Credit: G. Hansen, John Honey Collection

*Indigenous Australians please be aware that this article contains the name of an Aboriginal man who is now dead.

In late 1977 I was offered a producer contract with the new Tasmanian Film Corporation (TFC). At the time I was Senior Producer of the Hobart television production unit of ABC Education, where I’d written and directed several short dramas on personal relationship themes, and produced a successful historical miniseries for children, The Colonials (1978). I jumped at the chance to join the new Corporation, which former South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) founding chair/director, Gil Brealey, had devised to replace the pioneering but now ailing Tasmanian government Department of Film Production.

Among the 30 or so projects on my desk was the unpublished and incomplete manuscript of a novel, Manganinnie. The screen rights had been acquired by the TFC’s director, Malcolm Smith. The novel, written by Beth Roberts, was about an Aboriginal woman who, in the process of Governor Arthur’s Black Line, is separated from her tribe. The Black Line, a factual event that took place in 1830, was designed to herd the Van Diemen’s Land Aborigines into one corner of the island, where they couldn’t resist the encroachment of white settlers. Manganinnie’s husband is killed. Manganinnie, wandering alone and disoriented, finds a white girl, Joanna, who becomes her companion on a quest to reconnect with her people. Malcolm and Gil had worked together at the SAFC, and both felt the story had a special quality that reminded them of the successful SAFC production, Storm Boy (Henri Safran, 1976).

My initial job as development producer was to oversee the screen adaptation of the novel. Several problems were immediately apparent. First, the language of the book was highly verbal and interior, and didn’t translate easily to the screen. Second, while the beginning and end of the story were complete, Beth was still finishing the middle, so the full structure was not yet clear. Third, the Joanna character was too young (about 4) for practical screen purposes. Fourth, none of us liked the ending, in which the dead Manganinnie is given a decent Christian burial by Joanna’s parents.

There were other problems. This was to be the first feature film made by the fledgling Tasmanian Film Corporation. A small amount of Louise Lovely and Wilton Welch’s Jewelled Nights had been shot on location in northwest Tasmania in 1925. Similarly, in 1927, Port Arthur was used for locations and specific scenes in Norman Dawn’s For the Term of His Natural Life, as it had been for Charles MacMahon’s 1908 version of the same story. In 1962 Charles Wolnizer and Andrew Steane’s They Found a Cave, a children’s film running about an hour, became the first locally produced screen drama, but a full-scale, completely Tasmanian-made feature film was yet to hit the screen. Manganinnie would be the first, and there was political pressure for it to be a success.

Manganinnie would sit at the art house end of the movie spectrum. It would come after a series of Aboriginal-themed Australian movies – Storm Boy, The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi, 1978), and there was little prospect of it being a box office smash. So it had to be an artistic and critical success. And given the TFC’s commitment to family-oriented material, it had to be G-rated.

From a production point of view it was high-risk. A movie about Tasmanian Aborigines being made by white people was politically controversial.

A convincing tribal Aboriginal cast would have to be found. In 1978 the idea that Tasmanian Aborigines were extinct was being discredited, but the contemporary population that identified as Tasmanian Aboriginal, urbanised and genetically mixed, could not provide us with what we needed. We would have to look elsewhere. It was likely that the two leading roles would have to be played by non-actors, one of them a six-year-old child. 95% of the story takes place in the bush, in difficult conditions. There would be no weather cover.

Nevertheless, the commitment of the TFC to the project was total. Gil and I wrote a treatment, taking the main elements that attracted us about the book, adding a dog to the other existing animal character, a wombat, and shaping the story into a classic quest, in which the relationship between the Aboriginal woman and the white child evolves into a loving bond, and the child becomes the repository of the woman’s culture and magical knowledge of fire. In the meantime, aided by the prospect of a movie, Malcolm successfully arranged publication of Beth’s novel by Allen and Unwin.

