Abstract
Since her traineeship with the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association in 1988, Rachel Perkins has become an iconic figure of Australian Indigenous film and television. This article examines Perkins’ use of modes and genres to re-articulate Australian identities through an Indigenous lens. Six case studies of Perkins’ and her production company Blackfella Films’ work exemplify the patterns and techniques employed by Perkins to decolonise “the Australian story” and invite broader Australian audiences to embody an Indigenous perspective. By working through Perkins’ major works chronologically, from Radiance (1998), One Night the Moon (1999), First Australians (2008), Bran Nue Dae (2009) and Mabo (2012), to her most recent Redfern Now (2012), the complexity and diversity of Perkins’ work becomes apparent, and her significance as a filmmaker explicit. Though her works span styles and formats, throughout all of her films, Perkins creates a dialogue between Indigenous, old settler and more recent migrant peoples, allowing her to reach broad and diverse audiences. Whilst representation of Indigenous identities is constantly evolving, Perkins’ body of work stands as a significant bearer of historical change between 1992 and 2012, and works towards bringing a fuller version of Australian stories to the screen. As such, a study of her work as it currently stands is valuable in capturing her films in relation to its contemporary political context.

I’ve been brought up in my personal life and also through my groundwork at CAAMA, to have a responsibility, [… a] personal responsibility to make films or to use media as a vehicle to tell my people’s story and to create change, and that’s essentially what drives, to date, my work. (1)

The vehicle for Rachel Perkins’ project of creating change – by re-articulating Australian history and culture from Indigenous perspectives – has been her production company, Blackfella Films. Critical acclaim and industry awards for Blackfella Films reached a high-water mark with the archival series First Australians (Rachel Perkins and Beck Cole, 2008), the documentary The Tall Man (Tony Krawitz, 2011), the telemovie biopic Mabo (Rachel Perkins, 2012), and the television drama series Redfern Now (prod. Darren Dale and Miranda Dear, 2012, 2013). These productions from Blackfella Films are part of a critical mass of Indigenous filmmaking set in motion in the 1970s, the decade when a renaissance in Australian cinema, theatre, and the arts was underpinned by cultural nationalism. In the slipstream of this renaissance, Indigenous film training and production built slowly in the 1980s-90s, gathered strength during the 2000s and reached a critical mass, known as the Blak Wave, around 2009 (2). 

Perkins has been a central figure in the long process of development that has given rise to the Blak Wave, taking multiple roles as writer, producer, director and boardroom activist. The daughter of a prominent Aboriginal activist and public servant, Charlie Perkins, Perkins grew up mostly in Canberra, the nation’s isolated capital city. In 1988, an interview for a job as a television presenter with the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) gave 18-year-old Perkins the chance to return to Arrernte country, her father and grandmother’s traditional land, and the symbolic heart of Australia. However, instead of an onscreen role, Perkins was offered a traineeship with CAAMA’s newly licensed Imparja Television station, the first Aboriginal controlled, commercial satellite broadcaster in the world (3). At Imparja Television, alongside her peers, Perkins learned on-the-job, doing a bit of everything until, by the end of her traineeship, her focus had become producing and directing, in close collaboration with “good mates”. At Imparja Television, Perkins worked on two kinds of programs: those that preserved and promoted traditional Aboriginal languages, ceremonies and bush skills; and those that covered current issues such as land rights, legal rights, protests, alcohol and health. At the end of her traineeship in 1991, Perkins moved to Sydney, Gadigal country and, despite her youthful inexperience, was appointed the first Executive Director of the Aboriginal Unit at SBS (the multicultural public broadcaster). In 1992 she set up Blackfella Films, which eventually found a space for itself on a wharf in Sydney Harbour’s Woolloomooloo, alongside other arts organisations including Sydney Theatre Company and Bangarra Dance Theatre. The move to Sydney enabled Perkins to connect with a network of emerging Indigenous artists, including Michael Riley, as well as independent filmmakers such as Ned Lander and Trevor Graham, whose political ethos had been developed and sustained in the 1970s and 1980s by the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op. Working closely with Lander and Graham, Perkins produced the four-part documentary series Blood Brothers (1993) for SBS Television, writing and directing the episode “Freedom Ride”. This project kindled her love of archival footage as a way of remembering and retelling Australian history from Aboriginal perspectives, laying the foundations for future archival and historical projects. It also allowed her to delve into the role that her father played in desegregating Australian society in the late 1960s:

I just felt with Freedom Ride that it was important that people understood that we had a segregated society that was entrenched across the country until the late 1970s. And that… here was a bunch of students who tried to change that, and in fact did change that to some degree, and that we should know about this part of our history. Because all my friends knew about South Africa, they knew about apartheid, but they didn’t know about apartheid – our version in Australia. […] And of course I had access to my father, Charlie Perkins, who was one of the members of the Freedom Ride. (4)

