Category Archives: Australian Cinema

The Sapphires (Australia 2012)

(from left) Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Kay (Shari Sebbens)

I thought I would enjoy this movie and I did. What I hadn’t expected was just how emotional it would be and how rooted in the experience of the filmmakers. I think it’s one of the most enjoyable films of the year. This makes it even more distressing to see some of the inane comments on IMDB and some of the bland (even if generally favourable) reviews in the UK. So let’s be clear, this is an Australian movie from Goalpost Pictures, adapted from a stage play based on a real story about an Aboriginal girl group from the 1960s which toured Vietnam entertaining American soldiers – in itself interesting since Australian forces also fought in Vietnam. The attraction was that the women were playing to African-American troops and this is a film as much about racism in Australia as it is about ‘sweet soul music’. The Weinstein Brothers got their hands on the film after its Cannes screening earlier this year and they have been promoting it in such a way that most reviewers can’t get beyond comparing it to Dreamgirls, The Commitments or even Good Morning Vietnam. There are some elements in common with each of those films and the writers cite The Commitments as an influence on their approach, but for me The Sapphires is much more interesting.

It’s written by Tony Briggs, whose mother and aunt were in the original group, directed by Wayne Blair who himself starred in the original play and photographed by Warwick Thornton who directed Samson and Delilah (Australia 2009). This trio of Aboriginal filmmakers, with co-writer Keith Thompson, were at the centre of what the producers have described as the strongest creative team on a recent Australian production. The press kit gives a great deal of background on the film and is recommended reading.

The premise of the film is simple. It’s 1968. Three young women are still living with their extended family in an Aboriginal community of Yorta Yorta people in the Murray river area which forms the border between New South Wales and Victoria. One day they are spotted by a down-at-heel Irishman (Chris O’Dowd) who is working as an MC for a local pub’s talent contest. This leads in turn to a decision to audition for the US Army which is recruiting entertainers for its troops in Vietnam. So far, so conventional, but the trip to Melbourne also involves finding ‘cousin Kay’ who they haven’t seen for several years and who makes up the fourth member of the group. Kay is ‘passing for white’ in Melbourne having been ‘stolen’ by the authorities ten years earlier. This reference to the trauma of the stolen generation, both for the light-skinned children and their families, will drive several strands of the narrative during the film and provide some of the most powerful emotional sequences. The history of Australian policies towards indigenous Australians is brilliantly presented in Rabbit-Proof Fence – in which Deborah Mailman (Gail in The Sapphires) also appears. Most of the remainder of the film takes place in Vietnam with mainly predictable developments involving the girls with GIs and Chris O’Dowd as a loveable but rather hopeless manager. The war scenes were mainly reconstructed around Sydney – but some material was also shot in Vietnam.

The film isn’t perfect by any means – two of the girls have stories that don’t seem to move forward very much. But this isn’t a film about narrative complexity. To work, it needs to do two things well. The first is to give us a real insight into the relationship between the Aboriginal communities in Australia and the Civil Rights movement in America as experienced by the families – and to do this with a sense of authenticity. The second is to present great-sounding music. These two aims are linked since it was Memphis soul (alongside James Brown and Curtis Mayfield) from the late 1960s which provided the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement. (See our posting on Talk to Me.) I can’t be a distanced observer here since I grew up with this music, but I thought the singing (and the US backing band) were excellent. The lead voice comes from Jessica Mauboy, runner-up on one of the Australian Idol shows and, I think, now a major pop music star. Perhaps more surprisingly, as a relatively unknown performer, Shari Stebbins as Kay also sings very well. These two, along with Miranda Tapsell, come from the Darwin area on the Northern tip of Australia. The producers tell us in the Press Kit of the difficulties of finding four Aboriginal women, at least one of whom had a strong lead voice and the other three having voices that produced the right harmonies. At the end of the film, we get to see the original group and the women who went to Vietnam. It’s clear that the production team chose the performers well. I should also add that Chris O’Dowd does very well to hold his own against the four women. My only regret about the film was that I’d have liked more of the group singing Merle Haggard – but perhaps I’m the only one.

The film has done well in Australia taking over $14 million. In the UK it is distributed by eONE Entertainment, the newly expanded Canadian major. According to Screendaily the film was released on 233 screens for No. 7 in the UK chart and a weekend total of just over $500,000. Strangely, in West Yorkshire it was on only one screen at the Showcase in Birstall. Where are all the other screens?

If you like soul music, you’ll like this – but do read the Press Kit afterwards. This is what works as a Friday night feelgood movie for me.

Interesting report on the film from The Australian.

Here’s the Australian trailer:

The Hunter (Australia 2011)

Willem Dafoe is the hunter in a Tasmanian wilderness (photo: Matt Nettheim)

The Hunter is the kind of film that will enthrall many audiences and infuriate others. It’s an intelligent and well-crafted exercise in combining elements from several different genre repertoires and presenting them via great cinematography of relatively unusual landscapes. The performances are very good and there is an engaging sense of suspense. The film’s resolution will provide many audiences with the basis for arguments in the pub, although the script in the end is the weak point as it rushes to its conclusion with several narrative threads dangling. But this shouldn’t detract from the pleasure of watching the film in the cinema (and not waiting for it on DVD).

‘The hunter’ is a professional and at first we think he is a typical Hollywood/European hitman as he receives a commission – but quickly we realise that we have the wrong genre and instead we are plunged into a Deliverance-type story, set in an isolated part of Tasmania. ‘Martin David’ (Willem Dafoe) is given the task of finding the last surviving specimen of the supposedly extinct Tasmanian tiger in order to kill it and retrieve blood samples and organs which a typically mysterious corporation (‘Redleaf’) intends to use to develop new biotechnology products. The tiger’s last sighting was in a mountain region where a dispute about logging on the lower slopes between local loggers and a group of ‘eco warriors’ means that the hunter is less than welcome in the bar of the nearest town. However, unlike the hapless townies in John Boorman’s Deliverance, the hunter is highly capable of looking after himself and at times in the wilderness he resembles the John Rambo character in the first film of that series. However, The Hunter has another genre repertoire to explore. Martin’s cover story is that he is a university researcher and he has rented a room in a house in the forest owned by Lucy (Frances O’Connor) and her two small children ‘Sass’ and ‘Bike’. Lucy’s partner was a local scientist who disappeared on a trip into the wilderness. When he arrives, Martin finds Lucy crashed out on sleeping pills and he is greeted by the assertive Sass and her brother who refuses to speak but who has a remarkably expressive face. The narrative will allow plenty of time to explore the relationship between Martin and these children – and their mother when she eventually emerges.

