in a gaggle of laughter and wicked smiles, their little hearts pounding with adrenaline and gratitude. They escaped this time. They rest and recover.

Until next time.

Image: http://www.biggameaustralia.com

Honey Season is Over.

“Honey season is over”

“When did that happen?”

“About two hours ago apparently”

Well that changes everything.

We were supposed to take the entire school out to a homeland to collect Guku, or wild honey. We now have to find another way to entertain the students for an afternoon. What will we do?

And before we decide what to do, how did honey season come to such an abrupt halt?

Honey season occurs at a particular time of the year in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and is a highly anticipated season among the traditional owners of these lands, the Yolgnu. The children venture out into various parts of their family’s homelands to collect wild honey from certain trees, under the direction of the women. The women knew when to go, and where to find the honey, and the children have always looked forward to sampling the rich honey to complement what was traditionally a sugar-free diet.

The kids consume a lot more sugar these days, but they still love the sweet taste of wild honey.

Hours of planning had gone into the activity, which would include all of the students at the school, the staff, the elders and a group of visiting indigenous athletes in a group called ARM, or Athletes as Role Models. The ARM program was created to encourage indigenous youth to participate in healthy and constructive activities and to eat healthy food. Thus, a walk through the bush, in the sunshine, to eat wild honey and connect with their traditional culture was an ideal afternoon activity.

The ARM participants were lucky. Many of them were city folk and they just happened to be in the community of Yirrkala during Guku season – or so they thought.

The Guku site was beyond walking distance from the school, so transport had to be organised. Being a government school, first aid and other equipment had to be taken in order to keep the children safe, and to satisfy the bureaucrats and protect the teachers from a lawsuit. Not that the Yolngu families would ever undertake that kind of proceedings against the school. It always struck me as humorously ironic that we teachers would take so many precautions for the safety of the students during outdoor activities, while the Yolgnu children, especially the younger ones, would wander through the bush in bare feet, no shirt and no hat, and run freely across the bauxite gravel that covers the earth in this part of Australia. They would also run bare foot across coral in the rock pools, and even swim in crocodile infested waters at the beach, as they have done for thousands of years. They very, very rarely got hurt.

Shovels, axes and other digging equipment were organised for extracting the honey, and receptacles were taken to carry the Guku, as well as some bread and other food items with which to enjoy the honey. I was looking forward to it, as I have a dangerously sweet tooth, and the rest of the school was excited about the activity.

The elders had been consulted as to the best day to conduct the activity, the best site to visit and the cultural significance of the process. Permission had been sought from the traditional owners of that particular piece of land. Many different language groups live together in Yirrkala, but each piece of land belongs to a particular language group. Organising the activity was therefore quite an effort.

The teachers had built up the activity quite a lot, and everyone was excited. Then, two hours before we were set to depart came the bad news:

Honey Season is Over

In the space of two hours, honey season had been declared finished, and we couldn’t do the activity.

Why?

I have no idea.

I had no time to ponder, though, because we needed to find another way to entertain the students for the rest of the afternoon. Thus, while various teachers were dispatched to deliver the bad news, a few of us tried to devise another activity. The sea breeze had picked up, so the best suggestion was to fly kites.

But we have no kites.

That’s no problem, in fact it could be the solution. We can make kites. The students can sit down with each other, the teachers and the athletes, and can build their own kite before decorating it and flying it. Great idea, we thought.

“Do you know how to make a kite?” we asked each other.

“Not really.”

It was then that Ray Minniecon, one of the group leaders from ARM, walked in. Ray is a well-known Aboriginal community leader and activist who was accompanying the athletes on their tour of various remote communities.

“So, you need to know how to make a kite,” he said.

“Yes,” we answered with more than a hint of desperation. Time was running out.

“I know a way”

And with this, us two whitefellas from the suburbs waited with baited breath.

Were we about to share some ancient Aboriginal wisdom about traditional kite making? Were we about to be privy to a little-known Aboriginal technique in the creation of airborne art? We expected to be taught about a tradition that that had been passed on from generation to generation through Aboriginal oral history. Did Aboriginal people make kites before colonisation, were they used for hunting, communication, recreation or for spiritual reasons, or were kites a preferred method for communicating with the gods?

Were kites used in every part of the country, or maybe only in Ray’s ancestral lands, we wondered. Perhaps they were only suitable in certain climates, certain geographical regions, just like the boomerang. The commonly-known boomerang, the one made in China and sold at souvenir shops all over Australia, was not used in Arnhem Land for example. A boomerang like that would never come back. In Arnhem Land, the trees would get in the way.

And what were we to do with his knowledge once it was shared with us? Would we be free to disseminate it? Could we divulge this secret years later during a blog post? The responsibility felt immense, were we ready for this?

Thus, we listened intently for Ray to share this ancient wisdom. And Ray, being a wise old man, sensed our mood and leaned in slightly, pausing for dramatic effect, before telling us:

“Just google it.”

And he cracked a cheeky smile.

We did google kite making and found a suitable method that kids, teachers and athletes could understand. The students gathered various materials from the school and the surrounding bush land and put together their best imitation of a kite. They were creative and colourful and some of them actually flew. Even the ones that crashed spectacularly provided much amusement, and the kids were outdoors and smiling.

I never did taste wild honey.

Will I ever get the chance, who knows?

Who knows when we will be able to travel freely to north-east Arnhem Land again? Who knows if the Yolgnu can maintain their traditional cultural practices and protect their lands from mining companies, developers and an Australian government which seems determined to destroy this country’s natural environment?

Will the rest of Australia do what is needed to help protect the world’s oldest surviving culture and enable everyone to enjoy the taste of Guku?

Image: Matthew T Rader