Blood Brothers

Blood Brothers

A consistent pattern of timely arrival and learning on-the-job in collaboration with others – underpinned by the need to deepen and communicate her knowledge of Australia’s Indigenous history and culture – has made Perkins the pre-eminent independent filmmaker of her generation. For some, this accolade might seem premature, given that Perkins was born in 1970 and is barely “mid-career”. But in a national industry where filmmakers struggle to make a second feature film, Perkins stands out, not only for her impressive screenography but also for the pivotal role she has played in decolonising Australian film and television (5). In Kuan-Hsing Chen’s words, decolonisation refers to “action in subjectivity, thought, cultural forms of expression, social institutions, and global political-economic structures”, and it involves “an ethical positionality” beyond both colonial racism and postcolonial multiculturalism (6). As Deborah Bird Rose says, the dialogical process of “decolonising modern settler societies is a new phenomenon” involving “Indigenous, ‘old’ settler and recent migrant peoples who share the here and now of our homelands” (7). If decolonisation can be understood as an ethical project involving transformations in subjectivity, cultural forms and institutions, then Perkins has made a major contribution to all three aspects of this project through a potent mix of cross-cultural affiliations, a homemade or vernacular aesthetic, and a long commitment to boardroom activism.

In what follows, I focus on the modes and genres adopted by Perkins in order to realise her vocation “to tell my people’s story and to create change” (8). In her first two feature films Perkins experimented with theatrical melodrama (Radiance, 1998) and musical performance (One Night the Moon, 2001), both films evoking the traumatic afterlife of colonialism for Indigenous and settler Australians. The archival documentary series First Australians, the musical Bran Nue Dae (2009) and the television biopic Mabo mark a shift away from traumatic remembering towards documentary and entertainment genres which highlight cross-cultural affiliations and friendships. In the most recent, award-winning production by Blackfella Films, the television series Redfern Now, Perkins has shifted her focus to the present, to empathetic and immersive storytelling, bringing her collaborative ethos and boardroom activism to the television/DVD drama series.

 “we had a lot of fun burning the house down”

When the Australian Film Commission set up its Indigenous Branch in the early 1990s, Perkins got involved in a training scheme that enabled a shift from documentary to drama, not only for Perkins as producer of Warwick Thornton’s short film Payback, but for community-based Indigenous filmmakers whose six short films made up the package From Sand to Celluloid (1996). Around that time, Perkins saw a friend from her CAAMA days, Trisha Morton-Thomas, perform a segment of Louis Nowra’s stage play Radiance at Eora College. Perkins was inspired to read the play, and called Nowra to propose a short film. The result was the 1998 feature Radiance, which launched the screen career of Deborah Mailman and gave Thornton his first feature film credit as director of photography. It also brought performers Rachel Maza and Morton-Thomas to a wider audience. As novices working on their first low-budget independent feature film, Perkins, Thornton and the three actors went into the project “blind”: “None of us knew what we were doing. All blackfellas. The third feature to be made in Australia by an Indigenous person. Very exciting.” (9) At each stage of the process, Perkins was learning her craft, in close collaboration with cast and crew. The development of her craft included the unenviable task of casting from a tiny pool of Indigenous actors, most of whom were “really close friends”: for instance, while Trisha Morton-Thomas was always certain the role of Mae was hers, Perkins went round and round in casting circles before arriving at the same conclusion (10).

Radiance

Radiance

As a low-budget filmmaker, working on Indigenous projects that were considered by the industry to have only marginal box office potential, Perkins compensated for a lack of money and experience with a long rehearsal period for Radiance:

Since then… I’ve always believed in the rehearsal process as being a really important part of developing the script, getting the best out of your cast. You know, basically stealing all their ideas, putting them into the script, and getting as prepared as you can to go on set. (11)

The experience of working on Radiance was foundational for Perkins’ directorial style. It reinforced her commitment to learning her craft as a process of creative collaboration. What she remembers most about Radiance is the fun they had on set, getting “wild” with her “mate” Thornton as DOP and getting over it, and the love she still has for the people she worked with on the film. She also discovered that the editing stage – after the difficulty of writing, and the adrenaline high of the shoot – is what she enjoys most: “it’s where the creative process, in a way, really kicks in for me because you’ve got all this material, and it could go almost in any direction… and often it does for me” (12).

The defining elements of Perkins’ style emerged in Radiance: adapting and translating character, mood and story from one medium to another; enfolding layers of the past into landscape and setting; transforming everyday or vernacular places (houses, churches, pubs, roads) into spaces of performance; drawing characters back to the place they most want to flee; interspersing performative highlights with low-key action or reflective stillness. In Radiance, these elements come together in the rundown weatherboard house slumped on its stilts, half-hidden in the Queensland canefields, within view of the Pacific Ocean. The grandmother’s island, visible from the verandah, references colonial dispossession: now a tourist resort, Nora Island functions as a phantasm, the lost origin and backstory of the present-day family melodrama.

The theatrical origin of Radiance in Nowra’s stage play is evident in the confined space of the family home where three estranged daughters (Deborah Mailman as Nona, Rachel Maza as Cressy and Trisha Morton-Thomas as Mae) gather to bury their mother. Through a series of performative moments – many of them played for laughs – a traumatic mode of remembering unfolds. In this mode of dismembering, the origins of the half-sisters in dispossession, racism and sexual violence are too painful to be either fully remembered or safely forgotten (13). While the comic mode undercuts the melodrama of their situation (notably in Mailman’s extravagant parody of Madama Butterfly’s death-by-aria), only by “burning the house down” can they flush out false memories, scatter their mother’s ashes, and drive away, united by histories not quite their own.