So, self-reliant, professional hunter seeks prey but also has to deal with a grieving family and a hostile local community. On top of this, we may be in an eco ‘conspiracy thriller’ concerning Redleaf. It’s a fascinating mix and director Daniel Nettheim, cinematographer Robert Humphreys and composers Andrew Lancaster, Michael Lira and Matteo Zingales generally succeed in presenting a compelling narrative. It’s unfortunate that they never solve the central problem associated with a narrative built around two very different generic modes – the hunter in the wilderness and the family melodrama in the boarding house. It’s not that the two narrative strands aren’t connected – Martin builds a relationship with the mute boy that clearly has a relevance for his task in the wilderness. Rather it is the problem of frequent moves between the locations so that the mountain range where an extinct animal might have been spotted seems only a few miles down the road by car. The script by Alice Addison appears to have been developed from a previous adaptation of a novel by Julia Leigh, who last year saw her own film, Sleeping Beauty in competition at Cannes. I haven’t read the novel but some of the comments on The Hunter suggest that it doesn’t succeed in presenting the full complexity of the original story. I can only guess budget considerations and the possible uncommercial length of a ‘faithful adaptation’ gave rise to the compression of the film narrative in its final quarter. I can’t explain more without giving away the plot twists. My advice is to sit back and enjoy the film for what it is – an engaging twist on familiar genre narratives with great performances (Dafoe is perfectly cast) – but don’t try to second guess the plotting.

BIFF 2012 #13: Toomelah (Australia 2011)

As I watched this film I found myself engrossed but also at times bewildered and definitely disturbed. Toomelah was screened as part of a celebration and exchange between Bradford and Sydney as the first two UNESCO ‘Cities of Film’. My reaction was partly formed around the question of what kinds of considerations went into the choice of this film? I found that some of the other audience members I spoke to afterwards felt the same way. It was only afterwards that I noticed in the festival brochure that Toomelah had won a UNESCO prize for ‘An outstanding contribution to the promotion and preservation of cultural diversity through film’ at the Asian Pacific Screen Awards in 2011. That explains the choice of the film for a Bradford screening but there are still plenty of questions to explore. I should point out that if, like me, you prefer not to read the full blurb in the brochure before the film, this is one film where it could be a mistake.

The problem for a UK audience is that the film itself offers no context for what it shows us and therefore runs the risk that we might misread it. At the end of the opening credit sequence we are presented with close-ups of a small figurine of a boxer, a trophy or an award of some kind. The first scene then shows us a small boy waking and asking his grandmother for money which he uses to buy some chips to eat on his way to school. But at school he behaves in such a disruptive manner that the teacher asks him to leave the room. For most of the rest of the film Daniel refuses to go to school and instead tags along with a group of men led by Linden the local drugs dealer. Daniel’s mother appears to have little control over or indeed much interest in her son and his grandmother withdraws to her room when her sister Cindy re-appears after 50 years away. Daniel’s father appears to live literally ‘in the gutter’ and is usually drunk. The father was indeed a boxer and Daniel sees boxing as something he can be good at. The boy’s other relationships involve his girlfriend Tanitia and Tupac the boy he fights with at school. The community is made up of indigenous peoples – the only white Australians we see are a teacher and two police officers.

The setting of this community isn’t given (though since the film is part-funded by New South Wales Screen, we assume it must be in the state somewhere). There are occasional long shots showing the landscape and these images of great natural beauty contrast with the brutality of the language used by everyone in the community. If it was released in the UK, the BBFC would struggle to give the film less than an 18 Certificate. All the dialogue is subtitled, which I found annoying since only the occasional word is a problem, but it’s difficult not to read the subtitles. None of the characters in the narrative appear to be played by ‘actors’. Is this a documentary, a dramatised reconstruction of an event or a completely fictional story? The filming style is both skilful in terms of framing and editing but also very loose, especially in the use of a handheld camera and a pronounced tendency to ignore focus, often seeming to be adjusted during shots, as if the filmmaker had just forgotten. There is a clear narrative that involves Daniel and the return of another ‘bad c**t’ from prison who threatens to take over Linden’s business. The climax of the film is then predictable.

I’m presenting the film in this way just to emphasise how such films can come across. I said I was engrossed and that’s true. The performances are staggeringly good with only a couple of occasions when sly glances towards the camera or slight hesitations in speaking betray the non-professionals. What is also clear is that while the film in one sense reinforces a negative image of indigenous communities, one which is repeated for similar communities in North America and other parts of the world, the script is also carefully constructed so that we are aware of real social issues. The lack of employment, the aimlessness of lives, substance abuse and sexual abuse are major problems associated with the racist policies which took children away from families (the ‘Stolen Generations’) and tried to eradicate the cultural identity of communities with the loss of language and history as well as the condemnation of whole communities to a second class status in Australian society. These references are carefully woven into the fabric of the film rather than presented directly. Personally I wanted to know more, e.g. about the black and white photographs in the schoolroom showing group portraits from earlier decades in the community. Having said that there are some discussions (and school lessons) about the ‘lingo’ of the local peoples and a couple of songs.

It took me a little while to research the film and this is what I found, starting with the official website. ‘Toomelah’ is a real place, a remote community of the Gamilaroi people based around an old mission (set up in the 1930s as part of a forced assimilation project for scattered smaller groups) in the far north of New South Wales nearly on the border with Queensland. It became the centre of a scandal in the late 1980s when a leading judge visited the community and helped to publicise the shocking living conditions and social problems (the most discussed being child abuse). This in turn led to an ‘intervention’ by the federal government and later changes in policy by the New South Wales government. So, I presume that Toomelah is well-known in Australia.

Ivan Sen and Daniel Connors on location in Toomelah

The filmmaker is Ivan Sen, whose mother grew up in Toomelah. He himself was brought up in Inverell, a small town further down the Macintyre River. He trained as a filmmaker and achieved success with his first feature Beneath Clouds in 2002, winning a prize at Berlin. A fiction film drawing on Sen’s own feelings growing up as a mixed race young man, this was followed by several other short dramas and documentaries, an experimental feature Dreamland (2010) and then Toomelah. Sen has maintained his interest in his roots, returning over several years to Toomelah. The filming style of Toomelah is explained by his decision to make the film virtually by himself so that his non-professional cast of locals (many from the same family) would not be intimidated by the presence of a large professional crew. This willingness to lose the slickness of a proficient crew has been rewarded by very ‘natural’ performances – and didn’t prevent the film being selected for the ‘Un Certain Regard’ programme at Cannes in 2011.

According to its Facebook page and several glowing reviews in Australia, the film has been warmly welcomed by audiences, including those who know the community at Toomelah. However, its theatrical release in Australia seems to have been limited. I suspect it will do well on DVD and in non-traditional screening events. My concern is how it will be read elsewhere in festivals and specialised cinemas. One of the questions is about the ‘humour’ in the film which is mentioned by the filmmaker and the promotional material. I think that the film deals in authenticity and often this extends into a general sense of warmth in communal relations which we can all respond to. However, there were moments in which the film’s style reminded me of reality TV and the kinds of potentially exploitative material featured in Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and similar programmes focusing on the ‘exotic’ behaviour of particular subcultures. Are we laughing at or with these communities? Toomelah is of course made from within a community and I’m not suggesting that it is exploitative, only that it could be misread. I’m sure that most audiences want children like Daniel to have a better future than their parents’ generation. The exposure of the problems they face is best organised from within their own culture and therefore it is important that filmmakers like Ivan Sen are funded and able to negotiate decent distribution deals. How we then respond to such films is a question which I think prompts a call for better film education in film cultures generally around the world.

Here’s the official trailer from the production company, Bunya:

And an interview with Ivan Sen:

Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002)

Figures in a landscape – or how to represent the scale of the children's task in Rabbit-Proof Fence

These notes were produced for use with students aged 14-19 in 2004. This is a long entry (over 6,000 words) and offers ideas about the film covering Key Concepts in Film and Media Studies. All of the links have been checked to ensure that this is a useful resource for working on an important Australian film.

