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18 September 2018
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Revolutions: The AFC Indigenous Branch

In this extract from the AFC's new book Dreaming in Motion, which celebrates the work of the AFC's Indigenous Branch and the achievements of the filmmakers it has supported, Manager SALLY RILEY provides insight into the incredible growth of the Branch since 1993, and the breadth of world-class films that has emerged from it.

In May 2006 I was standing dumbfounded in the foyer of the Sydney Opera House, watching a huge crowd snaking out the door. It was the queue to see the documentary session at the Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival and there were twice as many people as seats available. Similar crowds arrived for almost every session on the weekend. The atmosphere during the screenings was electric and the interest shown during the filmmaker Q&As passionate. The screenings at Message Sticks have always been free, but a few years ago the audiences just weren't there in the way they are today. This is testament to the interest of a mainstream audience in Indigenous film being produced both here in Australia and worldwide. Why is it that Indigenous film has been so well received in Australia and on the world stage? What is it that makes the work distinctive, rich and sets it apart?

The support of government agencies, both federal (AFC, FFC, Film Australia) and state (Film Victoria, NSW FTO, ScreenWest, PFTC and SAFC), alongside AFTRS and the national broadcasters SBS and ABC, have provided a sustained funding, training and screening platform that is unprecedented anywhere else in the world, for any filmmakers.

The AFC Indigenous Branch has, from its inception in 1993, provided stepping stone programs that involve practical professional development coupled with production funding. The Indigenous Branch's first drama initiative, commencing in 1994, was both clever and revolutionary. The model of carefully mentored and monitored development, including a practical workshop, was created by the early pioneers and supporters of the branch, led by inaugural director Walter Saunders. It is a model we still use today to great effect, the results speaking for themselves through six drama series.

The premiere screening of the first series, From Sand to Celluloid, in 1996 at the Chauvel Cinema in Sydney, was a revelation. It felt like being part of a history-making event. And every premiere since has replicated that atmosphere with varied programs of skilled and distinctive filmmaking. From Sand to Celluloid included Richard Frankland's No Way to Forget, which won the AFI Award for Best Short Fiction and was selected for screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Not a bad start!

The drama initiative model has also been used to develop films supported by the National Indigenous Documentary Fund (NIDF). Originally funded by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the annual documentary series commenced in 1997 and has been administered by the AFC's Indigenous Branch since 2001.

The Message Sticks Film Festival in 2006 premiered the latest NIDF documentaries, all of them compelling films. They included Kelrick Martin's Island Fettlers, Steven McGregor's My Brother Vinnie and Footy—The La Perouse Way, directed by Michael Longbottom. Three busloads of people from La Perouse in suburban Sydney joined the audience to see their community on the big screen at the Sydney Opera House. It was an example of how our programs empower Indigenous people around Australia, a microcosm of how Indigenous filmmakers feed the wider Indigenous community and non-Indigenous communities alike.

I've had the privilege of presenting curated programs of Australian Indigenous film in Rotterdam, Berlin, New York and gathering a gift of films presented to the French Government. Every time, there is amazement - I'm asked, "Where do these films come from?" The answer is to be found in the talent, originality and the unique culture from which the work emerges.

To develop a great drama or documentary through these initiatives, you need talented filmmakers with original and compelling ideas. The filmmakers we work with have varying backgrounds and experience. Some have trained formally through filmmaking institutions, some are artists, musicians, writers and performers who want to expand their artistic avenues. Others come to us with no background in film or the arts at all. These filmmakers have original and interesting stories to tell, with a fresh vision that offers different perspectives from those experienced by most Australians, and for that matter, most people worldwide. The filmmakers' intimacy with their subject matter generates a sense of immediacy for audiences.

Over the last 12 years Australia's Indigenous filmmakers have consistently exposed to the world stories dealing with issues of culture, religion, family, love, politics and social welfare specifically rooted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. At the same time as the films articulate where we are at in a contemporary world they also demonstrate where we have come from. Like all good films, through their uniqueness they speak universally. Indigenous filmmakers as a group have an uncanny knack for representing their stories with a truthfulness on screen that resonates with many different audiences. And as the years have gone by, the technical skill and proficiency of the filmmakers have increased remarkably, which raises the bar higher and higher to inspire those following in their footsteps.

With their long oral tradition, varied histories and experience, it has been argued, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are natural storytellers. Somehow, as a group, these filmmakers know how to tease out great stories that surprise in their execution. A history of being ignored and marginalised means there is a lot of grist for the mill. But how do you explain the brilliance of Erica Glynn's My Bed Your Bed, Beck Cole's Flat or Ivan Sen's Tears? These are films with distinctive directorial voices, displaying a confidence of vision and economy of storytelling that is rare.

