Things have come a long way since the uncivilised days of Bitter Springs, Charles Chauvel and blackface in the 1930s-50s, but the evolution of Indigenous Australian cinema has been slow. Very slow. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Aborigines were given more significant roles and even then they were treated as a species apart, often portrayed as mystical, misunderstood and otherworldly.
During the ’80s and ’90s there was a turnaround as public interest in and acceptance of Indigenous Australian culture grew hand in hand with the close examination of Australia’s troubled past. As discussions opened up and Australia dealt with the consequences of its Stolen Generation and its cultural brutality head-on, the path was cleared for the 2000s – a time that would see Aboriginal actors and directors begin to flourish. To celebrate the release of Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, here are 10 essential Indigenous Australian films.
Though highly regarded by critics, this adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel didn’t fare well at the box office. Indeed, it forced director Fred Schepisi to jump ship to Hollywood. Based on the life and times of disillusioned and mistreated Aboriginal worker Jimmy Governor, who turned mass murderer, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was a difficult pill to swallow in 1978. Viewed today, the film has lost none of its raw emotive powerful.
Samson and Delilah is the film that put director Warwick Thornton on the map. Harrowing and deeply affecting, Thornton doesn’t hold back in laying bare the brutal realities of the cultural divide still evident in Australia, as we watch the eponymous Aboriginal couple trying to navigate a harsh and unforgiving world. One of the most remarkable Australian films of this century.
Released the same year as Dennis Hopper’s Mad Dog Morgan, this is a much gentler and more measured film. Based on the children’s novel by Colin Thiele, the Storm Boy of the title is Mike, a lonely figure who lives on the coast of South Australia with his dad. His loneliness leads him to form a bond with another local recluse, Fingerbone Bill (played by David Gulpilil) who renames the young protagonist and together they take care of three pelican chicks.
Part musical, part comedy-drama, The Sapphires was a big hit for director Wayne Blair back in 2012. It stars Chris O’Dowd as an Irish talent scout who discovers an all-female Aboriginal Australian singing group. The film is based on the 2004 stage play – itself inspired by the real-life 1960s soul group – and it does exactly what it says on the tin.
Partly based on an actual case, this docudrama of sorts from Werner Herzog is a curious mix of fact and fiction, professional actors and amateurs. The story revolves around a land dispute that the local Aborigines claim cannot be given over to a mining company as it is underneath that very ground that the green ants go to dream (green ants being a totem animal to the Indigenous settlers). A lesser-known work within Herzog’s extensive oeuvre, but a fascinating study of the Indigenous Rirratjingu people.
Adapted from the play by Louis Nowra, Radiance is a beautiful film that follows three Indigenous sisters as they reunite for their mother’s funeral. The film set both director Rachel Perkins and lead actor Deborah Mailman on an incredible trajectory. This was Mailman’s screen debut and she made history by becoming the first Indigenous Australian to win the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role – the first of five she would go on to win.
Director Ivan Sen has a number of films worth recommending but Beneath Clouds is the perfect place to start. His first full-length feature catapulted him onto the festival circuit. Being of mixed heritage himself, the film is rooted in Sen’s own self-analysis of cultural identity as the film charts the slow formation of a connection between an angry Aboriginal with a serious anti-white bias and a mixed race girl passing as white.
Okay, so we’re perhaps cheating a little bit here – but Dutch-Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer has directed a stunning triptych of films in tandem with Aboriginal screen icon David Gulpilil and it rightly deserves inclusion here. Each of the films investigates a very different facet of Indigenous culture and De Heer has said of this unofficial trilogy that he sees himself as the conduit through which Gulpilil’s stories are told.
If there was a breakthrough year for Aboriginal cinema, it was surely 2002. This was the year of Beneath Clouds and The Tracker but most importantly Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence. Based on the Doris Pilkington Garimara novel, it was one of the first films to really tackle the Stolen Generation of young Aboriginal children who were removed by force from their families and sent to live with and work for white families. Here, two young sisters escape and follow the 2400km wire fencing all the way back to their ancestral home.
For a certain generation, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout was their first exposure to Aboriginal culture on screen. It also gave a young David Gulpilil his first taste of acting. Based on James Vance Marshall’s book of the same name, the film centres around two abandoned white siblings left to fend for themselves in the Outback where they encounter an Aboriginal boy who might just be able to save them.
Sweet Country is released 9 March. Read our review.
Published 9 Mar 2018
By Aimee Knight
Warwick Thornton’s gorgeous period drama cuts to the heart of Australia’s dark colonial past.
Warwick Thornton captures the spectrum of light and heat that spits and sizzles in the frying pan of the Australian Outback.