The notes assume that you have seen the film, so there are spoilers throughout. If you don’t know the film but are thinking about using it here is a brief outline:

In the 1930s in Western Australia the state government has a policy of removing mixed race girls from aboriginal communities and educating them separately, hoping to control the extent of racial mixing in future generations. Three young girls are taken from their mothers and placed in a camp a thousand miles away. They escape and attempt to make the journey home – on foot.

. . . and here is a trailer:


Rabbit-Proof Fence is a useful film text to study for the following reasons.

  • As a narrative, the film appears to be very simple in terms of structure. Three girls are taken to a settlement over 1,000 miles away. They escape and attempt to walk home across very difficult terrain. There are relatively few of the dramatic incidents that might be expected in a mainstream narrative – how does the film retain audience attention?
  • In terms of representation as a key concept, the film details the attempts to eradicate a sense of cultural identity in Australian aboriginal communities – and offers a representation of Anglo-Australian identity in the 1930s.
  • A distinct aesthetic is used in terms of image and sound in order to convey the importance of environment in the narrative.
  • In industrial terms, the film represents the ‘return’ of an Australian ‘auteur’ filmmaker after several years away making mainstream Hollywood films.
  • In terms of audiences, the film has been particularly successful as a ‘specialised film’ or ‘art film’ with audiences in the UK.
  • The film is part of a wider cultural transformation in Australia in which ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ histories of the treatment of Aboriginals have recently emerged.

The screenplay was developed by a documentary filmmaker, Christine Olsen, who based the work on a book published in 1996 by Doris Pilkington, the daughter of the real Molly Craig. The process of casting the young actors and preparing them for the shoot is presented on the DVD copy of the film. Ironically, in working closely with young Aboriginal actors outside their home environment, director Philip Noyce was perhaps echoing some of the actions of the authorities in the film.

The narrative structure

The film has a clear structure with events organised in chronological order, but sometimes moving between locations. The DVD copy of the film is helpful in dividing the story into 16 ‘chapters’:

1. Prologue

2. The Chief Prosecutor – Neville’s office in Perth.

3. Stolen – the girls are captured in Jigalong.

4. Slide show – Neville gives a lecture in Perth.

5. Moore River – the girls’ reception and the meeting with Neville.

6. The Escape – Molly leads the other girls.

7. Tracker – Moodoo is sent after the girls.

8. River chase – Molly uses the river to ‘cover her tracks’.

9. Farmhouse – the girls get food.

10. Ambush – Neville plans to catch the girls by the fence.

11. Mavis – a maid in a farmhouse helps the girls.

12. Lost tracks – again the girls evade the tracker.

13. Gracie’s recapture – Gracie goes to the railway station.

14. Lost – the two girls go through the desert

15. Coming Home – Constable Riggs is frightened away by Mother and Grandmother and the girls rejoin their family.

16. Epilogue

Each of these chapters is about 5-6 minutes long – about the right length to study in detail. All the chapters give us information about the characters and the story, but some are important for specific reasons. The Prologue and the Epilogue are at either end of the story and they tell us what has happened before the main story begins and then what happens after the main story ends. The use of this literary or theatrical device perhaps indicates the historical importance of the story – it creates for the audience a sense that it is important to locate the story in Australian social history and to consider its implications in a contemporary Australian context.

But how do we judge when the story begins? Many film stories start with a dramatic event that causes an immediate conflict – a threat, a loss perhaps. Does our story really begin with the capture of the girls or does it start when Neville first hears about the girls? The beginning of a film helps to set up our expectations of what will happen later on. How a film starts is very important. Later on, there are moments in the story when a character might make a decision which will change the pattern of events – it will be a ‘turning point’ in the story. Some of these moments in Rabbit-Proof Fence are easy to spot:

  • when Molly decides to escape from Moore River;
  • when the farmer’s wife gives them food rather than reporting them;
  • when Gracie decides to go to the station and Molly decides to keep going.

Sometimes there are moments in the story when it is easy to miss the importance of a small action. For instance, the tracker Moodoo is very experienced and very skilled, but he seems to be fooled by a teenage girl. Is he really unable to track the girls or is he consciously trying to help them escape? We see him several times during the chase – what kinds of clues do we get about his behaviour? Remember, he has a daughter in Moore River and he is being employed against his will.

A narrative analysis of the film is likely to consider the beginning or the end of the story (when several questions from the beginning are usually answered) or any one of the turning points. Such an analysis will need to consider camerawork, mise en scène, music etc. as well as the sequence of events and the dialogue between characters.

An example of a close reading of a scene

Here is the beginnings of an analysis of the scene (Chapter 4 on the DVD) where Mr Neville explains his ideas to a group of women in Perth. This scene is important not because it ‘moves the story forward’, but because it gives the audience important information that will help us to understand Neville and his actions.

The sequence begins in Chapter 4, immediately after the children have been taken and we have the distressing shot of the Grandmother beating a rock against her head. By ‘cutting’ to Neville’s lecture at this point, the director is linking together the Grandmother’s despair and emotional behaviour with Neville’s seemingly ‘educated and rational’ explanation of his policy.

In much of the scene, the camera looks up at Neville giving him authority. He literally walks into the light and speaks very clearly in a measured tone. His ideas, which in 2004 we now find repellent, are ‘out in the open’ and official policy – they do not lurk behind closed doors. The impact of the speech is all the greater because the actor, Kenneth Branagh, is a famous Shakespearian actor of great reputation and status.

The lecture is presented as ‘scientific’, using technology and official photographs. The audience is a group of middle class women. They sit in their hats and best clothes, sipping tea. It is a decorous and respectful audience for Neville’s ideas. The setting also suggests the ‘normality’ of Neville’s approach.

Why is the audience all women? Two possible reasons are (i) the assumption that women will most clearly understand the issues related to children and family and the threat to society of a large mixed race community, and (ii) that middle-class women in the 1930s are most likely to be associated with the charities for education and welfare that Neville needs to support settlements like Moore River.

The language that Neville uses is important, with its discussion of ‘quadroons’ and ‘octoroons’ etc. During the lecture he puts himself ‘in the picture’ when he uses the pointer to trace the family development through the generations on screen. Neville is completely implicated in this venture of ‘breeding out’ the Aboriginal blood in the children, but he presents this as noble work which is designed to help the Aboriginal peoples.

With a scene like this, it is worth considering how else the filmmakers could have given us the same information – perhaps in a straight discussion between Neville and one other person, perhaps a series of short scenes in which we see the work of his department. The choice of the lecture format is important. Several commentators have pointed out that in 1931, similar ideas about ‘racial purity’ were being shouted out by the Nazi Party in Germany and across the world the idea of ‘breeding’ ‘better babies’ was being discussed. This was the now discredited science of eugenics – which some people fear is coming back with genetic engineering. The filmmakers in Rabbit-Proof Fence are careful not to make links with the Nazis and their actions towards Jewish people in Germany.

This short scene lasts only two minutes but it has an impact. Notice how when the scene ends with Neville saying “. . . in spite of himself, the native must be helped”, the next shot is a close-up of Molly in the train taking the girls to Moore River.


