In full colour
Films about Aborigines were once confined to the arthouse. Is it still the case? Philippa Hawker reports.
There's a conventional wisdom that films with Aboriginal subjects don't make money in Australia. But right now, Rabbit-Proof Fence indicates otherwise. Its box-office takings have passed $7 million - a sum that its director Phillip Noyce had set as one of the ways to measure the film's success. It was the Australian box-office total for his previous release, The Bone Collector - a Hollywood production that starred Angelina Jolie and Denzel Washington.
Rabbit-Proof Fence had a budget of $8.5 million. The film has been sold in every territory, with the exception of Korea and Taiwan. It will be released in Britain on August 30, and in the United States later this year.
It is still screening in Melbourne, months after its February release. Meanwhile there has been a spate of films - recent and future releases - with indigenous subjects. These include Serenades, Yolgnu Boy, One Night the Moon and Beneath Clouds, which have already opened, and the forthcoming Black and White (which opens the Sydney Film Festival), The Tracker and Australian Rules.
There aren't the same box-office expectations, naturally. Rabbit-Proof Fence had a remarkable story on which it was based: it also carried the clout of Noyce, a strong marketing campaign and plenty of coverage from the likes of Dolly, the Women's Weekly and Good Morning Australia. But the number of recent and new releases and the long run of Rabbit-Proof Fence led some to suggest that movies with Aboriginal themes are moving into the mainstream.
Sally Riley, head of the of Australian Film Commission's Indigenous Unit, has her doubts. Australian films are still a small percentage of the local box office, she points out. If Australian movies themselves aren't mainstream, "then we're on the fringe of the fringe of the mainstream".
There have been feature films with Aboriginal themes for decades: Charles Chauvel's Jedda, in 1955; a '70s slate that includes Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, Noyce's Backroads, Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Peter Weir's The Last Wave; and a regular output of films in the '80s and '90s.
And although the subjects and actors were indigenous, the film makers were not.
The list of Aboriginal feature directors is a select one. In 1993, Tracey Moffatt made Bedevil, a trilogy of ghost stories. Rachel Perkins' story of three sisters, Radiance, was released in 1998, and she has since made the 57-minute musical drama One Night the Moon, which had a theatrical release. Ivan Sen's debut, Beneath Clouds, is currently in cinemas. While Riley talks about being on ``the fringe of the fringe", it's true that there is plenty of interest in Aboriginal subjects, she says. Shorts and documentaries sell well, ``and we have heaps of inquiries from overseas festivals and people wanting to screen indigenous films".
This year, Beneath Clouds won awards at Berlin; Leah Purcell's documentary Black Chicks Talking was invited to the inaugural TriBeCa film festival. More than a score of indigenous shorts were chosen for overseas festivals in the past six months alone.
But it's also important, Riley says, to aim for a broader audience.
``They do well in festivals but you really want people to see them," Riley says.
In some indigenous projects, she says, ``what people particularly have going for them is that they really have a story to tell, that is unique and hasn't been told." There are also emerging film makers with a range of ideas and ambitions - and they are not necessarily focusing on indigenous themes.
The unit, says, Riley, is ``trying to build an industry that can sustain itself" - on a small budget with plenty of competing needs.
The focus is not purely on writers and directors. In partnership with the Australian Film Commission and the Australian Television and Radio School, the unit is formulating training strategies for indigenous film makers - not just directors and writers but producers, designers and art department runners.
The training includes workshops and mentoring, and producers are a particular priority. Of 12 new indigenous producers at one workshop, two since worked as producers on short films, two were funded as attachments, and a couple of them worked in production management. Television is another target.
The unit is also also working on a protocol for film makers dealing with indigenous subjects. There are some existing guidelines for documentary film makers working with remote communities - SBS Independent has material posted on its website - but the issue has become particularly problematic for people making dramas. Australian Rules, for example, encountered a lot of difficulties in the consultation process and its aftermath.
Riley, a film maker, says ``there's a need for research, collaboration, consultation. It's not about censoring ideas, it's about people being prepared and knowing what the boundaries are."
Her short films include a drama based on her family, Fly Peewee Fly (``I probably didn't consult them enough," she notes) and Confessions of a Headhunter, in which she was particularly aware of community sensitivities.
There are pressures on indigenous film makers, Riley says. There can be ``a tension between responsibility to your community and responsibility to your craft".
Yet several indigenous film makers are also adamant that they don't make, or want to be regarded as making ``issues films", to feel as if they are pigeon-holed.
Ivan Sen described his recent projects as ``stories about me and my family", and has plans for several features to be shot overseas that don't have Aboriginal subjects. Young Aboriginal film maker Catriona McKenzie is also wary of labels. She has made several award-winning shorts: one of them, The Third Note, stars Deborah Mailman. But the important thing about the character she plays is not her Aboriginality, says McKenzie: it's the fact that she's blind. Her next project is a half-hour drama for ABC TV. It has an Aboriginal character, but it is, she says, about two working-class lawyers and a collection of Grange Hermitage, and ``it's more about class and class differences in Australia" than anything else.
Her collaborator on the screenplay is Reg Cribb, a non-indigenous writer whose work she came across and liked.
When her films screened at Clermont-Ferrand, the prestigious short film festival, she was told that her films were ``beautiful but not commercial". She has just received funding for final draft for her first feature, Satellite Boy, which is set in Alice Springs and is about three young Aboriginal teenagers. Her director of photography, Allan Collins, comes from Alice Springs, and there will be local involvement and many indigenous people employed on the project.
But a second feature, The Doll Factory, from a script by Louis Nowra, is a gangster movie set in Sydney's Chinatown (strongly influenced by Hong Kong film maker Wong Kar-Wai), and another project, in which she has teamed with ex-Castanet Club member Warren Coleman, is a surfing vampire movie. No obvious indigenous content. Certainly not issues movies.
On Aboriginal film makers making features, Sally Riley says that the ``the next important step is to get our film makers making the big stories, the feature films, getting the international platform". Subjects could include ``first-contact" narratives, or ``bigger contemporary stories". They might not have Aboriginal subjects.
There are plenty of film makers out there with talent and ideas, but development is a long haul, and even the most frugally budgeted features cost a couple of million dollars.
Nevertheless, she says, she's cautiously optimistic. ``I feel it's within reach."