• Bernard Namok Jnr is the Presenter, CoWriter and CoProducer of new film Carry The Flag. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
This is a rich and powerful story of a man whose design created meaning for a people once invisible to people of mainland Australia, the people of the Torres Strait.
By
Laura Morelli

29 May 2017 - 6:02 PM  UPDATED 29 May 2017 - 6:02 PM

Carry The Flag is an intiamte observational film that reveals much about a period of dynamic change in the lives of the Torres Strait Islander people.

At its heart, is the journey of a son in search of the father he hardly knew - but a man who left a legacy that is the most powerful symbol of identity and aspiration to all Torres Strait Islanders. This year in June, will mark the 25th anniversary of the Torres Strait Flag.  

Everyday broadcaster Bernard Namok Jnr, ‘Bala B’ speaks to thousands of Indigenous Australians across the Northern Territory, but he feels disconnected from his own culture and family.  

When he sees the Torres Strait Islands flag flying, it not only identifies his people, but is also a poignant reminder of his home and the father he hardly knew.

In 1992, Bernard Namok Senior won the Torres Strait Islander flag design competition, but a year after his flag was formally recognised at the age of 31, he died leaving behind him a wife and four young children.

Bala B was just 10 at the time, but as the oldest in the family, the role of carrying the flag came early to him.

“My uncle told me: ‘You have to carry your dads name, It’s a really important name up here in the Torres Strait’,” he said.

“Its my job to continue on where dad left off.”

In the film, Bala B journeys back home to the Torres Strait to seek out those in his family and community who can shed light on his father and the meaning behind the design of his flag. He even talks to members of the Torres Strait Islander Flag Anniversary Committee to discover the importance of the flag.

One of the judges, Romina Fujii, describes how their purpose was 'to capture for her people, the same passion and hugely successful outcome achieved by the black, red and yellow flag, for uniting and empowering Aboriginal Australians'.

Bakoi Namok, Bala B’s mother, recalls conversations with her father and her husband about Torres Strait identity.

“Both men believed there was no point fighting for a better lot for their people until they had a flag, which would give Torres Strait Islanders a shared identity.”

Finding Identity

What may seem like a simple flag to some people has given all Torres Strait Islanders an identity and a sense of pride as Indigenous Australians.

Bernard Namok Senior may have only been known for a short time as an amazing Dad and a loving husband, but Bala B says he has left a great legacy behind.

"It came to me at the Hermannsburg National Remote Indigenous Media Festival in the centre of the country. I wanted to do a documentary to tell the story of my father who had remained a ‘silent star’ behind the design that quickly became adopted during the political achievements of the early 90s," he said.

Bala B says his father had a strong cultural upbringing and a passion for the arts and culture.

"He designed the flag after many long talks with my grandfather Ettie Pau who was very politically active and was involved in the 1967 referendum movement. In the evenings, the dining table would be transformed into a workstation and the flag was launched at the Sixth Torres Strait Cultural Festival. This year is the 25th anniversary of the flag’s creation," he recalled.

"The flag has made a difference in our society as well as allowed us to be strong and stand tall.”

"From his humble beginnings with the Torres Strait Flag competition, to his motivation and inspiration, I share with you my memories behind the colours and symbols that give our people pride, identity and unity. A newfound respect and understanding came about as my journeys home to film and interview revealed more of the contribution my father made and helped me to reconnect with family."

The flag has travelled to many places around the world and now flies on top of government buildings around Australia. Bala B says it has opened doors for all Torres Strait Islander people.

"It has made a difference in our society as well as allowed us to be strong and stand tall.”

Together Presenter, CoWriter and CoProducer, Bernard Namok Jnr, Director , CoWriter and CoProducer, Danielle MacLean, Producer, Anna Grieve, Cinematographer, Dylan River and Editor, Sam Frederick, have worked long and hard to capture Bala B's journey of a lifetime.

Flying Strong

These are the words of Bernard Namok Snr on accepting the award for the flag’s design at the Flag Launch Torres Strait Cultural Festival in May 1992.

"On behalf of myself and my family, I would like to thank all the people responsible for choosing my flag as our identity. What my design stands for is quite simple: The two green bands are the two mainland of Australia & Papua New Guinea. The blue is the waters of the Torres Strait and the symbol that identifies every Torres Strait Islanders anywhere the Dhori (Headdress). The five points of the star are our group the Eastern, Central, Western, Port Kennedy group and the many that made the mainland their home. I would like to thank those of you who have accepted my design and in time, those of you who will.

In conclusion, I would like to thank Mr Pau, the inspiration behind my design being entered in the completion. He have shared many times with me about the real needs of the Torres Strait Islander one of which I know he must be very proud to be able to witness today. To be part of this historic event, the launching of our very own, no matter where you are, identity THE TORRES STRAIT FLAG."

Story Behind the Flag

When Bernard Namok Snr was born in 1961, Torres Strait Islanders were not Australian citizens, did not receive unemployment benefits nor related social security payments, could not vote in State or Federal elections, were underpaid, denied education, could only leave their home island with written permission and suffered under an oppressive, colonial regime administered by the Queensland Department of Native Affairs. Torres Strait Islanders were not even included in the national census.

Island communities existed to provide a labour force for the marine industries, chiefly pearling. In the Outer Torres Strait Islands there were no telephones, electricity, airstrips, television, radio, outboard motors nor motor vehicles. Islanders saw few white people. The communities were largely self-sufficient and, for the most part, spoke traditional languages.

"Everywhere you looked, on shirts and hats and flying above from multiple flagpoles, was the flag which Bernard had created."

Thirty years later Torres Strait Islanders had thrown off colonial rule and enjoyed full citizenship rights. They lived and travelled freely throughout Australia and overseas. Their children graduated from high school and university. Pearling was gone but Islanders had established an enviable reputation in a range of employments; the defence force, railways, nursing, sport.

Torres Strait art was experiencing a renaissance with young artists returning to traditional motifs and designs. The lifestyle/living standards in Outer Island communities reflected that of mainstream communities. Traditional languages werein decline replaced by YumplaTok [Torres Strait Creole] a lingua franca which brought Islanders together.

As people they had demanded independence from Australia in 1987/8. They asserted that they had the will and means to achieve sovereignty and Bernard provided the flag. The Australian Government conceded moves towards autonomy and recognised Torres Strait Islanders’ unique position and identity within the Australian community. The great Torres Strait Cultural Festival of 1993 was a triumph of Torres Strait kastom and unity of purpose.

Everywhere you looked, on shirts and hats and flying above from multiple flagpoles, was the flag which Bernard had created.

Watch Carry The Flag Monday 29 May at 8:30pm on NITV Ch.34

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