The arrival of the girls at Moore River starts a sequence in the film that helps to construct the conflict over cultural identity that gives the film its narrative drive. At this point, the filmmakers must show the ways in which Neville and his staff attempt to suppress the sense of Aboriginal identity and replace it with that of ‘white Australia’. What is most interesting here is the way in which ‘filmic codes’ (e.g. of camera, editing and music) are utilised.

The three girls are bewildered by the formality of the Moore River Settlement

The timing of the girls’ arrival means that it is night in Moore River. In a ‘functional’ or ‘realist’ sense this means that the children will feel more bewildered because they are sleepy and confused and also because the darkness means that they cannot see much detail of the place to which they have been brought. This narrative information helps us to understand how the children feel. But it is the ‘expressionism’ of the camerawork that gives us a sense of foreboding about what is to happen. The scene opens in very long shot but then cuts to a closer shot/reverse shot of the girls being studied by the matron/sister through the gaps in the sides of the truck. As the girls get off the truck we are offered various ‘subjective shots’ – i.e. shots in which the camera mimics the viewpoint of the children. The camera tracks with the children as they move towards the dormitory hut, following the matron shown in a low angle shot (i.e. as the small child looking up). When the door opens the camera ‘swings’/’pans’ as the children look round in the darkened room, lit only by the bobbing lamp carried by the matron. The rows of girls sleeping in cots must be highly disturbing for the three newcomers.

The style of this opening is reminiscent of horror films, especially those involving children, and also of expressionist dramas of the 1940s such as David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations, which begins with a small boy in a cemetery frightened by the looming figure of the convict. We might expect in a horror film to have unsettling music as an accompaniment to such camerawork. Such music is present in Rabbit-Proof Fence, but it is very carefully mixed and combined with other sounds so that although it does work to disturb, it is not as noticeable or ‘obvious’ as in a genre horror film (i.e. a film which is primarily concerned with shocks/frights). The music in this scene is mainly a sequence of synthesised sounds, stretched out chords, mostly ascending but not reaching a climax. There is no tune or melody but there is a resemblance to choral sounds – like a choir of ‘ancestral voices’. There are also some ‘thuds’ and electronic vibrations or ‘washes’ of sound – again possibly representative of Aboriginal instruments such as a didgeridoo.

These electronic sounds are mixed in such a way that they do not dominate the ‘realist’ sound effects of the truck, the children’s footsteps, the key in the lock etc. We also quite clearly hear the ‘comforting’ words of the matron. In the sequence, the matron is an ironic figure – dressed in white and with a lamp to light the way, she is in one sense a symbol of ‘purity’ and ‘goodness’. But the other signs point to her duplicity. This is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these scenes. The matron is just one of the characters who are ‘doing their jobs’, believing that what they are doing is ‘right and proper’.

It is worth considering just how shocking the dormitory must be to girls who have lived in small family groups in the bush. Everything about the settlement is alien and in the scenes that follow the girls will be systematically stripped of their sense of identity. In films that deal with a sense of identity, especially that fragile sense of identity that we all feel as teenagers, the focus is often on:

  • the way we speak;
  • the way we dress;
  • what we eat;
  • music, dance etc. – the way we express our emotions.

Notice how each of these is addressed in the other scenes that follow in this sequence. In the morning, the three girls are reluctant to leave the hut. The settlement is first shown in long shot, low angle with a slight distortion. We then cut sharply to the girls in bed together, clutching each other tightly. When they are finally cajoled into breakfast, everything is wrong. They don’t know the rules about standing for grace and the filmmakers exploit this visually. They are the only ones who sit when all the other girls are standing.

The food is unfamiliar and they don’t want to eat. They might take comfort in talking to each other, but are told to speak only English. The control over language is a classic strategy for ‘colonisers’ (i.e. white Australians) who seek to erase the identity of colonised peoples. Notice that the first person in authority to tell them to speak English is the Aboriginal overseer – by persuading this man to act in this way, the colonisers achieve a double success. He is humiliated by betraying his own people (although he may belong to a different Aboriginal cultural group) and the girls are cowed by someone they feel they should respect. This is followed up by the matron who tells them not to use ‘jabber’. This is another way to denigrate local culture – the word ‘jabber’ is an English word that means ‘garbled speech’. It comes from the sound of very fast speech. To say that someone who speaks another language is ‘jabbering’ is insulting because it doesn’t recognise the way in which the other language works and effectively sees the other language as meaningless and worthless.

Along with the new food and new speech comes washing and new clothes – symbolically ‘cleansing’ the girls of their outward display of ‘difference’. Now they will look like all the other girls – stripped of their original identity. It is worth noting at this point that by putting the girls into the settlement, the Western Australian authorities are acting like many similar colonising powers before them. In Hollywood films, audiences became used to both the treatment of Native Americans, ‘herded’ into reservations and African-Americans shown in slave quarters in historical narratives.

'Mr Neville' (Kenneth Branagh) inspects Molly (Everlyn Sampi) to see if she is 'fair' enough for adoption.

There are two further incidents in this sequence which refer to the process of ‘transforming identity’. The first is the ‘inspection’ by Mr Neville. His objective is to find the girls who are ‘fair’ enough to be assimilated into white society – who will marry whites and have children for white Australia. Nina, the dormitory ‘monitor’ tells Molly that the ‘fair ones’ are “cleverer than us”. She has already been brainwashed but Molly is still resistant. When her name is read out, she doesn’t move. In a very clever juxtaposition, this scene opens with the children singing ‘Swanee River’, which Nina says is “Mr Devil’s favourite song”. What is important here is that the song is a very well-known example of a ‘minstrel song’. ‘Minstrelsy’ developed in the American South in the early 19th century. White men dressed as African-Americans, ‘blacking up’ their faces and performing in caricature of slaves on a plantation – as if entertaining the slave owners. These performers created stereotypes such as the lazy, childlike slave of low intelligence but great comic potential and the large ‘Mammy’ character. Minstrel shows were immensely popular and after the Civil War, black Americans started to play the roles themselves. Eventually the minstrel stereotypes appeared in Hollywood films and on radio and later television. They were popular too in Britain and the ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’ (white singers ‘blacking up’) was the centre of BBC’s early evening Saturday ‘family schedule’ until the 1970s when the impact of the Civil Rights movement in the United States finally stopped these racist representations. (The issue of ‘minstrelsy’ is at the centre of African-American director Spike Lee’s biting satire Bamboozled (US 2000).) Again we should emphasise that Neville is represented as a man who believes he is ‘doing good’. In 1931, a song which happily celebrates a yearning to return to ‘the old plantation’ was accepted without a second thought, but watching these scenes in 2004, the inference is clear.

The final scenes in the Moore River sequence feature Olive, the girl who has run away to be with her boyfriend. She is found and returned by the tracker, Moodoo, who will later become crucial to the narrative. Her punishment is to be locked in the shed, beaten and then to have her long hair cut off. Again this is a cruel and degrading punishment for a young woman. ‘Solitary confinement’ in a small enclosed space is a classic method of punishing prisoners. We have seen it many times in crime films and it currently appears in a Stella Artois beer advert played for laughs in cinemas. The heat and the loneliness are designed to ‘break the will’ of the prisoner. It is combined with the hair cutting to produce further humiliation. The man in charge suggests that with short hair, Olive will be less attractive to boys. For a young woman with few possessions, her long hair is a valuable asset. In many societies, for a woman to lose her hair is to be shamed. For example, in France after the Second World War, women who had ‘collaborated’ or ‘fraternised’ with German soldiers had their heads shaved so that their shame would visible to everyone in their neighbourhood. In the settlement, Olive will suffer a similar kind of shame.

