Manganinnie (1980) and Blackfellas (1993)


Director: John Honey

Stars: Mawuyul Yanthalawuy, Anna Ralph, Phillip Hinton, Elaine Mangan

First viewing, via DVD

When Down Under Flix surveyed readers on their Australian film viewing habits last year, 1980’s Manganinnie was the least seen film about Indigenous Australians (98%) and tied with 2003’s Subterano (also 98%) as the least seen film of the survey. But where sci-fi chiller Subterano arguably never made a dent in the first place, Manganinnie was the first production (of just two, alas) of the Tasmanian Film Corporation, was nominated for five AFI Awards including Best Film, Director, and Actress, and made a modest profit. However, the film has been somewhat forgotten, dwarfed in the popular consciousness by other releases of its era such as My Brilliant Career, Mad Max, and Breaker Morant, films that are outwardly more stylish and accessible.

manganinnie title

The sole feature film of John Honey and based on a novel by Beth Roberts, Manganinnie is set in Tasmania (then still called Van Diemen’s Land) in 1830. Joanna (Anna Ralph) is a young girl whose landowner father (Phillip Hinton) reluctantly aids the colonial authorities in forcing the locals off their land. Manganinnie (Mawuyul Yanthalawuy) is an Indigenous local and keeper of fire whose husband and community are slaughtered. Joanna is separated from her parents and falls under Manganinnie’s care, and the pair travel across the countryside looking for other tribes. Despite their different languages and cultures, Manganinnie and Joanna form a surrogate mother-daughter bond and work together harmoniously.

As a film about a young white child shepherded across the unfamiliar Australian landscape by an Indigenous local, Manganinnie carries echoes of Nicolas Roeg’s iconic Walkabout. However, the surrogate mother-daughter relationship at its centre and the very different environs help make Manganinnie unique. The film captures the abundance and severity of the Tasmanian landscape, and the central performances are excellent, with Yanthalawuy transcending language barriers (and lack of subtitles) to convey Manganinnie’s despair at the devastation of her culture and community and Ralph delivering a nice, non-mannered child performance. Too long a minor entry in the Australian film canon, Manganinnie is a film that deserves to be seen.

blackfellas poster

Director: James Ricketson

Stars: John Moore, David Ngoombujarra, John Hargreaves, Jaylene Riley, Ernie Dingo

First viewing, via DVD

Today a generation of Indigenous filmmakers are steering Indigenous stories to the screen: see, for example, Ivan Sen with Beneath Clouds, Mystery Road, and Goldstone, Rachel Perkins with Radiance and Bran Nue Dae, and Warwick Thornton with Samson and Delilah. However, for much of the twentieth century the most noteworthy depictions of Indigenous Australians and culture on film were steered by white filmmakers, e.g. the aforementioned Walkabout and Manganinnie, as well as JeddaThe Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The Fringe Dwellers, and so on. While some of these films exhibit signs of misguided exoticism, cultural appropriation, and inauthenticity—on 1955’s Jedda, for example, Charles Chauvel had the voice of the lead actress dubbed on the soundtrack due to uncertainty about presenting Indigenous voices on film, signifying something of a colonial hangover—they are nonetheless foundational and empathetic works.

blackfellas title

James Ricketson is by all appearances a deeply empathetic filmmaker, and that empathy for his subject matter pervades his 1993 film Blackfellas. The film centres on Doug (John Moore), a young Indigenous man with a white mother and incarcerated black father. Doug himself is recently released from jail, and returns home intending to stay out of trouble with the law. However, those best intentions are repeatedly thwarted due to Doug’s solidarity with longtime friend Pretty Boy (David Ngoombujarra), a talented footballer with a self-destructive streak.

Where Manganinnie presents the historical obliteration of Tasmania’s Indigenous culture and societies, Blackfellas focuses on contemporary concerns affecting Indigenous Australians, most notably the pervasiveness of alcohol, persecution by white authorities (here represented by John Hargreaves in a thoroughly unpleasant turn), and crime as a survival mechanism. While the film’s title card (see above) reads The Day of the Dog, the same as the source novel by Archie Weller, the alternate title Blackfellas is broader in its reach, symbolically encompassing and lamenting the struggles of all modern Indigenous men. Ricketson’s film is a raw kitchen sink drama, and both Moore and Ngoombujarra are excellent as protagonists on divergent but irrevocably intertwined paths.

Next week: Another entry in the Aussiewood series with Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

Author: downunderflix

This site was created by Ben Kooyman, a teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia hoping to shine some light on some neglected local films...

5 thoughts on “Manganinnie (1980) and Blackfellas (1993)”

  1. Some more good choices Ben. I haven’t seen Blackfellas, but I found Manganinnie particularly affecting. For a film about genocide, it’s very gentle, concentrating on the human connection between Manganinnie and the young white girl. The film has been criticised for not showing the true savagery of the killing of the tribe, but the sadness, loss and anger still comes through it all.


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