One Night the Moon

One Night the Moon

The entrapped repetition of traumatic remembering is also brought into play in One Night the Moon through home, landscape and performance. The film’s experimental mode is based on the ballad, an oral form of storytelling in short stanzas. When Perkins heard a cassette recording of the song “This Land is Mine”, she knew she wanted to work with the musicians and songwriters who devised the film. The initial idea for the film came from musician Mairead Hannah, who had seen Michael Riley’s documentary Blacktracker (1996) on television. Blacktracker is about Riley’s grandfather, a Dubbo police sergeant with a long and successful career who was excluded by racism from searching for a lost child, only to find the remains of the child, much too late. Coming on board to direct the project in 1999, Perkins embraced the songs as a distinctive way of narrating this story of missed opportunity.”

[W]e had a suite of songs to work to, and the songs then determined the rhythm of a scene, and the action of a scene. And the musicians, Paul Kelly, Kev Carmody and Mairead Hannah, were all part of the creative process. We wrote the script together and we stripped back a lot of the dialogue, so that the music really told the story. (14)

The commentary track on the DVD of One Night the Moon makes clear that the cast and crew were also essential to the creative process, especially Kaarin Fairfax (the mother), Kelton Pell (the tracker), and the director of photography, Kim Batterham. A low-budget film shot on location in the Flinders Ranges, One Night the Moon foregrounded the rocky, desert landscape, emphasising its ominous beauty and its disputed status as land. The refrain, “This land is mine”, sung by the settler (Paul Kelly), and the response, “This land is me”, sung by the tracker, foregrounds the most profound cultural difference between Indigenous and settler Australians. Although the story is set in 1932, the song references the land rights struggle of the 1970s and 1980s, the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision recognising native title, and 1996 legislation limiting native title. This sombre ballad-film rearticulates Riley’s documentary image of the 20th century Aboriginal police sergeant in Blacktracker. Both films work to undermine the pervasive colonial trope of the “primitive” but magically empowered “black tracker” (15). For Perkins, the gap between Indigenous culture and colonial mentality is epitomised in her mise en scène, specifically in the difference between the homeliness of the tracker’s hut and the strange emptiness and isolation of the settler homestead.

[The first is] a very natural looking hut, it’s home-made, it’s made out of the environment around it. It fits in with the environment around it: it’s small and poor, but homely. And says that the tracker and his wife are connected to the landscape… Whereas when you go to the father and mother’s house… it’s plonked in the middle of this empty, barren plain with a fence around it, and doesn’t really integrate with the environment at all. It’s trying to tame it rather than be a part of it. Which says something about the father’s character. (16)

Perkins’ “home-made” or vernacular aesthetic is evident in the way her films transform the realism of ordinary, everyday places into affective-performative spaces. At the settler homestead in One Night the Moon, the kitchen table, the child’s bed, the bathtub, the front verandah, the clothesline and the vegetable garden serve as stages, pared back for performance. In these unadorned spaces, each song, each mood, arises from and expands into the emptiness of the homestead. In contrast, the warm interior of the tracker’s hut is a crowded gathering place for an otherwise “invisible” Aboriginal community (17). The difference between the two houses expresses, for Perkins, the film’s central drama: the tragic failure of settlers to recognise and learn from the accumulated knowledge of Aboriginal people. When despair and desperation lead the mother to the tracker’s door, she steps outside the settler mentality and, eventually, is joined by the tracker and his wife (Ruby Hunter), around her daughter’s grave. For a moment at least, the two communities stand side by side, taking comfort from Hunter’s inimitable rendition of the Christian hymn “Breathe on Me”. The father, however, is caught in the traumatic space of repetition, unable to live with his tragic failure to accept the tracker’s knowledge and humanity. This failure of recognition is expressed in the father’s poignant opening song, repeated near the end of the film just before he shoots himself: “I drove all kindness from my door… I don’t have anything, anymore… I don’t know anything, anymore.”

“put on the planet to do this project”

First Australians

First Australians

In One Night the Moon, the father’s decision to take his own life, rather than follow his wife’s path to the tracker’s door, appears inexplicable, not only self-destructive but senseless. In the archival documentary series First Australians (2008), Perkins, in collaboration with director/writer Beck Cole, and writer Louis Nowra, document and try to make sense of the repeated failure of settlers to recognise and learn from Indigenous people. The seven-part series was initiated by SBS Television after viewer feedback on the US documentary series 500 Nations (1995) asked why there was no equivalent series about Australia’s First Nations. When the General Manager of SBS Television, Nigel Milan, asked Gordon Briscoe what SBS could do for Indigenous people, Briscoe replied, “Give my people back their history… because that has been taken from them” (18). In 2002, Milan approached Perkins with “quite a whack of money” to make the series under the umbrella of Blackfella Films. Again, Perkins stepped up to a major challenge that would stretch her capacity, and sought expert advice.

