Babakiueria: 'This strange and fascinating people'

Babakiueria: 'This strange and fascinating people'
Made with the assistance of the Babikiuerian Film Commission
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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Presenter Duranga Manika (Michelle Torres) describes her fascination with white people and their customs and explains how she spent six months living with a ‘typical white family’ (Tony Barry, Cecily Polson, Kelan Angel, Margeurita Haynes). She also asks members of the general public for their opinions on white people and speaks to the Minister for White Affairs (Bob Maza).

Summary by Kate Matthews

Atherden’s script takes stereotypes of Australian culture and, with tongue-in-cheek humour, views them as though for the first time, as mysterious, alien and strange. Here, the barbecue is singled out. Elsewhere Manika describes the football match as ritualised violence and betting at the TAB as a religion, while a police commissioner calls the Anzac Day March a ritual where white people ‘honour their warrior ancestors’ but wonders why it can’t be done at home.

Presenter Duranga Manika’s ethnographic study of white people simplifies, patronises and mystifies her subjects. Every mundane detail of this one family’s everyday life is invested with serious cultural significance. Bob Maza’s Minister for White Affairs compresses a history of government treatment of Indigenous Australians into one self-satisfied, authoritative figure. It is interesting that while these characters treat ‘white’ culture with such fascination, they treat ‘black’ culture as such a given that the audience does not find out much about it.

It is worth comparing the vox pops here with the remarkably similar 1965 interview footage shown in Rachel Perkins’s documentary Blood Brothers – Freedom Ride (1993). For more insight into first contact and the historical attitudes of colonisers, see Ivo Burum’s documentary Benny and the Dreamers (1992), which contrasts contemporary interviews with Pintubi people recalling their first contact with white people, with archival footage showing the perspective of white missionaries.

Title Synopsis

This is a drama pretending to be an ethnographic documentary examining the customs of the white natives of ‘Babakiueria’, from the perspective of the country’s black colonisers.

Babakiueria is named as a result of first contact between the colonisers and the natives. Arriving at a barbecue area, the settlers ask the locals, ‘What’s this place called?’. Presenter Duranga Manika (Michelle Torres) looks back at this moment and at white people’s place in contemporary Babakiuerian society. She also spends time with a ‘typical’ white family.

Title Curator's Notes

Babakiueria uses role reversal to satirise and critique Australia’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples. Aboriginal actors play the colonisers, while white actors play the indigenous Babakiuerians. The filmmakers have fun presenting Australian cultural stereotypes like the barbecue and football as strange ‘native customs’ seen through the eyes of an ethnographic observer, presenter Duranga Manika.

According to director Don Featherstone, the question of how to portray both black colonisers and white colonised was the subject of a lot of discussion during development. Ultimately, rather than involving any profound representation of their respective cultures, the transposition is literally skin deep: black people colonising a land of white inhabitants.

The ruling Babakiuerians demonstrate a paternalistic, patronising attitude towards the 'natives’, even the well-meaning but comically condescending presenter Manika. In some cases, Indigenous cast members based their characters’ mannerisms on white Australian public figures – for instance, Featherstone says Bob Maza based his Minister for White Affairs on Queensland’s premier at the time, Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

At the heart of the story is a single white family, who are subject to attitudes, laws and social experiments drawn from the past 200 years of Australia’s history. These include being branded as lazy, having their daughter removed from them and then their home.

Babakiueria was made in 1986, two years before Australia marked its bicentenary of white settlement with extensive public celebrations. In reference to this, Babakiueria’s dominant culture prepare to celebrate their own anniversary of colonisation. Meanwhile Babakiueria’s central indigenous white family respond to their situation with helpless containment, seeming loath to reveal their true sentiments to the cameras. Other works exploring the bicentenary include the documentary One People Sing Freedom (1988) and comedy series D-Generation – Series 1 Episode 1 (1985).

The relationship between subjects and camera is an important element. The mockumentary form allows Babakiueria to approach its serious themes with a light touch. The film has the appearance of a contemporary documentary but also recalls the tone of early ethnographic films, photography and written reports.

Featherstone’s experience as a documentary director is why producer Julian Pringle approached him for the job. Featherstone approaches the film as a documentary, using a tripod-mounted camera for interviews and hand-held cameras for more ‘unexpected’ moments. The film is largely shot on location. Notably, a scene at the Anzac Day march was filmed at the actual event.

Recent Australian mockumentaries include feature film Kenny (2006) and Chris Lilley’s TV series We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year (2005) and Summer Heights High (2007). Kath and Kim (2002–present), while not purely a mockumentary, also uses elements of the form to poke fun at Australian suburban life. Rob Reiner’s mockumentary This is Spinal Tap (1984, US) made international waves not long before Babakiueria’s release.

Screenwriter Geoffrey Atherden wrote the landmark sitcom Mother and Son (1984–93) about a man’s relationship with his aging mother. It is interesting that one of the aspects of white culture that he singles out for comment is the abandonment of elderly people in homes.

Babakiueria was produced in-house for the ABC, as part of a series of stand-alone short dramas. As well as screening on ABC television, it screened for many years in the Australian Museum. Internationally, it was awarded a 1987 United Nations Media Peace Award.

Notes by Kate Matthews


Production Company:
Julian Pringle
Don Featherstone
Geoffrey Atherden
Peter Crosbie
Kelan Angel, Tony Barry, Soul Bellear, Athol Compton, Kati Edwards, Marguerita H Haynes, Bob Maza, Cecily Polson, Terry Reid, Yvonne Shipley, Kevin Smith, Michelle Torres, Garry Williams