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Message Sticks

Message Sticks: Breaking the silence

Dan Edwards

Tribal elder Old Tom Onion and Geoff Bardon in 1971, Mr Patterns Tribal elder Old Tom Onion and Geoff Bardon in 1971, Mr Patterns
photo Allan Scott, courtesy the Bardon family
The 4 new Australian documentaries screened at this year’s Message Sticks Film Festival were all about giving voice to the silenced, either through reclaiming the past or giving space to contemporary voices generally excluded from mainstream public discourse.

Opening the festival was Ivan Sen’s The Dreamers, revolving around interviews with 3 young Aboriginal professionals: a singer, a soccer player and a champion surfer. Shot on video in hand-held style, Sen focuses resolutely on his subject’s faces as they relate their dreams and hopes for the future. There is no attempt to analyse or even portray these young people’s social or familial contexts. Instead Sen constructs 3 impressionistic character studies, his intimate framing and constant cross-cutting between interviewees suggesting the uncertain nature of their futures and the intensity of their desire to succeed.

The Dreamers furthers Sen’s reputation as a chronicler of young Indigenous Australians, begun with the short drama Tears (1998) and the feature-length Beneath Clouds (2001). Sen deals with the complexities of identity throughout his work, avoiding one-dimensional notions of its construction. The Dreamers conveys something of the character and hopes of 3 young Australians whose Aboriginality is integral to their identities, rather than being imposed by those around them.

Beck Cole’s Wirriya: small boy follows a few days in the life of Ricco, an 8 year old child living with his foster mother in Hidden Valley, an Aboriginal community on the outskirts of Alice Springs. Cole’s simple style allows Ricco to narrate his own story, although her camera remains a detached observer that sometimes contradicts him: “I’m not naughty”, he informs us at one point, after we’ve seen him acting boisterously in class and being scolded by a teacher at the local pool. At the same time, Cole’s observational approach and interactions with the boy bring out Ricco’s charm, bubbling energy and fierce intelligence.

Wirriya: small boy doesn’t shy away from showing the social problems that beset many Aboriginal communities. Ricco’s mother is the victim of domestic violence and despite her absence from the film and Ricco’s daily life, we get a definite sense of a troubled relationship between mother and son. At one point, Ricco and several of his step-siblings play truant from school and their foster mother freely admits her inability to stop them. Later, another small girl joins Ricco’s already crowded household due to parental ill health at home.

Despite the problems in Ricco’s life and community, the overall impression left by Wirriya: small boy is one of warmth, with Ricco’s foster mother lovingly presiding over the children in her care. At one point she relates Ricco’s promise to her: “I’m gonna work and I’m gonna look after you.” She smiles affectionately, but her nervous laugh belies her awareness of the obstacles that will confront him as he gets older.

In contrast to The Dreamers and Wirriya: small boy, Rosalie’s Journey and Mr Patterns delve into the past. Rosalie’s Journey provides a textbook example of how documentaries can reclaim and rewrite historical narratives. It tells the story of Rosalie Kunoth Monks, primarily known as the young woman selected by director Charles Chauvel to play Jedda in the eponymously named film of 1955. Through a contemporary voice-over, Monks recalls her life growing up at Saint Mary’s Boarding School in Alice Springs and Chauvel’s visit to the school looking for an Indigenous girl to star in his film. She recounts without bitterness his utter insensitivity to Aboriginal lore during the shoot. Monks was forbidden to look strange men in the eye, yet she was made to act as a love interest and object of lust for her co-star Robert Tudawali, a man she had never met prior to production.

Rosalie’s Journey fulfils the important task of relating the making of Jedda from the viewpoint of one of the film’s Indigenous stars, but what is most striking is how minor the entire episode has been in Monks’ life. She views her present role as a mother and language teacher as far more important to her sense of identity than her brief stint of screen acting in the 1950s. Director Warwick Thornton explores the way personal and historical narratives intersect and diverge, revealing how an individual’s identity as a historical figure can live on quite independently of the actual person and the direction their later life takes.

Unlike Rosalie Monks’ brief experience of fame, the life of Geoff Bardon was crucially determined, and ultimately destroyed, by the historical episode examined in Mr Patterns. Through a skilful blend of archival footage, old and contemporary interviews and expressive passages of time-lapse cinematography, director Catriona McKenzie tells the story of Bardon’s involvement in the Papunya Tula Art movement. Posted as a teacher to the Papunya Aboriginal settlement in the Western Desert in the early 1970s, Bardon displayed ground-breaking cultural sensitivity in his teaching methods, employing a translator to teach the children in their own language and encouraging them to express their cultural heritage through their art. This led to contact with tribal elders who Bardon encouraged to paint ancestral dreamings in acrylics. Bardon helped the elders sell their works, bringing income into the community and revitalising their cultural traditions. However, the mild-mannered teacher was ill prepared for the ruthless and unscrupulous nature of the art market and the backlash his actions generated in the education bureaucracy. He was eventually driven from Papunya suffering a nervous breakdown. Back in Sydney he was admitted to Chelmsford Hospital and endured Harry Bailey’s notorious deep sleep therapy, a form of ‘treatment’ for depression that left dozens dead and many others, including Bardon, physically incapacitated for life.

Unfortunately most of the Papunya elders involved in the story have passed away, so by necessity McKenzie relies largely on white interviewees. She talks to the school principal from Bardon’s early time at Papunya, an Indigenous woman who was taught by Bardon as a child, several of Bardon’s friends and Bardon himself. The love and affection all the interviewees feel for the teacher emanates from the screen.

Bardon himself appears as a hunched, trembling figure, a sharp contrast to the smiling, open young man we see in footage from the early 70s. The difference in his appearance poignantly brings home the extent to which Bardon’s experiences at Papunya and subsequent treatment at Chelmsford physically destroyed him. He died in May 2003, shortly after his interview for the film was completed.

Mr Patterns hints at the enormous cultural potential that exists if non-Indigenous Australia were prepared to open itself to Indigenous ways of thinking. The film also demonstrates how fragile this sense of possibility will always be when much of white Australia remains utterly oblivious or hostile to Indigenous culture, at best viewing it as something to be financially exploited.

The documentaries at this year’s Message Sticks Film Festival brought the stories of marginalised people to the screen and rewrote old tales from new perspectives. Curators Rachel Perkins and Darren Dale pulled off the difficult task of presenting a program of distinctly Indigenous films that retained a sense of Aboriginal culture in all its fluid, porous and varying forms.

2004 Message Sticks Film Festival, curators Rachel Perkins and Darren Dale, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, June 11-13.

Mr Patterns can be purchased from Film Australia: [email protected]

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 23

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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