The diverse program of the travelling Message Sticks festival is proof that these are exciting times for indigenous storytelling.
4 Sep 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

If Deborah Mailman's directorial debut is a sign of things to come, look out for a rapid rise in a sub genre of Indigenous filmmaking — bitter-sweet urban rights-of-passage, if you please.

It's what British-Asian cinema does with aplomb and en-masse. Bend it Like Beckham (aplomb), East is East (aplomb), Anita and Me (en masse). That diaspora, it seems, has a penchant to see itself through adolescent eyes.

While theirs may be the story of 1970s England, Mailman's gorgeous Ralph is inner city Redfern circa 1984. Starring Madeline Madden and Stephen Carr, Ralph is the story of young Koori school student, Maddie (Madden) and her obsession with Ralph Macchio aka the Karate Kid. Co-written by Mailman and Wayne Blair, Ralph is also a story of Maddie's friendship/alliance with Garth (Carr). The film is largely autobiographical and is made with such boldness that it manages to deftly pack multiple punches delivered with a winning smile.

On one hand, the film transcends all cultural barriers. Maddie is an outsider. She is misunderstood, bullied and ridiculed by the generic high-school tormenter. At the same time the film succeeds in a complex, inter-generational Indigenous representation. Garth's father for example, has only the shortest amount of screen time to augment his character and socio-economic background, his partner/wife even less – in an off screen voice-cameo by Mailman herself. Yet, Mailman and Blair manage to successfully flesh out Garth's family environment with this slight sketch alone.

It's the stuff of excellent filmmaking and Mailman is not alone in representing a new slate of future behind-the-camera stars. Ralph closes the 2009 Message Sticks short film showcase, “The New Black” — seven new films, each 10 minutes long, made by Indigenous writers, directors and producers. Anther notable debut short in the series is Leah Purcell's, Aunty Maggie & The Womba Wakgun. The film is Angelina Hurley's biographical account of a young Indigenous family helmed by a fearless woman (Rachel Maza-Long) who acquires a rooster. The film is a perfect vehicle for Purcell's expressive use of the camera that heightens what is already a very funny film with exceptional art direction and costume design. This is no Australia – Purcell turns the colonialists on their head – with Jack Charles (Bastardy) Maza-Long (Radiance) and Kelton Pell (The Circuit) dressing the part with panache.

Ralph and Aunty Maggie & The Womba Wakgun are joined in the showcase by five very different films that when viewed together reveal a diverse and compelling crop of new and emerging Indigenous filmmakers – including Dena Curtis (Jacob) and Adrian Wills (Bourke Boy) who join the impressive list of Message Sticks alumni, including Warwick Thornton and Ivan Sen. What “The New Black” reaffirms is that it is Indigenous filmmakers themselves who are the best custodians and creators of Indigenous stories. Catch it while you can.

Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival 2009 is still touring nationally. All films are free.

Adelaide - Thursday 3 & Friday 4 September @ Mercury Cinema

Brisbane - Sunday 6 September @ Powerhouse

Lismore - Wedesday 9 & Thursday 10 September @ Star Court Theatre

Townsville - Saturday 12 September @ Dancenorth

Perth - Thursday 17 & Friday 18 September @ Cinema Paradiso

Hobart - Wednesdsay 23 September & Thursday 24 September @ The Peacock Theatre, Salamanca Arts Centre