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finding the words

jane mills: message sticks film festival

Dr Jane Mills is Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Australian, Film, Television & Radio School; Series Editor, Australian Screen Classics, (Currency Press/NFSA); her next book, Re-Imagining Hollywood in a Global Screenscape will be published by Allen & Unwin in March 2009.

Frances Djulibing, River of No Return Frances Djulibing, River of No Return
WHERE YOU SEE A FILM, HOW IT’S PROJECTED, THE CONTEXT IN WHICH YOU SEE IT, AND WHO YOU SEE IT WITH CAN OFFER NEW INSIGHTS NOT ONLY TO THE FILM ITSELF BUT TO CINEMA AS A WHOLE. WATCHING THE DOZEN FILMS IN THIS FESTIVAL JUST AFTER AN AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT HAD FINALLY SAID ‘SORRY’ TO THE STOLEN GENERATIONS REINFORCED THE SENSE THAT RECONCILIATION, IF NOT TOTAL LIBERATION FROM THE PREVIOUS GOVERNMENT’S HUMAN-RIGHTS DENYING INTERVENTIONIST POLICIES, WAS NOW WELL AND TRULY ON THE FILMIC AGENDA.

The feeling of liberation from the past was heightened by the mix of red carpet partying and self-congratulation along with self-criticism and some extraordinary films and very heated discussions. Then there were the Chooky dancers who threatened to upstage everything in sight. The cultural vectors of these young Elcho Islanders simultaneously performing homage and send-up of Theodorakis’s Zorba as they spilled over from screen (Frank Djirrimbilpilwy Garawirritja’s Yolngu Djamamirr/Aboriginal Fishermen) to live on stage and onto the Opera House forecourt, offered a vision of cultural transformation endorsed by many of the films.

As in previous years, curators Darren Dale and Rachel Perkins offered the chance to see films that might not otherwise be seen at all and in circumstances that made it possible to observe patterns and samenesses as well as disruptions and differences that might otherwise go ignored or unobserved. They included films by indigenous filmmakers from overseas, allowing us to explore the connections that do or don’t exist between Aboriginal cinema and other indigenous cinemas.

In fact, the overseas films forged links to other cinemas entirely. Kevin Burton’s experimental Nikamowin/Song (2007), for example, deconstructs and reconstructs the Cree language with such inventiveness that it seemed the productive outcome of a head-on clash with Derrida and the German-Australian experimentalist, Paul Winkler (see Alec Gerbaz, “Innovations in Australian Cinema: An Historical Outline of Australian Experimental Film”, NFSA Journal, Vol 3, No 1, 2008).

Sikumi/On the Ice (Andrew Okpeaha MacLean) initially seems to be indebted to Atanarjuat/The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk, 2001)—both are in a dialect of the Eskimo-Aleut languages group, both have a mise-en-scène dominated by wide, flat icy vistas, seal-skin encased bodies and whiskers with dangling icicles, and both tell a murder tale. At second sight Sikumi appears to be the offspring of an unruly union between indigenous, art and mainstream cinemas.

The boundaries between cinematic and other cultural categories proved even more porous with the Aboriginal films. A persistent theme was that of shifting ideas, images, sounds and other cultural material passing to and from Indigenous and mainstream cultures. As films such as Ten Canoes and Rabbit Proof Fence demonstrate, this is a two-way ticket.

In Darlene’s Johnson’s River of No Return, the captivating Frances Djulibing dreams of being Marilyn Monroe: sexy and a great comic actress with diamonds for a best friend. Frances’ long trudge along the dirt road between her home and Raminginging in north eastern Arnhem land becomes the symbol of the seemingly impermeable borders between Aboriginal and balanda (white) cultures that Frances must learn to cross.

The high walls white society has erected around its black members seen through Kelrick Martin’s unflinching lens in Mad Morro are too rigid for any productive interactions to take place. When released from jail after 13 years inside, there is no after care program available for 30-year old Morro to learn how to be an adult outside the prison walls; a lethal mixture of alcohol and his acquired helplessness lands him back where he started. But the film shows us what once might have been either dismissed—or hated—as a negative image of Aboriginal people. This documentary bravely crosses yet another border in search of a common humanity that knows no apartheid and shows us images that we’ve seldom seen on the screen.

Perhaps the most startling film of all is Debbie Carmody’s Courting with Justice which reconstructs an Indigenous Customary Law Court to ‘try’ the white pub manager cleared of charges of the manslaughter of Kevin Rule, a member of the Ngadju Nation. Fact and fiction, past and present, white and black truths all merge and inform each other in this outstandingly bold, intelligent film. The fear on the face of white actor Roy Billing playing the accused when confronted by the dead man’s family is as real as the grief of the family members. Like the classic Two Laws (Carolyn Strachan, Alessandro Cavadini, 1981) about the Borroloola people’s struggle for the recognition of Aboriginal law, Courting with Justice simultaneously builds and demolishes the boundaries between black and white film cultures and between black and white laws.

