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Significant Indigenous Australian Films of the last 50 years

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following piece may contain images and references to people who may have died.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)

A landmark Australian film showing the racism and injustices faced by Indigenous Australians, especially those from a mixed cultural background. Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) struggles with having both Aboriginal and European descent, and is pushed to breaking point when forced to live by the standards of the racist, oppressive society of the early 1900s. The film is based on the real-life story of the bushranger Jimmy Governor, who was hung in 1901 for multiple murders. Significantly, director Fred Schepisi does not attempt to whitewash or justify Jimmie’s actions; he lets them speak for themselves and the result is incredibly powerful. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith currently has a rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for awards in every possible AFI category upon release.

The Sapphires (2012)

The true (and almost unbelievable) story of The Sapphires, a group of four Aboriginal Australian sisters who traveled to Vietnam in 1968 to entertain US troops serving during the war. Staring Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell, the siblings initially start out as a group of country & western singers before being scouted by talent scout, Dave Lovelace (played by Chris O’Dowd). Lovelace encourages the group to change musical styles which eventually leads them to perform in Vietnam. Although the film is mostly a positive celebration of their achievements, The Sapphires touches on the policy of child removal – which traumatised families and communities when it was official mandate. Upon its release, News.com.au reported that it had the strongest opening weekend for an Australian-made film.

Where the Green Ants Dream (1984)

A blending of fact and fiction, Where the Green Ants Dream (1984) is partly based on the Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd case – which was the first court case on native title in Australia. The film follows a mining surveying team searching for uranium mining sites in the outback, not interested in the local Aboriginal Australian community’s objections. It’s important to watch the disparity between the greedy and oft ridiculous goals of the mining company, when compared to those of the local peoples – who simply want to protect the heritage and state of their land. Significantly, activists Wandjuk Marika and Roy Marika both star in the film, with relatives involved in the original 1971 case. The film won the Outstanding Feature Film award in 1984, and was called described as “Full of moments of inspired craziness and wisdom…” by The New York times.

Radiance (1998)

Directed by Rachel Perkins (daughter of Charles Perkins), Radiance (1998) tells the story of three Aboriginal sisters reunited again when they return to the Northern Territory for their Mother’s funeral. Mae (played by Trisha Morton-Thomas), Nona (Deborah Mailman) and Cressy (Rachel Maza) are all disparate and distant – and when they meet again, they are faced with confronting the half-truths and family secrets that have haunted them since childhood. Amongst the many awards Radiance (1998) picked up, Deborah Mailman won an AFI for best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role and the film picked up the most popular feature film award at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Satellite Boy (2012)

Living in an abandoned drive-in cinema, Pete (played by Cameron Wallaby) struggles to maintain a connection to his Indigenous heritage within the distinctive setting of outback Australia. When a local mining company arrives on the scene and claims the land that the drive-in is on, Pete begins a trek to the city along with his friend Kalmian (played by Joseph Pedley), to petition the company board. When they both become lost, Pete relies on advice from his grandfather, Jagamarra (David Gulpilil) to complete his mission. Satellite Boy picked up the Crystal Bear Special Mention Award for Best Film at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2013, and was also nominated for AACTA awards,the Palm Springs International film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012.

Mabo (2012)

Directed by Rachel Perkins (who also directed Radience in 1998), Mabo tells the story of Eddie Mabo, one of Australia’s most celebrated figures. The film begins with Mabo’s early years in the Torres Strait Islands and leads to his eventual High Court Challenge, where Mabo saw through the overthrowing of terra nullius and the enacting of native land title legislation and greater land recognition. Mabo stars Jimi Bandi as Eddie Mabo and Deborah Mailman as Bonita Mabo, and has been nominated for TV Week Logie Awards, AACTA awards; with Deborah Mailman winning the 2013 TV Week Silver Logie Award for Most Outstanding Actress.

Charlie’s Country (2013)

Charlie’s Country was co-written by lead actor David Gulpilil, who plays Charlie in this critically acclaimed film. Charlie is an Aboriginal man living in Arnhem land, struggling with the loss of his culture and the lack of cultural respect within modern Australian society. The film received positives reviews from The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald and Variety – where writer Eddie Cockerel described the film’s score as “..emphasizes both the dignity and the anguish of Charlie’s all-too-common plight.” It has scooped up Australian Film Critics awards for Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Cinematography as well as a 2013 Canne Film Festival award for Best Actor.

Ten Canoes (2006)

With a 98% rating on Rotten Toamtoes, Rolf de Heer’s 2006 film Ten Canoes is a significant film in the Australian film canon. Narrated by David Gulpilil, the film is a star within a story – following a young warrior Dayindi (played by Jamie Gulpili), who is scoring the wilderness for eggs. One night, Dayindi hears a story told by his brother which echoes his own situation, with the tale’s main character also in love with his brother’s wife. Although the film is narrated in English, the characters speak in languages from the Yolnu Matha language group. An important part of the storytelling is also the use of colour, with the present day being shot in black and white, whilst the past is filmed in full technicolour. Ten Canoes won the Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and in 2007, it was chosen as Australia’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at that year’s Academy Awards. In 2010, Ten Canoes was featured as part of Empire magazine’s “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema” list.

Sweet country (2018)

Falling into the “Meat pie Western” category, Sweet Country is a clever and confronting film set in the Northern Territory; which tackles sociopolitical issues head on. When Sam (Hamilton Morris) kills a cruel and bitter neighbour in self-defence, he quickly becomes a wanted man – forced to flee with his wife across the outback. However, when the real details of his actions comes to light, the local community must face some hard truths. Also staring Bryan Brown and Sam Neill, the film has picked up AACTA Awards, Adelaide Film Festival awards, the Venice Film Festival Special Jury Prize and currently has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Sweet Country has been called Director Warwick Thornton’s (who also directed Sampson and Delilah) “second masterpiece”.

Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)

Based on a true story, Rabbit Proof Fence follows the tale of three Aboriginal sisters; Molly Craig (played by Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Monaghan) who are snatched from their mother. They are taken to a government run camp to train them as domestic servants; making them part of the Stolen Generations. The sisters eventual escape leads them to one of three rabbit-proof fences, to which they attempt to follow in order to get back home. SBS’s Dave Crewe described this film as “vital”and that the three girls don’t just represent real women but “also symbolise the thousands upon thousands of children cruelly removed from their homes”. Rabbit Proof Fence is important for every Australian to watch; with the film’s portrayal of history equally compelling and brutal, all set within the haunting backdrop of outback Australia. Rabbit Proof Fence also stars Kenneth Branagh and Deborah Mailman, and won three AFI awards as well as various international awards, including at the London Critics Circle Film Awards and the Edinburgh International Film festival awards.

Samson and Delilah (2009)

Sampson and Delilah has been described as a “survival love story” by the film’s director Warwick Thompson, and won the Caméra d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of two teenagers living in a remote outback Aboriginal community who both suffer from a grim daily existence. Samson, who spends much of his time sniffing petrol, falls for Delilah and when tragedy strikes, he formulates a plan to escape with her to Alice Springs. There are many confronting moments within the film, and it is deeply complex. Sampson and Delilah is masterfully shot and received rave reviews from the New York Times and At The Movies; also picking up AFI awards and Dublin International Film Festival awards along the way.

Featured image: Eastern Arrernte twins Trevon and Tremayne Doolan bring young Philomac’s powerful coming of age story to life in #SweetCountry Photo: Facebook

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