Australian Screen

Australia’s audiovisual heritage online

First Australians (2008 - 2008)

Documentary series
7 episodes x 60 minutes

Series synopsis:

In seven one-hour episodes First Australians explores what happens when the oldest living culture in the world is overrun by the world’s greatest empire. This series explores the history of Australia from an Indigenous perspective, beginning in 1788 in Sydney with the arrival of the First Fleet, and ending in 1993 with Eddie Koiki Mabo’s legal challenge to the white settlement of Australia.

Curator’s Notes:

Imagine that an awful tragedy has occurred affecting you and your entire family. Yet the authorities have refused to acknowledge the event accurately in their records and have deemed you too traumatised by it to give evidence to prove it happened.

This has been the experience of many Indigenous Australians following the atrocities that were committed during the colonisation and settlement of many parts of Australia. As the saying goes, ‘the victors write the history’ and as such, Indigenous Australians have effectively been absent from the official story of Australia.

Produced by Rachel Perkins and Darren Dale of Blackfella Films, First Australians attempts to balance the dominant take on Australian history and tells the story from a contemporary Indigenous point of view. In a 2008 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald Dale says they ‘looked for the Aboriginal voice’ in the archival records. In a 2006 keynote address at the 2Deadly: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library and Information Resource Network Conference, Perkins explained ‘these voices have always been here, but they have been ignored by the bulk of our leading historians.’

Rachel Perkins is an Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman and the daughter of legendary Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, and she brings her wealth of experience to the series. Her career spans two decades of specialisation in Indigenous film and television. Starting out at CAAMA in Alice Springs, she has gone on to direct acclaimed work such as Blood Brothers – Freedom Ride (1993), Radiance (1998), One Night the Moon (2001) and, most recently, Bran Nue Dae (2009).

After a stint at SBS’s ICAM (1996–2002) program Darren Dale (a Bundjalung man from northern NSW) became an independent screen producer, whose short films include Mimi (2002) and Flat (2002). With Perkins, Dale is also the co-curator of the Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival. Dale is part of a new breed of filmmakers whose ideas are changing the way people view Aboriginal media and it shows in First Australians.

The series begins in Sydney in 1788, with the arrival of the First Fleet, and ends in 1993 with Eddie Koiki Mabo’s legal challenge to the foundation of Australia. This compelling series subtly weaves epic Indigenous history through a focus on individual experience. Its sweeping and stunning images of the beaches, bays and bush where key events took place enliven the stories and tie them to the present day.

In the ‘pan and scan’ use of still images (coined the ‘Ken Burns Effect’ by Apple Computer, after the American documentary filmmaker) Perkins and Dale have brought to life 1,500 historical images out of the 7,000 they unearthed from archives around Australia. Combined with well-crafted sound design and readings of archival records, it illustrates the events described by prominent historians and relatives throughout the series.

The entire series was made with respect, honouring the people who witnessed tragic events and to whom these experiences belong. The producers gained the permission of between 200 and 300 people for rights of stories, photographs and other material used in the series.

First Australians was described by The Sydney Morning Herald as ‘the documentary of the decade’ and I agree. It is refreshing to experience such a vibrantly told history so opposed to the usual recounting of brave pioneer stories. It brings to light some of the violent aspects of European settlement of Australia as well as acts of friendship and decency between the early European settlers and Indigenous Australians. The series presents much more of a shared history than we have seen before. Dale told The Age, ‘This is the story of black and white, and it should be told from both sides.’

Titles in this series

First Australians – Episode 1, They Have Come to Stay 2008

Episode one covers the first meetings between the Indigenous Aborigines, the first Australians, and the British First Fleet, who sailed into Sydney on 26 January 1788. They soon come face to face and while their differences are immense, apprehension quickly ...

First Australians – Episode 2, Her Will to Survive 2008

This episode covers the period from 1825–60 and explores the history of European settlement in Tasmania through the stories of Truganini and George Augustus Robinson. Colonisation spreads south to Tasmania, along with the settlers’ desire for land occupied by the ...

First Australians – Episode 3, Freedom For Our Lifetime 2008

The third episode of the First Australians series begins in 1860 in Victoria and, through the lives of Simon Wonga and William Barak, explores broader issues facing Aboriginal people in these times. The threat of extinction hovers over the first ...

First Australians – Episode 4, No Other Law 2008

Episode four, 'No other law’, explores the history of white settlement in Central Australia and the stories of homicidal police officer Constable Willshire, who brings mayhem to the Arrernte nation. Authorities turn a blind eye before telegraph operator Frank Gillen ...

First Australians – Episode 5, Unhealthy Government Experiment 2008

In this fifth episode of First Australians, European settlement spreads to Western Australia and is met with much conflict, as explored through the experiences of Aboriginal stockman Jandamarra. The history and aftermath of the Stolen Generations is examined in the ...

First Australians – Episode 6, A Fair Deal for a Dark Race 2008

Episode six, 'A Fair Deal for a Dark Race’, explores Indigenous history from 1930–67, primarily in the south-eastern regions of Australia, through the lives of Yorta Yorta men Doug Nicholls and his uncle, William Cooper. Across the continent, the first ...

First Australians – Episode 7, We Are No Longer Shadows 2008

The seventh and final episode of First Australians covers the period 1967–93, focusing on the Torres Strait Islands and Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo’s fight for land rights. This period was, globally, a time of increased civil rights advocacy and political activism, ...