Manganinnie (1980) and Blackfellas (1993)

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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.

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The Fringe Dwellers (1986)

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Director: Bruce Beresford

Stars: Kristina Nehm. Kylie Belling, Justine Saunders, Bob Maza

First viewing, via DVD

Bruce Beresford is undisputedly one of the great Australian filmmakers. Between 1972 and 1981, he helped usher in and worked at the coalface of the Australian film renaissance, helming a succession of classics and quasi-classics. The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, Don’s Party, The Getting of Wisdom, Breaker Morant, The Club, and Puberty Blues all bear his name as director, and together constitute a remarkable straddling of genres and high/low art divides, from the broad ocker fare of the McKenzie films (which repulsed the cultural elite but still managed to net a Gough Whitlam cameo) to the earnest heritage drama of The Getting of Wisdom. He adapted Australia’s most topical playwright (David Williamson) twice, helped popularize our greatest dame (Edna Everage), and tackled politics (Don’s Party), adolescence (Puberty Blues), sports culture and commerce (The Club), and Australian-British historical relations and colonial identity (Breaker Morant). Beresford’s subsequent career has alternated between overseas films, including the Academy Award-winning Driving Miss Daisy, and a handful of Australian productions & co-productions including this week’s film The Fringe Dwellers, Black Robe, Paradise Road, and Mao’s Last Dancer.

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Yolngu Boy (2001)

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Director: Stephen Johnson

Stars: John Sebastian Pilakui, Nathan Daniels, Sean Mununggurr, Jack Thompson

First viewing, via DVD

There’s no better deal on Earth than the movies. For the cost of a cinema ticket, a monthly streaming subscription, a DVD or Blu rental, or whatever amount of data it takes to torrent a film, you can be entertained, educated, and elevated by everything from Doctor Strange to Pink Flamingos to Tokyo Story. With that embarrassment of riches, it’s little wonder Australian flicks fall through the cracks, and I’m as guilty of this as anyone. When Yolngu Boy was released in March 2001, it generated some really positive notices … which I roundly ignored along with the film, instead showering my not-so-hard-earned cash on significantly less well-received stuff like Dracula 2000 and Proof of Life. I might even have seen Miss Congeniality… on a discount day of course… But anyway, poor life decisions all around…

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One Night the Moon (2001)

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Director: Rachel Perkins

Stars: Paul Kelly, Kaarin Fairfax, Kelton Pall

First viewing, via DVD

In the opening scene of One Night the Moon, farmer Jim Ryan (Paul Kelly) awakens at his kitchen table. An empty bottle stands at his side, a remnant from a night of drinking to numb his pain. But the pain waits in readiness for him that morning, made clear when he launches into song about having naught to live for. He retrieves his rifle, passes an empty child’s bedroom, then his own bedroom where his wife Rose (Kaarin Fairfax, also Kelly’s offscreen wife) lies crumpled and defeated, then wanders out into the harsh outback. In these few minutes One Night the Moon makes two things abundantly clear. Firstly, it’s a musical, and secondly, it’s not one of the toe-tapping, knee-slapping variety. Where some of the best movie musicals have an inherent weightlessness to them, One Night the Moon is all weight: oppressive, foreboding weight.

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Dead Heart (1996)

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Director: Nick Parsons

Stars: Bryan Brown, Ernie Dingo, Aaron Pedersen, Angie Milliken

Second viewing, via VHS

I first watched Dead Heart back in 2000, as part of a course at university. In recent days I’ve been thinking back on all the other Australian films I studied at university (in a degree comprising various screen and literature courses, including one specifically on Australian cinema, there were quite a few) and pondering where those films have landed, culturally speaking, in subsequent years. Wake in Fright, which we watched on a scratchy, dog-eared print, has enjoyed a critical and cultural resurgence in recent years and is soon to be adapted for television by the director of Red Dog. Other films, such as A Sunday Too Far Away and Two Hands, have sort of plateaued, remaining constant in their standing. And others like Dead Heart, then only a few years old, have faded from the spotlight and aren’t really part of the cultural conversation. In this particular case, it’s a shame, because Dead Heart is an excellent flick.

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Radiance (1998)

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Director: Rachel Perkins

Stars: Deborah Mailman, Rachel Maza, Trisha Morton-Thomas

First viewing, via SBS On Demand

According to research conducted by Screen Australia, women comprise on average 16% of working film directors in Australia, with 32% of producers and 23% of writers also women. It’s a disappointing statistic, and sadly consistent with overseas trends. It’s all the more frustrating given the impressive pool of female directing talent that Australia has produced, including, but by no means limited to, Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Oscar and Lucinda), Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, The Dressmaker), Sue Brooks (Japanese Story), Cate Shortland (Somersault), Shirley Barrett (Love Serenade), Ana Kokkinos (Head On, The Book of Revelation), Samantha Lang (The Monkey’s Mask), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), the late Sarah Watt (Look Both Ways), and Rachel Perkins, director of Bran NueDae and Radiance.

Radiance centres on three Indigenous sisters of different ages, fathers and temperaments reunited for their mother’s funeral. The sisters are an outwardly disparate trio: Mae (Trisha Morton-Thomas) looked after their mother during her final years, and is coarsened by the experience; Cressy (Rachel Maza) in an international opera star who seemingly abandoned her family to pursue her career; and newly pregnant youngest sister Nona (Deborah Mailman) is the most perky and naive of the three. Over the course of the film they rub each other the wrong way, air dirty laundry, and forge new connections. It is, after all, based on a play.

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Beneath Clouds (2002)

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Director: Ivan Sen

Actors: Danielle Hall, Damian Pitt

First viewing, via DVD

Ivan Sen’s latest film Goldstone premiered at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this month and is due for wider release in July, making this a good time to check out his debut feature, 2002’s Beneath Clouds. Sen won Best Director at that year’s Australian Film Institute Awards, in what proved a significant year for Indigenous-themed films: on top of Sen’s Best Director win, Best Film went to Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence and Best Actor went to David Gulpilil for The Tracker, and all three films were nominated and/or won in multiple categories.

Beneath Clouds follows two young Indigenous teenagers hitch-hiking to Sydney through rural New South Wales. Lena (Danielle Hall) is the daughter of an absent Irish father and a negligent mother. Vaughan (Damian Pitt) is a juvenile delinquent working on a prison farm who finds out his mother is ill. Both characters resolve to escape their prisons – literal in Vaughan’s case and small time life in Lena’s – and set off to Sydney, Lena to see her father and Vaughan to visit his ailing mother. They meet on the road and end up travelling side by side. Initially cynical of each other and verbally combative, they form a strong bond as their journey progresses.

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