Koori History Newspaper Archive

Starry, starry Nite

by Liza Power - the Age - 23rd March 2009

Blak Nite Cinema's Janina Harding and filmmaker brother John in good company with the bronze statues of Pastor Sir Douglas and Lady Gladys Nicholls in Parliament Gardens. Photo: Simon Schluter

JOHN Harding sees Stars in the most unlikely places. Five minutes before our interview he glimpsed one making his way along Bourke Street and up the stairs of Parliament House. "Last time I saw this bloke he was in shorts kicking around a footy field," says John with a laugh. "Now he's wandering around in a fancy designer suit and working as a cultural adviser. Not bad, eh?"

John's Stars are drawn from a particular constellation. Each shone brightly as a player for the Fitzroy Stars Football Club, which was established in the 1970s and was one of the first all-indigenous clubs in the state. A former Star himself, John has spent the past three years documenting the club's history, and a plan for its resurrection, for his film Fitzroy Stars. Next weekend, it will screen in the Treasury Gardens as part of the inaugural Blak Nite Cinema festival.

Harding can thank his sister for the program slot; the festival was her idea. Ask Janina Harding about the arrangement, though, and she'll tell you she wasn't doing her brother any special favours. Helping indigenous Victorians, whether they are relatives or not, to tell their stories is simply part of her job, and Blak Nite is just one of the initiatives developed in her role as the City Of Melbourne's indigenous arts program manager.

What makes it special, she said, is the snapshot of local indigenous culture and history it offers. The two feature films screening, Bastardy and Lionel, follow the lives of celebrated Aboriginal Victorians, indigenous actor Jack Charles in the former and legendary boxer Lionel Rose in the latter. If many Victorians hold the view that Aborigines live "somewhere out there in the outback", she hopes seeing these films might change their minds.

Her brother's Fitzroy Stars is certainly a film that furthers that message. Far from simply an excuse to kick a Sherrin around, John Harding describes the Stars as a "campfire" around which Melbourne's Koori community clustered in the 1970s and '80s.

"The Stars was much more than a football club, and making the film was about showing the history of a community through the prism of football. It brought together wayward kids, wards of the state, members of the stolen generations, families, lost souls," he said.

"There were kids who had been in state care who came to a club meet, played a few matches and then realised the centre half-forward was their cousin. They had never ever met their mother and in the club they found a sense of community and direction."

An accomplished actor, director and playwright, John turned to film after many years working in television, theatre, cultural events and comedy. A founding member of Ilbijerri ATSI Theatre, he reported for the first Aboriginal current affairs program on ABC TV and scripted The Masters, SBS TV's first Aboriginal sitcom. He was the first indigenous recipient of the ANU Nugget Coombes Fellowship in 2002, and now works as the indigenous events officer at RMIT.

Nurturing a sense of community spirit and understanding through art is intrinsic to the work of both Hardings. Rather than being an individual pursuit, artistic expression is for them, and for the extended indigenous community, a way to bring people together. For John, writing has also been a way to find common ground with people, even when that was a tough thing to do.

"I first started writing silly poems when I was a kid and we were growing up in Lalor. We were the only black family for 10 kilometres and every time we pulled up at the traffic lights people would look at us like we were aliens until the lights turned green. It was like we'd just landed from Mars. So I made little jokes about it all, wrote them as poems, read them to my friends. It was a way to make a connection."

Building relationships has been crucial to Janina's success in her role at the City of Melbourne. She says taking the voices of indigenous Victorians to a wider audience can be a delicate exercise, one that requires extensive knowledge of Aboriginal communities and how they work. "It's not that much of a big deal to me because I'm working with my own people and I know how everything's done," she said.

Her brother jokes: "She's the girl from the 'hood who went into the Government.

"Without her knowing the rules, none of these projects could have got up and running."

As for Blak Nite Cinema, it's created a buzz out in the 'hood, it seems. Brother and sister are looking forward to seeing the community come together to celebrate their history and culture through film. As for whether he'll be spotting Stars throughout the evening, Harding says that's a silly question.

"There'll be Stars all over the place, mate. Even the guys who got buried in their footy jumpers will be watching."

Stellar lives continue to inspire

AS Janina Harding will tell you, some people are larger than life well before they are cast into bronze statues. More than four years of planning went into the Parliament Gardens statue of Pastor Sir Douglas and Lady Gladys Nicholls. Its unveiling in December 2007 was one of Ms Harding's proudest moments, recognising as it did the lives of two extraordinary individuals. Pastor Douglas was born in 1906, on the Cummeragunja mission in NSW. A tar boy and station hand in his youth, he joined the Fitzroy Football Club in 1932 and went on to become the first Aborigine to play for an interstate team. He later established a Church of Christ, served as a field officer for the Aborigines Advancement League (52 years old this year) and played an important role in the campaign that produced indigenous recognition in 1967. The first Aborigine to be knighted in 1972, he was appointed the first Aboriginal governor of South Australia in 1976. His wife, Gladys, was given a special tribute at the unveiling, where she was described as a strong, passionate, intelligent and resourceful woman who worked tirelessly for the Aboriginal community. Victorian elder Uncle Herb Patten marked the occasion by playing Shall We Gather at the River on a gumleaf.

Blak Nite Cinema is at Treasury Gardens, Friday-Saturday.