With the modern proliferation and commoditization of cinema and film culture, it can be easy to take for granted just how radical the artform can be. Whether it’s the capturing of the real world through the all-seeing eye of the camera lens or telling stories that exist beyond the confines of the viewer’s world, film is important. With Ablaze, the debut documentary from Tiriki Onus (co-directed by Hunt Angels’ Alec Morgan), that importance is brought into the larger conversation involving Indigenous Australian history, and where the two cultures bravely intersected.
As all good documentaries should, its genesis comes from a deeply personal need to learn more. Armed with a suitcase full of photos, Tiriki sets out across Australia to discover the story of the man who took them: William Onus, Aboriginal impresario, civil rights activist, and Tiriki’s grandfather.
Through the honorable but never outwardly doting perspective of Tiriki, William Onus’s career is framed as that of an inspired man with ambition to burn and a pointed understanding of the power of art. Kindled by a cinematic appropriation of his people’s cultures, Onus decided that these stories deserved to be told by the people who lived them.
Cries of keeping politics out of art tend to come from those whose environment, culture, and indeed their art, is already catered for by the mainstream consciousness. But for those whose work is acted against by political forces, from ASIO’s secret surveillance of Onus’s overseas work (footage of which is also included, becoming a duel of the film cameras), to an invitation by Walt Disney himself that government forces blocked from being accepted, the mere act of portraying that art becomes an inherently political display.
Splicing together those old photos, interview footage with historians and those who knew Onus personally, and many a film reel taken of the stageplays, films, and TV appearances from the man himself, editor Tony Stevens elevates each artistic practice to a level of equal importance, highlighting art as a powerful force for change.
As is the act of its preservation, onto film reels and canisters and now digital stock. “Pics or it didn’t happen”, so goes the ancient Internet adage, and as Tiriki’s own understanding of his grandfather blossoms like a cloud of black mist, the importance of that discovery becomes much clearer. The proliferation of a culture, as shared through the universal medium of film, is a means by which it can be kept alive; a way of peering back at the numerous attempts at cultural erasure by White Australians, and showing them that they failed to snuff the fire out.
Ablaze is a celluloid tether to the Dreamtime, stretching out to a man who fought long and hard to keep the cultural traditions of his people alive; to ensure that his work is never forgotten. With a reel of cellulose acetate (and its digital equivalent), it is possible to change the world.
Given the long and vexed (and unfinished) history of dispossession and myth making that is the colonial legacy, it is not surprising that it would take a complete reimagining to bring some balance back into the account. In fact, as multi-talented actor/writer/director Leah Purcell has done here, it requires a kind of reverse bias.
In her new sort of ‘outback Western’, she has taken a story by that most colonial writer Henry Lawson and turned it on its head. Purcell (best known perhaps for her many TV roles) plays the eponymous Molly Johnson, the Drover’s wife surviving in a log cabin with her clutch of scraggy little nippers in a dust-dry region of the high country. When an Aboriginal man called Yadaka (a brooding, handsome Rob Collins) arrives fleeing the law, Molly greets him as she does every stranger with her shotgun held high. Every fibre in the bush woman’s body is devoted to protecting her brood, but Yadaka gets on her good side, befriending and mentoring her young son Jimmy.
Meanwhile, in the struggling-to-be born local town, a Sergeant Klintoff (Sam Reid) arrives with his wife Louisa to take up the post of local sheriff. The rest of the film plays out the bloody logic and rough justice of the colonial era with no shortage of shootouts and sexual assaults.
Purcell has done a decent job directing and the wide open spaces are nicely contrasted to the claustrophobia of the way Molly’s life is hemmed in by the era’s gendered expectations. The acting is committed and the dialogue (also by Purcell) is fit for purpose. The story is simple and clear enough and doesn’t need much exposition.
As a proud Aboriginal person, Purcell is keen to foreground the racial injustice aspects as well as the nascent feminist agenda (although perhaps Louisa, the sheriff’s wife, is the least well-written role).
Whereas in Lawson’s settler perspective, the Indigenous are seen as lazy, devious or untrustworthy, here they are noble and wise. Purcell is clearly enjoying the role (she originated it on the stage) and she throws herself into it in every frame. The trope of the ‘vixen’ defending her cubs is familiar but still powerful (even the poster has Molly standing proud with her trusty gun very much to the fore).
Perhaps for some, there will be an element of a moral sledgehammer about the messaging. All the white men (with the possible exception of the confused well-meaning sheriff) are either pious hypocrites or deranged psychopathic rapists. The indigenous characters are persecuted, noble and caring. This shouldn’t detract from the robust storytelling and the heartfelt and righteous anger that had audiences cheering out loud at its premiere screening.
In this episode, Eden chats with Ivan Sen about becoming a screenwriter and director, learning special effects off Youtube, turning Mystery Road into a TV series and his newest film Loveland, starring Ryan Kwanten and Hugo Weaving, filmed in five locations in under thirty days.
Philippa Bateman’s poetically titled Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow is billed as a documentary but it could just as easily be classified as a music film, as the emphasis is very much on performances. It is a celebration of both Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter.
The two outstanding Aboriginal musicians were a couple, and the film celebrates that too. We hear how the young Ruby, when first catching sight of Archie playing, turned to her mum and said straight off ‘I am going to marry that man’. Sure enough, they got together and performed together off and on for the next few decades (Ruby passed away in 2010).
The feeling between them is a large part of the emotional pull of the film. Then of course there are the voices, deep and rich with a plangent quality expressing all the pain of loss and the soulfulness of connection to country.
In many ways it’s closer to Blues than Country and Western, at least in the work showcased here. As Archie tells us, he writes to get out there what is trapped deep inside of him and when it is out, he feels, finally, a sense of relief.
In these performances, his is the slightly stronger voice, but both of them are capable of spine-tingling moments. The offstage dynamic is funny. He deflects the senior role and defers to her as the final decision maker. She is a pint-sized matriarch with a floral hat and a cheeky grin.
Artists like this couldn’t have their ability to reach into our hearts unless they have actually lived the life. Both of them, like so many Aboriginal Australians, were profoundly affected by the Stolen Generation policies. In the live concert footage (the film alternates concert footage with studio rehearsals of the same songs), Ruby tearfully acknowledges her foster parents in the audience. Archie talks about the almost accidental origins of his all-time classic ‘They Took the Children Away’. He says that he had no idea that the song would go on to have the independent life that it does have. His live rendition of the song is one of the highlights of the film. He also shows his talent for a loosely-structured song with very few lyrics; riffing on a theme and playing with cadences in the way that the great Van Morrison does.
The film features the artists collaborating with the composer/conductor Paul Grabowsky, whose eccentric and sometimes cacophonous brass-accented orchestrations fill out the songs. At times, you feel that this shouldn’t work but he usually brings it off and the warmth between the singers and him and his players is lovely to behold.
It is a very simple film in some ways, but with music like this you don’t want to trick it up too much. It speaks for itself.