As the sun rises over Murruwari country the silhouette of the brolga dances on the dry red plain.
The birds are the totem for the Murruwari people from northern New South Wales and southwest Queensland. Their dreaming transcends generations.
Enamored by the story of the brolga as a young boy, Australian filmmaker Adrian Powers has borrowed the beat of the ancient legend and woven its message into his fictional post-apocalyptic society.
“The film is a science fiction about these characters surviving at the end of the world,” Powers told NITV News.
“For me; it’s a love letter to Indigenous culture and to the Indigenous dreaming stories … but at the real heart of the film is Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian relations.
“It’s really about cooperation, about people coming together and learning how to survive together by learning from each other … in many ways it’s about non-Indigenous Australians listening to Indigenous Australians.”
First Nations approval
Brolga combines Australian landscapes with the eerie, abandoned cityscape of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
The story traces the deeds of an Indigenous man who believes he is the last person on earth to protect his trove of Indigenous art and ancient knowledge.
Mr Powers' first move was to gain the approval of the Murruwari people, for his film to use the Brolga Dreaming.
“I wanted to tell a story that deals with ancient stories as an Australian, as a non-Indigenous Australian,” Mr Powers told NITV News.
“Before we set out to even conceive the film or design it, I got in touch with Michael Connolly who is the artist whose paintings appear in the film.”
“He was so enthusiastic - that remains the most important day of the project for me because I was just so overwhelmed with gratitude and emotion.”
Michael Connolly, a Murruwari and Killilli man, provided permission for Mr Powers to use the Murruwari story of the Brolga.
The Indigenous artist also offered his paintings for free, in the hope the film “opens the eyes of those who wish to learn.”
“It’s all about education and about people knowing that we are artists and storytellers of our land,” Mr Connolly told NITV News.
“It’s about the promotion of our land and promotion of our stories, to know that we are the oldest living culture in the world and giving people the chance to hear the story, see the story and feel the joy that our culture can bring to people.”
A resonating role
Gunditjmara and Wiradjuri man James Saunders landed the role of the film's lead character and described Brolga as “something quite special.”
“As I came through the audition doors I noticed that Adrian was not Indigenous,” Saunders told NITV News.
“I knew the theme of the film. There was a Dreamtime story involved. So, before I auditioned I asked him straight out: ‘do you have permission to use this story?’"
The director provided Mr Saunders with the email from Michael Connolly.
"My mother knows Michael – I auditioned and got the role.”
A self-professed “massive Mad Max fan”, Saunders was immediately drawn to the role because of Brolga's setting.
“It was the first time I’d heard of a post-apocalyptic story where the central character is Indigenous,” he said.
“All that’s left is this man’s story which was passed through his family and his ancestors; which stands back before Australia became what it is today.”
Mr Saunders said he was also able to relate to the film’s narrative of ancestral knowledge and storytelling and now hopes Brolga will instil a message of respect for First Nations people and culture.
“The character [resonated with me] because he talks about how his father taught him his knowledge,” Mr Saunders said.
“My father is a very cultured man: every time I saw him he’d be telling me things and trying to teach me things. It was always this passing on of information.”
Like his character in Brolga, for Mr Saunders, the responsibility to keep storytelling and ancestral knowledge alive is deeply felt.
“[The film] touches on a lot of things that could possibly happen if there are catastrophic events - and the world as we know it collapses … all we may be left with are our stories," he said.
“As I get older with my nephews and nieces, I try and give them as much information as I can.
“Because when I’m gone, a part of our culture and history is going to die as well.”