Here are two films that come close to the core of modern understanding of Aboriginal culture in Australia. The first of them can be found among the films of  David Gulpilil

Ten Canoes  (2006)

Written, produced, and directed by Rolf de Heer in collaboration with the indigenous people of Ramingining in Arnhem Land, this project arose from discussions between the director and David Gulpilil.  These two had worked together on The Tracker and felt a need to take Australian film deeper into the Aboriginal experience.  Gulpilil was inspired by an archive of 1930s photographs by a European anthropologist.  Just before shooting was to begin, Gulpilil left the project under mysterious circumstances (no explanation is given in any of the Special Features interviews).  Jamie Gulpilil, David’s son, plays a lead role.  This is an Australian Iliad.  Narrated by the elder Gulpilil, it is framed in the oral tradition and offered as a legend of the ancestors of present-day Aborigines who are rapidly losing their culture.  The action follows a young man who covets the wife of an older warrior and is told this tale as a way of cautioning him against impatience.  Like the Iliad, the drama is precipitated by the abduction of a woman and the determination of opposing groups of men to seek redress.  The husband mistakenly kills a man he thinks participated in the abduction and then must engage in a ritual battle allowing the brother of the man to have revenge.  A painted sorcerer is called to heal the wounded man but to no avail.  In the end he does a dance of death by a fire and dies.  The woman that Jamie loves would be the ultimate Helen figure but she remains elusive.  The telling of this tale is awkward and slow-paced at first but it picks up momentum as things go along.  More importantly, it is deeply evocative of a lost time.

There is an interesting Making Of film in the Special Features on the DVD, where the unique difficulties of filming in collaboration with the Aborigines are documented.  They are committed to making this film as a statement of the value of their disappearing culture but the demands of Western filmmaking are strange and unnatural to them.  Oddly, they are particularly sensitive to the demand for them to be naked throughout the filming, even in front of women.  There is an interview with the primary Aboriginal collaborator who has difficulty expressing his thoughts but is at pains to underscore the need to create understanding and appreciation for his culture.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith  (1978)

Based on a novel taken from “real events in Australia at the turn of the century,” it follows the adventures of a fine looking Aboriginal boy.  Opening with scenes of natural aboriginal life dissolve quickly into them demoralize life of aboriginal settlement.. Jimmie has been taken in by a missionary couple and hopes to make them proud.  When he goes off to seek his fortune, he gets a job on a farm building long stretches of wooden fence.  He endures the usual forms of racial prejudice for this time and place, and moves from place to place.  His younger brother comes to join him.  His eye is caught by a white girl who works on one of the farms and he marries her with a minimum of disapproval.  She bears a child of pure white, and it seems to be not his.  Still, they stay together and are joined by others of Jimmie’s clan. The white landowners resent this gathering and deny them credit at the grocery store.

Tensions grow and Jimmy goes with a cohort to the home of his patron and kills several of his daughters with axes.  In his mind, he is avenging more than a century of white abuse and appropriation of his land. He takes his wife and some of the others and escapes into the bush.  He continues his murderous rampage. Each side thinks of the other as deserving of vengeance. An older member of the clan is captured and convicted of murder.  Jimmie and his brother invade the house of a rural schoolteacher and take him hostage.  He is in poor health but sympathetic to the resentment the boys feel about the destruction of their culture.  He says that a quarter of a million Aborigines have been killed. They push further out into the wilderness, learning the ways of survival and finding desecration of sacred sites.  Jimmie runs off and leaves his brother and the teacher alone.  The brother carries the ailing teacher to safety and returns to the bush where he paints his face white and performs ancient chants.  He is shot dead by a search party.  Jimmie is still on the run and has been shot in the face.  He breaks into a convent and falls asleep in an empty bedroom.  When he is discovered, the authorities are called and he is carried away to jail.  He is transferred to what looks like the Melbourne Gaol and preparations are made for his hanging.

This is a movie that aired both sides of the story and achieved no popularity with either faction. It confirms the Aborigines as bloody savages and the whites as brutal dominators. This is the Spartacus motif: the revolt of the slaves against their masters. All that can be done is to move beyond the paradigm. The film was met with initial critical enthusiasm but soon faded into neglect causing the director to become disillusioned and move to Hollywood.

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