We had a pivotal meeting with an American filmmaker called Ken Burns, who had made the Civil War Series which also screened on SBS […] he thought the most compelling way to make a series, such as the one we were doing, was through individuals. […] He also suggested that we take a chronological approach because it was a natural way of story telling. […] It seems like a basic piece of advice, but it really galvanised our direction. (19)

For Perkins, the overwhelming task was to retell 200 years of Australian history using the archives of settler Australia. Waiting in these archives were the voices and images of individuals who could tell the story of colonisation and nation-building from the point of view of the First Australians:

In the early period, there are only a few voices and then we get more and more. The common threads are loss of people, loss of land and more frequently, as the grip of the government administration tightens around the people, we hear about their call for independence and their statement of independence. (20)

For Perkins, finding those voices in the written records and recording them with actors, including Kelton Pell, Ernie Dingo and Ursula Yovich, was to hear Indigenous voices “come out of the archives and come alive”. The documentary record of relations between Indigenous and settler Australians since 1788 was a revelation to Perkins: she remembers feeling she had been “put on the planet to do this project” (21). The scale of the project tested and extended Perkins: her ambition was not only to change the way a new generation would see Australian history, it was to see the nation mature by taking on a “fuller version of the Australian story” (22).

[W]hen you get into the primary sources, you really get to understand that Indigenous people were there at every turning point of Australian history. We guided and saved explorers, we looked after and we also killed their sheep, we slept with them, we fenced their properties, we led them to gold, we worked on their ships, our wages financed their hospitals and roads, we lived in their houses, we fought against them, we fought side by side with them in the wars. Yet, we have been erased from the story of contemporary Australia and certainly from the building of Australia, as we know it today. (23)

The senseless erasure of Aboriginal people, their knowledge, intelligence and leadership, “from the building of Australia” is searingly presented in episode three, “Freedom for our Lifetime”. As Marcia Langton says towards the end of this award-winning episode, the history of Coranderrk Aboriginal reserve and its valiant leaders “is not taught… because it’s just too shameful”. How then did Perkins find a way to tell this story of the thwarting of an Aboriginal enterprise by an intransigent Aboriginal Protection Board in the colony of Victoria? The individuals she found in the archives and history books were the Aboriginal leaders Simon Wonga and his cousin William Barak. The episode shows how, from 1859 until their respective deaths, Wonga and Barak negotiated and campaigned tirelessly for the freedom and independence of the decimated Aboriginal clans who had lost their land, culture and livelihood as a result of the swift onslaught of colonialism in the 1830s. Frustrated by the paternalistic Protection Board, in 1863 Wonga took his cue from settlers and “selected” a parcel of land at Coranderrk so that his surviving people might adapt to and prosper in the new world through farming. While the Protection Board is portrayed as intolerant of even the smallest gains by the Coranderrk leaders, Perkins shows that Wonga and Barak did have a few good friends in the settler community, from the Scottish missionary John Green, and his wife Mary, to the Melbourne landowner Annie Bon, who had the ear of Premier Berry. While honouring these cross-cultural friendships, Perkins does not shy away from their inadequacies and failures. From a mosaic of photographs, letters and voices, Perkins tells the story of Coranderrk in a way that allows present-day viewers not only to understand but also to feel the deep injustices conducted in the name of “protection”. The episode shows how, time and again, initiatives taken by Aboriginal people were repeatedly thwarted by the colonial administration, to the long-term detriment of both Indigenous and settler communities. The rationale for this senseless destruction is attributed by the series to the self-interested applications of the Darwinian ideology of natural selection and survival of the fittest. By this measure, for Perkins, the survival and increase of Aboriginal people in Victoria, against all odds, provides a fitting end to the Coranderrk story.

you realise how precious film is, how it captures a moment in time”

Bran Nue Day

Bran Nue Day

If First Australians demonstrates the capacity of archival documentary to convey the tragic failures, fraught friendships and missed opportunities of Australian history, Perkins’ next projects, the musical Bran Nue Dae (2009) and the courtroom-biopic Mabo (2012), demonstrate the value of popular entertainment genres to the project of telling “the full Australian story” to a wider audience. In the telemovie Mabo Perkins retells the story of Koiki “Eddie” Mabo (Jimi Bani) and his wife Bonita (Deborah Mailman) in the context of the High Court case that bears the Mabo name – a David and Goliath story covered many times by the national media and by documentary filmmakers, including Perkins herself in the final episode of First Australians (24). Why then retell this story as a period biopic and a contemporary courtroom drama? For Perkins, film is “a powerful affective force” which takes you into people’s homes and their lives. While documentary engages and educates people, “drama has a great ability to affect people emotionally and to give them a human, intimate understanding of what happened” (25). Retelling the Mabo story to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 High Court decision abolishing terra nullius, Perkins explicitly aimed to put Koiki “Eddie” Mabo on a pedestal, to turn him into a national icon, to tell a story all Australians could be proud of. She also wanted to highlight the role of his wife and family in the Mabo story. Acknowledging the fact that she was putting their lives on screen, Perkins brought Bonita Mabo and her family into the filmmaking process (26). This inclusive and consultative approach derives from Indigenous protocols for filmmakers, and is fundamental to Perkins’ perception of her role as a filmmaker.

