The voices and creativity of Australia’s First Nations people were silenced for an entire generation. Not only were Indigenous people pretty much wiped from on-screen representation throughout the 20th Century but when they were depicted, their experiences were scapegoated, so to speak, and shown by non-Indigenous people through blackface (we’re looking at you Jedda) or reduced to long-standing cliches that completely side-stepped culturally relevant traditions and customs.
There’s still a tremendous way to go for Australian cinema in this space, but for now, check out these Indigenous directors who are absolute trailblazers when it comes to advocating for emerging Indigenous talent and sharing diverse stories and experiences.
Samson And Delilah
By Warwick Thornton
Warwick Thornton (a born and raised Kaytete man) really needs no introduction and his debut film, released back in 2009, Samson And Delilah broke the mould in a big way for First Nations storytelling on the silver screen. The film was based on things Warwick has seen or experienced at some point of time in his life. It follows the love story of two Indigenous Australian teenagers who try to escape the hardship of the town they live in by stealing a car and heading to Alice Springs. The cultural context of this film is huge because Indigenous people were finally cast in lead roles making their stories and experiences central to the film. Thornton has also directed a slew of other incredible films including Sweet Country, The Darkside, and The Turning.
Finke: There And Back
By Dylan River
If you know anything about the film world in Australia, it should really come as no surprise that Dylan River is an incredible director to watch out for especially because he was also the lead cinematographer in Adam Goodes’ 2019 documentary The Australian Dream. His parents (which include the aforementioned Warwick Thornton) are absolute creative royalty in the movie industry and his grandmother is the co-founder of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. While River’s Finke: There And Back is technically not a movie and more so a documentary, it’s still a definite must-watch (and the cinematography reigns supreme).
The documentary reveals the ins and outs of the Alice Springs-based Finke Desert Race, a multi-terrain, two-day race for bikes, cars, buggies and quad bikes but for the riders and spectators of the desert race—it’s more than just a competition. River follows a number of figures part of the race including paraplegic Isaac Elliot and Scruff Hamill who actually lives in a shed full of bikes in Sydney.
WIRRIYA: Small Boy
By Beck Cole
It would be totally remiss of us not to include Warramungu member from Alice Springs Beck Cole (who also just so happens to be married to Warwick Thornton). It’s another one we’ve slid in which yes, is not a movie but a documentary but it’s ever so moving and profound that’ll you understand why it’s made the cut when you’ve watched it. Cole has really made some directing history here mastering an insightful and sensitive look into the life of Ricco—a 7-year-old from Hidden Valley (one of the many camps nestled on the outskirts of Alice Springs).
Looked after by his three older sisters, the film follows his interactions with dogs, schooling (whereby he has classes in Warlpiri language and culture) and of course, playtime which involves a whole lot of “hookey”. Cole filmed the documentary over two months and nails some breathtaking shots throughout WIRRIYA: Small Boy.
Yulubidyi: Until The End
By Curtis Taylor
This short film is a must-watch directed by the incredibly talented filmmaker and young Martu leader Curtis Taylor. He was raised in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of Western Australia, Taylor is actually an all-round artist with one hell of a knack for storytelling through the lenses of art, acting and filmmaking.
His film Yulubidyi: Until The End (which was also directed by Nathan Mewett), tells the story of a young Aboriginal man, Jarman, who is given the task of protecting his younger less-abled brother from life in a harsh remote community. However, his father, Thunder, wants him to become the leader of the tribe and mocks any weakness in him. Brianol, Jarman’s brother, is seen as useless and yet Jarman has the feeling that he has a special connection to land and spirit.
By Iven Sen
Beneath Clouds was Iven Sen’s, a Gamilaroi man (Northern NSW), breakout feature film. Following a young Indigenous girl (who’s blonde and light-skinned and in denial of her heritage) and a newly escaped prisoner, this movie throws the two alienated characters together forcing them on a tumultuous emotional and physical journey. We also highly recommend that you watch more of Sen’s films including Toomelah (based off an actual town in far north NSW which has evidence of abuse and neglect for the children), Mystery Road and Goldstone.
Bran Nue Dae
By Rachel Perkins
Bran Nue Dae is an absolute Australian musical comedy classic (based on the 1990 musical set in Broome, Western Australia). It’s a coming of age story, directed by Rachel Perkins (a woman of the Arrernte and Kalkadoon nations and daughter of Indigenous rights activists Eileen and Charles Perkins), of an Indigenous teenager who set off on a mammoth road trip during the 1960s and another film that cast Indigenous people in lead roles back in 2009. We also suggest you watch some of her other films including Radiance, One Night The Moon and (another big favourite) Jasper Jones.
By Wayne Blair
For another upbeat and high-energy movie, you need to sit yourself down and lap up all the talent in Wayne Blair’s (a Butchulla man) The Sapphires. Set back in in 1968, the movie follows four Indigenous sisters who take their all-girl singing group to entertain US troops during the Vietnam War and yep, it’s based on a true story (loosely). This one stars the iconic Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell and Chris O’Dowd and if that doesn’t sound like an on-screen party — we don’t know what does. Wayne Blair is also known for his on and off-screen efforts in the acclaimed TV series Redfern Now (which you should absolutely get yourself across if you haven’t already).
By Stephen Page
Spear is the directorial debut of Stephen Page, a descendent from the Nunukul people and the Munaldjali of the Yugambeh people from southeast Queensland. The film tells a contemporary Indigenous story through movement and dance and marks a massive collaboration between artists and filmmakers. Spear brings us the story of Djali, a young Indigenous man trying to understand what it means to be a man with ancient traditions in today’s world.
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Image credit: Madman