This clip shows some of the issues relating to Indigenous Australians in film. It begins with footage of Indigenous actor David Gulpilil talking to admirers at a screening of the film Walkabout in Los Angeles in 1979. It then shows a scene from Walkabout (1971), which was directed by Nicholas Roeg. A series of speakers, Professor Marcia Langton, Indigenous activist Gary Foley, actor Justine Saunders and film critic David Stratton, then discuss the representation of Indigenous Australians in film. The clip concludes with footage from the 1967 film Journey Out of Darkness, in which two Indigenous characters are played by a white man in 'black face’ and by Kandiah Kamalesvaran (Kamahl), who is of Sri Lankan descent.
Educational value points
- Marcia Langton says Walkabout reinforced the belief in the inevitable demise of Indigenous Australians as a race. Until the 1930s it was widely believed that Indigenous Australians were a dying race, an idea that was perpetuated through representations of Indigenous people in film. In Walkabout, Gulpilil’s character leads a lost white girl and boy out of the desert, but commits suicide when the girl fails to acknowledge his love for her. His death has been read as symbolic of the destruction of Indigenous culture by the dominant mainstream culture.
- In the 1970s, non-Indigenous actors were usually cast as Indigenous characters in Australian films. In Journey Out of Darkness (1967) Ed Devereaux 'blacked up’ to play an Indigenous tracker, while Kamahl, a Sri Lankan Australian, was cast as an Indigenous captive. Similarly, James Laurenson was 'blacked up’ to play the lead in the television series Boney (1971–73), despite protests from Indigenous groups. The claim by filmmakers that there were no Indigenous actors available is disputed by Justine Saunders, who was active in Indigenous theatre in this period.
- Foley and Saunders say that roles for Indigenous actors have tended to present negative stereotypes. In the early years of Australian cinema Indigenous Australians were depicted as either menacing and a threat to white settlers or primitive and simple. From about the 1950s this stereotype was replaced by that of the noble, mysterious but remnant savage who inhabited the desert (Gulpilil’s Walkabout character is a noble innocent). Indigenous women continue to be cast as victims, while, as Foley says, Indigenous men often play trackers.
- A 2002 Queensland University of Technology study found that Indigenous actors are still underrepresented in Australian film and television. Respondents felt that there was a perception that they could only play Indigenous roles, and advocated 'colour blind’ casting, where race is not central to the script, such as the role played by Deborah Mailman in the television series The Secret Life of Us. The low numbers of Indigenous people in film and television are another form of racism.
- Walkabout was made by English director Nicholas Roeg, two English children played the leading characters, and the script was written by an English playwright and based on an English novel. Roeg cast David Gulpilil in a lead role at a time when non-Indigenous actors were still being used to play Indigenous parts.
- Gulpilil is an Elder of the Yolngu people, whose homelands are in north-east Arnhem Land. He went to a mission school when his parents died, but prior to this he grew up in the bush and became an accomplished hunter, tracker and ceremonial dancer. It was these skills that attracted Roeg’s attention, although Gulpilil’s acting was also widely praised. The Yolngu people comprise many different language groups, and Gulpilil speaks several of these languages as well as English.
- David Gulpilil was 15 years old when he was cast in Walkabout (1971), the film that launched his career as an actor. His other films include Mad Dog Morgan (1976), Storm Boy (1976), The Last Wave (1977), Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). He received an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actor for his role in Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002). Gulpilil was the narrator for and involved in the development of de Heer’s Ten Canoes (2006), in which his son Jamie stars. Ten Canoes is the first Australian film in an Indigenous language.
This clip starts approximately 17 minutes into the documentary.
Outside a movie theatre in Los Angeles in 1979, 'Walkabout’ (1971) is seen on the bill alongside other films such as 'Zardoz’ (1974). David Gulpilil is inside the theatre talking to an audience of mainly young women.
Fan Lets talk about Walkabout.
David Gulpilil Walkabout?
Fan You were wonderful, it was beautiful and you moved so – like a gazelle. A fantastic performance. I have seen it before and I think it’s wonderful.
David Thank you.
We see a scene from the movie 'Walkabout’, with a young boy and girl walking from a house into a yard to find a man hanging from a tree.
Narration I thought my spirit would come back and I would come alive again for my walkabout, bar two.
Boy He won’t take it. Can I see if the rod is still there?
Girl No, of course it’s still there. Did you eat your breakfast properly?
Professor Marcia Langton is interviewed inside a contemporary office building.
Professor Marcia Langton Nicolas Roeg brought the English aesthetic to the archetypal story about the Aborigines in the outback, the lost children story, the Aboriginal tracker. And the English aesthetic was quite shocking really. It represents in that very classical way, the social Darwinist theory of the inevitable demise of the native races, which was the catchcry of the Empire throughout the world.
David Gulpilil inside the theatre with fans.
Fan People here would like to know why at the end of Walkabout did you kill yourself?
David Oh yeah. I want to know too. I don’t know why. Um, ..
Fan Is there an Aboriginal meaning behind that?
David No. No. Just a –
Fan Just a part of the script, huh?
David It’s just part of the script. I didn’t speak English at that time.
Gary Foley is interviewed inside a house.
Gary Foley There were virtually no Aboriginal people in film, you know, without playing Jackie Digger sort of role, or as Justine Saunders used to say, you know, ‘If you’re a black woman actress, you were invariably raped in every script’.
Justine Saunders is interviewed in a dressing room.
Justine Saunders I’ve had my throat cut, I’ve been shot, thrown off a cliff, burnt to death.
We see footage from the movie 'Journey Out of Darkness’ (1967).
Gary And if you were a black male actor, more often than not you were the black tracker as ‘Yes boss, he went that way, boss’. And that was it.
David Stratton In 1967 there was a film made called Journey Out Of Darkness. Now, the authenticity of the film was compromised by the fact that the Aboriginal tracker was played by Ed Devereaux, who was a white Australian, playing this role in black face and the Aboriginal fugitive was played by Kamahl, who is a perfectly decent singer, but I don’t think has very much connection with the Aboriginal people.