A strong year for indigenous film makes for a packed Message Sticks Film Festival program.
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UPDATED 4:07 PM - 26 Feb 2014

“The stars couldn't have aligned any better for us with our opening film selected for Cannes two weeks before this event ,” says producer Darren Dale, co-curator of the Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival held at the Sydney Opera House.

For the 10th anniversary of the event the organizers couldn't have asked for a better scenario. Samson and Delilah is the debut feature of one of the event's alumni, Alice Springs writer/director and cinematographer, Warwick Thornton, whose short films and documentaries have screened at the festival in previous years. The following week the movie screens in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, travelling from its roots to the world.

The genesis of the event was the post - Olympics push for reconciliation late in 2000, when the former Opera House CEO, Michael Lynch, approached one of its arts producers, Wendy Martin, to facilitate an annual cultural event to bring together indigenous artists and non indigenous audiences. She felt that aboriginal curators should be the programmers, passing the baton (on) to producer Darren Dale and his Blackfella Films partner, filmmaker Rachel Perkins. The duo were producers of SBS\' Logie award winning First Australians, for which Perkins directed five episodes.

They have steered the event from strength to strength, culminating this year in one of the strongest programmes. For Perkins personally, it's a special occasion with the world premiere of Fire Talker, a documentary biopic about her father, political activist, footballer and administrator, Dr Charles Perkins. The film is directed by one of Australia's acclaimed cinematic talents, Berlin film festival winner (Beneath Clouds) and Message Sticks favourite, Ivan Sen.

“If there was anyone I would want to do the film it would be Ivan,“ says Perkins. “He's talented, has great insight and affiliation with my father's life, and is very adept at using archival footage, “ she says.

The annual event features other arts – this year music and photographic exhibition – and even though the film content tends to be cyclical (in some years documentaries dominate, in others features), it has proved to the public favourite.

Thursday's opening night red carpet gala this year will be hosted by popular actress Deborah Mailman, and include the announcements of three major indigenous awards : recipients of the bi-annual Tudawali prize for career achievement, the Bob Maza Fellowship for an actor/performer to study overseas and the SBS TV indigenous Mentorship award.

On Friday the New Black Initiative of shorts from Screen Australia's Indigenous Department screens including debuts by Deborah Mailman (Ralph) and writer/actress Leah Purcell (Aunty Maggie and The Womba Wakgun). Their lighter works are offset by serious short dramas about suicide, melancholy and redemption; an attempt to heal a relationship between a father and his troubled adopted son; family secrets and personal obsessions.

What sets Message Sticks apart in this era of movie celebrity-dom is the unique opportunity of egalitarian and friendly exchange between film-makers, subjects of documentaries and eclectic audience mix of indigenous mob, families, tourists, students and industry.

“That unique interaction and engagement forces film-makers to think about the work from different perspectives, so it's really valuable and illuminating to all parties, “ says Dale. 'That dialogue between the public and indigenous film-makers is one of the aspects that has made this event so successful.

“There are moments of incredible emotion, pain and happiness which people really appreciate. It's so rare to get that kind of candid exchange, “ he adds.

“And it can really be aspirational for indigenous film-makers to be here and look to someone like Warwick Thornton and realize the possibilities, “ says Dale.

The popularity of the festival has grown proportionately with the success of indigenous film-makers on the world stage – acclaimed at international film festivals at Cannes, Berlin and Sundance.
Cyclically, this local showcase alongside with the bi-annual Adelaide Film festival which commissions some projects and the work of the Indigenous Department of Screen Australia and state initiatives propels the work of these film-makers into the spotlight.

But undoubtedly, what is fuelling the success of these filmmakers is the potency of their stories. After years of watching the depiction of their narratives and truths by non-indigenous film-makers, however well –intentioned, their inspiration is the 'fire within' to tell their own stories.

'Sometimes we feel a tension, “ says Dale. “Should we be making only indigenous subjects?” But after the years of backlog and enforced silence there is now a sense of empowerment and excitement to express their own voices.

“Until there is a dullness we'll keep making stories about our own mob, “ Dale adds. “I don't think we've exhausted that - and that's what we all want to do. That's where the passion is and that seem to really work with audiences.

“If you look at Samson and Delilah, the raw truth and emotion of that story is palpable. What gives it strength is that Warwick lives in that world and the story is told with such honesty and visceral emotion that it resonates with audiences. And that applies to the other works, “adds Dale.
Another unique facet is the versatility of many indigenous film-makers – as writers, actors, documentarians, feature directors, cinematographers.

The manager of the Indigenous Department of Screen Australia, which funds 90 percent of indigenous film-makers, Sally Riley, is delighted with the federal government increase to her budget from $1.6m to $4m in the next financial year.