OnScreen Editorial: lessons from the Indigenous sector

Dan Edwards

This issue of OnScreen features several articles on Indigenous filmmaking, a focus set to spill into RT68 with coverage of Sydney’s Message Sticks festival. In what has generally been a troubled period for the industry, Indigenous films have been one of the few consistently strong areas in contemporary Australian cinema.

There are several key factors characterising the Indigenous sector that may provide useful pointers for the long term survival of industry as a whole. Firstly, the current wave of Aboriginal practitioners is partly the result of carefully targeted nurturing by film schools, funding bodies and Indigenous media organisations like CAAMA (see p19). Additionally, Indigenous media organisations, particularly in the Northern Territory, have provided crucial ongoing practical experience for emerging practitioners. The success of this process belies the oft-stated claim that film funding bodies are incapable of generating excellence and innovation, and highlights the importance of a continual working schedule for developing young filmmakers.

The second factor has greatly contributed to the sustainability of Indigenous filmmaking: the scale of productions. As Michaela Boland noted recently in the The Financial Review (“Motion Picture Sickness”, May 20) with very few exceptions it has only ever been low-budget Australian features that have enjoyed a degree of financial success. While the budgets of Australian features generally have been steadily escalating, Indigenous productions have remained modest. Ivan Sen’s debut feature Beneath Clouds, for example, was a financially restrained small-scale affair, and since then Sen has continued to develop his filmic voice through a series of half-hour video documentaries: The Dreamers (2004), Who was Evelyn Orcher? (2004) and Yellow Fella (2005).

The third factor follows on from the last: Indigenous filmmakers use any means necessary to get their stories told: working across forms has become the norm. As well as documentaries, dramatic shorts and a feature, Sen has produced video art (Blood) that has exhibited in spaces such as Melbourne’s ACMI galleries. Rachel Perkins is another prominent Indigenous practitioner working across forms.

Finally, for all their modest scale, most Indigenous films engage directly with our contested history or the conditions of contemporary Australia. In other words, these films address a specific audience and tell idiosyncratic stories with a strong sense of place.

So rather than asking whether Aboriginal filmmakers can “save our industry” (Katrina Lobley, “The Great Black Hopes”, Sydney Morning Herald, May 20), the rest of the industry should observe the lessons of the Indigenous sector. Australian cinema will never compete with Hollywood in terms of budgets, star power and sheer spectacle, but we can successfully make small movies telling stories that resonate with the experiences of targeted audiences.

On a personal note, I’m sorry to report that after 2 years this will be my last issue as RealTime’s OnScreen editor. I’m leaving to take up the Managing Editor position with the Publications Unit of the Australian Film Commission.

I’d like to say a heartfelt thanks to Keith and Virginia for the opportunities they have given me while working at RealTime, and to all the writers who have contributed to OnScreen’s growing critical strength. One of the job’s great pleasures has been making contact with so many talented writers and practitioners in Australia’s film and new media communities. DE

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 18

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2005