All of these events (and the experience of the ‘motherless babies’ in Moore River) together convince Molly that she must escape.

Narrative and mise en scène

The Moore River sequence is distinctive in the way in which camera, sound and editing combine to portray the bewilderment of the girls and the process of transforming their identity. Once they escape, the narrative moves forward to emphasise the long journey with the threat of discovery. Inevitably, we are now expecting shots of the desert and the big skies – especially as the escape is pre-figured by Molly’s memory of being with her mother when the bird of prey (a ‘wedge-tailed eagle’) is identified as a watching spirit which will take care of the girls.

The long shots of landscapes are well captured in the widescreen format. The film is shot in a ratio (width to height) of 2.35:1. This is known in the film industry as ‘Scope, a reference to CinemaScope, the first universally recognised widescreen format which appeared in 1953 as part of Hollywood’s response to television. Scope is very distinctive because it is so ‘long and thin’ – one film director in the 1950s thought it suitable only for ‘snakes and funerals’. If you watch films on television, they rarely show the correct format, instead ‘panning and scanning’ across the image or simply chopping off the sides to fit it into the television screen shape. If you are able to go to the cinema or watch the DVD you can see the full frame.

Because they know most people will watch a film on television, many directors don’t choose ‘Scope. But those who do try to make use of the width. A good example is the composition in which we see Molly signalling to two Aboriginal men who are carrying a carcass. The framing allows us to see both Molly and the men and also to register how much distance there is between them. (Molly is wary of any contact.) You might argue that the landscape on either side of the frame could be lost (i.e. the image fitted in to a narrower conventionally shaped screen format) without losing any of this meaning. This is certainly the case with this example and yet the landscape is important. At this point we are less than half way through the narrative. Much of what follows will be the girls against the natural environment. Apart from moments of potential crisis when they come across settlements or their pursuers, the girls are shown against the landscape. The filmmakers must find ways to keep us interested. The use of ‘Scope is in itself a sign that this is a film about an ‘epic’ struggle against the environment and therefore we should see the landscape in all its vastness, and in particular the rabbit-proof fence ‘snaking’ through it. (But we should also note that many directors of quite ‘intimate stories’ about people in rooms have also chosen ‘Scope because it enables them to emphasise relationships between people and objects in confined spaces.)

The other factors in these landscape shots are colour, camera movement, ‘effects’ and music. The cinematographer Chris Doyle is particularly well-known for his use of colour and visual effects, but mostly for his presentation of urban environments. Here he is quite restrained until the final part of the journey, including the sequence in which the girls collapse in the desert (Chapter 14 on the DVD). Doyle uses effects to ‘bleach out’ parts of the background to represent the blinding glare of the sun. Low and high angles and the superimposition of different shots of the two girls creates a sense of confusion.

The music during these scenes is just as important in creating an atmosphere as it is in the Moore River scenes. Again, Peter Gabriel uses ‘samples’ of natural sounds and Aboriginal musical instruments to create a synthesised score. Gabriel’s reputation as a promoter of ‘World Music’ has meant that the score has been both widely praised and also condemned as ‘inauthentic’. What do you think?

Contextual Background

Australia and its indigenous peoples

Just as in the Americas, European explorers who ‘discovered’ Australia and the other islands of the South Pacific in the 17th Century encountered people who had already lived there for thousands of years. In Australia, the British were the first to build significant settlements in Eastern Australia following the voyage of James Cook in 1770. British settlement drew upon the earlier experiences of the Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America and the Spanish, British and French in North America.

These experiences were different, especially in the degree of ‘interaction’ and conflict between the invading Europeans and what were then called the ‘native peoples’ (these peoples were also given more emotionally charged names such as ‘savages’ etc.). In every case, the native populations were reduced by slaughter at the hands of settlers with better weaponry, diseases brought from Europe and malnutrition as Europeans destroyed the local food culture, often based on hunting.

In North America, the British and French tended to keep a distance from native peoples, but in ‘Latin America’, the Spanish did mix more freely and intermarried more frequently. The result in many countries is a much more ‘mixed’ population today. Compare Canada and Mexico. In Canada, a country of 31 million people, nearly 1 million are classed as ‘Aboriginal’ and of these, 290,000 are classed as métis or of mixed race. In Mexico, a country of 100 million, the largest group of people (60%) are mestizos or mixed race. A further 30% are ‘Amerindian’ or ‘indigenous peoples’. Only 9% are ‘European’ or ‘White’.

Australia is much more like Canada in terms of population. In 2001 Australia had 410,000 people who were classified as ‘indigenous peoples’, out of a total population of 19 million. As in Canada, Aboriginal peoples make up a much bigger proportion of the (sparse) populations of the more remote ‘outback’ areas. These are in Northern and Western Australia. Most of the Australian population that developed from immigration lives on the coasts of Southern and Eastern Australia. The Australian government department dealing with indigenous peoples was the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission’ (ATSIC) up to 2005. It was replaced by The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples ( in May 2010. The Torres Strait is the area between Northern Australia and Papua New Guinea.

What does ‘Aboriginal’ mean?

Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary defines ‘aboriginal’ as:

The original or native inhabitants of a country.

(From the Latin abo – from and origo – beginning)

The term itself is thus strictly descriptive. It has, however, been shortened to make a term of abuse, as in ‘abo’ and it is misleading in suggesting that there is a single group of Aboriginals. In Australia (as in Canada and the United States) there are many different aboriginal groups with different languages and cultures, each of which might describe itself as a ‘nation’. This is why these notes have referred to aboriginal peoples in the plural.

Q. What difference do you think it would make if Australians adopted the American way of referring to indigenous peoples and called them ‘Native Australians’?

Miscegenation – racial mixing

Sexual relationships between European explorers/settlers and indigenous peoples were an inevitable part of contact between the two groups from the first landings of the Europeans. It was especially likely in Australia, where many European men in the outback were unlikely to be able to find a European woman as a partner.

European settlement forced indigenous peoples into a colonial relationship. This meant that they were treated not as citizens, but more as the property or responsibility of the colonial government (i.e. in Britain or its representatives in Australia). Throughout the ‘British Empire’ which developed from the 17th century onwards, the colonial governments treated indigenous peoples as if they were ‘inferior’ to Europeans. They were referred to as ‘heathens’ or ‘savages’ and were treated as if they were children. Their education was often left to Christian missionaries. The colonialists were terrified that ‘interbreeding’ with indigenous peoples would lead to a ‘degeneration’ of white society. A whole literature and language relating to racial mixing developed which has had consequences for the status of mixed race people ever since. Mr Neville’s lecture to the women in Rabbit-Proof Fence is typical of the widespread beliefs in Britain and Australia in the 1930s.

