How is the Indigenous Australians’ identity depicted in post-Mabo films and what role do these films play in understanding Indigenous Australians’ history today

If you were to ask the general population what their biggest source of finding out information about historical events was, majority would claim that it is through the use of television or film to access this information. Mid twentieth century brought about a surge in the film and television industry which was due to the increasing demands of entertainment and interest in the worlds’ affairs. As technology advanced throughout the latter half of the century, many film producers sought opportunities to capitalize on films as there was a rising interest in the information films could provide. Throughout this time in Australia, it is fascinating to analyse the shifting focus of the films that were present, and particularly how Indigenous Australians history was rarely focused on in the film industry up until this point; but was increasingly a spotlight in the film industry after the Mabo Native Title Act was passed.

What was significant about Mabo? The significance of the Mabo decision was how the High Court of Queensland ruled out the existing claim that the land of Australia was considered ‘terra nullius’ – deeming that the land belonged neither to the British or Indigenous Australians. It is in this understanding of the Mabo decision which captures the identity Indigenous Australians have within Australia. Mabo recognised the land rights of Indigenous Australians and declared them as the traditional owners of the land.

Previously to Mabo, W.E.H Stanner (The Great Australian Silence: After the Dreaming, 2002) refers to this absence of recognition for Indigenous Australians as ‘the great Australian silence’ commenting that Indigenous people have been relegated to a ‘melancholy footnote’ in the nation’s history. In this “silence” which Stanner refers to, it is clear that the influence of the Mabo Native Title Act was momentous for Indigenous Australians in the Australian film industry as they broke through the silence Indigenous Australians were conditioned to and could ultimately have a voice.

The voice that Indigenous Australians could ultimately have is significantly seen through a range of films that were released post-Mabo. It is in these films where Indigenous Australians are depicted in certain frames to represent their experiences throughout twentieth century Australia.

A widely recognised film, Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) directed by Phillip Noyce is a film central to conveying a voice for Indigenous Australians. The film explores three young Indigenous girls who are removed from their native families, and forced into a camp to assimilate them into Anglo-Saxon families. The three girls escape the camp, with the government officials searching relentlessly. The film  depicts the Indigenous Australians as people who are silenced, a people group whose presence within the 1930s Australia was despised. It is interesting to understand the historiographical significance of the films’ release, as the Mabo decision had illuminated the ‘silence’ the Indigenous Australians experienced throughout the twentieth century, and had expressed a voice which was contrary to times before.

Beneath Clouds (2004) directed by Ivan Sen was also a film released post-Mabo. A fictitious story ,however, this film is one with a wealth of Indigenous Australians’ theme of identity being addressed. This film explores the challenges Indigenous Australians had at the time throughout the 90s, particularly regarding their identity and cultural differences. Not only does this film illuminate the cultural divide that is present within Australia, but explores issues surrounding ongoing racism. The significance of this film being released post-Mabo is in the plight of the characters searching for a place within Australian society which isn’t discriminated against for their Indigenous heritage.

Black and White (2002) directed by Craig Lahiff was a film that expresses the journey an Indigenous Australian man walked in the 1960s. It is a film based on true events, and explores how there were racist and political issues that were evident throughout the time. The Indigenous Man is charged with murder of a young girl; with the officials claiming he is responsible but with numerous witnesses claiming he is innocent. This film challenges the role the police and government had in shaping the lives of Indigenous Australians, and the racism that was present. It is important to mention the significance of the film being released post-Mabo, as it illuminates the prejudices and discriminatory elements of the Australian society; and highlights present misconceptions and prejudices that could be held today.

Films play a large role in conveying information to audiences. It is through films that gives audiences a richer source of information, and allows them to ‘live’ the experience the characters themselves experience. Post-Mabo prompted the historical voice in films to be released and encouraged audiences to explore how historical events have shaped certain prejudices that still exist towards Indigenous Australians today.

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