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New Wave Rising: The Stunning Success of Indigenous Australian Film and Television

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‘We’re telling our own stories now. That’s the turning point. We’ve got that creative control now. And when you’ve got that creative control, you can really push boundaries.’ – Deborah Mailman

‘This night is our night as Indigenous Australians…We’ve controlled our stories, and through that, people have realised it’s not [just] an Indigenous story. It’s a story. You can identify with it. Anyone in this room can identify with it.’ – Shari Sebbens

When Deborah Mailman and Shari Sebbens, stars of the hit 2012 Australian film The Sapphires, made the statements above they were speaking breathlessly to the media after the 2nd Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards (AACTA). Standing alongside golden-voiced songbird, Jessica Mauboy, Mailman and Sebbens were glowing with fierce pride, not just for The Sapphires’ accomplishments – eleven AACTA Awards in total, along with critical success, standout local box office of A$15 million, and a global distribution deal with the Weinstein Company – but also for the nomination of ABC telemovie Mabo and the two awards won by acclaimed Indigenous ABC TV drama series, Redfern Now, which happened to be the first Australian drama series written, directed and produced by Indigenous Australians, and was watched by more than 700, 000 viewers.

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This was indeed ‘their’ night as Indigenous Australians. The AACTA Awards had been alight with Indigenous talent, singing and dancing as part of the televised show’s Sapphires-themed entertainment, as well as presenting and collecting a bounty of winners’ statuettes. Even the extraordinary collective presence of Australia’s Oscar- winning, tabloid-baiting stars – Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe – couldn’t distract the media from the genuine good news story of the night: that in a seemingly short time – a period of sustained activity of about five years – Indigenous actors, writers, directors, producers and cinematographers had become some of our nation’s most successful screen storytellers, and they were doing it with full creative control of their material.

This good news story operates in two spheres where good news stories are always sorely needed – the beleaguered Australian film industry and the arena of Indigenous representation in the media. The recent success and high beam visibility of Indigenous-made film and television gives rise to many different kinds of joy and relief.

The very existence of the Australian film industry since its renaissance in the 1970s has always been predicated, in part, on cinema’s powerful ability to reflect and shape our national identity both at home and abroad. When films like The Sapphires connect with both local audiences and international festivals like Cannes, and also represent Indigenous empowerment (both within the filmed narratives and behind the camera), these investments in our heavily subsidised screen industry seem fully justified.

Some may see The Sapphires as a dazzling flash in the pan, yet in 2009 Warwick Thornton’s grim but poetic teen love story Samson and Delilah won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes; and Rachel Perkins’ exuberant musical Bran Nue Dae thrilled local audiences to the tune of $7.5 million, becoming one of the top 50 Australian films of all time at the local box office.

In fact, the past five years have seen such an acceleration in the quality, quantity and visibility of Indigenous screen production that the March 2013 edition of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School’s journal of screen arts and business, Lumina, was devoted to a series of essays and interviews charting ‘The Rise & Rise of Indigenous Filmmaking’, stating in its introduction that ‘Indigenousvscreen practitioners have, within a generation, become a force to be reckoned with in Australia…and their productions are now in the mainstream.’

But how did this ‘overnight’ success happen? Was this a case of decades of targeted support and millions of dollars of government investment finally bearing fruit? Or was it a scenario in which Indigenous Australians kicked down the doors, stormed the film schools and took over the cameras and the boom mics? The answer of course is a fascinating mix; an indication of what can happen when tenacious, gifted and inventive people are given access to the right tools, and receive good bureaucratic and creative support – support, which, according to Lumina is ‘unprecedented anywhere else in the world.’

Without detracting in the least from the extraordinary talent involved in creating these recent successes, it is essential to acknowledge the part that has been played by dedicated official policies and practices that were brought in to make it possible. Instinctively, one hesitates to call this ‘affirmative action’, a term which has in recent years acquired a fraught and unfashionable vibe. If affirmative action is ‘the practice of improving the educational and job opportunities of members of groups that have not been treated fairly in the past because of their race, sex, etc.’ (Merriam Dictionary), then this seems wholly unobjectionable and one wonders why the term has become such a bogeyman.

Opponents of affirmative action claim that it devalues the achievements of those it has helped, and that it creates animosity in society towards those who are singled out for assistance. But it’s hard to see how promoting opportunities for Australia’s Indigenous screen practitioners has been anything other than positive, either for them, their Indigenous peers – who are justifiably proud of their achievements and pleased to see themselves authentically portrayed – or for the broader Australian community, most of which has very limited direct contact with Indigenous people, other than through the mediated screen. What better way to challenge perceptions, reveal truths and promote mutual understanding, than to have it wrapped up in entertaining, challenging and beautiful storytelling?

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Since the advent of silent celluloid, Australia’s Indigenous people have appeared in thousands of documentaries, ethnographic films, and as curiosities and sidekicks in white filmmakers’ features (remember Crocodile Dundee?). There have also been the odd sympathetic white masterpieces which placed Indigenous characters centre stage – Jedda (1955), Walkabout (1971) or The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978). But as far as Indigenous people telling their own stories, and working in key creative roles in film and television production, this is a relatively new – but by no means overnight – phenomenon.

