• Madeline McGrady was a guest of the NAIDOC Week 2018 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. (Image by Keith Munro) (Supplied)Source: Supplied
She made the first film on black deaths in custody, and was the first Indigenous person on the Australian film council. For NAIDOC Week, Madeline McGrady reflects on her life behind the camera.
Amelia Dunn

13 Jul 2018 - 11:56 AM  UPDATED 13 Jul 2018 - 11:56 AM

Gomeroi woman Madeline McGrady has hundreds of stories she could tell, from growing up on a mission, to being a mother, a writer and an activist.

But here's one: the story of how she became the formidable filmmaker fighting for Indigenous rights. 

It was 1982 when she and a crew defiantly kept their cameras rolling at the protest in Musgrave Park in Brisbane for the Commonwealth Games. It was one of the biggest demonstrations Indigenous Australians had ever staged, standing up against racism from the then notorious Jo Bjelke-Petersen government.

Ms McGrady told NITV News she'll never forget that day.

“We had our mob come out from all over Australia, even Tasmania,” she said.

“We were so buzzed, the atmosphere was electric.”

All eyes were on Brisbane for the Commonwealth games, but no one had anticipated the passionate and powerful crowd that filled Musgrave Park. 

‘The police threatened us constantly’

Ms McGrady said filming such a controversial protest at the time was incredibly risky.

The police presence was heavy, and the protesters outnumbered. Having a camera brought particular unwanted attention to the small film crew.

“We were surrounded and chased at times. The police threatened us constantly," Ms McGrady said.

Over 300 protesters were arrested that day, taken to police stations across Brisbane and, despite the threats, Ms McGrady and her crew filmed it all.

We Fight (Guniwaya Ngigu) was the feature-length documentary that resulted, a brave and unprecedented film about Aboriginal people coming together in solidarity against the infamous Queensland regime.

This was the first of many politically motivated documentaries Ms McGrady went on to make, but her tale into film-making was far from straightforward. 

'I was hooked'

It wasn't until she was nearly 40 that Ms McGrady picked up a camera. Attending a protest for land rights in Tamworth in the early 1980s, she spotted someone shooting with a video camera.

“I said, oh that looks interesting! And I had a go right there. From then on, I was hooked.”

She moved to Sydney and began working in all aspects of film-making: sound, directing, and producing.

With five children, and no money for expensive film school, Ms McGrady worked full time while she learned her craft.

She became instantly involved in many of the creative communities in Sydney at the time - most notably helping to found Radio Redfern, Sydney's first community Aboriginal radio station.

She later co-produced an observational documentary of the radio station during 1988 - the bicentenary and a year of mourning.

Borrowing equipment from wherever she could, she sharpened her skills, and combined with a fiery passion and a natural eye, she became a formidable filmmaker.

'We didn't have access'

Growing up on the Toomelah mission, Ms McGrady said she was always kept in the dark about her mob.

“We were never told what was going on. All we were allowed to do was ask the manager if we could go to town,” she said.

“We knew there was a lot of stuff being written about us but we didn’t have access to any of it.”

This longing for information and the news of her people never left her.

“This is why I started. I wanted to get the truth out there to our mob,” she said.

"To let them know what’s happening, and let them know they’re not alone.”

Deaths in custody to land rights

When Ms McGrady got her hands on a camera in the early 1980s, the brutal treatment of Aboriginal people was everywhere.

Her film Welcome to Wee Waa documents the protests, and subsequent inquest, following the deaths of Eddie Murray and John Pat in custody.

It was the first film about black deaths in custody in Australia.

“As soon as I heard about these deaths in custody, I went straight there,” she said.

“I stayed on that story the whole time. I attended every case that was in the commission.”

Indigenous political activists campaigned in Wee Waa to fight for justice for the many people who had died in suspicious circumstances in police custody.

Ms McGrady documented everything.

“I was passionate and wanted to do something about what was happening to our mob,” she said.

“I was using my camera as a tool against the system. To let my mob know - this is the way they treat us.”

Ms McGrady went on to follow important land rights demonstrations and other injustices against Indigenous Australians, creating other documentaries including Always Was Always Will Be, which aired on SBS at the time.

“They used a pen and paper against us, and what could we use? So I picked up a camera.”

Making history at the Australian Film Commission

Ms McGrady was writing extensively about how Indigenous people were unable to access Indigenous films, and the challenges for aspiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander filmmakers.

The Australian Film Commission took notice, and invited her to be a board member.

She was the first Indigenous person on the influential film board, in charge of commissioning and distributing movies around Australia.

“It gave me a lot of access to films that were coming in. We viewed everything, as well as anything to do with our mob,” she said.

Ms McGrady made it her job to be a buffer for films that were openly racist or offensive to Indigenous Australians, as many were in those days, especially the role of the 'dumb blackfella'. 

“We certainly put a stop to the stuff they were putting through. Any films that had a dumb blackfella role, we stopped”.

Future filmmakers

Ms McGrady has since taken more of a back seat, saying there's only so long you can fight so publicly before getting yourself in trouble.

And despite the fact it has been nearly 40 years since the protests in Musgrave Park, McGrady said "nothing much has changed".

The Musgrove park documentary was shown to a full house at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney on Tuesday as part of NAIDOC Week.

She said while the technology may have changed, the mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians has not.  

"I try to encourage anyone from my mob to try film-making," she said.

"Especially young women, get out there and have a go. We have so many more stories to tell and it's up to you to tell them."

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