Only 22 million people live on this massive continent, but judging by the number of Australian documentaries premiering at the 22nd International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, which ran from November 19 to 29, the Ozzie film industry is alive and kicking. The majority of the films highlighted an aspect of this vast country that makes it so unique and at the same time so complex.
Contact between Aboriginals and ‘Whitefellas’
One of these was Contact (Martin Butler and Bentley Dean), in competition for the IDFA Feature-Length Documentary Award. In 1964, the Australian government was conducting rocket launch tests in the Great Sandy Desert (Western Australia), thought to be uninhabited. In fact, 20 Martu women and children, the last Aboriginal group to be discovered, were living a traditional, nomadic life in the area where the test debris was due to fall.
Two patrol officers discovered the group and tried to approach them and move them to safety. This extraordinary first contact was recorded on film. Contact uses this archive footage, interviews with eye-witnesses and images of the starkly beautiful desert itself. But most of this remarkable story is told, reconstruction style, by the 62-year-old Aboriginal Yuwali, who was 17 when she first encountered the ‘whitefellas’.
Speaking in her native language, with a few words of English dropped in here and there, Yuwali recreates the moment of contact with the same miscomprehension and terror she experienced at the time. Seeing the patrol officers’ truck for the first time, she thought the group was being chased by a roaring monster with burning yellow eyes. And so scared was the group of being eaten by the white “devil men”, who looked like they had been “peeled”, that they retreated further into the desert.
The group was eventually tracked down a few months later, clothed and shipped off to a mission several hundred kilometers away, bringing an abrupt end to their traditional lifestyle.
Yuwali is a simple but evocative narrator and is given the space to tell her story without comment or interference by the filmmakers. Contact is a powerful documentary that weaves together Yuwali’s personal history with the history of Australia and its treatment of indigenous peoples.
Comedy in The Matilda Candidate
Also screening was The Matilda Candidate. Directed by filmmaker Curtis Levy (The President Versus David Hicks), in his latest documentary he is seen in front of the camera running for the Australian Senate on a single ticket: the popular folksong ‘Waltzing Matilda’ for the national anthem.
The doc shows Curtis running a chaotic, under-funded campaign, guided by his long-suffering volunteer campaign manager Jo Smith. This is set to a soundtrack of 26 different renditions of the titular song, from opera singer and didgeridoo player to Curtis’ ring tone.
The documentary is filled with deadpan humor and banter, particularly between the two main characters, but its intent is to raise serious questions about Australia’s identity and status as a monarchy, with a head of state who lives on the other side of the world, and to reignite the public debate about the country becoming a republic.
My Uncle Bluey Depicts Family Conflict
In her 17-minute documentary, in competition for IDFA Best Short Documentary Award, young Australian filmmaker Britt Arthur paints a poignant picture of family strife and unresolved conflict. For 30 years, her father and grandfather have refused to talk about her uncle Robert. Determined to find out more about this mysterious relative, who she has never met she succeeds in getting them to open up about him on camera. Not long after, they receive the news that he has died.
With her father, Arthur travels 1,000 miles to Robert’s funeral, where they meet his new family, a community of Aboriginals, who called him Bluey. And they describe a very different man from the one who disappeared three decades early.
Three very different documentaries but all with a unique Australian flavor. IDFA’s full 2009 program can be found on the film festival website.