Scripted by veteran television writer Sue Smith, Mabo adopts the story template of the romance quest, or what the industry now calls “the hero’s journey”. According to this template, an errant but good-hearted young man, Koiki, exiled from his island home, finds his way in the world and meets a refined young woman, Bonita. After an awkward start, he wins her love and the acceptance of her family. Embarking on a life together, Koiki and Bonita face many trials and injustices. They join the wider struggle for their people’s rights in the corrupt state of Queensland, but Koiki never gives up the memory of his hereditary land on Mer Island. Working as a gardener at the aptly named James Cook University, he is taken up by a pair of academics who recognise his special gifts. Destiny finally calls when Koiki finds himself perfectly placed to become the chief plaintiff in a bid to overthrow the unjust “law of the land” and secure his inheritance. However, his true identity is misrecognised by the court and he is forced to sacrifice his own claim for the greater good of the Meriam people. Tragically, this prince of a man will not live to hear the decision of the High Court which recognises native title not only over Koiki’s island but also across mainland Australia. His untimely death opens the way for his adored wife and beloved son to bear witness to his heroic struggle, and to hear his name resound across the land.

Over the course of the film, the mise en scène transforms from storybook pictorialism to Australian naturalism. In the climactic sequence, the courtroom setting for delivery of the long-awaited High Court decision is intercut with a roadside caravan where, over a welcome cup of tea, Bonita, her son and their genial hosts hear the news of the plaintiffs’ High Court victory on a transistor radio, balanced on a yellow Esky. While the proclamation flashes around the nation, the wife and son of the posthumous hero head off in their station wagon, displaying the handwritten signs “We Won!” and “Mabo Family”. On the road, passing motorists share their joy, honking their horns and giving them the thumbs up, while on the soundtrack we hear Prime Minister Paul Keating welcome the decision as “a historic turning point”. The romance quest ends, fittingly, with archival footage of the return home of the newly recognised hero, his body laid to rest in his traditional land, from which he has been for so long exiled. These closing scenes – criss-crossing genres and celebrating the solemn language of the High Court judgement, the Australian vernacular, and a traditional Indigenous ceremony – are a succinct expression of Perkins’ aesthetic sensibility and her decolonising ethic which embraces familiar and strange others.

“it makes you feel happy and proud to be a blackfella”

After six years working on First Australians, it is not hard to imagine why, in 2009, Perkins embarked on the adaptation to film of Jimmy Chi’s 1990s stage musical hit Bran Nue Dae. In her first feature, Radiance, Perkins’ eye for place and performance meshed with the provocative voice of playwright Louis Nowra. In One Night the Moon, Perkins added her talents to those of the musicians who initiated the project. In Bran Nue Dae, Perkins went west to Perth and north to the remote Kimberleys to work closely with a large ensemble cast on the much-anticipated film of a much-loved stage musical – seen by 200,000 people when it toured the country in 1990 and 1993. The filming of Bran Nue Dae, then, can be seen as a heritage project, passing onto future generations a stage show that has passed into cultural memory.

In Bran Nue Dae, the desire to communicate a political and cultural legacy across generations to family audiences is evident in the lightness of its touch, the dry humour and the pathos of the storytelling. Set in Western Australia in 1969, the colonial and missionary pasts are never far away, even as the counterculture enters the story in a hippy Kombi van. The classic colonial image of Aboriginal men in neck chains literally haunts the present in the song “Listen to the News”, just as the memory of the 1990 stage show breaks into the film through the music and lyrics of Jimmy Chi and the Kuckles. Constructing the church, the pub, the classroom, the jail cell, and the kitchen table as spaces of impromptu performance, Perkins repackages Bran Nue Dae as both a road movie and a communal sing-along-film, with cross-cultural and cross-generational appeal. She targets the youth audience by casting newcomer and local boy Rocky McKenzie, and Australian Idol discovery Jessica Mauboy, alongside singer/songwriter Missy Higgins and YouTube’s Chooky Dancers from Elcho Island off Arnhem Land. Perkins broadens the appeal of the film even further by casting veteran Indigenous actors Ningali Lawford-Wolf, Ernie Dingo and Deborah Mailman, alongside international star Geoffrey Rush, and popular television comedian Magda Szubanski. The song-and-dance finale epitomises Perkins’ vernacular style and inclusive, decolonising ethos: shots of disparate communities converge in the toe-tapping anthem Nothing I Would Rather Be: “There’s nothing I would rather be, than to be an Aborigine, and watch you take my land away”. The sting in the tail of this anthem is no obstacle to the cross-cultural cast and crew joining in, because, as Uncle Tadpole (Dingo) magnanimously declares, “Today, everyone is an Aborigine!”

Although Perkins is best-known as a feature filmmaker, her training ground and natural milieu is television, even more so after the success of Mabo and the Logie-winning drama series Redfern Now, both broadcast on ABC Television in 2012 (with series two of Redfern Now broadcast in late 2013). Widely recognised as the first “fully Indigenous” television drama series produced in Australia, Redfern Now represents the grassroots culmination of the boardroom activism to which Perkins has given so much of her time over the past 20 years.