Britain and Australian government

Australia became an independent country – the Commonwealth of Australia – in 1901. (See the timeline on Up until then, the country was a collection of separate colonies, such as New South Wales or Western Australia. Modern Australia is a federal state in which the individual states have control over many aspects of their affairs. Although ATSIC was a federal body, the treatment of aboriginal peoples has historically been different in each state. Rabbit-Proof Fence takes place in the state of Western Australia. You can find out about WA policy towards indigenous peoples on

The rabbit-proof fence – history and metaphor

The rabbit-proof fence was a historical fact – extraordinary as it may seem. A British settler, Thomas Austin, brought 24 wild rabbits over from the UK in 1859, hoping to develop a breeding stock for food (the domestic UK rabbit was not hardy enough to survive). Some of them escaped and with few natural predators, a rabbit population explosion started. By the end of the century their numbers were in the hundreds of millions. The mad idea of fencing off part of a continent to protect the grazing land was suggested in a Royal Commission of 1901 and by 1907 the fence was in place. Whether it had any effect in keeping out the rabbits from Western Australia is debatable.

The fence itself is an interesting metaphor for events in Australian history. A concrete reminder of how the British invaded Australia, bringing with them an alien culture, the fence also ironically acts as a means of keeping the girls connected to their family home in Jigalong. What was created by the white settlers becomes an integral part of the Aboriginal culture. (What isn’t so clear is what the Aboriginal peoples thought about the influx of rabbits – were they a useful food source or did they drive out native species?)

Rabbit-Proof Fence and the Australian media

Given the context outlined above, it isn’t surprising perhaps that Rabbit-Proof Fence proved a controversial film release in Australia. The film presents itself as a true story, based on the book by Dorothy Pilkington, which in turn is based upon detailed research and interviews with two of the girls who are seen as they are today in the Epilogue section. The history of what happened to mixed race Aboriginal children was finally ‘brought out into the open’ in 1997 with the publication of an Australian Government report entitled ‘Bringing Them Home’ (detailed education materials on the report and the Rabbit-Proof Fence book are available from the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission – see Refs).

The report introduced the concept of the ‘Stolen Generations’ and uncovered the maltreatment of thousands of mixed race children. It wasn’t accepted by everyone, however and some academics and journalists argued that the historical evidence was flawed and that the claims were exaggerated. These same columnists attacked the Rabbit-Proof Fence film when it was released. (See Windschuttle, 2003 and Howson and Moore, 2002 in Refs.)

One of the problems for any filmmaker approaching a subject like that of the historical journey made by the three girls in 1931 is that the screen representation can never be an exact reconstruction of the event. Film and media studies have developed precisely to allow us to develop the critical skills with which to ‘deconstruct’ any text and expose the ways in which it has been constructed. However, this is just the first problem. When the filmmaker has decided on an appropriate means of constructing representations of the girls in the environment of Jigalong and Moore River, the next stage is to consider the shaping of the story. In order to create an entertaining feature film, some events will be left out and others perhaps manipulated to make a more dramatic story. Most audiences are aware of the need to do this, but they will trust a filmmaker that the ‘based on a true story’ tag will mean that the basis for the story and the main themes and ideas are represented as faithfully as possible.

History, especially when it has been recently ‘uncovered’ or ‘re-written’ will always be controversial. Opponents of the new history (and therefore defenders of the old history) will seize upon on any minor changes to the facts of the story and turn this into a refutation of the whole set of events. Tony Hughes-Daeth (2002) in a detailed discussion of the various elements of the Rabbit-Proof Fence story, suggests that what Australia has been experiencing is something similar to the debate about the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and to the Truth and Reconciliation Process in South Africa – Australia has been debating how to create a formal process which will allow the history of the ‘Stolen Generations’ to be recorded. Hughes-Daeth argues that the film of Rabbit-Proof Fence attempts to ‘universalise’ the story, to make it available to an international audience. This he argues is achieved by concentrating on just the story of the three girls (i.e. little is said about what happens to the other inmates of Moore River) and presenting their story less through dialogue and more through the strong visuals and music. In this respect, he argues that the film ‘model’ for the approach in Rabbit-Proof Fence is Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (US 1993), another ‘based on real events’ story. The novel Schindler’s Ark was written by another Australian, Thomas Keneally and told the story of the businessman who saved Jews from the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Rabbit-Proof Fence was successful outside Australia, suggesting that the ‘universalising’ of the story worked. It is interesting to note that the controversy within Australia also emerged internationally. Soon after the film’s release bulletin boards around the world carried comments on the film from doubters and from Australians (including Aboriginal Australians) defending its arguments. The nature of internet postings means that many of these have since been deleted, but the flavour of some of the posts can be seen in these ‘User Comments’ from the Internet Movie Database (

‘Bernie-56’, Melbourne

Date: 5 July 2003

Summary: A work of fiction – nothing more

Enjoy the film for its cinematic qualities, but always remember that this is pure fiction. The events depicted never happened. The clever little historical note at the end is nice touch to make audiences think the events depicted actually happened. The heroine of the film was *not* stolen, but – as official files reveal – removed only after fears were raised for her safety and after a nod of approval from her stepfather. The so-called ‘Stolen Generations’ is an enduring myth of the Australian scene. The facts are that despite enormous efforts not one single stolen Aborigine has been found, let alone a dozen – or generations. However, it’s a heart-rending tale that makes for good press and a good screenplay.

CalebCT, Canada

Date: 25 May 2003

Summary: 8/10

Good film about governmental “adopting” of half-caste children in the hopes of civilizing them is worth checking out to remind oneself that you don’t have to look far to see painful truths about any country, even one as seemingly sublime as Australia.

Box Office

IMDB lists Rabbit-Proof Fence as having a production budget of US$6 million. Produced wholly in Australia with a significant investment of public funds, the box office gross in Australia was over US$3.75 million after a long run of some 18 weeks. This compares favourably with grosses for Hollywood films in Australia and it was the second best performance by an Australian film in its domestic market in 2002.

Abroad, the film was treated much more like an art film, but in some of the largest markets the film did well; US$6.1 million in North America, £1.4 million in the UK and Euro1.3 million in Germany. suggests a total worldwide box office of US$16 million.


Although Rabbit-Proof Fence is ‘wholly Australian’ in terms of production finance, the creative input into the film reveals the extent to which Australian talent is an integral part of the international film industry.

The producer-director of the film has an interesting background, especially in terms of the ‘political commitment’ which several commentators have detected in his approach to the events of 1931. Philip Noyce (born 1950) began as a documentary filmmaker, producing his first feature Backroads in 1977 – an ‘existential road movie’ with references to racism in the Australian outback. (It was this film that alerted writer Christine Olsen to the possibility that Noyce might be the director to approach with the Rabbit-Proof Fence script.) In 1978 he made one of the most celebrated films of the ‘Australian New Wave’ of the 1970s. Newsfront told the story of two newsreel photographers in the Australia of the 1950s, a crucial period in the postwar development of the ‘young country’, experiencing immigration and welcoming the world to the Melbourne Olympics of 1956.

After two less well-received features in the 1980s, Noyce moved to Hollywood by means of an Australian/US co-production, directing another Australian emigrée, Nicole Kidman, in the thriller Dead Calm (1989). This was followed by a series of big budget thrillers, including the Tom Clancy films with Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan in Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), which seemed to imply that Noyce had lost any political/social edge in favour of Hollywood technical proficiency.

But in 2002 Noyce re-emerged with two controversial films, Rabbit-Proof Fence and an adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American with Michael Caine. This latter film was very critical of American ‘interference’ in South East Asia and Miramax found it difficult to release in the ‘post 9/11’ climate.

