Jedda (Ngarla Kunoth), sitting by an open window, gazes out dreamily. Her adoptive mother (Betty Suttor), eventually comes to stand by her side. Jedda tells her of her desire to go walkabout, to be with the tribe. She is chastised by her adoptive mother, who warns her against the primitive ways of the Aborigines, calling them monkeys.
This clip from the feature film Jedda shows the title character torn between her comfortable 'white’ existence and a desire to return to her Indigenous people. Her adoptive white mother joins her at the window and scolds her for believing she still has a link with her people. To take her mind off this she urges Jedda to play her piano. Jedda’s gaze focuses on the Indigenous art works on the wall, Indigenous music is heard and her playing becomes more frenzied. Outside the house the head stockman is shown in conversation about Jedda with the station owner.
Educational value points
- This clip is from one of Australia’s most important feature films. Made in 1955 by Charles and Elsa Chauvel, Jedda was the first film to cast Indigenous Australians in starring roles. Previously white actors in 'black face’ had depicted Aboriginal people. It was also the first Australian-produced film to be shot in colour and to make use of magnetic sound-recording equipment, and was the first Australian film to be presented at the Cannes Film Festival.
- Two different views of assimilation, which was the prevailing government policy of the time, are explored in the film. Jedda’s adoptive mother has raised Jedda to be a white girl and believes she is now 'no more like them [her tribe] than night is to day’. The station boss, however, believes that Jedda is only 'tamed’ on the outside and that efforts to 'civilise’ or assimilate her into white society will ultimately fail.
- Jedda was made in 1955 but it remains controversial for its portrayal of Indigenous Australians as driven by 'primitive’ instincts. The clip appears to suggest that despite her outward appearance and European education Jedda is unwilling or unable to ignore the call of her tribe and the 'ancestral voices’, represented in this clip by the chant that can be heard over her increasingly frenetic piano playing.
- The clip shows how editing is used to advance a story. Jedda is seen struggling with the future that has been determined for her by her white mother. The central scene in the clip, that of Jedda’s conflicting loyalties, is intercut with a scene in which Jedda’s future life is being discussed by her suitor and the station owner. The discussion of Jedda’s future then cuts to the scene of Jedda at the piano in increasing distress over her conflicting loyalties.
- Music is used in the clip to convey emotion and to reinforce the depiction of Jedda’s inner turmoil. Jedda starts playing Mozart, one of the greatest European classical composers. She pauses, then recommences the piece, this time playing a more melancholy variation on the theme. By the end of the scene Jedda seems in a kind of trance, the music has been joined by Indigenous chant and clap-sticks and her playing has become more violent and jarring.
- The clip reveals the language of racism, in common use at the time, regarding Australia’s Indigenous people. Mrs McMann’s motivation to deter Jedda’s plans is clear but she speaks of 'those naked monkeys’ who 'eat grubs and goannas and all sorts of dreadful things’. The station boss also reveals innate prejudice in his language when he refers to the worry that Jedda might 'mate’, a term otherwise reserved for animals, with one of the tribe.
- The clip features Rosalie Kunoth (1937–), who plays Jedda. Her memories of the film are painful to her. Rosalie has told how the filmmakers 'slowly broke my law to make me act’ (Interview with Rosalie Kunoth, http://www.abc.net.au, 2005). They forced her to look into the eyes of her co-star Tudwali. This was against her grandmothers’ law. Her work on behalf of her people gained her a Northern Territory Tribute to Women Award in 2007.
- The clip provides an example of the work of Australian filmmaker Charles Chauvel (1897–1959). The idea to feature Australia’s Indigenous people in a film was suggested to him while he was on a publicity tour in America. He funded Jedda himself since investors were wary of the subject matter. He made nine feature films including the Rats of Tobruk (1944) and Forty Thousand Horsemen (1955), and was a strong advocate of the Australian film industry.
This clip starts approximately 24 minutes into the feature.
Jedda gazes dreamily out an open window. Her adoptive mother stands next to her.
Betty Suttor Dreaming again?
Jedda It’s time my people came back from their walkabout. You know Betty, sometimes I dream I’m out there with them. Maybe I will go one day, just for fun.
Betty Oh, Jedda, whatever would you do out in the bush with all those naked monkeys?
Jedda (laughs) Do what all the other monkeys do, I suppose.
Betty What nonsense! You’re no more like them than night is to day.
Jedda But I would like to go just once, to see.
Betty Stop talking rubbish, Jedda. The best walkabout for you is to come to Darwin with me again next year.
Jedda But Betty, they are my people. Minna says I should go walkabout and learn the customs of my tribe.
Betty Minna has no right to put ideas like that into your head. I have other plans for you, Jedda. I want you to go on living like a white girl, like my own daughter.
Jedda But Minna says they hunt the crocodiles, and spear the fishes, and climb the tree for the wild honey bird.
Betty Yes, and they eat grubs and goannas and all sorts of dreadful things.
Jedda Oh, Betty!
Betty Come on. It’s time for your music practice.
Jedda is seated at a piano in a quiet living room. She begins playing a sprightly tune, then stops and begins a slow, mournful melody. Outside in the stables, we see two men talking.
Man Well, Joe, how’s my head stockman this morning?
Joe Hello, boss. It’s hot. Mrs McMahon tells me she’s coming to the buffalo camp this season.
Man That’s right — first time for years. She’s been so tied up with Jedda’s training, lessons and all that rubbish.
Joe Is Jedda coming too?
Man Oh yeah, she’s coming along.
Joe I want to have a talk to you about Jedda.
Man If you’re going to tell me that you’re in love with her and want to marry her, you don’t need to. I’ve seen it coming for years.
Joe Thanks for saving me all that, boss. How do you think Mrs McMahon will feel about it?
Man It will be the answer to her worries about Jedda’s future. Her one fear has been the girl might mate with one of the tribe. Now she’ll have you both in a neat little shack with frilly curtains. Perhaps all our problems will be solved.
Joe laughs. We see a shot of Jedda who continues to play piano. We cut back to the stables.
Man Looks like smoke over there. Tribe must be close home. When you finish here, take young Jedda and ride out to meet them. Get her away from that crazy piano playing.
Jedda plays forcefully. As she looks at the Aboriginal painting on the wall, Aboriginal music becomes infused with the melody.