Ken Kelso, a pioneer screenwriting graduate from the Australian Film and Television School, was contracted to write the adaptation. The ending was to be changed – Joanna would use her knowledge of the dead Manganinnie’s cultural and spiritual procedures to give her the funeral pyre she would have wanted. Ken’s beautiful work would win the Australian Writers’ Guild screenplay award for 1980. But it also threw up another problem – how would we treat the Aboriginal language? We had several options. One, an adaptation of the standard American Western approach, where Native Americans speak in stylised broken English. Two, follow the approach of the Beth Roberts book, and attempt to reconstruct a form of lost Tasmanian Aboriginal language from word lists assembled by anthropologists. Three, if we cast our Manganinnie and her tribe from another part of Australia, we could use her language, either subtitled or with its meaning suggested by context. This was a decision we couldn’t make until we found our tribe. And first we needed to answer another question. Who would direct?

Several possibilities were considered. One was the great Melbourne director Tim Burstall. Tim, with Jill Robb, then head of the Victorian Film Corporation, came to Hobart to discuss the project with me and Executive Producers Malcolm and Gil, but the movie Tim envisaged and the one we had in mind differed too much.

During the script development phase of Manganinnie I directed three drama-documentaries – The Fitness Factor (1978), Mrs. Harding Teaches Resourcefully (1979), and Happily Ever After (1979). They were all award-winners, and as a result I was offered the job of directing Manganinnie. I’d been secretly hoping something like that might happen, and grabbed the chance.

So now we needed a producer. Malcolm and Gil appointed Gilda Baracchi, one of Australia’s most respected continuity professionals, who’d recently returned from a period in the US studying producing. She immediately started assembling a crew – mostly from Sydney and Melbourne, but as many positions as practicable going to Tasmanians to fulfil the Corporation’s training needs. There was one Tasmanian head of department – John Scheifelbein, sound recordist.

Gary Hansen was Director of Photography. Gary had worked in Tasmania as a television news cameraman before beginning his distinguished career as a feature DOP. He was also an outstanding stills photographer with a particular interest in the Tasmanian landscape, so he was the perfect choice.

Manganinnie crew and Aboriginal cast. Credit: G. Hansen, John Honey Collection

We still had no cast. Manganinnie and her tribe took priority – without them we had no movie. It was July 1979, and shooting was scheduled to begin in mid-November. A search up Australia’s east coast was fruitless. It quickly became evident that we had to look as far north as we could go – Arnhem Land. Anthony Wallis of the Aboriginal Artists Agency was our saviour. He and I went to Darwin, Gove and Elcho Island on a casting trip that was a cultural enlightener for me, and which eventually gave us the tribe and the Manganinnie we needed. We found Mawayul Yanthalawuy, originally from Elcho Island, teaching in a pre-school in Darwin. She was shy and self-effacing, but her reputation as a storyteller suggested hidden qualities. She was the most promising of a number of interesting women Anthony located through his contacts across the Northern Territory and Arnhem Land, but I wasn’t completely convinced. I asked her if she’d be willing to come to Hobart for a screen test. She was.

We drove Mawayul into bushland north of Hobart. She wore a covering of possum fur and carried a bark firestick. As soon as she stepped out of the car into the trees something miraculous and deeply moving happened – she became one with the bush, and I swear she grew six inches taller. The magical silent 35mm film we shot that day of a tribal Aboriginal woman in the Tasmanian bush possibly for the first time in over a century convinced me we had our Manganinnie.

With the choice of Mawayul the dilemma about the Aboriginal language was resolved. We decided to have Mawayul translate her dialogue from Ken’s screenplay into her own language. This would be done scene-by-scene as we shot the movie, without a word being written down, and the tribe members would similarly improvise their dialogue. A translator would be present in the tribal scenes to make sure no unauthorised lines from exuberant young men found their way onto the screen. However, when the movie premiered in Darwin, at one point there was unexplained mirth from the Aboriginal members of the audience. I still don’t know exactly what slipped through the net.

