I’ve been catching up with Australian movies about our country’s villainous history. I’ve also been ploughing through the regulations and protocols for taxpayer-subsidised movie making. The two strands are of course connected. They affirm the adage, ‘You don’t want to know how a sausage gets made.’
To cite a few movies: Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) has been shoved at millions of schoolkids although it’s full of false material; The Tracker (2002) – manhunt for a fugitive Aboriginal; The Nightingale (2018) – colonial atrocities in Tassie featuring multiple rapes with bashings; The Secret River (2015) – ABC telemovie re-imagining early settlement as frontier war; Sweet Country (2017) by Aboriginal director Warwick Thornton – maniacal rape and another manhunt; Leah Purcell’s absurd agitprop The Drover’s Wife (2021), and the just-released Thornton/Blanchett film The New Boy – cop delivers stolen kid to mission in a sack.
The common element is the guilt-tripping. Aborigines are vilely insulted by colonial masters, their kids are torn from mothers’ arms (far more government grabbing of newborns actually occurs today) and all black women under 50 are routinely raped by white monsters.
In the first seconds of Sweet Country the dialogue goes
“What are you f*****g doing standing around? F*****g idiot, black bastard, f*****g black bastard”.
And race relations go downhill for the next two hours. As one review put it, “Extremely well done and depressing, which is presumably why not many people went to see it despite superb reviews.”
As depicted by the movie-makers, the movie Aborigines, prior to their customary martyrdom, are admirable, wise and occasionally Christ-like. If any do bad stuff, the movie explains why whites are actually to blame. If the Aborigines are really unlucky, they’re fed poisoned flour and/or butchered en masse.
In Secret River, a brute keeps his Aboriginal woman chained for easier raping and bashing, likens shooting an Aborigine to killing a dog, and dabbles in Aboriginal body parts. A settler silences the last survivor of a massacre, a crying baby, with a pistol shot. Review: Whilst these characters are fictitious they serve as a microcosm of a larger Australian history, and one that is steeped in blood and shame.
Secret River’s “history” is at twice-remove. Firstly, as Kate Grenville said about her source novel,
…my relationship to history has always been pretty much the same relationship the Goths had to Rome. History for a greedy novelist like me is just one more place to pillage. What we’re after, of course, is stories … Having found them, we then proceed to ﬁddle with them to make them the way we want them to be, rather than the way they really were. We get it wrong, wilfully and knowingly.
Then the movie-makers in turn plunder and amp-up the drama for their own didactic purposes.
Leah Purcell is a fine actress in both theatre and film, and her Drover’s Wife is well-made in all respects. But the plot has zero to do with Henry Lawson’s tender yarn about a bush mother’s overnight vigil against a hidden snake. Instead Purcell rubs my white nose in colonial evil while ticking the boxes of many politically-correct causes (although transsexual angst arrived too late to catch her bus).
Leah, playing the drover’s wife, is about to suffer a judicial lynching from a tree branch, having got there by a Les Mis-style tumbril pulled by two draught horses (atop this page). Her five supporters arrive wearing body-length aprons emblazoned, “Hear Her!”, “Legislate Women’s Rights Now!”, feminist symbols and something unreadable starting “Battered wives are…” I half expected a sixth to arrive wearing “Just Stop Oil” or “Tax the Rich”.
Purcell by projecting a domestic-violence theme onto early settlers is skating on thin ice. In today’s era Aboriginal women are admitted to hospital with violence injuries at a rate at least 34 times that of non-Aboriginal women. The cases involve punches, clubbings, kicks, strangling and stabbings, commonly involving head and even brain injuries. The celebrated Aboriginal film actor David Gulpilil was sentenced to 12 months jail in 2011 for breaking his wife’s arm, adding to a rapsheet of prior violence.
Colonial-era massacres certainly happened – including tribal warfare and paybacks. In Journey to Horseshoe Bend, anthropologist T.G.H. Strehlow described a black-on-black massacre in 1875 in the Finke River area of Central Australia that was triggered by a perceived sacrilege:
The warriors turned their murderous attention to the women and older children and either clubbed or speared them to death. Finally, according to the grim custom of warriors and avengers they broke the limbs of the infants, leaving them to die ‘natural deaths’. The final number of the dead could well have reached the high figure of 80 to 100 men, women and children.
The Tracker is a 1922 manhunt for an alleged murderer of a white woman. Fifteen minutes into the travels, the government-sponsored team creeps up on a laughing group of Aboriginal families and murders them, including one whom they hang. The vigilante remarks,
You have to be firm with the natives…The government supplies me with rifles, revolvers and ammunition in abundance, they expect me to use them.
