Redfern: the view from the inside

Dan Edwards: Darlene Johnson, The Redfern Story

Gary Foley, Darlene Johnson, courtesy Sydney Film Festival

Gary Foley, Darlene Johnson, courtesy Sydney Film Festival

“I wanted to make a film, or a document, that really only presented the Aboriginal perspective on that whole issue. I wasn’t interested in the white perspective or the colonial point-of-view.” Director Darlene Johnson was talking about her documentary Stolen Generations (2000) when she made this statement, but her words could equally apply to her entire body of work.

This is Indigenous history and culture through Indigenous eyes—a celebration, a mourning, and a commemoration of self-empowerment against overwhelming odds. Her latest documentary The Redfern Story, unveiled at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, continues her project with an account of Australia’s largest urban Indigenous community and the cultural and political activism it has fostered.

One of the striking features of Sydney from the late 1960s onwards was the presence of a large Indigenous community that at its height reached 20,000. Aboriginal people, organisations and militancy, as well as an overwhelming police presence and intense poverty were all starkly displayed in Redfern, right on the city’s doorstep. It is this “impoverished community of landless refugees”—to quote one of the interviewees—that Johnson’s film commemorates. Relying on a combination of talking heads and a wealth of archival footage, The Redfern Story does a good job of tracing the rise of activism in the area.

Sydney, as the activist and actor Gary Foley reminds us, was an incredibly white town in the mid-1960s, when Aboriginal people began to drift into the city as the reserve system in rural areas was wound down. The formation of a black community in Sydney’s heart was not welcomed by police, and harassment was constant and brutal. “The beginning of my political education,” Foley recalls wryly, “was when I got a good kicking from a bunch of thug coppers in the Regent Street Police Station.” Indigenous academic Marcia Langton recalls the Regent Street cells on Redfern’s edge were known as the abattoirs : “The cells were covered with Aboriginal blood,” she tells us.

From this violence a Black Power movement arose that set about creating Indigenous organisations like the Aboriginal Legal Service in an attempt to provide a measure of protection for local people. An Aboriginal Medical Service soon followed. A little later, following a visit by actor and playwright Bob Maza to the Black Theatre in Harlem, New York, the National Black Theatre was formed. These organisations provided an incubator for many of the key figures in Indigenous cultural, political and intellectual life, from the aforementioned Langton and Foley, to cultural luminaries like Lester and Gerry Bostock and the Maza family.

Although The Redfern Story makes clear the enmeshment of culture and politics in the heady years of the 1970s, it’s the cultural activities that take centre stage here. The film opens with a skit from Basically Black, the 1973 television version of a highly politicised and satirical stage review that grew out of the Redfern community. There is also an extended discussion of the first Indigenous-written full length play, Robert Merritt’s The Cake Man, staged by the Black Theatre in 1975 and starring a young Bryan Brown alongside the Indigenous cast.

As Gary Foley says at one point, these activities and organisations transformed the world in which a generation of Aboriginal people had grown up. Those living in Redfern in the early 1970s had, after all, spent their childhoods in an Australia in which the reservation system was still in place and the White Australia Policy still very much in effect. Yet for all the sense of celebration in The Redfern Story, there is another tale behind the stunning archival footage, as the film looks back on this period from a contemporary Australia in which so much remains unchanged. Indigenous people as a whole continue to be treated as second-class citizens and poverty remains endemic. In many ways the aggressive drive for political and economic empowerment led by figures like Foley seems to have dissipated, while Redfern itself has been remade and pacified, with gentrification achieving what police brutality could not.

A more critical approach might have provided a fuller, more rounded picture about the lessons to be learnt from the Redfern experience. Why, for example, did the Indigenous organisations formed there have such a dramatic impact on the lives of individuals, while failing to improve the economic lot of the community as a whole? The archival footage also alludes to how many of the key figures in this story died before their time, including the great Charles Perkins and the charismatic actor Zac Martin, but the film itself makes no reference to this sobering fact. At 57 minutes, The Redfern Story simply feels too short to fully do justice to the rich, complex history of the area and the people who made it. Unfortunately the film’s account ends rather abruptly around 1975.

Then again, perhaps it is not yet time for more critical portraits—until a few years ago the only stories told about Redfern on our screens were hysterical reports of riots, poverty and substance abuse. The Redfern Story, like so many Indigenous documentaries of the past 25 years, looks at the other side of the coin. If it feels somewhat uncritical, it provides, as Johnson says, an unabashedly Indigenous take on a slice of Sydney’s history that for years was written in purely negative terms by Australia’s mainstream media. It’s a testament to the work of the Redfern trailblazers that filmmakers like Darlene Johnson are able to make films today in which we are, for once, spared a white perspective.

The Redfern Story, writer, director, producer Darlene Johnson, producer Sue Milliken; 2013 Sydney Film Festival, 4-15 June

RealTime issue #121 June-July 2014 pg. 24

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

9 June 2014