I discussed the story in detail with Mawayul, and she was sure she could play the role convincingly. So was I – except for doubts about one scene, where she lights her husband’s funeral pyre and sings her mourning song. We talked about the need for her mourning to be completely felt and profoundly moving. And as yet we didn’t have a song. I took her to the airport and put her on the plane home. She was scheduled to come back two weeks before the shoot, for rehearsals.

The casting of the tribe followed the choice of Mawuyul. Anthony Wallis assembled them, including Manganinnie’s husband, Meenapeekameena, from Gove and Elcho Island, with a couple of urban Aborigines from Sydney.

At the same time I was looking for Joanna. I saw and talked to a succession of six-year-old girls from Hobart schools. One stood out, for her ability to behave unselfconciously and ignore the camera – Anna Ralph. Anna could also feign sleep and waking extremely convincingly. What we didn’t know at the time was how tough she was, and how she would withstand the physical rigours of being lightly clad and barefoot in the bush in a cold Tasmanian high country spring.

I finalised the balance of the casting. Philip Hinton and Elaine Mangan were Joanna’s parents. The late and unique Reg Evans was their retainer. Bill McLusky was an escaped convict. The rest of the European cast was from Hobart, including the only Tasmanian Aborigine in the cast – Leone Dickson – in the small role of a sealer’s woman.

In the meantime Malcolm and Gil pulled together the finance to make the film, budgeted at $481,000. There were three main investors – the Greater Union Organisation, the Australian Film Commission, the Tasmanian Film Corporation, plus some smaller private investors from Tasmania.

Earlier that winter my wife Maria and I had driven across southern Tasmania photographing potential locations. In the spring I took Gary Hansen on the same trip. We immediately established an aesthetic bond. The locations were locked in with enthusiastic agreement. We discussed our ideas for the look of the film and the way we’d approach that look – classic static compositions, long, well motivated tracking shots giving a multi-plane effect through layers of trees, natural candle and firelight using high speed lenses, the new Steadicam in one scene. Gary chose Noel McDonald, a Tasmanian born, Melbourne-based eccentric genius as chief grip, to meet the challenge of quickly building long, smooth tracks on undulating buttongrass plains and in difficult rainforest.

At about this time I received word that tragedy had struck Mawayul. Her teenage son had died, apparently from a petrol-sniffing incident gone wrong. Anxious enquiries about her ability to continue on the movie were made. The answer came back that she would be in Hobart as arranged.

During pre-production Gilda and production manager Pamela Vanneck located the dog, performing in sheepdog trials at the Hobart Show. He was Pace, a national champion kelpie. With his owner-handler, Lance, he would prove to be a star.

The art department faced one of the biggest challenges of the production. Art director Neil Angwin, head of wardrobe Graham Purcell and props master Harry Zettel underwent a crash course in Tasmanian Aboriginal anthropology, so they could design and reconstruct aspects of Aboriginal dress, hair, jewellery, containers, shelters, burial sites, firesticks, weapons, and a bark canoe capable of safely carrying our two principals on the water. We were determined to make the movie as anthropologically authentic as possible, but had to accept one inaccuracy. Tasmanians wore very little clothing, but we modified the animal skins our tribe wore to preserve modesty. The question of nakedness was discussed, but the opinion of our contacts through the Aboriginal Artists Agency was that it wouldn’t be acceptable to the performers, so because of that, and the need to preserve a “G” rating, it was never directly raised with them.

The only interiors in the movie are located at the house of Joanna’s parents, the Watermans. I’d known about the colonial house, Sherwood, south of Bothwell, for some years, and it was one of my first location choices. Sherwood was situated in a lonely valley, in countryside that had changed little since the time of the Black Line. There were no power poles, or any other 20th century visual intrusions that would prevent us using a 360-degree field-of-view. We might as well use its interiors too, rather than build sets.

Sherwood, at the time the base for the local Boy Scout troop, was in sound condition. Construction manager Jon Bowling and his crew built a false shingle roof which immediately gave it a newish look, painted and decorated interiors using traditional lime-wash paints, and built a blacksmith’s forge and shed. The shed would be burned in the climactic scene at the end of the movie.