When one member of the posse is injured by a spear, the vigilante wants to move on without him. Gulpilil, the tracker with Christ-like compassion refuses to depart, stoically suffering six lashes with a horsewhip and imminent execution by pistol.
Vigilante: “You will be flogged for that [refusal], you will probably hang.”
Gulpilil: “Poor blackfella, been born for that noose, hey?” 
Seventy minutes in, and the vigilante starts shooting more innocent families, saying, “They will give me a medal for it.” Disarmed and chained up, he snarls to the tracker, “They will flog you to the very edge of existence.” [In 1922?] That night the vigilante makes a speech worthy of any moustache-twirling villain in a Victorian-stage melodrama:
I once worked with a tracker I could rely on and trust, as a white man can be trusted — a full-blood like you, not one of those half-castes…
He says that favourite tracker was “a poor, degraded creature who could not serve Almighty God any better than serving himself”. And then there’s this: “I have seen that a black can be tractable and docile but you have to be firm and kind with them…” His pet tracker
…is a happy man, sitting on his porch: he asks, ‘When are you going to teach these other blacks a proper way of life?’ . And it hurts me to have to tell him, ‘Not yet, not yet’.
At this point the tracker hangs the vigilante, although I’d rather hang the scriptwriter.
On the return trip, the tracker and the novice find the vigilante’s body has disappeared from the tree, and tracker Gulpilil quips with his trademark irony , “Them blackfellows probably cooked him and ate him, you know, we are all cannibals.” A pause, and Gulpilil cackles at the shocked trooper. The film doesn’t explain the body’s disappearance. Maybe the scene was added purely to whitewash (or blackwash) the reality of early cannibalism as a myth.
Taxpayer-funded film bodies fell over themselves to get Tracker made. They included the Australian Film Commission and the 2002 Adelaide Festival of Arts, SBS, the SA Film Commission, the SA Government, Screenwest, WA Lotteries, and the Australian Film Finance Corporation.
Notwithstanding, Tracker made only $818,000 at the Australian box office ($1m in 2023 dollars). Another black-armbander, The Proposition, despite about 25 awards, made $2.3m on a $20m budget, which included $2m just to build an outback town. The Drover’s Wife made $1.9m, and Sweet Country $2m.
The main deviation from the narrative has been director Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah about an inarticulate teen couple out past Alice Springs, the lad addicted to petrol sniffing. Both get beaten-up by kinfolk, which Thornton, being himself Aboriginal, can get away with. The sub-text however suggests that the white community is somehow culpable.
The Nightingale’s convict horrors and serial sadism gutted the box-office and made only $544,000:
Critics and commentators used words like ‘not for the faint-hearted’ to describe The Nightingale’s shocking depictions of violence, but nothing can prepare viewers for the visceral charge of witnessing it. [Director Jennifer] Kent dares us to keep watching, as if to say: turning away from this means turning a blind eye to a long history of entrenched misogyny.
How has such movies’ pattern of unmitigated awfulness come about, all within the past 30 years? Earlier, the point of a film was not to get the white audience – especially schoolkids – writhing with self-loathing. Consider
♦ Jedda by Charles Chauvel (1955) is a nuanced story of how an Aboriginal waif, brought up on a station by loving white foster-parents, at puberty feels the pull of a tribal warrior Marbuk and comes to grief between the two cultures.
♦ Walkabout (1971) by Nicolas Roeg was a film of cultural misunderstandings, in an extravagantly implausible scenario but with no white-on-black nastiness.
♦ We of the Never Never (1982) focused on a pioneer bride (played by Angela Punch McGregor) on a million-acre station and her concerns for the Aboriginal workers and camp-families. Despite production problems, it grossed $9m in today’s dollars, nine times some of today’s guilt-trippers.
Historically, archives offer countless documentation of tribes, rather than being oppressed, “coming in” to stations and settlements for tobacco, flour and rations. They embraced a lifestyle far less arduous, especially during droughts, than chasing roos and digging for tubers.
In today’s filmography any missionary is likely to be a bigoted hypocrite, never mind the St John of God nuns, for example, who ran the Derby leprosarium during its lifetime from 1936 to 1986.
The greater part of the Sisters’ days, and, sometimes, nights, was occupied with managing and trying to ameliorate the multifarious and sometimes serious conditions and complications induced by the disease and the distressing and painful reactions many experienced to Hansen’s disease medication.
