New Blak Films: new voices

Dan Edwards

The annual Message Sticks Indigenous arts festival at the Sydney Opera House provides Sydneysiders with a fascinating cross section of contemporary visual arts, performance, music and film by Aboriginal artists from around the country. The New Blak Films night comprised 2 13-minute shorts: Turn Around and Shit Skin, directed by Samantha Saunders and Nicholas Boseley respectively, and a 45-minute mini-feature, Cold Turkey, directed by Steven McGregor.

There is no doubt that the most challenging local cinema in recent years has either come from Indigenous Australian filmmakers or dealt with Indigenous stories. The painfully slow lancing of the wound created by Australia’s repressed history of race relations seems the only topic that can provoke even the mildest form of political engagement or formal experimentation in Australian filmmakers.

With this in mind, it was interesting to hear director Saunders introduce the evening’s first film, Turn Around, claiming she doesn’t think of her work as “Indigenous film” but rather as “girl fantasy.” This seemed a little disingenuous, given the context in which the film was being presented, but after viewing Turn Around her comment made more sense. While it is, of course, important that Indigenous films tell the big, representative stories about Aboriginal experience, Indigenous directors also need to be as free as anyone else to put prosaic tales of everyday life on screen. Although primarily a simple love story, Saunders’ film pointed the way towards an Indigenous cinema of the everyday, in which cultural identity forms part of the story’s milieu, rather than its thematic focus.

In contrast, Shit Skin was firmly in the ‘big picture’ vein, exploring how the traumatic experiences of the stolen generations continue to reverberate for Indigenous people in the present. The weight of historical narrative at the heart of the film’s drama seemed a little overwhelming for Shit Skin’s 13 minutes, and left little room for the development of the characters’ emotional journeys. In the Q and A session following the screening, director Boseley was asked if a story about a member of the stolen generation finding his or her family had ever been considered for a feature film. The question reflected my feeling that only a feature-length work could really do justice to the historical, political and emotional complexity of the subject matter.

Following a discussion with the directors of the 2 shorts, McGregor’s Cold Turkey provided the centrepiece of the evening. McGregor hails from Darwin, and has been involved in film production for 15 years, 10 of which he has spent with the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) in Alice Springs. He has directed several documentaries, including Marn Grook, the first by an Aboriginal director to be sold to a commercial television station. Although Cold Turkey is his first drama, McGregor’s film production experience was evident in his assured handling of the film’s fragmented narrative structure and the complex relationship between the 2 main characters.

Cold Turkey focuses on 2 brothers living in Alice Springs who embark on a final night of drunken revelry before the youngest, Robby, leaves for a job in Coober Pedy. Robby wakes the next morning in a police cell and the body of the film focuses on his attempts to reconstruct the night’s events through shards of hazy memory distorted by alcohol and his brother’s mind games. Although Cold Turkey effectively depicts a set of social problems that beset many Aboriginal communities, the emotional heart of the film is the complicated relationship between the brothers and the way that familial love can sometimes play out in the most twisted, hurtful way imaginable. It will be fascinating to see if McGregor can sustain his flair for formally challenging storytelling across a feature-length film. Hopefully he will be get to flex his talent in this way in the near future.

Events such as the New Blak Films night are important in giving exposure to what is still a nascent Indigenous filmmaking culture in Australia. It is also important, however, that these films are not side-lined or marginalised from the rest of Australia’s filmmaking culture. All 3 directors on the night stressed that they think of themselves as filmmakers first and foremost, and hoped their future output would not be forcibly limited by expectations of what Indigenous filmmakers can or should produce. The films screened deftly illustrated the range of possibilities being explored by young Aboriginal directors, and further reinforced the impression that Indigenous stories are currently providing the cinematic narratives that engage most powerfully with the faultlines running through Australian life.

Message Sticks ’03: New Blak Films, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, May 27

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 18

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

1 August 2003