I have a particular interest in film music, and I’m an amateur cellist. In this slow-paced, highly visual and dialogue-sparse movie, the score would be crucial. I wanted the music to provide a strong spiritual undertone, and to underpin the main characters and narrative strands of the story. I wanted the elements to be simple, spare, and emotionally powerful.

I knew Peter Sculthorpe’s music reasonably well, and knew he was the composer I wanted to work with on the Manganinnie score. I also knew his experience in screen composition had not been completely happy. In the early 1960s he wrote a charming score for They Found a Cave, beautifully performed by the harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler. So far so good. But then came Michael Powell’s Age of Consent (1969), adapted by Peter Yeldham from Norman Lindsay’s novel. But for the international release, Sculthorpe’s score was replaced with one written by Stanley Myers. Brealey told me recently that because of the bitter taste left by that incident, only strong persuasion by David Williams, father of Kim and then general manager of Greater Union, our biggest private investor, secured Peter’s agreement.

Peter loved the screenplay. Before a foot of film had been shot we devised the role and shape of the score. It would operate using a series of recurring motifs. Manganinnie would be represented by the cello. The tribe was the string quartet (we couldn’t afford a larger body of strings). The settlers would be the piano.

Mawayul returned to Hobart in late October, for rehearsals with Anna Ralph. We met at the airport and I put my arms around her, not knowing quite what to say about her son’s death. She placed an audiocassette in my hand. I asked her what it was, and she said it was the song that was sung at her son’s funeral. She would sing it in the scene at her husband’s funeral pyre, and the thought of her son’s death would unlock the emotion needed to make the scene convincing. I was humbled by her courage and her total commitment to the role. I never worried again about her ability to give a successful performance.

The funeral song was created and sung by the late Buruminy Dhamarrandji. He was a great song man of Arnhem Land. He plays Manganinnie’s husband Meenapeekameena in the movie.

I passed the audiocassette on to Peter Sculthorpe. He was captivated by the melody, and it became the Manganinnie motif in his score. He refers to it as “Elcho Island Lament” and has used it many times in subsequent compositions, including the famous Kakadu and Threnody for Solo Cello.

The two weeks of familiarisation and rehearsal with Anna and Mawayul were a delight. Mawayul immediately bonded with Anna, and they became great friends. In adulthood Anna is a doctor, and in 2010 was working at the Darwin Hospital. There she met Mawayul again, after 30 years, in the Aboriginal Women’s birthing unit. They immediately resumed their bond, and watched a DVD of the movie together.

One of the problems of the film was to develop a feeling of time passing. The script doesn’t specify how long Joanna is with Manganinnie before she’s returned to her parents, but the audience has to believe it’s long enough for her to become immersed in Manganinnie’s world and to find her parents’ world strange when she returns. Given that the shoot was to be only 4 ½ weeks I chose to schedule in late spring and early summer, when Tasmanian weather is at its most unpredictable, hoping to get as much feeling of seasons changing as possible. We resolved to shoot in whatever conditions presented themselves, to take advantage of those changes, and avoid going over budget because of weather delays.

We assembled a large supply of space blankets, moon boots, and other anti-cold equipment, to keep our tropical cast comfortable and safe in the cold highland conditions. As it turned out they adapted amazingly quickly, and fitted into the weather and landscape as if it was their own. Graham Purcell, wardrobe, and Cheryl Williams, hair and makeup, would grab Mawayul at the end of every take and slip on her moon boots and enfold her in a specially insulated dressing gown.

The shoot had three major location bases, Bronte Park in the central highlands, Hobart, and Coles Bay on the east coast. Each put us in reach of many other day-trip locations, and there was much driving and very long days.

