The Arts

Broad focus on living black

May 10, 2006


Family values: Aaron and Vincent Pedersen in a scene from the documentary My Brother Vinnie

TRACEY Rigney's Endangered is a lovely film, as clear-eyed and warm-hearted as its twentysomething maker. It's about the difficulties young urban Aboriginal people encounter playing the dating game: not only is it difficult to find a mate with a similar background, but once a potential is found, a minefield of kinship taboos must be stepped through. It is poignant, eye-opening for non-indigenous viewers, and very funny.

At its premiere at the Message Sticks festival in Sydney last year, it was met with groans of recognition from the audience, many of whom had experienced exactly what they had never before seen portrayed on screen.

Yella Fella, another film that has been doing the international festival circuit recently, is completely different in content and mood. Written by Tommy Lewis (best known for starring in the 1978 film The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith) and directed by Ivan Sen, it is about Lewis's search, in middle age, for his white father. In the climax to a long and futile road trip he makes with his mother to find his father's remains, he comes to the agonising conclusion that he must learn to accept who he is, a "yellow fella", neither white nor black, unable to find emotional resolution in a clear understanding of what has made him. His mother, Angelina George, is a reticent and dignified presence in the film, there for him but unable, one senses, to bridge the generational and experiential gap between her own life and that of her son.

Sen's film is filled with a kind of stoic despair, harrowing where Rigney's is restlessly exuberant. But they share something beyond their technical accomplishment and visual beauty.

In a recent paper, Aboriginal Art and Film: the Politics of Representation, published on the Rouge website last year, the Melbourne academic Marcia Langton pointed out that racism in the arts today goes beyond the unthinking act of making the other invisible. She explained a more complicated risk: of assuming that all Aboriginal people are the same and that all could understand each other instinctively, despite differences of culture, history, sex and so on.

"It is," she wrote, "a demand for censorship: there is a 'right' way to be Aboriginal and any Aboriginal film or producer will necessarily make a 'true' representation of Aboriginality."

The assumption, she added, is part of an "ancient and universal feature of racism: the assumption of the undifferentiated 'other'."

Rigney and Sen illuminate her argument, though they also partially outdate it. Here are people with idiosyncratic voices who write very specifically about what they know. (Sen was Lewis's choice of director after he had written his own story.)

What their films share beyond polished technique, however, is a persuasive intimacy with their subject and an underlying sense of sadness and bravery. They also have a confidence in storytelling, an ability to carry a narrative along without the longueurs that are often found in documentaries, those "stick with this, you need to know it later" moments when viewers can find their mind wandering. The surefootedness of the narrative comes, indigenous film-makers say, from childhoods spent in a milieu that still valued the oral tradition.

Where the sense of undifferentiated otherness comes these days is in regard not so much to the film-makers but to their films. Made with funding specifically tagged for indigenous film, they are hothoused in workshops run by the indigenous unit of the Australian Film Commission and promoted in indigenous forums. Although SBS and the ABC, as well as the state film agencies, often partner the AFC's indigenous programs, the resulting films are often well received overseas, yet rarely seen or celebrated in the mainstream at home. The wall between indigenous and mainstream television and film production is not yet porous.

Two Australian films won prizes at the Berlin Film Festival last year, for example: Queensland writer-director Wayne Blair's The Djarn Djarns won the Crystal Bear award for best short film, and Warwick Thornton's Green Bush won the Panorama short film award. Judges said Thorton's film won for its "excellence in performance and filmic craft, a film that crackles with the music of politics, humanity, ideas and humour as it tells the story of a man's daily struggle to sustain his fragmented community and keep the pain at bay".

High praise for a man many Australians, including avid visitors to the local multiplex, may not have heard of.

Both films - as well as Endangered and Yella Fella, which won a prize at the International Festival of Oceania Documentary Film earlier this year - had their Australian premieres at the Message Sticks festival last year.

The film component of the annual indigenous arts festival started out as an almost token presence but has grown in recent years into an event in its own right. Co-curated by film-makers Rachel Perkins and Darren Dale for the past three years, it is for films made by indigenous artists, from here and overseas, that haven't been seen in Australia before.

"We look for the best work, that's our mandate," Perkins says.

Message Sticks has forged strong links, and increasingly shared contacts, with other indigenous film festivals, particularly in Canada and the US, Perkins says. Bird Runningwater, the programmer of the Sundance festival's Native Forum, comes to Sydney. Dale has visited Canada, and five short films and one feature documentary by Canadian First Nation film directors are showing this weekend, as well as films from The Philippines, Russia, South Africa and New Zealand.

Indeed, for the first time this year the opening night feature is a foreign film: The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, a feature from The Philippines, directed by Kanakan Balintagos, which has already been shown at Sundance in the US, at Toronto, Rotterdam and at Berlin, where it won three awards. It was chosen, Perkins says, not only because it has done so well internationally, but because there wasn't an Australian feature made this year that would have been more appropriate.

"Indigenous feature films are not so frequent," she says, "but what we do find is that when they do come along, they're quite extraordinary pieces of work."

Sen, whose widely admired film Beneath the Clouds opened Message Sticks four years ago, will this year show a documentary, Shifting Shelter 3, about four teenagers growing up in small towns in northwest NSW.

The Australian films showing are, once again, wide-ranging in their subject matter and location. My Brother Vinnie, directed by Steven McGregor, is about the relationship between actor Aaron Pedersen and his younger brother, who has cerebral palsy and whom he has looked after since their childhood.

Another, La Perouse Panthers, is by first-time film-maker Michael Longbottom, who is from a famous footballing family.

Message Sticks is at the Sydney Opera House from Friday to Sunday.