Talking about his latest documentary Ivan Sen said, "I never meant these films to be political. These issues come up because of who [the subjects] are and where they are from. I don't make this stuff up for the fun of it. It is a living, breathing part of people's lives, not issues to be just kicked around." [1]

Understanding each other in a human way, and also an instinctive way, perhaps means that the common core of these films is about the human condition rather than simply exploring 'issues'. This gives the films their strong emotional resonance. In an interview, filmmaker Catriona McKenzie said, "The more detailed you are in your storytelling, including emotional detail, the more universal the story is. It doesn't actually matter who the story's about if it's real; it's based in reality, it's got emotional truth, if the characters are three dimensional and fleshed out. We're all human and it's just about relating on an emotional level to another human being." [2]

After 12 years of consistently high quality in both drama and documentary, this body of work cannot be dismissed as fad or novelty. The interesting stories just keep coming. The diversity and originality of voice displayed over the years tells me we are here to stay as a distinctive force in the Australian film industry. Lately talent scouts have begun to shine a spotlight on Australia's Indigenous filmmakers. Australian film journalist Sandy George wrote in Screen International, "Some of the most exciting new Australian talents are writers and directors from Indigenous communities, whose unique life experiences are rarely seen portrayed on the big screen from the inside out." [3]

The selection of Ivan Sen's documentary Yellow Fella for the Un Certain Regard category in the 2005 Cannes Film Festival was extraordinary - a short documentary in a predominantly feature film event. In the same year, after accruing major critical awards, Warwick Thornton's short drama, Green Bush, won the IF Award for Best Short Film by popular vote. Following on from many awards received on critical merit, this was perhaps the sweetest victory.

I would like to make special mention of filmmaker Tracey Moffatt. Before the Indigenous Branch existed, Tracey made visually stunning short films embraced equally by the visual art and film worlds: Nice Coloured Girls (1987) and Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989). Her feature film, Bedevil , coincided with the beginnings of the Branch in 1993. Today Tracey is an accomplished, internationally recognised artist who has made her mark in Australian filmmaking without the assistance to which Indigenous filmmakers today have access. She is an amazing talent who has been an inspiration for us all.

Another inspiration to his fellow Indigenous filmmakers is the late Michael Riley, an acclaimed photographer and the maker of significant films on Aboriginal life (on trackers, tent boxers and visual artists), including his internationally screened art film, Empire (1998). Sights Unseen, a major retrospective of Michael's work, has been curated by Brenda L. Croft for the National Gallery of Australia and will tour into 2008 bringing his insights and achievements to the attention of many more Australians.

We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. I was asked recently when Indigenous filmmakers would become mainstream. 'Mainstream' implied feature films. Of course, there have been several features made over the years: Moffatt's Bedevil, Rachel Perkins' Radiance (1997) and Ivan Sen's Beneath Clouds (2002).

To develop a sustained series of features is a long-term process involving substantial script development, finance and production. In 2005 we launched the Long Black feature initiative, structured along the same principles as the short drama initiative. There are nine scripts of various genres and budget levels in development and I'm confident we will see the films rolling out in the next couple of years. Warwick Thornton, Beck Cole, Wayne Blair and Romaine Moreton (poet and film writer, the subject of Erica Glynn's A Walk with Words, 2000) have been funded for feature film script development and were joined in the associated Writers Lab by Rachel Perkins, Darlene Johnson and Richard Frankland.

The enormous contribution of actors, cinematographers and technical crew in the development of Australian Indigenous film must be acknowledged, so too the commitment of a small group of dedicated Indigenous producers. Keen writer-directors abound, but a larger pool of talented creative producers would help guarantee the longevity of our fledgling industry. We need to concentrate on developing more of them.

I would also like to acknowledge the support received from the wider film community for the Branch since its inception. A large pool of non- Indigenous filmmakers has been instrumental in setting up the branch, involved in countless initiatives, in assessing on panels and mentoring at workshops. In addition, many local facilities and services have been constant supporters.

Our most recent workshop was for Bit of Black Business, a drama initiative for five-minute films by emerging directors and writers working alongside experienced film professionals like director Warwick Thornton and cinematographer Murray Lui. The thirteen films, a collaboration between the AFC, SBSi, NSW FTO and ScreenWest, will screen in prime time on SBS TV. It was fabulous to see such talents as Erica Glynn, Wayne Blair and Warwick mentoring new filmmakers in the way they themselves had once been supported. With Warwick and others, I was one of the filmmakers in the very first Drama Initiative series in 1994.

We have a lot to look forward to from the exciting filmmakers profiled in this book - collectively the talent bank is enormous. As the saying goes, a revolution comes more than once.

Dreaming in Motion will be launched in May 2007 and will be available for purchase from the AFC's Communications Branch. To order a copy, email

1 Emily Dunn "Sen and the art of dreaming", Sydney Morning Herald, May 12, 2006.
2 George Negus Tonight, "Screen Dreams", ABC TV, 6.30pm, June 9, 2003.
3 Sandy George, 'A unique vision of Australia', Screen International, No. 1509, July 29 - August 12, 2005.

Danielle Maclean on set, Queen of Hearts, 2003. Photo: Matt Nettheim.

Wayne Blair on location, The Djarn Djarns, 2005. Photo: Mark Rogers.

Green Bush's Warwick Thornton shooting on a cold night. Photo: Mark Rogers.