About to get public screenings, ‘Ablaze‘, a film biography of Bill Onus by his grandson Tiriki, is an affectionate portrait of the man. But more, it’s an insight into an time in the early 20th Century when Aborigines in the south had to fight for their very existence. And, rather more whole-heartedly than today, Bill Onus in Victoria was also a fighter for First Nations people right across the country.
It began, like many a good yarn, with the discovery of a long lost suitcase. Inside were still photos that were clearly taken by Bill Onus – mostly just after the War – that intrigued his grandson. Tiriki, a singer and cultural operator in Melbourne, is the son of the great artist, Lin Onus – who died too young. Luckily his mother survives to appear in the film, and so do elders from Fitzroy to the Pilbara to add detail and colour to this film.
Bill’s life started at the notorious Cummeragunja Mission on the Murray in 1906, and one might imagine that his militancy was set in train aged 10 when the mob was being so degraded and starved that 300 walked out of the mish into lives of peripatetic uncertainty. The slums of Fitzroy offered little joy, so Bill’s theatrical side lead him into Wirth Bros Circus – whip-cracking and mastering the art of boomerang, which turns up at many stages in his rich life. Travels with the circus allowed him to realise that his imperfect life was better than that of more remote Aborigines, seen begging at dusty train stops.
In 1936 he’s working on Charles Chauvel’s notorious ‘Uncivilised‘ film, loaded with fake Aboriginal scenes – but the power of film entered his consciousness. Later, Harry Watt would seek him out (how is not explained) to offer more truthful Aboriginal characters in ‘The Overlanders’, though, somewhat dubiously, it’s suggested that Bill witnessed real scenes involving chained up Aborigines during this remote filming in the 1940s. However, Chips Rafferty in the film briefly makes an impassioned plea for land rights – pretty revolutionary at the time.
Bill tried to go back to the north with his own camera, but government funding was denied by Arthur Calwell, a staunch White Australian.
But clearly Bill did make films. For the Australian Film & TV Archive somehow (unexplained yet again) discovered a canister of fine B&W film that Tiriki eventually proves must have been Bill’s work – long thought to have disappeared in a caravan fire. It contains returned Aboriginal servicemen of interest to the War Memorial and images of a play that was produced at the ‘communist’ New Theatre in Melbourne. That tells tales of the great Pilbara Stockmen’s strike – all-too little appreciated up against the prominence of the Gurindji walk-off a decade later at Wave Hill Station – ‘From Little Things, etc….’. Its leaders were all arrested, for, leaving employment without the boss’s permission was a crime in WA.
Of course, Bill’s film of the production never made it into the commercial cinemas. But a subsequent circus-style production, ‘Coroboree Season‘ was such a hit with the Melbourne public that Cinesound coverage on cinema newsreels did, at last give him national coverage. Not for his politics, sadly, only his theatricals.
Talking politics, an oddity in the film is the claim that Bill helped form the Australian Aborigines League with Doug Nichols and others at this time. It was, of course, formed in 1933 by the great Wiradjuri man, William Cooper.
Bill’s next move was on to the wharves, where he was involved in the threat of a national strike when an Aboriginal activist was denied a passport to travel to a conference in East Berlin. ASIO was coming into its most notorious existence. And when film of the Black Mist that rolled across remote APY communities after the British atom bomb tests at Emu Field in 1953 was shown across the country, Bill’s ASIO file fattened. Marches followed and Paul Robeson – after seeing the film and singing ‘Ol Man River‘ at the Sydney Opera House under construction – became a fierce promoter to the embarrassment of ABC TV presenters.
BTW, do look out Elizabeth Tynan’s new book, ‘The Secret of Emu Field‘ which deals with this very subject in forensic detail.
Bill’s Aboriginal Enterprises shop in the Dandenongs went well, a TV series called ‘Alcheringa‘ (appropriating an Arrernte name) allowed for a bit of premature truth telling, and the 1967 Referendum was successful with a 90.77% positive vote. But Bill died at 61 soon after.
And Tiriki (literally) wraps up his life in a possum-skin cloak. For that’s the image with which the film starts and ends, a cloak wrapped around the larger-than-life presenter. But it’s contextualised by the ubiquitous Jack Charles, who explains that cloaks like that traditionally began sized to keep an Indigenous Victorian baby warm and then were ever-extended through his/her life. At the end, the corpse would be wrapped in the last furry shroud and laid to rest in a tree fork for nature to take its course.
But were such cloaks really banned as part of the brutal detribalisation process that Bill Onus lived through? Quite possibly.