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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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Films by and about Indigenous Australians are the New Wave writes Andrew L. Urban and they are receiving significant acclaim as well as a popular following.

There is a distinctive new voice, perhaps a new wave, in Australian cinema, and it is recognisably Aboriginal. Community, as much as country, is at the heart of the recent clutch of films by and about Indigenous Australians, many by new filmmakers who have been acclaimed at home and internationally.

"an admirable strike rate"

Two of the films made by Indigenous filmmakers in the past three years have been screened at the Cannes film festival (both in the Un Certain Regard section). The first, Samson and Delilah (2009), won the Camera d’Or for its maker, Warwick Thornton. That’s an admirable strike rate. The latest at Cannes is Ivan Sen’s third feature, Toomelah (2011); his debut feature, Beneath Clouds (2002) won two major awards at the Berlin Film Festival as well as a handful of awards at home. 

Of the 11 films by and/or about Indigenous Australians made over the past decade, seven have been made in the last three years – three of them completed in the past 18 months. Four of the 11 have been debut features for their directors. Although most of these films have been directed by Indigenous Australians, white Australians have also contributed, notably successful directors Phillip Noyce, Baz Luhrmann and Rolf de Heer, all with impressive track records.

Women filmmakers are represented by Rachel Perkins, who directed two of the 11 and Beck Cole who makes her debut with Here I Am.

Pekins says she is “hugely encouraged” by the development of Indigenous themes on our screens and on a personal note, she was “thrilled by the results of Screen Australia sponsored research (released May 2, 2011) that showed that Bran Nue Dae had had 7.5 million viewings across all platforms. That sort of success is very exciting,” she says, and adds that the success and popularity of other films about Indigenous Australians – such as Rabbit Proof Fence and Australia – “flies in the face of the view that Australians are not interested in these subjects.”

On the eve of leaving Sydney for the Festival de Cannes “to celebrate and support the Un Certain Regard screening of Ivan Sen’s Toomelah,” Erica Glen, head of Screen Australia’s Indigenous Branch said this ‘new wave’ hasn’t sprung up overnight. Since its formation under the Australian Film Commission the Branch has thought it was coming. Now it’s arrived, but we’ve been working on it for the best part of 15 years, with things like workshops to support filmmakers, build skills and confidence. It’s beginning to pay off.”

"a strong shift by non Indigenous filmmakers"

Catriona McKenzie, another new Indigenous female filmmaker (with several TV dramas and shorts to her credit) is currently casting in Western Australia for her debut feature, Satellite Boy. 

There are several Indigenous documentary projects in the pipeline, said Glen; “that area has always been quite strong. But what is quite noticeable lately is a strong shift by non Indigenous filmmakers towards making Indigenous-themed dramas.” 

One Night The Moon (2001) – Rachel Perkins (second feature)
MusicArtsDance Films' production One Night the Moon directed by Rachel Perkins and starring Paul Kelly, Kaarin Fairfax and Kelton Pell was invited to the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2002. The Berlin invitation followed an invitation for One Night The Moon to screen at Sundance in January.

A truly original work, One Night the Moon is a marvellous achievement for Australian cinema, blending elements of opera and cinema in a striking and gripping drama.

The Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) – Phillip Noyce
Nominated for a Golden Globe, the film collected 21 awards, including Best Film AFI award and audience awards at several events as diverse as Aspen, Durban, Denver, Sao Paolo, Valladolid and Edinburgh and 25 further nominations. It won the Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review (USA).

Remarkable for its excellent storytelling, its economical, compressed characterisations and for its profound humanity, Rabbit Proof Fence is an adventure story and history lesson all in one; leaves us satisfied that what we have seen is important, true and of lasting value.

The Tracker (2002) – Rolf de Heer
Best Actor AFI Award for David Gulpilil, nominated in five other categories including Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Direction; won the Best Feature Film Australian Writers Guild Award; won three IF Awards, including Best Film, and was nominated for three more including Best Script and Best Direction. Also won and was nominated for several international awards.

Notable for its music and its sparse dialogue, the film follows the footprints of an age old issue, but just like the eternal clash between good and evil, the subject merits and warrants ongoing exploration and exposition: racial relationships in early (white) Australia. 

Ten Canoes (2006) Rolf de Heer & Peter Djigirr
Won the Special Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes and six AFI Awards including Best Film, Direction and Screenplay. Also won three IF Awards and the Grand Prix at Ghent. 

