Celluloid Subjects to Digital Directors

Changing Aboriginalities and Australian Documentary Film, 1901–2017

by Jennifer Debenham (Author)
©2020 Monographs XVI, 232 Pages
Series: Documentary Film Cultures, Volume 2


How did Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population go from being the objectified subjects of documentary films to the directors and producers in the digital age? What prompted these changes and how and when did this decolonisation of documentary film production occur? Taking a long historical perspective, this book is based on a study of a selection of Australian documentary films produced by and about Aboriginal peoples since the early twentieth century. The films signpost significant shifts in Anglo-Australian attitudes about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and trace the growth of the Indigenous filmmaking industry in Australia.
Used as a form of resistance to the imposition of colonialism, filmmaking gave Aboriginal people greater control over their depiction on documentary film and the medium has become an avenue to contest widely held assumptions about a peaceful colonial settlement. This study considers how developments in camera and film stock technologies along with filmic techniques influenced the depiction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The films are also examined within their historical context, employing them to gauge how social attitudes, access to funding and political pressures influenced their production values. The book aims to expose the course of race relations in Australia through the decolonisation of documentary film by Aboriginal filmmakers, tracing their struggle to achieve social justice and self-representation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Cultural Warning and Acknowledgement
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Aboriginalities
  • Media Ecology
  • The Longue Durée
  • Decolonising the Documentary Film in Australia
  • Stages of the Journey
  • Part I Exotic Subjects, 1901–1966
  • Chapter 1 The Last of Their Kind: Aboriginal Life in Central Australia (1901)
  • Chapter 2 Physical Traits: Life in Central Australia (1931)
  • Chapter 3 Benign and Iconic: Aborigines of the Sea Coast (1950)
  • Chapter 4 The “Last” of Their Kind, Again: Desert People (1967)
  • Part II Voices for Change, 1957–1972
  • Chapter 5 Not Dying Out Quietly: Warburton Aborigines (1957)
  • Chapter 6 A Discomforting Assimilation: The Change At Groote (1968)
  • Chapter 7 Challenging White Indifference: Ningla-A-Na (Hungry for Our Land) (1972)
  • Part III Counting the Cost, 1978–1987
  • Chapter 8 Telling My Story My Way: My Survival As An Aboriginal (1978)
  • Chapter 9 On Being Stolen: Lousy Little Sixpence (1983)
  • Chapter 10 Picking Up the Broken Pieces: Link-Up Diary (1987)
  • Part IV Digital Directors: Decolonising Documentary Film, 2002–2017
  • Chapter 11 Setting the Records Straight: Whispering in Our Hearts: The Mowla Bluff Massacre (2002)
  • Chapter 12 The Sounds of Spaces Between: Willaberta Jack (2007)
  • Chapter 13 Breaking the Drought at the Sydney Film Festival: We Don’t Need a Map (2017), Occupation Native (2017), In My Own Words (2017)and Connecting to Country (2017)
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Serial Index

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I wish to thank my husband Graeme for his continued support in all my endeavours and for his patience and forbearance through the long gestation period of writing this book. To my three daughters, Felicity, Katie and Imogen, who were children at the beginning and are now grown women who have found their ways in the world. And to my four-legged companion, Alfie, who reminded me to take breaks from my desk. Many thanks and much appreciation goes to my mentor, the fabulous Professor Lyndall Ryan, who believed in the worth of the project. Her support and academic advice and companionship have always been inspirational. I feel privileged to be one of her students. Many thanks to the amazing Dr Wendy Michaels, friend and mentor who, like Lyndall, gave patient advice on numerous drafts. Advice on earlier drafts was enhanced by input from Dr Michael Kilmister, colleague and friend.

I have benefited from the advice and help of the librarians at the Ourimbah Campus of the University of Newcastle (Australia), Fiona Neville; Julie Mundey-Taylor; Narelle Lawrence; Lorraine Millar; Jenny Shephard; Catherine Moffat and Ruth Talbot-Stokes. They are all great colleagues and friends who provided a very supportive environment.

I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Lea Gardam and staff at the Museum of South Australia, Robin McWilliams, and staff at Museum Victoria who provided some salient information and access to films, crucial in writing this history. The crucial support of the staff, including Graham Shirley and Sam Bateman at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra played an important role.

I gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Warwick Thornton, David Tranter, Dena Curtis, Mitch Torres, Troy Albert, Stephen Albert, Henry Augustine, Miriam Corowa and Ian Dunlop for their interviews. Without their personal insights into filmmaking and television experiences the study would lack depth in its treatment of the films.

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I would also like to thank Andrew Pike at Ronin Films and Martha Ansara, Ballad Films for their time in responding to my inquiries.

Although not responsible in any way for my interpretations, I would like to acknowledge the influence of academics, including Russell McGregor, Geoffrey Gray, Christine Cheater, Nancy Cushing and James Bennett. Each have drawn me into their circle for lively discussions and teaching. The academics Marcia Langton and Frances Peters-Little have also influenced the way I have reasoned the arguments in this book.

