“We’re still waiting to be understood” says a plaintive Ruby Hunter in the warm-hearted documentary ‘Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow‘. And in a sense, the three First Nations films I’ve experienced in this year’s delayed Sydney Film Festival do add up to improved understanding.
In Hunter’s case – she died in 2010 – being taken away from an idyllic Coorong-side existence at the age of 8 lead to an early life of drinking on the streets, from which she was rescued by both music and her relationship with Archie Roach. ‘Wash my Soul’ is basically a recording of a Melbourne concert, rehearsed and performed with the Australian Art Orchestra – adding musical complexity to the pair’s simple songs. But we also learn about the origins of their songs, both the hardness and the loving positives of their private lives, all the while relishing the (usually) evening light on both the Coorong and the Murray, on whose banks Ruby was born. Her mother was denied access to a hospital in those days.
That’s a level of understanding that would be hard to get under your skin simply by listening to the music. Why do Hunter and Roach sing only in English? The last of Ruby’s fluent Ngarrindjerri speakers died in 1969. What chance did she have to learn? But she did return from her stolen exile to rediscover the Ngarrindjerri weaving traditions, and throughout the film, captions – often quite political – are all translated into the revived Ngarrindjerri language. Symbolically, the last shot of the film is Coorong-side reeds – an essential source of traditional weaving.
The other end of the Indigenous cultural spectrum, of course, is footy – a marvellous area for talented black kids to shine. But don’t think that Larissa Behrendt’s doco, ‘Araatika: Rise Up!‘ is all about mud and thud. In fact there’s a minimal amount of it despite the presence of such footy luminaries as Greg Inglis, Latrell Mitchell, Cody Walker and Timana Tahu. Central to the film is Armidale’s Dean Widders, no mean player himself, whose 10 year old, end-to-end try is one of the highlights of the film for sports fans.
But Widders had two other pre-occupations apart from try-scoring. One was his Dad – also talented on field, but bogged down by the racism of his upbringing in New England which destroyed his confidence. The other was the powerful drama that Widders faced at the beginning of every international match against the Kiwis. The Hakka. What a statement of Maori confidence. What a threat to any opposition. Why wasn’t there an Aboriginal response?
It wasn’t a question with easy answers. Far too easy to muck about with spears. Too hard to persuade your non-Indigenous team-mates that they should participate too – as the Pakeha do in Kiwi teams with an enthusiasm equal to any Maori. A lot of consultation followed – elders such as Fran Bodkin and Max Harrison, a political figure like Stan Grant, and then into the arty area to get some performative advice from Wesley Enoch and inestimable movement tips from Stephen Page at Bangarra. Crucially, Enoch makes the game-changing challenge that Widders should test his act out in the Sydney Festival earlier this year.
I saw it at the Festival’s 25th January ‘Vigil‘ – and had no idea I was watching something that may turn up on footy fields the world over – Twickenham on Saturday??? A vast crowd of men and boys, painted up to the hilt and clearly prepared to outface the fiercest Maori, took over the stage from mere musos and showed us their druthers. Stars such as Widders himself got in a bit of explanation, the eloquent Stan Grant never quite persuaded in tribal guise, but AFL star Adam Goodes brought all the resonance of his tragic racial departure from the game with a re-run of his triumphant charge on the crowd after goaling.
Which leaves only the Big One. The very dramatic feature ‘The Drover’s Wife : The Legend of Molly Johnson‘ – A Film By Leah Purcell. Boy is she living Molly Johnson – having originally written the play which I reviewed enthusiastically at Belvoir in 2016; then turned it into a novel which another reviewer called “a herky-jerky cavalcade of junk literature kitsch and callow grotesquery”: despite which, Purcell has turned the novel (rather than the play) into a film in which she stars and directs! And threatens a mini-series!!!
Does the melodrama that Purcell had borrowed from the time of her story (1893) work as well in novel and film as well as it undoubtedly did on stage? And can the stunning cinematography of the Snowy Mountains and Monaro plains make up for the enclosed world captured by Stephen Curtis’s evocative slab hut set on stage? And did we really need the added drama of a Pommy policeman having moral qualms about hanging Molly for her three quite justifiable murders? And we certainly didn’t need the unbelievable sight of the policeman’s wife risibly demonstrating against the cold, high-plains hanging – from a lone, ancient snow-gum aberrantly surrounded by top-hatted gents there to see justice done, and the local economy protected.
Despite these flaws, Purcell’s retelling of Henry Lawson’s story of outback courage with an Indigenous slant is basically brilliant. Molly believes she’s white. Molly knows she’s abused by her drunken husband. Molly will do anything to protect her kids – four of whom have crosses up on the hill. There are few actors who could portray such a character truly apart from this mixed-race Goa, Gunggari, Wakka-Wakka woman from Murgon. You may know her from ‘Wentworth‘. I know her from ‘Box the Pony’ back in 1997. Discovering Molly’s Ngarigo Aboriginal origins may be a shock, but it’s embraceable as she gets close to Rob Collins’s definitely Indigenous escapee, Yadaka; and as he wins the trust of her eldest boy, Danny. There’s an unspoken subtlety in these human relationships around the slab hut that survives the outside world’s melodrama.
And the outside world is as brutal as any Warwick Thornton drama. It’s based around the unlovely folk ‘pioneering’ in an unbelievable wild west town, the murder of a squatter’s family which threatens the economy, and a pukker judge who doesn’t know the difference between hung and hanged when it comes to people! He got it right in the novel! Did we need them? Just as Lawson told his whole story around the woman, her dog and a threatening snake, and Russell Drysdale captured a whole world in his painting of the lonely wife awaiting her man’s return, Leah Purcell achieved much the same in her play. Personal (and racial) survival.
Forget the mini-series, Leah!
And perhaps tell the good people at the Sydney Film Festival that they’ve invented a wholly fictitious Sydney mob with their claims to recognise ‘The Kuringgai Nation’ of the North Shore!
But on Saturday April 30th, the non-Festival world gets its first chance to see ‘The Drover’s Wife’ – its North Shore debut, including Purcell herself, is at the Cremorne Orpheum cinema.