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle (born 1952) has a very interesting background. Although Australian by birth, he went to university in the United States and travelled extensively in Asia. His film career began in Hong Kong and Taiwan and he is probably best known for his work with the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, for whom he produced very striking images of urban locations. He has also worked with the Chinese director Zhang Yimou, someone else with an international reputation for strong visual styles and on productions and with Hollywood ‘independent’, Gus Van Sant on his (visually unusual) remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The music for the film was composed by Peter Gabriel, the British rock musician who over the last twenty years has been associated with showcasing ‘world music’ on the international stage, through both recording artists on his own label and organising tours and festivals featuring musicians and performers from Africa and Asia in particular.

The actors in the film are mostly unknown outside Australia and much focus has been on Noyce’s work with the girls selected to play the central characters. (The UK DVD release includes a documentary showing how the girls were selected through auditions across Australia.) The exceptions in the cast are Kenneth Branagh, the British ‘actor-manager/director’ who has recently turned to smaller, ‘character’, roles after a period in the early 1990s of high profile actor-director roles and David Gulpilil, who in the 1970s and 1980s played aboriginal characters in several important films, including Walkabout (UK 1971) and The Last Wave (Australia 1977), as well as the international comedy hit Crocodile Dundee (Australia 1986).

These details about the creative input into the film are useful in demonstrating that although Rabbit-Proof Fence is essentially a ‘small, Australian film’, it is also the product of experienced filmmakers, well aware of how to interest international audiences.

References and web resources

Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garimara) (2002) Rabbit-Proof Fence, New York: Hyperion/Miramax Books

Study Guides: (electronic download costs Aus$4.95) – fascinating European site studying ‘Indigenous Australians’


Peter Howson and Des Moore (2002) ‘A rabbit-proof fence full of holes? at

Tony Hughes Daeth (2002) ‘Which Rabbit-Proof Fence? Empathy, Assimilation, Hollywood’ at

Keith Windschuttle (2003) Rabbit-proof fence: “a true story”? at

Reviews – (this site is being re-constructed, so this may move)

Directory of World Cinema: Australia and New Zealand

A few weeks ago I posted on the new series of World Cinema Directories from Intellect. The latest one to be free online before the print edition is published is Australia and New Zealand, edited by Ben Goldsmith and Geoff Lealand. This directory follows the same outline structure as the Japanese Directory. The main difference for me as a reviewer is that I have taught aspects of Japanese Cinema, but I’ve not tackled either Australian or New Zealand Cinema – only a handful of selected films for specific purposes. I hope this means I can be more objective about the usefulness of the whole project to students and cinephiles generally.

There is one other obvious difference comparing this publication with the Japanese Directory – two separate industries and two editors. In practice, the major part of the guide is devoted to Australian Cinema and New Zealand gets only around 66 specific pages out of 340 overall. As far as contributors are concerned, it is significant that nearly all are academics (i.e. no film journalists). Both countries have developed academic film studies in parallel with the UK and North America so that all the contributors are based in one or the other of the two countries. Compared to the Japanese Directory, I recognised many more names, including some from the ‘Senses of Cinema’ website based in Australia.

The Australian section picks out four directors and a number of genres for essays with accompanying short entries on individual films. The four directors are Peter Weir and Baz Luhrmann and two more surprising choices – Cecil Holmes, a director working in the 1950s-70s that I was unaware of, and Michael Powell, who made two features in Australia after his forced exile from British Cinema. The genres selected are: ‘Bushranger’, War Cinema, Crime, Prison, ‘Period’, Comedy, Coming of Age, Horror, Road Movies, Science Fiction and Fantasy, ‘Ozploitation’ and Short Films. The essays begin with ‘Disability in the Australian Cinema’.

The New Zealand section features three directors – Shirley Horrocks, Shuichi Kothari and Vincent Ward. There is a general section on ‘Genre and Themes’ with various short essays, an Introduction addressing ‘New Zealand Film in 2009’ and a separate short section on Experimental Film. Overall the number of short film reviews is much less than in the Australian section.

There is also a comprehensive Bibliography and a listing of useful websites.

From my perspective of comparative ignorance, two points about the contents of the Australian section stood out for me immediately as I skimmed through the Directory. First was the wealth of material about Australian Cinema before the 1970s – about which I knew very little. Compared to this was the relatively less substantial coverage of the ‘New Australian Cinema’ of the 1970s – the period when Australian films seemed to appear quite suddenly in the global marketplace (or was it just the UK?). The introduction to the guide is very good in explaining why debates about Australian Cinema developed in the way that they did (with a concentration on how national identity was represented and a disavowal of genre) and overall I found this to be a coherent presentation of Australian Cinema with interesting debates about industry and culture. Nevertheless, the Directory is still to some extent constrained by its structure. Australian Cinema is slightly confusing for the newcomer. Some of the debates are familiar for scholars of British Cinema – a history of popular audiences preferring Hollywood to local production for instance. Yet there is also a history of public funding and a variety of local production that compares very well with countries of a similar size and wealth. This means that the Directory can’t offer a full account of Australian Cinema past and present. Editorial decisions about what to include and why become very important.

For example the 1946 film The Overlanders acts as a useful study text (easily available on DVD) in relation to several debates. Made by the distinguished British documentarist Harry Watt for Ealing it represents inward investment from the UK (as distinct from the Hollywood funding of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia which borrowed some of its ideas) and raises questions about how British creatives constructed representations of Australian national identity. The film originated as part of an Anglo-Australian propaganda exercise with a ‘typical Australian’ refusing to kill cattle in Northern Australia as part of a scorched earth policy developed because of fear of a Japanese invasion. Instead the cattle are driven for hundreds of miles to Queensland. In the Directory, the film is discussed in the ‘Road Movie’ section, but it could have appeared in the War Film section or the ‘Period’ section. Alternatively, Watts’ work in Australia could have been considered alongside Michael Powell or the other Ealing Films made in Australia during the 1940s and 1950s. My point here is not that I disagree with where the film appears – simply that in a Directory in which readers might select to read one section rather than another, making the links is not so straightforward (though it could be in a fully ‘online project).

I find it difficult to comment on the New Zealand section having seen so few of the films. Some of the debates are similar, but overall the relatively limited resources/local box office potential of New Zealand compared to Australia does create extra problems (not least the enormous disparity between Peter Jackson-produced international blockbusters and all other local production). I’m not sure whether New Zealand film academics/fans will be happy that the Directory gives them exposure or that they will resent being a kind of appendage to a primarily Australian Directory. I’m sure that someone could let me know!

My other main question is simply to query how many of the films discussed in the Directory are accessible from outside the two countries? It would be helpful if all the directories in this series included some information about how to acquire DVDs (Region 4 DVDs for Australia/New Zealand). Once again, YouTube rides to the rescue with some clips from films unavailable in the UK. Here’s a clip from one of my favourites from the 1970s (what I’ve now learned is the period of the ‘AFC film’, produced with public funding). This is Newsfront, directed by Philip Noyce in 1978 and exploring the world of the local Australian newsreel industry in the 1950s:

Although there is no entry on Newsfront as such in the Directory, there is an interesting essay by Bonnie Elliott which analyses the context of its production (in the ‘Period Film’ section).