To my much neglected friend Dianne Sallee. We started our adventures at uni together and formed a strong bond of friendship that still holds us together. Thanks for your patience.

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Cultural Warning and Acknowledgement

Readers of this book should be aware that if members of some Aboriginal communities see names or images of the deceased, particularly their relatives, they may be distressed. Before using this work and the related documentary films in such communities, readers should establish the wishes of senior members and take their advice on appropriate procedures and safeguards to be adopted.

I also acknowledge and respect the Darkinjung people, past, present and emerging leaders, the traditional custodians of the land where this book was written.

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The phenomenon of using film to inform a mass audience began in the early twentieth century. Its invention coincided with three critical moments in Australian history: the federation of the six Australian colonies to form the Australian nation; the rise of the academic discipline of anthropology; and the widespread belief that the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples were on the brink of extinction. In this environment, biological and medical scientists used the medium of film to make what they believed to be permanent records of Aboriginal people for posterity. A century later, the descendants of the “extinct” people were making their own films to tell their own stories for fellow Indigenous1 peoples and to inform a non-Indigenous audience.

This is a survey of the extraordinary journey taken by Australian documentary filmmakers from 1901 to 2017 in the visual representation of Australia’s Aboriginal people. Its purpose is to explore the filmmakers’ key role in constructing attitudes towards Australia’s Aboriginal peoples over the last century. The documentary films are a creation of and by Australia’s history, and play a significant role in national identity formation and nation building. But the films do more; they demonstrate how at different times Australians understood Aboriginality and how the extinction of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population could be rationalised as the inevitable outcome of the colonial process.

The over-arching discussion connects the exploration of the documentary films to developments in scientific discourses with political and social debates about Aboriginal peoples. Rather than examining the films entirely through the theoretical models employed in film studies, the methodological approach uses the films to anchor the discussion about the nature of race relations in Australia. It emphasises their value ←1 | 2→as cultural and historical artefacts and demonstrates how each film graphically illustrates the continually shifting relationship between ideology and technology.


Each film signposts shifts in how Aboriginalities were understood by both Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal Australians. Bidjara/Iman descendant and public academic Marcia Langton’s incisive observation that “‘Aboriginality’ is remade over and over again in a process of dialogue, imagination, representation and interpretation” provides an important framework for the study. “Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people create ‘Aboriginalities’” in an infinite array of intercultural experiences.2 Recognising that Aboriginality is not static underlines the importance of these modalities in which documentary films play a significant role. Indeed, Langton’s appraisal of the social and cultural dynamics in her description of Aboriginality embraces the similar dynamics of media ecology and the emotional investment inherent in documentary film production used in this study. First let us consider the emotional dynamics inherent in the making of documentary films.

The work of scholar Belinda Smaill (2010) draws attention to the role emotion plays in documentary film production. Traditionally documentary films are associated with what Bill Nichols refers to as “discourses of sobriety” and the genre’s connections with science, education and social responsibility.3 Exploring the importance of the emotions produced by documentary films, which include pleasure, hope, pain, empathy, or disgust, Smaill is interested in how the audience is ←2 | 3→addressed by and how they relate to these emotions. In particular “how emotionality marries with the social project of documentary in ways that make the non-fiction genre a compelling site for understanding how fantasies of self and other circulate through specific textual practices”.4 Recognising these emotions circulate in the public sphere connected as they are with instrumental power structures that include “science, economics, politics, foreign policy, education, religion and welfare”,5 Lauren Berlant argues that “public spheres are worlds of affect”. It is where Jim McGuigan maintains that “popular culture, including television and cinema, offers a mass mediated aesthetic and emotional form of communication that is integral to perceptions of collective life”.6 In synthesising these views, Smaill “indicates that emotion can be thought of not only as a psychical response to particular stimulus, but also as integral to the way subjects experience public spheres at particular historical moments”.7 The films in this study are emblematic of the conditions in which Aboriginality was constructed, negotiated and comprehended in the public sphere, simultaneously driving and reflecting these changes.


XVI, 232
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
History – Australian Documentary film Aboriginal History Ethnographic films Australian politics Australian social attitudes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Aboriginal filmmakers
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. XVI, 232 pp., 12 fig.

Biographical notes

Jennifer Debenham (Author)

Jennifer Debenham holds a doctorate in Australian History from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She has lectured and tutored Australian history and sociology. She is currently a Conjoint Lecturer and Senior Research Assistant at the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Her interests are in early contact histories, mythology, representation, memory and race. Previous publications include The Australia Day Regatta, co-authored with Christine Cheater (2014), and the online publication Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia, 1788–1872, coauthored with Lyndall Ryan, William Pascoe and Mark Brown (2017).


Title: Celluloid Subjects to Digital Directors