Twice daily, they spent hours attending to the routine clinical procedures: giving out medication for various purposes, washing and bandaging the patients’ lesions, paring ulcers, and applying or performing dental extractions. If amputations or other medical procedures were required, they assisted and then took care of the patient’s recovery. They also provided ante- and postnatal care and delivered and looked after the newborns.
Mission stations commonly sheltered pre-pubescent and pubescent girls from adults bent on tribe-sanctioned rape and abuse.
In the Tully area, a very young man would give his betrothed to an old man to sleep with her and train her for him. The idea was that the elder would ‘make the little child’s genitalia develop all the more speedily’. There was no restriction on age or social status at which the bride would be delivered up. As [anthropologist Walter] Roth observed, ‘It is of no uncommon occurrence to see an individual carrying on his shoulder his little child-wife who is perhaps too tired to toddle any further.
Missions educated and assimilated youngsters into jobs and trades, in contrast to the apparently permanent welfare-dependence, illiteracy and violence of today’s isolated communities.
Why will no movie ever be made about, say, the South Australian bullock-drivers criss-crossing the outback with hundreds of ration wagons weekly for depots in the late 19th century? The depots multiplied from about 30 in 1850 to more than 100 by 1900, ensuring clans’ survival in hard times. Some groups got extraordinary help:
From the 1860s onwards the Protector provided dozens, perhaps a hundred or more, fifteen-foot boats and smaller canoes, fishing gear and guns for hunting to people on the Murray and Coopers Creek waterways to help them “stay in their own districts”. Non-workers got the items and repairs free; working Aboriginals paid half costs.
Why will no movie ever be made, say, about the plight of Chinese gold prospectors inland from Cooktown in the 1870s, near defenceless against cannibals? Plenty of drama thereinvolving that under-represented minority:
Urquhart says his boys always told him the blacks did not like the taste of whites much—they were too salt [sic]—but that they relished Chinamen, hundreds of whom were killed while packing provisions across the Peninsula to the Palmer River goldfields [in Queensland] …. This fact was put down to the salt-beef diet of the early whites, while the Chinese lived more on rice. 
The black-armband films’ effect of children’s education is particularly bad. Teachers love putting dire films in front of classes, for ideological reasons and perhaps to catch an hour for their paperwork while the film runs. With their dramatic punch the films get straight to idealistic kids’ emotional lives, all the fictions morphing into “fact” or factual-equivalence. As one screed about Secret River goes,
It is absolutely uncompromising in its depiction of the kind of massacres upon which our nation was built. This is difficult to watch but it is a painfully accurate rendition of the truth intrinsic to countless similar massacres across the colonial frontier until well into the 20th century. (emphasis added)
No wonder youngsters emerge primed to promote the Voice, treaties, reparations, black privilege, all the Dark Emu nonsense and that welcome-to-country mumbo-jumbo invented circa 1976.
The Aboriginal movie monoculture arrived heralded by research urgings from Professor Marcia Langton. In a 1992 piece for the Australian Film Commission, she stressed the need to address racism through anti-colonial messaging by Aboriginal film-makers, aided by taxpayer funding. The Commission set up its internal Aboriginal unit in 1993, leading to $6m investment and 129 Aboriginal-directed projects in the next ten years.
As Linda Tuhiwai Smith described the new order, “It involves the unmasking and deconstruction of imperialism, and its aspect of colonialism, in its old and new formations alongside a search for sovereignty…” This would also be an alternative to “violent campaigns of resistance”.
I’VE SAMPLED the guidelines aka requirements of Screen Australia, Screen NSW, SBS and ABC. These protocols are largely designed to prevent exploitation of talent and culture, but also legitimise and encourage propaganda elements. As SBS’s then-managing director Malcolm Long wrote , SBS films and content should boost Aborigines for the benefit of Australia’s reputation abroad and “in the greater perspective of history”. Content-makers have to “accept their responsibility”(p6). But the protocols fail to say how someone’s Aboriginality is verified. I’ve not detected any mention of the federal three-way test of descent, identification and community endorsement.
Although the SBS manual for Aboriginal aspects was written by Lester Bostock in 1997, SBS still cites it as definitive. Bostock warned that program makers “should always be aware of and challenge their own prejudices, stereotyped beliefs and perceptions about indigenous people.” Perhaps they should also challenge their prejudices and stereotypes about white settlement?
