The Sydney Film Festival has had an honourable history of selecting excellent Indigenous films in recent years “ with particular mention of Warwick Thornton’s witty Southern Cross doco, ‘We Don’t Need a Map‘, last year’s legal/political ‘Wik v Queensland’, Warlpiri Media’s take on ‘The Coniston Massacre‘, and a rare feature film, Ivan Sen’s ‘Toomelah‘. This year is not so blessed.

Both documentaries that I’ve previewed have a strong cumulative story-telling capacity to bring the realities of Central Australian Aboriginal life to the screen “ from the continuing influence of historic massacres to the flawed education system for kids, via the horrors of Don Dale prison. But neither doco is actually constructed in a way that makes the most of these aspects. And then there’s the schlock horror compilation, ‘Dark Place‘ that really doesn’t match up with the mass of international and national offerings in the SFF “ though I don’t pretend to understand the genre.

Let’s start at the top “ Erica Glynn’s ‘She Who Must Be Loved’, the story of her mother Freda who founded the CAAMA Aboriginal radio station in Alice Springs, attempted to take our version of events into television via Imparja, and was eventually ‘let go’ for its failure to find advertising. Mind you, it’s not the story that Freda herself wants to tell; she wants to use her offsprings’ efforts (several generations are involved “ all in the media) to discover how her grandmother met her death!

Son Warwick Thornton brings us back to reality at the end, though, by reminding her how many CAAMA Indigenous graduates are now telling our stories, using the camera as a weapon. We’ve got somewhere to go now, he insists, as she declares Nuff. Thornton’s presence also reminds us that his violent feature film ‘Sweet Country’ wasn’t that far from the reality of his antecedents’ lives.

For, back on Country at Hatches Creek, two old boys confirm in Kaytetye that Freda’s grandfather Jimmy Glynn was part of a big mob shot at the Whistleback Creek massacre because the ceremony they were holding was making too much noise! But protocols mean they can’t confirm the fate of his wife “ that’s a women’s story.

Her death, though meant Freda’s Mum was taken to The Bungalow for half-castes in Alice, later in service in Sydney during the War, but back in the Territory, she was only a slave again on a remote station. Pre-War, the Price brothers had shared her about and given her two children “ including Alfreda Price. Freda didn’t have much more control of her life, having five children by different fathers before taking advantage of a further education scheme called Task Force “ even though it meant dumping her feral kids in institutions to achieve it. Qualified, she and Phillip Batty set up CAAMA to provide vital information in their own languages to Warlpiri and Aranda people.

Through the employment of one Rodney Gooch to record Aboriginal bands out bush, CAAMA also went into art through his discovery of the Utopia batik artists “ and Freda’s current home up in Cooktown (why Cooktown???) has a marvellous example fluttering in the tropic breezes.

Two moments stand out in the film: while Mum’s in service in Sydney, Freda is institutionalised out at Mulgoa. Mum visits every other week, always leaving behind the petticoat she’s arrived in, its smell comforting her daughter till she returns. And then there’s some resolution of the grandma mystery (and tears) as one of the Hatches Creek old boys assures her, Your grandmother’s still here, you know “ you can always come here and walk around.

A new generation of troubles and inner character emerges from Maya Newell’s ‘In My Blood It Runs‘. It is the ngankere healing capacity that 10-year-old Dujuan Hoosan has inherited from his Arrernte/Aranda grandfather. We don’t see great evidence of it “ he identifies his gran’s toothache “ but it’s clear he and his relatives all believe in it. Another Gran has similar skills, but hers are more psychic than physical “ identifying in Dujuan, His spirit is sideways.

And we see plenty of evidence of that as his disruptiveness at two schools and tendency to disappear off into the night to be picked up by the paddy wagons of Alice bring him dangerously close to being sent off to Don Dale. Unbelievably, we see the family watching the ABC ‘Four Corners’ program on that place to underline the threat. Could it be that when you’ve got a defined role in one society, the regulations of another culture just don’t have meaning? But even when Dujuan is sent to a school where the Arrernte language is actually used (for just 30 minutes a day!) we see him yawning. A final decision to send him off to Borroloola on the Gulf to his absent father brings some relief. Every weekend is spent in the bush, leading to a report that he’s good in school – though the notion that the bush days are getting him ready for when he gets his land back to achieve a normal life as an Aborigine does seem both a tad premature and to run counter to the current government’s insistence on jobs and growth for our First Peoples!

Still, docos are clearly a more effective Indigenous vehicle than attempting to ‘Freak Me Out‘, as the section of the SFF featuring ‘Dark Place‘ is identified. I didn’t follow ‘Cleverman‘ either “ which had some woo woo affinity with this five-part drama “ all by different directors under the aegis of producer Majhid Heath. The only part that took my fancy was ‘Killer Native’ by Bjorn Stewart for its humour, its underlying politics and its suggestion of sending up ‘Secret River’.

So, a non-Indigenous early Fleet couple “ she pregnant “ arrives on a remote river-bank, where he declares My land, and then discovers a skull. He’s soon facing the most unlikely Native of that time “ not full-blood and speaking perfect English, sufficient to declare, I am not a fucking Indian. There’s clearly something even worse in the bushes “ which turns out to be the Native’s pustulating wife, who just may have caught her pustules from the new arrivals. Soon there’s blood everywhere, I think an escaped hand sprays the couple black, and just before she has her unwelcome baby ripped from her womb, the wife recognises, This whole land, it ain’t for us.

Plenty of blood in the other stories too, some of it covering plots I couldn’t follow. Does a doppelganger of the heroine in ‘Foe‘ actually kill herself? Did the lovely little girl in ‘Vale Light’ dispose of her evil neighbour for stealing her mariner-shell bracelet “ which was the only Indigenous thing I spotted in the story? What was a dream and what was unreality in ‘The Shore’, where blood was sucked and several random deaths occurred? And, in ‘Scout, why on earth did actor Nicholas Hope (the only cast member I recognised in a screener that lacked any credits) collect bickering Aboriginal lasses to have them whipped by others in a basement? All I could be sure of was that he certainly deserved his unhappy end!

‘Dark Place‘ and ‘She Who Must be Loved’ both screen on Saturday and Sunday (15/16 June); and ‘In My Blood It Runs’ is in the Documentary Australia Foundation Award this Sunday and Tuesday (9/11 June). But I suspect the greatest of First Nations excitement will come from the unseen new drama by Jennifer Kent, ‘The Nightingale’, which features both the Tasmanian Palawa Kani language spoken (wasn’t Truganini The Last Tasmanian???), and an award-winning performance by Yolngu man, Baykali Ganambarr. It can be seen on Sunday and Monday (9/10 June) and Sunday week, (16 June).

Url: https://www.sff.org.au/program/a-z/?type=Film&type=Event