I won’t say much about the shoot, except that we were blessed with the right weather, a dedicated crew, and a supportive producer and production office. We were well prepared, and completed the shoot exactly on schedule and slightly under budget. We averaged three-and-a-half minutes of screen time a day, at a ratio of about 7.5:1.

Anna had a birthday on the job, and proved to be the toughest little trouper. Fortunately her father David was there throughout for care and support – the antithesis of the dreaded stage dad.

Everyone involved spoke of it afterwards as an almost religious experience. And it was. When I farewelled Mawayul at the airport, she hugged me and said, “Such fun in the wind and the rain”.

Editing was quick and straightforward. There are many long take and one-shot scenes, and I knew what I wanted. Mike Woolveridge was the editor, and his assistant was Posie Jacobs – now Posie Graeme-Evans of McLeod’s Daughters fame. The initial cut was 112 minutes, and that’s the one Peter Sculthorpe and his associate David Matthews saw first and loved.

Peter was initially upset when he saw the 90 minute cut, saying we’d destroyed it and there was no room for music, but when I went through it with him in detail he immediately understood and delivered his wonderful score. David Matthews contributed the Schubertian piano theme, and Ian Fredericks was responsible for the “musique concrète” sounds using the tribe’s voices. The score was performed by the Sydney String Quartet, with Nathan Waks playing solo cello and Anthony Fogg piano, recorded in the Sydney Opera House recording studio. (Peter’s score won the 1980 AFI award for Best Music Score, the only one of seven Manganinnie nominations to get up. It was the year of Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant!)

The soundtrack was mixed at United Sound in Sydney by the legendary Peter “Fingers” Fenton.

During the shoot Gil came under pressure from Greater Union, the distributor and major investor, to change the name from Manganinnie to something they considered more commercial. This became impossible when Beth objected. Gil says that when Greater Union heard about possible legal action their interest in promoting the movie waned, and it only lasted in Melbourne and Sydney cinemas for three weeks.

In Tasmania it ran in cinemas for many weeks to packed houses. It struck a chord outside Australia too, won many awards, and became an international festival favourite for decades, copyright and prints administered lovingly by the Tasmanian State Archives office.

In my biased opinion it remains fresh to this day, and in some ways has become more timely. In 2007 the National Film and Sound Archive in association with Kodak/Atlab restored the print material, as one of 50 important Australian colour features.

In 2011 Wide Angle, a Hobart screen-support organisation, arranged screenings of Manganinnie, Roger Scholes’ The Tale of Ruby Rose, and Richard Flanagan’s The Sound of One Hand Clapping. Greg Lehman, a Tasmanian Aboriginal academic who was writing a PhD thesis on the visual representation of Tasmanian Aborigines, offered to come to the Manganinnie screening and speak about the importance of the movie to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.

When the screening finished Greg had to wait ten minutes to control his emotions. He hadn’t seen it since its original release, when he was a teenager. When able to speak he said that Manganinnie was the first time he’d seen his ancestors portrayed as real human beings, capable of love, laughter, intelligent conversation, and deep human feeling, as opposed to the anthropological curiosities the first Tasmanians are so often represented as being. I was deeply touched. And now that Umbrella Entertainment is releasing Manganinnie on DVD in December this year, I’m hopeful it will find a new generation of audience, which will prolong its life even further.

About The Author

John Honey was born in Launceston and his media career started with ABC television in Hobart. In 1978 he joined the Tasmanian Film Corporation and in 1979-80 directed the acclaimed feature film Manganinnie. He moved to the USA in 1989 and produced, wrote and directed more than 60 television documentaries, and co-established the Wingspan cable television channel. After returning to Hobart in 1999, he was awarded the Centenary of Federation Medal for outstanding service to Australian film and television in 2001. He was on the original writing team of the television series McLeod’s Daughters and has written three novels: Paint, Threatened Species and Strings. Recently he has collaborated with composer Don Kay on two song cycles, and written the libretto for Don’s three act opera “The Bushranger’s Lover”. He is currently developing a feature screenplay for a Melbourne production company and working on a new novel.