Set in ancient tribal times in one of the most remote and untamed places on the Australian continent, The Arafura Swamp - hardly a name to inspire gasps of romantic fantasy, yet the settings are breathtaking. We can imagine how these places in the film look pretty much as they did at the time the story is told (1,000 years ago). And the film is full of universal humour. 

Australia (2008) – Baz Luhrmann
Nominated for two Oscars (Costumes & Visual effects), it won two AFI Awards (Costumes and Production Design) and was nominated for three more, and several awards internationally for sound. Young Aboriginal actor Brendan Walters was recognised for his performance both in Australian and international awards. Australia was the highest grossing film at the Australian box office since Crocodile Dundee, with $37.6 million. 

It’s not the size that matters most in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, it’s the many details, the intimate, personal moments, the connection with and respect for Aboriginal culture in the context of human interaction, and the evil that greed makes men callously do. But that’s not to dismiss the gloriously dramatic landscape that cinematographer Mandy Walker captures with great finesse, nor the sweep of the story over two important years, up to the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese. And as we would expect from Baz, he makes maximum use of music.

Bran Nue Dae (2009) – Rachel Perkins (third feature) 
Winner of News Limited Readers Choice Award and Most Popular Film at 2009 Melbourne Film Festival; also nominated for 4 IF and 4 AFI awards including Best Film and winner of Best Supporting Actress for Deborah Mailman; nominated for Best Childrens Film at 2010 Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

Gloriously irreverent, musically inventive and effortlessly entertaining, Bran Nue Dae delivers on its promise to bring the highly acclaimed stage musical to the screen. The film celebrates being Aboriginal in a wickedly humorous fashion … and sometimes unexpectedly, like a truck full of blackfellas dancing to the famous Mikis Theodorakis’ theme from Zorba the Greek. It’s an entirely appropriate loan, though, given that tune is also a celebration of cultural identity.

Samson and Delilah (2009) – Warwick Thornton (debut feature)
Warwick Thornton and Kath Shelper’s hit feature Samson & Delilah was one of nine films shortlisted for the 2009 Foreign Language Film Oscar; the first for an Australian film. It took over $3.1 million at Australian box office. Won Best Film, Best Original Screenplay and Best Direction at the 2009 Australian Film Institute Awards. The two stars of the film, Marissa Gibson and Rowan McNamara, shared the AFI Young Actor Award. 

Tangible, recognisable, sometimes terrible truths about the human condition drive this film’s aching heart, in which few words are spoken but much is communicated. Warwick Thornton’s film is a searing dramatisation of how he sees his world in Central Australia, and despite its bleak, agonising riffs, it carries the wings of hope.

Stone Bros (2009) - Richard Frankland (debut feature)
This is arguably the first full-on comedy made by an Indigenous Australian. Brazenly breaking filmmaking rules in bravura style, Richard Frankland takes audiences to the edge - and once safely there, dangerously over it, to hilarious effect. Irreverence and exuberance are the hallmarks of Stone Bros, which might well have been Stoned Bros but maybe somebody made a typo; it's the sort of enterprise where such a mistake would have been allowed through with glee. The cast give their all in wonderfully observed performances that retain credibility in the face of absurdity. 

Mad Bastards (2010) – Brendan Fletcher (debut feature) 
Official Selection, Sundance 2011; closing night film Adelaide Film Festival 2011. A story of one Nyoongar man’s redemption and transition from violence to a maturity and responsibility when he reunites with his son in The Kimberleys. Based on oral histories of the region, Mad Bastards explores how one Nyoongar man TJ (Dean Daly-Jones), becomes a real man when he gives up his alcohol-fuelled violent lifestyle. (Opened in Australian cinemas May 5)

Here I Am (2011) – Beck Cole (debut feature)
Opening film, Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival, 2011 (in cinemas June 9). Just out of prison, with the support of her new family of friends, Karen begins the journey of reconnecting with her estranged mother and her young daughter. But she soon has to face the painful truth that shame is a powerful force and sometimes the most important person to forgive is yourself. (Opens in Australian cinemas June 9)

Toomelah (2011) – Ivan Sen (third feature)
Selected for Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2011. Toomelah is the provocative and comic tale of a 10 year old Indigenous boy called Kiren (Daniel Conners) who wants to be a gangster and about his life growing up in a remote Aboriginal community. “Toomelah, the community, is my family's home,” says Ivan Sen, “and I'm so proud of them all. I'm related to almost everyone there, and almost half the population pops up in the film.” (Australian release undated)

Published June 9, 2011

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Here I Am

Samson & Delilah


The Tracker

Ten Canoes

Bran Nue Dae

Rabbit Proof Fence

Stone Bros

Mad Bastards


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