A decade later came the widely endorsed “Pathways & Protocols” (2009) by indigenous lawyer Dr Terri Janke. It covers film-making dealing with any Aboriginal content, story, or culture, or using Aboriginal actors, crew or locations. Funding now often depends on adherence. It says (p9), “Filmmaking is used by Indigenous people to get our point of view across. When you entertain, you educate.”
Consultations are usually prolonged, costly and difficult. Guidelines suggest allowing six months to two years to consult. In 2001 SBS began a project for a history series First Australians, using Blackfella Films, also responsible for the recently aired Dark Emu documentary-cum-whitewash. The company warned that it needed a considerable budget to embed consultants with community, elders, academics, historians and descendants, and SBS agreed to “ample funding” so that face-to-face talks could take place throughout the country.
Mostly there was a positive response, however, one group did not like it, and communication stopped because they refused to have anything to do with the project. It took time to re-connect with this group. The filmmakers also had to manage their obligations to the various investors.
After seven years’ work, the series finally aired in 2008. In another anecdote, Aboriginal director Erica Glynn writes about her film, My Bed Your Bed (1998):
I set out to tell a fictional story that reflected contemporary Aboriginal life in central Australian bush communities. Life in bush communities is so often over-romanticised in Australian film and television. In the film, a young girl is promised to a young man in a traditional ceremony that has taken place for thousands of years in the bush. When the time comes for them to live together, they move into a modern house…
We talked them through the story, letting them know it was a ‘pretend one’. They went away and discussed it among themselves and talked to others in the community. They came back to tell me that although it was a good story, they thought that really they couldn’t give consent at this time. We respected their decision and consulted with elders from another Indigenous community. [This second group at least allowed some traditional dances to be included]
A celebrated case of “permissions” involved a trade-practices stoush between tennis star Lleyton Hewitt and Adelaide Crows Indigenous midfielder Andrew McLeod. They accused each other 20 years ago of misleading and deceptive conduct over Northern Territory filming for a marketing DVD, Lleyton Hewitt – The Other Side. McLeod interrupted pre-Christmas sales, claiming DVD scenes from their best-mates joint NT trip a year earlier had lacked permissions from Aborigines and Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s Northern Land Council. Hewitt counter-claimed that McLeod had earlier not raised objections. The pair settled pre-trial.
Dr Janke’s report has relevance to current issues such as Alice Springs’ mayhem:
Film projects dealing with contemporary Indigenous life, particularly those that include sensitive content such as health issues, or social problems like petrol sniffing [or riots and juvenile offending – TT] may require specialist consultation with relevant Indigenous professional and community groups. Initial research for a film project should consider whether sensitive material is to be included and how it is to be handled.(p16)
In documentaries, “it is not ethical to open a door into the community by saying the documentary is about customary law, but then focus on public drunkenness” (p21). One documentary crew copped a lawsuit after telling two teens the film was about “racism in Cunnamulla”, when the film actually focused on the girls’ sex lives (p75).
Any general ban on journos doing the ‘bait-and-switch’ trick on interviewees (also known in-house as “seduction & betrayal”) would of course put most news media, especially the ABC, out of business. (See how the ABC achieved its Don Dale NT prison report).
The SBS and other guidelines stress the desirability of “lived experience” by the cast. Whites musn’t play Aborigines, as used to occur — the aptly-titled film Out of Darkness (1967) used Sri Lankan singer Kamahl and Ed Deveraux, a white actor painted black.
There are no acceptable circumstances in today’s society which might justify using a non- Aboriginal actor to play a role in ‘black-face’. To do so is not only seen as negative stereotyping, but is also degrading to indigenous people. [p31].
As recommended, Welcomes and Acknowledgements of Country now abound on and off the sets. Grant-seekers are strongly advised to use Indigenous writers, script consultants and assessors from the production’s earliest stages, with their suggestions endorsed and “taken on board.” (p28).
To get any taxpayer support, a film project also needs to use inclusive production employees, including Aboriginal-identifiers and the LGBTQIA+ sector (bonus points for transgenders). Says SBS, “The + represents others not explicitly mentioned such as pansexual, agender and asexual” (p05)
Women crew are welcome to a 55 per cent majority. At one point SBS coyly refers not to “women” but to “representation of people who identify as women” (p02). Like the ABC , SBS desired per cents are: LGBTQ+ , 8-12 per cent; people with a disability, 5-10%; and women, 45-55 per cent. (p07).
Other desirables are the culturally and linguistically diverse CALDs (or non-Skips) and “People with long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory disability or a combination of those conditions. This also includes deaf or hard of hearing people and people with mental health conditions” (p05).