Overall, I found this a very interesting collection and I’m pleased to have been introduced to a range of films with which I’m unfamiliar as well as more familiar titles that I can now see in a new light. If you want a free copy download it now from Intellect Books (free offer ends soon!).

Ten Canoes (Australia 2006)

During the goose egg hunt, the men camp in the trees for safety.

(These notes were written for an introduced screening in 2007)

In one of the most remote parts of Australia, the Arnhem Land Peninsula in the Northern Territories, there are several small aboriginal communities that were able to resist the incursion of European culture until relatively recently. In the 1930s, when a remarkable social anthropologist, Donald Thomson, visited the Yolngu people, he found a way of life seemingly unchanged for several millennia. He shot several thousand feet of nitrate film that was subsequently lost in a fire, but also some 4,000 still images on glass negatives which have survived to provide a unique record of daily life in the region.

David Gulpilil, perhaps the most high profile aboriginal figure in the Australian film industry, is himself from the Yolngu people. His career began in the 1970s with films like Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (UK/Australia 1971) and Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1976). More recently he appeared in Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and The Tracker (2002). On this last film he met the Dutch-Australian director Rolf de Heer and invited him to visit Arnhem Land and to make a film there. Gulpilil and de Heer, in discussion with many of the local people eventually decided on the unique structure of Ten Canoes. The title comes from one of Thomson’s photographs, showing a hunting party taking their canoes across the Arfura swamp in search of the eggs of the magpie goose.

Telling stories

Ten Canoes presents three versions of a story, each ‘nested’ within another. David Gulpilil is the off-screen voice (in English) introducing the landscape from an aerial view and then taking us back to a time when the Yolngu hunted for goose eggs as part of an annual cycle of food gathering. This story is shown in black and white and the look of it derives from Thomson’s photographs. The time period is not given, but it could be any time during the three hundred years or so leading up to the 1930s.

As the men (no women on hunting parties) go about the dangerous and uncomfortable task of finding eggs and fending off crocodiles and mosquitoes, one of the older men begins to tell a story to his younger brother. The older brother, who has three wives, is worried that his sibling is getting too interested in the youngest of the wives. The story he tells is a cautionary tale about what desiring another man’s wife in a close-knit community can lead to.

The ‘story within a story’ is set within the same community many years previously, in a ‘mythical time’. Of course, it looks exactly like the world of the other two stories, but like the opening shots of the film, it is shown in colour. We get to hear all of this story and its consequences.

Life in the Yolngu community in mythical time is on one level simple, but on another sophisticated in terms of ritual, justice, honour etc. The story involves conflict with another community and two deaths – and, of course, a lesson for the younger brother. It’s important to note that the Yolngu were not at the time of the stories struggling hunter gatherers at the margins of subsistence. The land supported sufficient flora and fauna to allow the Yolngu to eat well, to build shelter and to have the ‘spare time’ to create rituals and develop societal structures.

The Yolngu world is presented as patriarchal. The older men live with one or more wives in the central community – adolescent males must live separately in a boys’ community. Full initiation into the adult world is controlled and organised.

Filmmaking, culture and the European gaze

How should we engage with a film like this? One concern must be a question about how much the film crew misrepresents or distorts/disrupts the lives of the people in the community and misrepresents their story. To a certain extent, this is a consequence of all media production. Yolngu culture can only appear on screen in a mediated form. However, there are several mitigating features in the approach adopted here.

First, it is worth stressing that the fictional world presented on screen is just that – a recreated fiction. The contemporary Yolngu live in a world that uses SUVs, internet banking and satellite television. When the idea of the film was first discussed, the goose egg hunt had lapsed as an annual event and it was the circulation of photographs from the Thomson Archive that stimulated interest. The idea to develop the story around the ‘Ten Canoes’ photograph came from within the community.

When it came to actually shooting the film, the small crew led by de Heer (the ‘Balanda’ as white men are termed) lived within the community for the duration of the shoot, much like the ‘participant observers’ of social anthropology. All of the characters in the story are played by Yolngu people, many of whom are, or have been, artists or live performers, but none previously film actors. Casting and scripting was not straightforward. Individuals wanted to play the characters who were recognisable in the photographs as their ancestors and tradition forbade people from representing characters from the ‘wrong’ family group. As a consequence some roles had only one possible player. The script (everything is spoken in one of the Yolngu languages) was difficult to formalise since some players spoke different local languages and the lines had to be translated and re-translated to create some form of continuity. One of the community, Peter Djigirr acted as co-director as well as actor and translator.

In the completed film it is clear that all these difficulties were overcome and ‘ownership’ of the narrative appears to rest with the Yolngu themselves – certainly they express themselves as more than satisfied with the outcome. In fact the process of filmmaking became a vibrant exercise in oral history and re-discovery of a way of life. There was sufficient knowledge amongst the older Yolngu to make it possible to build the canoes shown in the photographs and the work on memory and culture has subsequently spawned a whole series of cultural productions, including exhibitions, books and training programmes. The film also exists in three different versions with the narration available in English and the local language and the subtitles removed for local screening.

The unique structure of the film derives from the compromise between the demands of American/European film narratives and the sensibilities of the Yolngu. The local people were attracted to the idea of reconstructing the goose egg hunt, but this was essentially non-dramatic. For the Yolngu it would be wrong to insert dramatic conflict into the reconstruction – but it was allowable in the ‘mythical time’ and this was how the film developed.

If the film had remained as an interesting cultural project enjoyed by the Yolngu, it would have been a worthwhile project in itself. But a feature film is a potentially universal cultural artefact. How would other audiences, especially non-indigenous Australian audiences react? In her blog, the Australian academic Liz Conor, a former editor of the Australian media education magazine, Metro, offers a perceptive observation. She describes an Australian audience anticipating something that will take them into the mythical time (the ‘dreaming’, as Australian writing has it) – a time when ‘original Australia’ was not sullied by capitalism and industrialism.They are, as she puts it, “Western Moderns appraising the difference of the ‘Native’”. What will happen?

With utmost respect the non-indigenous patrons take in the opening scene. Naked perfectly fit men, with all the gravitas of millennia of tradition, stride out in single file to hunt. Very intently we watch as the trailing man calls them to halt. This is surely serious but unfathomable ‘business’ of some sort. “I refuse to walk at the back” he declares. Has some law been violated? Is this a challenge to customary command? Has the hunt lost its way, or an ancestor made a sign? “Somebody is farting” he says, and audible relief staggers down the aisles.

Conor’s short entry is well worth reading in full. She argues that Ten Canoes allows us to think about a particular kind of society that survived for thousands of years and to do so without suffering the curse of the colonialist’s imagination and treating aboriginal communities as either ‘noble savages’ or ‘primitive’ and ‘simple’ people. Part of the success of the film is in the leisurely pacing and refusal to overdramatise the conflicts. This is a different, not inferior, mode of story telling and we may have to ‘work’ to appreciate it – working hard to resist the urge to look for conventional narrative pleasures, enjoying what else is on offer and thinking about aboriginal culture in new ways.

One last thought. Ten Canoes has been generally well-received, but it still represents a mediated view of another culture, a useful starting point, but not a definitive representation.

There is plenty of background material on Ten Canoes in the press kit downloadable from:

Here’s the trailer: