OnScreen editorial: boundaries without fences

Kirsten Krauth

Shane O'Mara, Gavin Ritchie, Road, Catriona McKenzie

Shane O’Mara, Gavin Ritchie, Road, Catriona McKenzie

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald (August 2) has 2 articles by Garry Maddox. “Black male: the hottest thing in Hollywood” argues that Afro-American actors have never been in a better position, taking on an increasing number of lead roles. This interview with Chris Rock reveals that he sees himself (and is seen) as part of the mainstream now, that Hollywood credits star power as more important than racial background. This is an interesting cultural shift and no doubt has been greatly influenced by the dominance of Afro-Americans in contemporary music and global Top 40 charts. Contrast this with Maddox’s other article: “Audiences slow to appreciate Aboriginal content.” The title sounds pretty definite doesn’t it, casting a negative slant. But what the article is really about is upcoming films featuring Indigenous content, rather than the ‘relatively’ poor showing of recent releases Yolngu Boy and Serenades. It’s getting a bit tired to keep comparing Australian and Hollywood films in terms of weekend box office takings. Surely we can come up with other criteria for judging our own films. The 3rd Indigenous Film Festival in Parramatta this year attests to an eager audience—they cited the 2000 event as “an overwhelming success.”

If there is no audience, why are so many filmmakers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, mainstream and non-mainstream, looking to explore Indigenous themes in upcoming films? The AFC has a slate of productions in the pipeline. Phil Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence (with an impressive cast including Kenneth Branagh, David Gulpilil, Gary McDonald, Deborah Mailman) is about 3 part-Aboriginal girls who are taken from their families in the 1930s and their long return journey. Rachel Perkins’ One Night the Moon (see Jane Mills’ review/interview), also set in the 30s, concentrates on the disappearance of a child and a white family’s relationship with an Aboriginal tracker. Fred Schepisi’s Black Magic is a biopic on Len Waters, the only Aboriginal fighter pilot in WW2. Ivan Sen’s debut feature, Beneath Clouds, is a road movie about 2 Aboriginal teenagers. Craig Lahiff’s Black and White (writer Louis Nowra with actor Robert Carlyle) is about Rupert Max Stuart, an Aboriginal man imprisoned wrongly for the murder of an 8 year old girl. Lastly, Bill Bennett’s Bennelong (writer Nick Enright) concentrates on the first years after European settlement and the developing relationship between Governor Phillip and Bennelong. These films are to be released 2001-2003. There must be an audience—all those who walked over the bridges in support of reconciliation for starters.

The Indigenous Branch of the AFC, SBS Independent, CAAMA (Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association), The AFI Exhibition Program and the ABC have been instrumental in preserving Indigenous stories through fiction and documentary. The distributor Ronin Films has a significant back catalogue of hard-to-find shorts and docos like Bedevil, Coolbaroo Club and Land Bilong Islanders. The National Indigenous Documentary Fund is in its fifth year, the only regular production opportunity for Indigenous filmmakers. Visit the CAAMA website for their current projects including a doco on Bonita Mabo and second series of the ABC’s very successful Bush Mechanics. Documentaries released in the last few years have concentrated mainly on personal history, recovering the memories of the Stolen Generations. Recent films like Sissy (screened on ABC) and A Walk with Words (winner WOW Festival 2000) have been more about liberation, through coming out or the power of words. Romaine Moreton, gorgeous provocative wordsmith, talks of her dual love of academic theory texts and art: “film, music, poetry, the arts, are how you translate those theories and put them into the consciousness” of everyday people.

Now a new generation of filmmakers is moving beyond ‘black’ issues to explore, as Rachel Perkins puts it, the “space between Aboriginal and white Australians.” Beck Cole, recent participant in the AFC’s Visual Telling workshop (Sharon Verghis, SMH, April 23) where filmmakers had 5 days to develop a film script, had a new slant on this negotiated space. “The tales don’t simply have to be of the harsher realities of black Australia, endless tellings of deaths in custody or community breakdown…I don’t think it has to be one issue any longer—we’re more complex than that. We don’t want to be forever trapped in all that PC bullshit.” Blak Screen at the Sydney Opera House, one of the most exciting film programs this year, had selections of the best on offer: Ivan Sen, Catriona McKenzie, Tracey Moffatt, Darlene Johnson. Their shorts deserve to be seen like this, as a package, as they are some of the most beautiful and compelling films made here.

If audiences are not going to recent releases like Yolngu Boy and Serenades, perhaps it has more to do with the state of reviewing than content. Nothing sinks a film like the perception that it is ‘worthwhile.’ Rhoda Roberts (in Joyce Morgan, “It’s easy to mix the wrong cocktail in the global village”, SMH, June 13) argues that critical reviewing of Indigenous arts can be softer than on other work: “Often when we see our non-Indigenous critics, they’ll do an overview rather than a review…It might be they’re frightened of being labelled as racist.” There’s no doubt that it can be difficult for a white writer to critique Indigenous work—all kinds of concerns and complexities start to surface—but it’s important to keep negotiating. In this issue of OnScreen, 3 non-Indigenous writers do just that, tackling Blak Screen, FedFest and Kumarangk, a new documentary on Hindmarsh Island. Let us know what you think.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 19

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001