Twenty years ago I tuned in to a film already in progress and became engrossed. I felt I knew the community. Even the layout of the building looked familiar, the people. I’d seen that hat, that face, that rascal dog. The whole thing was eerily familiar and real.
I found I’d been watching Green Bush. I looked for the director’s name and discovered it was a Thornton. I loved that film and the casual love it displayed, the humour in the difficult community situation. It felt like a miniature masterpiece. Young Warwick, eh. Watch out!
When Film Australia wanted to fast track more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander filmmakers it was Erica Glynn who found the people and cleared the way for their training, the nurturing and support. She nursed my first film, Black Chook, through all the development and production phases, and I valued the fact that an Aboriginal person was doing it and showing such refreshing common sense. I was green and needed that confident low-key approach.
Recently I sat next to one of my big tough brother filmmakers as we watched Erica’s language film, In Their Own Words. He was sobbing by the end of it, floored by the poignancy of old people learning to recognise and spell ‘dog’. ‘Could have been my uncle,’ he said, ‘my aunt, any of our mob.’ And many of mine. Most of my friends don’t read books, bemused by my writing, what I call an occupation.
Some don’t read books because they can’t. It’s a horrible affliction and, like starvation, an indictment of a wealthy country. Erica’s film brought us to the coalface of Aboriginal dispossession. We watched real Aboriginal people fighting massive disadvantage with modest heroism, a truly great documentary and a great lesson for the country. And of course it was brought to us by a Glynn.
When Black Chook came to production I was introduced to Warwick’s son, Dylan River. I watched the no-fuss application of his vision and the tact he employed with everyone on the set. Having a writer on set is not what directors want, so they marginalised me, neutralised me, made me an extra. A non-speaking part. Out of the way.
In one scene Warwick was shooting over my shoulder as he and Dylan were organising the direction. I learnt more about film and art in those few hours than at any other time. The discrimination, the innate sense of style. I loved that discussion. And they loved it because I couldn’t talk back.
Freda Glynn was on that set too. Worrying about lines, stoic in her waiting as scene rolled into scene. I have a vivid memory of Freda and Jack Charles sitting against a corrugated-iron wall so lit by the sun that it looked like a spaghetti western. The two murmured to each other as they waited, all wardrobed, made up, waiting while a scene was organised. Professionals, seasoned waiters.
The whole film was a Glynn family event and for me the concentration of learning was intense. Working with Jack Charles, too, has always been a pleasure. Jack is convinced we’re related but I had to point out to him that white beards in themselves are not a genetic marker.
Later I worked with Warwick on We Don’t Need a Map, a bizarre experience in an art deco-ish house in Sydney’s southern beaches. I didn’t know what I was there for so just did the lizard trick, waiting and watching. Watched Warwick, how he went about his business, knowing he was fearless in going to the heart of Australia’s ignorance of its history. I was right, he pinned every dead butterfly of Australian cartoon history to the wall. We had a great time.
At smoko I snuck a glance at Warwick’s script, more shopping list or scatological memoir than script, but you could see the bones of his refusal to let Australia off the hook. He’s a freak the way he makes films. Film educators look away now!
The whole family is a freak. Imagine Freda setting up CAAMA in an era where paternalism was still morphing out of disdain, where our pillow was still being smoothed for our passing. Imagine doing that black. Imagine doing that as a black woman. A poor black woman. Some contributions to the country’s history are so massive it is as if they are monoliths of country. CAAMA is one of those monoliths, its existence a testament to implacable defiance, its monolith bringing a black voice to a black land.
I was in Alice Springs doing some post-production shots for Trisha Morton-Thomas’s Occupation Native, and it was Dylan who rocked up to film it, his ute already packed so he could smash across the desert to film the Finke River Race. He and Warwick are addicts to this annual off-road motorsport event, and have the broken bones and destroyed vehicles to prove it. This time they were filming it and Dylan was all jittery excitement at the prospect of riding like a lens cowboy in a chopper while careering over sand dunes and cars screaming like hornets.