Policy means opportunities, and if you don’t have good policy at a senior government level, then you don’t get the outcomes at a grassroots level, and I’ve seen the way those things connect. And that’s why I get on all these boards. (27)

Good policy outcomes can be seen in the nexus between Blackfella Films (Rachel Perkins, Darren Dale and Miranda Dear), Sally Riley from the Indigenous branch at ABC Television and Erica Glynn from the Indigenous department at Screen Australia. On Redfern Now, this enterprising group of producers brought together their networks of Indigenous writers, actors and directors whose talents, more often than not, have been nurtured by policies implemented by a range of broadcasting and screen funding bodies (28). As the series title suggests, Redfern Now is focused on the urban present. Each episode takes the audience across a threshold into the home of a Redfern family where an everyday situation quickly escalates into a crisis, requiring ethical choices to be made. In the first series, Perkins directed two episodes of Redfern Now: the coming-of-age story “Stand Up”, and the death-in-custody story “Pretty Boy Blue”. In the first, a schoolboy cannot quite bring himself to comply with the mandatory singing of the national anthem, “Advance Australia Fair”, at his upmarket, private school. Perkins is in her element with this material: events escalate in a crisp series of repetitions, with much left unspoken. The action oscillates between home and school, and the eventual impasse is resolved by an unforeseen act of non-violent solidarity between the school’s Indigenous students. Perkins, however, does not allow her young actors to grandstand, nor to triumph in a wilful way; rather, the students are quietly vulnerable as they feel their way through a difficult set of choices while the adults around them go head-to-head. In “Pretty Boy Blue”, Perkins had to feel her way through a contentious and potentially explosive issue: the infamous “Redfern riot” that erupted in 2004 in response to the death of an Aboriginal youth during a police chase. The focus of “Pretty Boy Blue” is not the youthful rioters but the middle-aged Aboriginal police officer Aaron (Wayne Blair). Oscillating between home, the police station and the pub, with tensions building on the street, Aaron’s ethical dilemma is at the centre of the story. Perkins immerses the viewer in Aaron’s world, creating empathy for his silent, internalised struggle. In both episodes, viewers are aligned with a central character whose ethical obligations are delicately woven across the Aboriginal community and the institutions of the settler state. This alignment of viewers with a dual perspective is one of the mainstays of Perkins’ style. It amounts to a hospitable-assimilative strategy for decolonising settler subjectivity by inviting non-Indigenous viewers to adopt an Aboriginal vantage point. This open invitation to see the world through Aboriginal eyes underpins all her work (29). 

“our films will soon become old fashioned”

As a grassroots filmmaker whose purpose is to redress the erasure of her people from their rightful and necessary place at the very heart of “the Australian story”, Perkins has the measure of her own place in posterity. After viewing so much archival footage for First Australians, she looked back on those early films and thought, “Oh god, I can’t believe they did that… so old fashioned”. It made her realise that, in the future, “our work will be looked back on as very ethnographic and politically incorrect… and our films will soon become old fashioned” (30). However, looking back in time, Perkins sees that people like Essie Coffey, Lester Bostock and Bob Maza, “who fought for us to be in the position … to make these films… would also be satisfied that their work, or their dreams, had begun to be realized” (31). This unassuming capacity to see her own achievements as part of a much bigger project is evident in the dry humour and keen insight that Perkins brings to public discussions of her films and her boardroom activism.

By any measure, Perkins is a major force in Australian cinema, not only as a director and writer but also as an activist who is able to create change and take others with her. In her position as a successful filmmaker in a highly competitive industry, it would be hard not to fall prey to the tall poppy syndrome. What protects Perkins from this syndrome is her self-effacing, dialogical commitment to decolonising “the Australian story”. Rather than focus on Indigeneity as an identity to be recovered and reaffirmed through traditional culture, Perkins has taken a different path that involves a dialogue between Indigenous, old settler and recent migrant peoples. Her decolonising ethic and her vernacular aesthetic are exemplified in the archival footage of Aboriginal children joining the protest bus in Blood Brothers – “Freedom Ride”. The original footage was shot in the rural town of Moree in 1965: lively children run out of a row of houses and join the bus on its way to desegregate the town’s swimming pool. Re-used in Perkins’ 1993 documentary, the grainy, archival images of children’s faces looking out the bus windows are accompanied by the voiceover of activist Lyell Munro, remembering “one of the greatest days of my life as a young person”. He says, “we were singing the songs of the era”. The scene ends with an image of the dusty streets of Moree, shot from the moving bus, and the happy voices of Aboriginal children singing an Australian pop song about a faraway city beach: “Stomp, stomp, stomping at Maroubra … Everybody’s doing the Maroubra stomp.” (32)

If the Freedom Ride of 1965, together with the Maroubra stomp, marked the beginning of a new phase in the decolonising of Australia, then the documentary retelling of that story by Perkins in 1993 marked her entry into a decolonising dialogue defined by the intermeshing of Indigenous and non-Indigenous histories, stories, subjectivities and identities. But rather than adopt a postcolonial aesthetic (exemplified by Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil, 1993, and Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, 2001) (33), Perkins adopts the modes and genres supported by the nation’s film funding and broadcasting bodies. In her vernacular rather than postcolonial aesthetic, to borrow from Munro, Perkins is singing the songs of her era. They may “soon become old fashioned” and even “politically incorrect” but, in the longer term, it is more likely that they will remind future generations of  “how precious film is, how it captures a moment in time”. The moment in time captured by Blackfella Films spans two decades of historical change, beginning with the Mabo decision in 1992. Perkins has given voice to that change by bringing a much fuller version of the Australian story to the screen.