There is no film in this well-curated festival that does not explore the productive outcomes of cultural clashes. Even the most conventional, When Colin Met Joyce (Rima Tamou), is ‘about’ the mixed race marriage of Colin and Joyce Clague and explores the hybridised race-and-politics cultural family environment that together they created. On the far side of convention is Cornel Ozies’s Bollywood Dreaming with its snapshot of 16-year-old African-American-Aboriginal Jedda Rae Hill who skates, boxes and adores to dance to Bollywood movies (RT85, p18).

Storytime (Jub Clerc) mixes fiction with autobiographical experience. Who Paintin’ Dis Wandjina? (Taryne Laffar) explores reactions to the white graffiti artist who paints the symbol of the creator of fertility and rain for the Mowanjum Aboriginal peoples in the Kimberley in the wrong place and without permission (RT85, p18). Even the films most specifically Aboriginal in terms of content, Alan Collins’ beautifully mesmeric Spirit Stones and Angie Abdilla’s artfully creative Wanja: Warrior Dog don’t hesitate to explore the flows between tradtional and modern, fact and fiction, mainstream and non-mainstream.

When cinematic genres and categories get as confused as this we need to consider what we mean by indigenous cinema. It’s a cinema relatively so new that it doesn’t yet have a commonly accepted name. Nor is there an established critical framework in which to theorise it. Is it a single cinema that straddles local, national and regional borders? Is it a number of individual cinemas that can be treated as a sort of national cinema? Or is it simply a number of films that can’t yet be considered to be a cinema at all?

The term ‘indigenous’ is not appropriate because it can refer to something that is ‘native’ to a particular area—Dr Who, for example, is indigenous to the UK. While ‘Aboriginal’ makes sense in the context of Australia, it can cause confusion among those in other nations unaware of the significance of the capital A. Scholars, meanwhile oscillate between Third World, Third Cinema, marginal, anti-racist, multicultural, hybrid, mestizo, postcolonial, transnational, imperfect cinema, cinema of hunger, minority, minor, accented, intercultural and transcultural. First Nation may overcome many of the problems because it explicitly recognises the original inhabitants of colonised territories, though it shows few signs of catching on.

This is more than an arcane debate because, despite considerable ethnic, racial, language and other cultural differences, the various names all tend to present a single homogenous cinema engaged in political and aesthetic opposition to mainstream cinema.

It tends to be treated as a minority cinema alongside other non-mainstream cinemas with which it’s widely thought to share a common experience of being dominated and excluded by mainstream commercial cinema. Or, within postcolonial discourse, it’s treated as a sub-genre of a national cinema. Either way, indigenous films carry a set of cultural baggage supposedly differentiating them from mainstream, commercial Anglo-American, white cinema. It is commonly regarded as mainstream’s indigenous other.

Every year, the Message Sticks films show the cinematic terrain to be more varied than widely imagined. The relationship between First Nation and dominant cinema is by no means one of perpetual opposition and assimilation: minor cinemas are not necessarily cultural losers and mainstream cinema does not necessarily and continuously absorb and destroy its First Nation others. But it should be acknowledged that First Nation films usually form a part of a national cinema, and because Hollywood is the dominant cinema in most of these nations, First Nation filmmakers can find themselves as Sally Riley, Director of the Australian Film Commission’s Indigenous Branch, once said, “on the fringe of the fringe of the mainstream” (Philippa Hawker, ‘Black Magic: Aboriginal films take off’, The Age, June 19, 2002).

First Nation cinema’s relationship to the mainstream is certainly not one of equality. But this does not mean that the indigenous cinema is inevitably and necessarily crushed, contained or cannibalised by an undeniably powerful dominant cinema. The productive outcomes of tensions in the globalising processes show that locating Hollywood and First Nation cinema within each other is not necessarily an indication of cultural cannibalisation and that much greater diversity exists in Hollywood’s First Nation ‘others’ than is commonly imagined.


Sydney Opera House in association with Screen Australia and Blackfella Films, Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival, Sydney Opera House, July 4-6; Tandanya, Adelaide, Aug 7-10; Deckchair Cinema, Darwin, Aug 21, Sir Robert Helpmann Theatrem Mt Gambier Aug 28-30

Dr Jane Mills is Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Australian, Film, Television & Radio School; Series Editor, Australian Screen Classics, (Currency Press/NFSA); her next book, Re-Imagining Hollywood in a Global Screenscape will be published by Allen & Unwin in March 2009.

RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. 23

© Jane Mills; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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