I think motorbike racing is as pleasant as killing horses but those lads love it and in a weird way it is because it’s an event on their country, that in this age for all its troubles they can take part in an event on their country on their terms. Justice can arrive unexpectedly, like the toy in a Kinder Surprise.
Australia, the only country in the world not to have made a treaty with the Indigenous people they dispossessed, holds steadfastly to a history so ridiculous in its conception that Europeans laugh in grim mirth at its profound blindness. The real history of the country was eliminated from our curriculum, our society, our politics, our morality. If the best-educated people in the land, the mild professors and urbane historians, can fabricate a history of such blinding connivance then another tactic has to be employed if the oppressed are to receive any form of justice. And that new tactic is an old one: story.
Story as painting, story as sport, story as dance and music, and now, most potently, story as film. Freda’s mob have used the silver screen as a Trojan horse, where in the dark of the cinema, black soldiers creep from acceptable sculpture and lay siege to your city. It is insurrection, it is insouciance, and they’re fucking good at it.
Warwick has done it with Sweet Country, using the form beloved of white cinema, the Western, the American folkloric way of explaining away the dispossession of the injuns. He slides the cowboy carpet out from under comfortable feet and turns it into a political statement. It is magic, it is a guerrilla war tactic, it is how countries get ambushed, forced to come face to face with history or the fake dynamite blows up and kills their faithful dog. Hooley dooley.
Dylan did it in his documentary on young Kaurna man, Jack Buckskin, the sole teacher of his language. Just another doco of a determined young teacher in some ways, but Buckskin is so softly spoken, so eloquent, that his message creeps up on the audience. Aboriginal language? Most Australians, if they think of Aborigines speaking at all, think there is only one language, so the information that there are many is a little bit of insurrection. Buckskin’s soft voice, River’s gentle camera, the iron fist in the velvet glove.
Erica did it with her language film. Just a mob of blacks struggling with their education, or is there a subtle, sneaking message here that education deprivation is a colonial tool, treat ’em like mushrooms; keep ’em in the dark and eating shit.
You can intervene in your own fate, the fate assumed for you by those who have designated your position on the social ladder as sub-human, and therefore slave. When Freda began her decades-long campaign to give Aboriginal people a voice it was an act of resistance, a refusal to accept her fate.
The resistance has been maintained by the whole family. In Warwick’s film, Samson & Delilah, Scott Thornton as Gonzo gives one of the most poignant performances ever seen on Australian screens. Pain and trouble seep from him and highlight the uphill battle of the two younger characters. Warwick also shot The Sapphires, a film at the other end of the entertainment spectrum; like The Castle it made Australians feel more comfortable with themselves.
Both Warwick and Erica were involved with the series Redfern Now, a moment in the country’s history that demonstrated a shift in psyche. Black, black, black entertainment—and shown on prime-time Australian television. You couldn’t imagine such a thing only a few years before.
You can see Freda’s fingerprints all over that achievement because she broke the glass, sand and colour ceiling to allow an easier ride for all those who followed, she created an expectation that Aboriginal people could compete in white media and cultural forms.
So from no say in the media a situation is created where Aboriginal people can talk to mainstream Australia about history, our shared history. As Warwick said of his own films, ‘They’re dark, but they’re completely truthful.’ Australia needs that truth. It may not know that yet but when it does it will realise a substantial part of that truth was delivered to them by one family.
Bruce Pascoe is a writer of Bunurong/Tasmanian heritage. He is a board member of the Aboriginal Corporation for Languages and was awarded the 2018 Australia Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. Dark Emu (2014), a history of Aboriginal agriculture, won the 2016 NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award.
This is an extract from Kin: An extraordinary Australian filmmaking family (Wakefield Press). Image is of Freda Glynn in the CAAMA studios.