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Chez les Sauvages Australiens (1917)


Composed of material filmed by William Jackson in 1917, Chez Les Sauvages Australiens (In Native Australia or, literally, At Home with the Wild Australians) presents a series of short sequences separated by French language intertitles.

This demonstration film of Aboriginal cultural practices in north-west Western Australia includes a large group of young men performing a processional dance, a small group demonstrating fire-making, imagery of traditional body scarring and a demonstration of watercraft. In the final scene a tall Aboriginal man gracefully climbs a high cliff to the site of a sea eagle’s nest. He reaches into the nest and holds up two little chicks to the camera.

Curator’s notes

William Jackson shot this spectacular footage in 1917 during the North-West Scientific Exploration Syndicate Limited’s expedition to assess the economic potential of the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The French production company, Mondial Film, later added the intertitles and screened Chez les Sauvages Australiens in cinemas in New Zealand, London and Europe.

The film shows Aboriginal people keenly participating in the production of this footage. They appear to enjoy adapting their performance traditions to the filming process as they creatively engage with the camera to construct a visual representation of their cultural heritage. An example of this dynamic interaction between the filmmaker and the Aboriginal actors is where a large group of young men, spears raised, collectively charge towards the camera. You expect to hear Jackson call ‘CUT’ as he captured this creatively produced warrior imagery.

Another scene shows a family group deliberately steer their watercraft towards the camera: it’s not hard to imagine Jackson giving hand signals from behind the camera to keep the people framed within the shot. Rather than a passive expression of actuality, this film documents a collaborative process between the non-Aboriginal director and the Aboriginal actors.

By comparison with Australian films of the time, the intertitles in Chez les Sauvages Australiens provide a breath of fresh air, as they describe the imagery rather than assign race-based value judgements to the people and their cultural practices. One intertitle suggests a similarity between the Aboriginal men’s use of decorative headwear to that worn by the recipients of the French Legion of Honour; and another describes four Aboriginal women as ‘the Mary Pickford, Bertini, Norma Talmage and Clara Kimbal Young of this place’.

In doing so, the film represents Aboriginal people and their cultural expression as equal to that of the European culture. Even the use of the word ‘sauvages’, which translates to ‘wild’, or less literally to 'native’, compares favourably to the British equivalent ‘primitive’.

A young man displays to the camera impressive traditional body scarring on his arms, chest and back. This scarring gives protection from attack and identifies the cultural status of the person. When Aboriginal men started wearing clothes they were no longer able to visually display their cultural status in this way.

Material filmed by Jackson on this trip also appears in other expedition productions, including the 1917 film Along the North West Coast of Australia, and in two films he made in 1918, Broome and the Pearling Industry and Turtles. The expedition generated great interest in the press with The Times newspaper covering the story with articles including ‘Australia’s Latent Wealth: Story of North-West Expedition’ (5 October 1922) and ‘The Hope of the Empire’ (21 November 1922).

Although written documentation about the expedition survived, the material filmed by Jackson vanished from the record for over 60 years until the 1980s when the French Cinémathèque returned a copy of Chez les Sauvages Australiens to Australia. Now, both the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies hold copies of this film. Meanwhile, archivists continue to search for any remaining ‘lost Jackson footage’.

Chez Les Sauvages Australiens was first screened in cinemas in London in 1919, New Zealand in 1921 and France in 1922.