This article has been peer reviewed.

Endnotes

  1. See interview with Rachel Perkins, Australian Screen: http://aso.gov.au/people/Rachel_Perkins/interview/.
  2. This critical mass was initiated by the television drama series RAN: Remote Area Nurse (Chapman Pictures, prod. Penny Chapman, 2006), followed by The Circuit (Media World Pictures, prod. Ross Hutchens and Colin Smith, 2007; 2009), The Straits (Matchbox Pictures, prod. Penny Chapman and Helen Panckhurst, 2012) and two seasons of Redfern Now. Alongside these television series, a “Blak Wave” of feature films has emerged, featuring stories that emerge from within Aboriginal communities located across Australia. These films include Samson & Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009), Stone Bros. (Richard Frankland, 2009), Bran Nue Dae (Rachel Perkins, 2009), Mad Bastards (Brendan Fletcher, 2011), Here I Am (Beck Cole, 2011), Toomelah (Ivan Sen, 2011), The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012), Satellite Boy (Catriona McKenzie, 2013), Mystery Road (Ivan Sen, 2013) and The Darkside (Warwick Thornton, 2013).
  3. Imparja won its licence in 1986 and began broadcasting in 1988. For an account of the struggle to win the licence by CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) see Wendy Bell, A Remote Possibility: The Battle for Imparja Television, IAD Press, Alice Springs, 2008.
  4. Perkins, Australian Screen: http://aso.gov.au/people/Rachel_Perkins/interview/.
  5. For recent scholarship on decolonising screens in Australia and New Zealand, see the themed issue of Studies in Australasian Cinema vol. 7, no. 2-3, 2013.
  6. Kuan-Hsing Chen, “The Decolonization Effects”, Journal of Communication Inquiry vol. 21, no. 2, 1997, pp. 91-2.
  7. Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2004, p. 24.
  8. Perkins, Australian Screen: http://aso.gov.au/people/Rachel_Perkins/interview/.
  9. “Interview with Rachel Perkins”, Blak Wave collection, ACMI, 2009: http://generator.acmi.net.au/gallery/media/interview-rachel-perkins.
  10. Perkins, Australian Screen: http://aso.gov.au/people/Rachel_Perkins/interview/.
  11. Perkins, Australian Screen: http://aso.gov.au/people/Rachel_Perkins/interview/.
  12. Perkins, Australian Screen: http://aso.gov.au/people/Rachel_Perkins/interview/.
  13. On the cultural shift from storytelling to trauma’s obsessive re-telling and re-membering, see Thomas Elsaesser, “Subject Positions, Speaking Positions: From Holocaust, Our Hitler, and Heimat to Shoah and Schindler’s List”, The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event, ed. Vivian Sobchack, Routledge, New York, 1996, pp. 145-183.
  14. Perkins, Australian Screen: http://aso.gov.au/people/Rachel_Perkins/interview/.
  15. On the revision of colonial tropes of the black tracker and lost child in contemporary Australian cinema, see Felicity Collins and Therese Davis, “Disputing History, Remembering Country in Australian Cinema”, Australian Historical Studies vol. 37, no. 128, 2006, pp. 35-54.
  16. Rachel Perkins, DVD Commentary, One Night the Moon, Dendy Films, Sydney, 2001.
  17. Following protocol, Perkins included members of the Andyamathanha and Iga Worta communities and the Coulthard family in the making of One Night the Moon.
  18. Rachel Perkins, “Keynote Address – 2 Deadly: The 2006 ATSILIRN Conference”: http://aiatsis.gov.au/atsilirn/conferences/conf06/papers/Rachel%20Perkins.pdf.
  19. Perkins, “Keynote Address”: http://aiatsis.gov.au/atsilirn/conferences/conf06/papers/Rachel%20Perkins.pdf.
  20. Perkins, “Keynote Address”: http://aiatsis.gov.au/atsilirn/conferences/conf06/papers/Rachel%20Perkins.pdf.
  21. “Interview with Rachel Perkins”, ACMI: http://generator.acmi.net.au/gallery/media/interview-rachel-perkins.
  22. “Interview with Rachel Perkins”, ACMI: http://generator.acmi.net.au/gallery/media/interview-rachel-perkins.
  23. Perkins, “Keynote Address”: http://aiatsis.gov.au/atsilirn/conferences/conf06/papers/Rachel%20Perkins.pdf.
  24. Episode seven, “We Are No Longer Shadows” (directed by Rachel Perkins), of First Australians covers the Mabo case, and the life of Koiki “Eddie” Mabo, using archival footage and interviews. John Hughes’ After Mabo (1997) is a montage of media images of Indigenous resistance to Prime Minister Howard’s Ten Point Plan to undermine the High Court’s 1996 Wik decision that pastoral leases did not automatically extinguish native title. Trevor Graham’s film Mabo – Life of an Island Man (1997) is a documentary inspired by the desecration of Koiki “Eddie” Mabo’s headstone just after the traditional “tombstone opening” in 1995. In 1990 Graham had made Land Bilong Islanders, covering the claims of Mabo and his co-plaintiffs to native title, first lodged in 1982 but not resolved until the historic High Court decision of 1992.
  25. Rachel Perkins, “Directing Mabo”, ABC: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/mabo/videos/?play=mabo_webex_directing.mp4.
  26. Perkins, “Directing Mabo”: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/mabo/videos/?play=mabo_webex_directing.mp4.
  27. Perkins, Australian Screen: http://aso.gov.au/people/Rachel_Perkins/interview/.
  28. See Perkins, Australian Screen: http://aso.gov.au/people/Rachel_Perkins/interview/.
  29. On the hospitable-assimilative strategy for engaging spectators, see Felicity Collins, “Blackfella Films: Decolonising Urban Aboriginality in Redfern Now”, Studies in Australasian Cinema vol. 7, no. 2-3, 2013, pp. 215-225.
  30. “Interview with Rachel Perkins”: http://generator.acmi.net.au/gallery/media/interview-rachel-perkins.
  31. “Interview with Rachel Perkins”: http://generator.acmi.net.au/gallery/media/interview-rachel-perkins.
  32. See the clip from Blood Brothers ­– “Freedom Ride” at Australian Screen: http://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/freedom-ride-blood-brothers/clip3/.
  33. The deconstructive role of a postcolonial poetics in the films of Moffatt and Kunuk is explored in Corinn Columpar’s Unsettling Sights: The Fourth World on Film, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 2010, pp. 157-172.