Meditating on all this, it could be that comedy is the route to our white racist hearts – look at the box office success of The Sapphires ($15m). Why not a Screen Australia-financed rom-com, “The Merry Wives of Yolngu”? How’s this for a storyline: A lovable Aboriginal potentate, lightly based on the late Galarrwuy Yunupingu, flies from his Melville Bay mansion in his $1400-an-hour helicopter to visit four wives’ houses across Arnhem Land. He pauses to hand supporters petty-cash envelopes from the multi-million Nabalco tributes he safeguards. Complications follow.
But if the cost of the movie props is a deal-breaker, what about a Pythonesque cheapie “My Blak Kitchen Rules” with Aborigine Bruce Pascoe (in white-face) at Gipsy Point char-grilling wombat roadkill (see his Chapter 4) from the Mallacoota-Genoa highway?
Tony Thomas’s new book from Connor Court is Anthem of the Unwoke – Yep! The other lot’s gone bonkers. $34.95 on-line from Connor Court here
 “The audience’s empathetic reaction to these representations of the stolen generation, through the images of children, allowed the audience to develop an anti-colonialist understanding of the difficulties faced by Aborigines.” Shifting representations of Aboriginality in Australian cinema: re-presenting from an anti-colonial perspective. Edith Cowan thesis by Kylie Solonec, p21.
Molly, aged 14, and Gracie, aged 11, were actually removed because they were having sex with the white fence workers who stopped at the Jigalong depot overnight. Daisy, aged 8, was removed because she was betrothed to marry a full-blood Aboriginal old enough to be her grandfather. Sexual relations would follow immediately. Gulpilil plays a tracker following the girls, an entirely fictional addition.
 “A woman is raped by British soldiers in front of her husband. The baby then has its head slammed against the wall to stop it from crying. You hear its neck snap. Extremely shocking and upsetting.”
 Clendinnen, Inga. The History Question : Who Owns the Past?, Black Inc., 2008
 The 2019 Institute of Health and Welfare report reveals that in 2016-17 a high proportion of violence went unreported, so the 34-times figure is likely an under-estimate (p113). The women’s hospitalisation rate also correlated with remoteness. (p115). “About a third (36%) of females were assaulted with an object: 25% of whom were assaulted with a blunt object and 11% with a sharp object. Strangulation was specified by 14 Indigenous females as the cause of their injuries. (p114).
 Thereafter Gulpilil mastered his alcoholism, which had started when he was introduced to alcohol as a teen while acting in Walkabout.
 This line was echoed by Yadaka in Sweet Country: “My crime was existing while black.” A similar selfless episode occurs there: the fugitive saves his pursuer from dying of thirst on a salt-pan.
 I assume by “porch” (US) he means “veranda” (Aust).
 “Back at the abandoned cantina, Sergeant Lawrence and his men have found and massacred a group of Aboriginal people.”
 Some other grosses: Sapphires, $14.5m; Last Cab to Darwin, $7.4m; Storm Boy, $5m; Rams $4.7m.
 Voices from the Past, Alistair Crooks and Joe Lane, Hoplon Press, Adelaide, 2016. Foreword by myself. Appendix A, p283-9.
 Hudson Fysh, Taming the North (1933), referring to the period after gold was discovered in 1873.
-  Langton, M. (1993). Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television: An essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people and things. North Sydney: AFC.
 The ABC started an Aboriginal Programs Unit (APU) as early as 1987 to help Aboriginals represent themselves.
 Quoted in thesis, Solonec, Kylie, Edith Cowan University, 2005, p15
 Bostock (1934-2017) of Bundjalung descent left school illiterate at 13, and re-educated himself as an adult. After losing one leg in an accident in the 1950s he campaigned for disabled Aborigines. He mentored film director Warwick Thornton.
 ABC: “Please explain how this program will help the ABC achieve its diversity and inclusion goals in terms of on-screen and off-screen representation?”
For the characters/presenters, an ABC template mobilised 18 CIS-females and only 15 CIS-Males, reflecting the ABC matriarchy. (The ABC clarifies that “CIS gender” people are those who are born male or female and none-the-less continue to think they are male or female, respectively). The model also has one gender-diverse lass/lad/whatever, and one shy gender-creature who “prefers not to say”. Also involved are 11 non-Anglo CALDs, five Aborigines, three Torres Strait Islanders, two disabled, and a handsome tally of eleven LGBTQI+’s.