Curator Liz McNiven’s excellent essay ‘A Short History of Indigenous Filmmaking’ reveals that, beginning in the early 1980s, it has taken thirty years of sustained effort to produce the current critical mass of Indigenous storytelling talent. As McNiven observes, the deepest roots of the current flourishing reach even further back than that, into the activism and land rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Whitlam government’s implementation of Human Rights Legislation in the form of the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975, gave birth to policies that provided new funding, training and employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

During the 1980s many grassroots organisations sprouted up all over the country, key among them being the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) founded in Alice Springs in 1980, by Freda Glynn (Warwick Thornton’s mother) along with Phillip Batty and John Macumba, in order to expose Indigenous music and culture to the rest of Australia. Starting as a radio station, and then encompassing video, this led to the launch in 1988 of the world’s first Indigenous-owned television station, Imparja TV (an early originator to what is now the free to air national Indigenous station, NITV, which started broadcasting nationwide in 2012, via SBS).

CAAMA’s traineeships in the 1980s were directly responsible for giving a start to many of today’s most successful and prolific filmmakers. These include Warwick Thornton, Catriona McKenzie (Satellite Boy), Beck Cole (Here I Am) and Rachel Perkins – the director of Radiance (1998) and Bran Nue Dae, and the founder of Blackfella Films, which produced the multi-award winning 2008 SBS documentary series First Australians, as well as ABC productions Mabo and Redfern Now.

It was only in 1993 that the Australian Film Commission (AFC, now Screen Australia) established an Indigenous Branch to provide resources and financial support for Indigenous filmmakers and administrators. The first drama initiative to come out of the Indigenous Branch was a groundbreaking collection of six experimental short films released in 1996 under the title From Sand to Celluloid, with works from directors including Thornton, Richard Frankland, Darlene Johnson and Sally Riley (who is now head of the ABC’s Indigenous Department).

It’s possible to draw direct lines from the Sand to Celluloid program (and its two subsequent sequels) to the phenomenal international success of Indigenous short filmmakers, which in 2005, saw three Indigenous-made shorts screened in competition at Sundance – Beck Cole’s Plains Empty, Warwick Thornton’s Green Bush, and Tom Murray and Alan Collins’ Dhakiyarr vs the King. That same year Wayne Blair’s short film, The Djarn Djarns, won the Kinderfest Crystal Bear at Berlin, while Thornton’s Green Bush won the Panorama Short Film Award at the same festival. Ivan Sen’s short documentary, Yellow Fella, about Aboriginal actor Tom Lewis, was also accepted into Un Certain Regard at Cannes, and as each of these filmmakers has since acknowledged, the support and acknowledgement they received for their short filmmaking (which most Australians have probably never seen) was a direct factor in helping them on to the path of bigger and higher profile projects.

As Kath Shelper, Warwick Thornton’s long-time collaborator and producer has said, ‘Warwick is probably the most trained and workshopped filmmaker in the country. Between CAAMA traineeships, film school in Sydney and all the workshops he’s done through the Indigenous Branch (of the AFC) he should be called Dr Thornton because it would add up to a PhD.’ Thornton may be a unique example of an extremely well-supported and well-connected Indigenous filmmaker, but the pattern of training, workshopping and fast-tracking Indigenous talent holds true for many of the filmmakers who are now blossoming in public view.

Another important player during the 1990s was SBS Independent (SBSi), the Special Broadcasting Service’s production arm which commissioned and invested in work from independent Australian filmmakers, many from non-English speaking and Indigenous backgrounds. Projects supported by SBSi included first feature films from Rachel Perkins (Radiance, 1997) and Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds, 2002) as well as the astonishing Ten Canoes (2006) – Australia’s first Aboriginal language film, made by Australian film auteur Rolf de Heer in close collaboration with Yolngu people in Arnhem Land.

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In this year just passed, we saw a second series of the powerful Redfern Now, as well as the cinema releases of Catriona McKenzie’s Kimberley-set coming of age tale, Satellite Boy, and Ivan Sen’s masterful Western thriller, Mystery Road, starring Aaron Pedersen. There was also Robert Connolly’s arthouse hit, the omnibus collection, Tim Winton’s The Turning, featuring numerous Indigenous actors, writers and directors among its eighteen chapters. In many of the stories, recurring characters appear, sometimes played by white actors; other times by Indigenous ones. This certainly caused some confusion for audiences, but as a storytelling experiment it worked superbly to break down barriers and privilege story over racial identity; perhaps one of the most interesting examples of Indigenous talent being fully integrated into the Australian screen landscape at large.

Coming up in 2014, thanks to the ABC’s Indigenous Department, we’ll see a comedy drama series, The Gods of Wheat Street, as well as Warwick Thornton’s hybrid docudrama compilation of ghost stories, The Darkside.

Many suggest that the wave of Indigenous screen talent is just starting to build. Between December 2009 and September 2013, the Australian Film Television and Radio School’s newly established Indigenous Unit trained over 700 Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. Industry insiders predict a flood of talent coming through that pipeline and bursting onto mainstream screens in five or ten years’ time. Lest you’re worried about that ‘flood’, consider this: Screen Australia’s statistics tell us that between 1970 and 2012, there were just twenty-three feature films made with an Indigenous person as director, writer, producer or cinematographer; and just thirty-one Indigenous filmmakers held key creative roles on TV drama programs between 1980 and 2012. Compared to the average annual output of Australian feature films (about thirty a year) and TV dramas (about forty a year) we’ve still got a long way to go before there’s anything like an Indigenous ‘flood’. The data does suggest, however, a definite rising swell; an exciting acceleration in the participation rate of Indigenous people in our screen industry. This is cause for great celebration and continued support, and if you want to use the word ‘support’ instead of affirmative action, the results are the same: they’re brilliant.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a Melbourne film journalist, editor and reviewer. She has a PhD in Australian cinema and is currently working on her first novel.

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