Rachel Perkins Screenography (complied from the NFSA and australianscreen online):

2013 Redfern Now (TV Series) Season 2, Episode 2, “Starting Over” (Director)

2012 Redfern Now (TV Series) Season 1, Episode 4 “Stand Up” (Director); Season 1, Episode 6, “Pretty Boy Blue” (Director)

2012 Mabo (Telemovie) (Director)

2009 Bran Nue Dae (Feature) (Director, Writer)

2009 Lani’s Story (Short) (Producer)

2008 First Australians (TV Documentary Series) Episode 1, “They Have Come to Stay” (Producer, Director, Writer, Narrator); Episode 2, “Her Will to Survive” (Producer, Narrator); Episode 3, “Freedom For Our Lifetime” (Producer, Director, Writer, Narrator); Episode 4, “No Other Law” (Producer, Director, Writer, Narrator); Episode 5, “Unhealthy Government Experiment” (Producer, Narrator); Episode 6, “A Fair Deal For a Dark Race” (Producer, Narrator); Episode 7, “We Are No Longer Shadows” (Producer, Director, Writer, Narrator)

2003 Yeperenye Federation Festival: The Road Ahead Concert (Documentary) (Director)

2002 Yeperenye Federation Festival: Coming Together as One (Documentary) (Director)

2002 Flat (Short) (Producer)

2002 Mimi (Short) (Producer)

2001 One Night the Moon (Short Feature) (Director, Writer)

1999 National Indigenous Documentary Fund 3 (Documentary) 5 X 30 minutes (Executive Producer)

1998 Radiance (Feature) (Director)

1998 National Indigenous Documentary Fund 2 (Documentary) 5 X 30 minutes (Executive Producer)

1997 Songlines (TV Series) 9 X 30 minutes (Executive Producer)

1996 Crim TV (Documentary) (Producer, Director, Writer)

1996 National Indigenous Documentary Fund 1 (Documentary) 5 X 30 minutes (Executive Producer)

1996 From Sand to Celluloid: “Payback” (Short) (Line Producer)

1996 Goblin Market (Short) (Producer)

1995 Emily (Documentary) (Director)

1993 Blood Brothers (Documentary Series) “Freedom Ride” (Producer, Director, Writer); “Broken English” (Producer); “From Little Things Big Things Grow” (Producer); “Jardiwarnpa” (Producer)

1993 From Spirit to Spirit (Documentary) (Producer, Director, Writer)

1993 Manyu Wanna (Documentary) 10 X 30 minutes (Executive Producer)

1992 My Life as I Live It (Documentary) (Executive Producer)

1991 Travelling Walpiris (Documentary) (Associate Producer)

1991 Dance on Your Land (Documentary) (Associate Producer)

1990 Beat the Grog (TV Series) 9 X 5 minutes (Producer, Director)

1989 Anwerne Aretyeke (TV Series) weekly current affairs (Producer, Director)

About The Author

Felicity Collins teaches in Media: Screen + Sound in the School of Arts and Critical Enquiry at La Trobe University. She is the author of The Films of Gillian Armstrong and Australian Cinema After Mabo (with Therese Davis) and has published widely on history, memory and the politics of reconciliation in Australian cinema. She was chief investigator on the ARC Discovery project, Screen Comedy and the National, with Sue Turnbull and Susan Bye, and has recently edited a themed issue of Studies in Australasian Cinema on Decolonising Screens, with Jane Landman.