The diversity of Indigenous cinema comes into focus this February at the ACMI.
6 Feb 2013 - 12:22 PM  UPDATED 6 Feb 2013 - 12:22 PM

Some of the most rare and influential Indigenous-themed films from the last few decades are screening at Blak Nite Cinema, a three-day program commencing February 8 at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image in Melbourne.

Curated by the City of Melbourne's Indigenous Arts Program Manager, Janina Harding, the 13 long- and short-form works have been chosen to represent the vast artistic contribution of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.

“These films are showing Australian audiences that Indigenous people are not just about rock paintings but that we can, by delving into the art form of film, also be masters of dance and theatre and music,” says Harding, one of native Australia's most committed and vocal artistic advocates. “The films show that aboriginal cultures absolutely shine through communicating their art.”

Upping the profile of the event is actor Aaron Pedersen, an Ambassador who dedicates himself to the Indigenous artistic cause at every opportunity. For Pedersen, Blak Nite Cinema celebrates an essential element of Indigenous culture. “The films are generally about the art of storytelling,” he tells SBS Film. “It is not so much a retrospective or an archival or historical look but more about where we are today as Australians. All these films have had a major impact upon us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Individually, these stories empower us but as a collective, perhaps more importantly, they empower us, too.”

The event kicks off with an evening honouring artist/musician Bart Willoughby, Pitjantjatjara frontman for the classic Australian rock bands No Fixed Address and Mixed Relations. Screening will be John Tatoulis' doco No Fixed Address on Tour (1990) and Ned Lander's thinly-veiled fictional account of aboriginal rock music culture, Wrong Side of the Road (1981).

Wrong Side of the Road is more about real life,” says Pedersen, who will engage with Willoughby in a Q&A prior to the film's screening. “Even though it was made 30-something years ago, it really does reflect our experience today. Bart is an amazing artist who has been overlooked in this country for far too long. I don't think Australia has really had the chance to get to know who he is.”

Other Indigenous personalities in Blak Nite program include: the great Kev Carmody (whose album Pillars of Society Rolling Stone magazine called, “the best album ever released by an Aborigine and arguably the best protest album ever made in Australia”), profiled in Trevor Graham's Blood Brothers (1993); playwright Jimmy Chi, whose hugely successful 1990 stage play Bran Nue Dae (and its subsequent film adaptation) is examined in the doco of the same name; the Noongar dance group, as the focus of James T. Webb's immersive, Wadumbah (2011); and renowned Torres Strait artist Ken Thaiday (pictured) Senior, whose life and creative process is the subject of Andrea and Peter Hyland's The Sea, the Feather and the Dance Machine (2012).

In Pedersen's words, the program adheres to the principles of our Indigenous culture's great outback narrators. “These films [represent] a big campfire that we can all sit around and take stories away from and bring stories to,” he says. “Our films come from a long line of storytellers who have told our stories for 100,000s of years, so for us it is a very natural thing. It is natural for us to using this medium and, more importantly, sharing it.” Harding agrees, stating, “We never put pen to paper, nothing was ever written down. We've always told a 'yarn', spoken our stories. I suppose film is a natural progression of that history.”

Wayne Blair's recent AACTA winner and box office champ, The Sapphires (2012) will also screen at Blak Nite.

Pedersen and Harding are contemplative when asked about the Australian film industry's relationship to Indigenous stories.

“There are many great Indigenous stories to be told and those stories have been told through non-Indigenous eyes for a long time,” says Pedersen, who returns to screens in 2013 in Ivan Sen's Mystery Road. “I don't think the mainstream audience has been spoilt with Indigenous stories. The Indigenous-themed output has been more sporadic; it needs to be made more a part of the Australian film industry structure. I think over the next 20 years there will be a massive influx of talent that will address that balance.”

Harding, on the other hand, looks to a pivotal moment from Australia's cinematic past. “The penny has finally dropped with Australian cinema and the industry has realised it is about time Aboriginal people got to tell their own stories. It is why Jedda (1955) remains such a landmark film,” she says, referencing Charles Chauvel's outback romantic tragedy.

“Although parts of it make you cringe a bit today, it is still important because [lead actors] Robert Tudawali and Ngarla Kunoth got to tell their people's stories, albeit fictionalised. They wouldn't have done the film if they weren't allowed to portray their characters as truly aboriginal people. It represented a turning point, where aboriginal people were allowed to tell aboriginal stories and be who they wanted to be on screen.”

Blak Night Cinema runs from February 8-10 in Melbourne at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. For more information visit the official website.