I first saw the film Jedda at the Alice Springs drive-in sometime during the early 80s. My parents had crammed about six of us kids into the back of the car, most of us hidden under blankets so we didn’t have to pay the entrance fee. Those were the days. The film, directed by Charles Chauvel, was already a good twenty years old by this time and none of us kids were too excited to see it. We all unrolled our swags and pillows and settled in for the screening.
What happened next was something that I’d never experienced before; I saw Aboriginal people on the silver screen for the very first time. Some of them were even family members; they spoke language, worked on the cattle stations and lived in the desert. These were people that were familiar to me but not in this way - not on the screen. I will never forget us kids being thrilled at the sight of the Aboriginal baby Jedda and we loved watching her grow and blossom into a young woman.
This young woman was in fact Rosalie Kunoth-Monks. Like many Aboriginal girls she had grown up at St Mary’s Mission on the outskirts of Alice Springs. Strangely enough the Mission sits directly opposite the drive-in where we were viewing the film. Many ‘Mission kids’ have positive things to say about the St Mary’s ‘experience’. But when we look back at it in a historical context it’s clear, to me at least, that these young girls and boys were very much part of the Stolen Generation.
Charles Chauvel and his wife Elsa visited St Mary’s a number of times when they were casting for Jedda. It would have been a Directors dream having such a large group of Aboriginal girls in the one place at the one time and he promptly started to handpick girls suitable for the role. In fact, my mother in law Freda Glynn, also a St Mary’s girl, was shortlisted for the part and came quite close to getting it but Rosalie was older and more confident at that time and she landed the role of Jedda.
It’s quite amazing really; a young Arrernte girl who one moment, lives on a Mission and the next, is cast as the lead actress in a major feature film. In fact Jedda was the first film to be shot in cineColour in Australia and it came very close to taking out the Palm D’or the Cannes Film Festival upon its release. It was a big deal at the time and even today the film is often referred to as an Australian classic.
The film is, without a doubt, of its time. The cinematic gaze is white and privileged and Aboriginal people are represented as primitive and docile. The character Joe is a white man in blackface, the voices are all overdubbed in proper English accents. The film, in my opinion, neatly sums up white Australia’s attitude towards Aboriginal people in the mid-1950s. They are slaves that need ‘civilising’.
As the two Aboriginal leads Jedda and tribal man Marbuk (Robert Tudawali) tumble down the cliff face to their demise at the end of the film, we are reminded (again) that the Aboriginal race is doomed. But that is just a story, and here we have it all these years later, on film. In colour. For everyone to see, to reflect upon and to learn from.
What I do love about the film Jedda is the presence of so many Aboriginal men and women, girls and boys on the screen. It is a strong reminder for me as a film maker and storyteller, just how important it is for us to continue the tradition of telling our own stories in our own way. We can look back at a film like Jedda and feel proud about the strength of our own Indigenous film and television industry - we no longer need to be represented as the docile savage. We now have the power to right these wrongs and tell the real stories, truthfully and with dignity.