My recent forays into Australian film have proven to be immensely useful and refreshing in the context in which I sought introduction. A growing interest in Aboriginal Australian culture and media – which forms part of a wider project to understand the cultural and social dissonance prevalent, and often plainly discernible, between Aboriginal Australians and Euro-Australians.
Over the past week, I set out to watch Australian films that are heavily influenced by Aboriginal themes. Naturally, at the initial stage, I was pointed in the direction of the most popular streaming service of our times: Netflix (AUS edition). Here are my Australian film highlights on Netflix Australia:
Produced by Blackfella Films and directed by its founder Rachel Perkins – a woman of the Arrernte and Kalkadoon nations. This biopic stars Jimi Bani and Deborah Mailman as Koiki Eddie Mabo and Bonita Mabo.
Mabo is a hugely significant name in the history of the Aboriginal Australian land rights movement, and is associated with a major turning point in Australia’s relationship with its indigenous population.
The subject is delicate; the film is ambitious in that it tries to cover a lot of ground over a 30+ year timeline, the consequences of which can be seen in the paucity of great detail in unpacking events.
Emphasis is duly placed on the landmark land rights case that would eventually see the legal doctrine of Terra Nullius overturned – which has potentially far-reaching consequences for how colonialism is framed and understood in the 21st century. The film also highlights the corollary stresses and tensions arising from Eddie Mabo’s involvement. Mabo serves as a good introduction to the subject matter.
The Sapphires (2012)
The Sapphires is a comedy-drama light-hearted in execution, though still grappling with deeply problematic themes. The screenplay is based on the first popular all-female aboriginal funk and soul group of the same name. This one is a Goalpost pictures production, directed by Wayne Blair and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2012.
This Australian film features four strong female leads – Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell – that hit the US military touring circuit in war-torn vietnam. If that doesn’t scream comedy… Nevertheless, the narrative prompts all the feels of the warm and fuzzy variety against a dual-pronged, morally vacuous backdrop.
The first element of that dualistic backdrop is presented in the virulent racism of Australia’s hinterland, where three of the would-be Sapphires meet manager Dave Lovelace (played by Chris O’Dowd) whilst performing at a backwood talent competition under the name Cummeragunja Songbirds.
Over the course of the group’s development, having been completed by a fourth member, we get a snapshot of the atrocities committed by Australian institutions under the guidance of racist, neo-colonial government policy – associated now with the Stolen Generation.
The second element is the stark environs of the infamous Vietnam War, inspiring the squalid imagery that contrasts the glitz, the sequins, the attitude, and powerful voices behind the soul numbers. Though the emphasis is on the group’s journey, the narrative is always informed by that backdrop.
Redfern Now: Promise Me (2015)
Another Blackfella Films production directed by Rachel Perkins. Redfern Now: Promise me is the cinematic culmination of the two-season TV series following urban indigenous lives, starring prominent members of the tv cast: Rarriwuy Hick, Deborah Mailman and Wayne Blair. The feature-length follows two female protagonists who are raped by the same man.
The narrative is sobering and asks its audience to consider an array of difficult issues – quite rightly, for difficult questions are required in a constructive conversations about difficult subjects.
The audience is asked, in the immediate sense, to consider the differing responses to the crime, and their unfolding consequences. Though not a simplistic matter of right and wrong, in relation to both responses, it requires, rather, engaging at the very individual level with the angst and trauma of both characters and perspectives.
The account is multi-layered; you must consider that the issues raised are not isolated from interlocking injustices that are associated with ethnicity, gender and socio-economics. It’s a superb undertaking that probes, reveals and asks.