From Sand to Celluloid - Two Bob Mermaid: ‘Swimmin’… that’s for white fellas’

From Sand to Celluloid - Two Bob Mermaid: ‘Swimmin’… that’s for white fellas’
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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Aboriginal kids cling to the fence that keeps them out of the pool area. In the pool, Koorine (Carrie Prosser) races a young girl (Megan Drury). They talk about being like Dawn Fraser and Esther Williams. Koorine’s friend convinces her to sign up for the annual competition and introduces her to Eleanor (Celia Keane), who calls the Aboriginal kids outside the fence ‘a bunch of monkeys’. Koorine talks to her mother (Tess Leahy) about being a swimmer like her heroes. Her mother tells her that swimming is for white fellas.

Summary by Romaine Moreton

Koorine is a character who for the moment is tempted by white privilege, and exploits her ability to pass as a white person. The class divide and the restriction of dreams imposed upon Koorine as a consequence of racism, is echoed in this clip.

Two Bob Mermaid Synopsis

A short drama, set in the 1950s, about an Aboriginal girl Koorine (Carrie Prosser) who is fair skinned and gains access to the local swimming pool where Aboriginal people are legally denied access.

Two Bob Mermaid Curator's Notes

Two Bob Mermaid is the directorial debut of Darlene Johnson. It is the story of Koorine (Carrie Prosser), a fair skinned Indigenous girl who ‘passes’ – allowing people to think you are white. Koorine dreams of becoming a famous swimmer. The title of the film refers to Esther William’s film Million Dollar Mermaid, a 'two bob’ mermaid creating a correlation between class and dreams. In order to achieve her dream Koorine lets the townspeople think that she is white so that she can gain access to the local swimming pool from which Aboriginal peoples are banned.

Two Bob Mermaid is visually stunning, and Johnson manages to tell quite a political story through the eyes of a child, whose innocent tendency to dream is restricted by the political restrictions imposed upon Aboriginal people during the period the film is set (1950s). The banning from swimming pools was a reality for Indigenous people up until racism was outlawed in Australia. Dr Charles Perkins during the Freedom Rides of 1967 encouraged Indigenous people to fight the bans. Indigenous peoples were made citizens of this country after the 1967 referendum.

Notes by Romaine Moreton

Education Notes

This clip shows Koorine (Carrie Prosser), a young Indigenous girl whose Indigenous identity is unknown to her school friends. Koorine lives in 1957 in a rural town where Aboriginal people are excluded from the swimming pool. After a race in the pool Koorine and her friend decide to enter a swimming carnival. In subsequent scenes Koorine hides her Indigenous identity from her friends by ignoring her brother, who calls her Tidda – meaning sister, and by not openly responding to racist comments made by her friends. At home when Koorine talks to her Aboriginal mother (Tessa Leahy) about her dream of being a great swimmer her mother replies: ‘Swimmin’ ... that’s for white fellas’.

Educational Value Points

  • The clip portrays the conflict between Koorine’s Aboriginal heritage and her dream of becoming a swimming star in a rural community where Indigenous people are excluded from the pool. Koorine is able to swim with her white friends because she is fair skinned and is thought by the pool manager to be non-Indigenous. Her dream of success at the carnival causes her to ignore her Aboriginal brothers and friends outside the fence at the swimming pool. In the face of the blatantly racist remarks made by her friends about Indigenous people she chooses to remain silent; however, she looks troubled.
  • The clip depicts the segregation of Aboriginal children at a swimming pool in the 1950s. At the time many local rural councils enforced a policy of segregation that banned Aboriginal people from some hotels, restaurants and public swimming pools. In most New South Wales country towns, and in other towns in Australia, Aboriginal people had to sit in separate sections of the theatre when attending the cinema.
  • Koorine’s mother responds dismissively to Koorine’s enthusiasm for swimming, reflecting the complexity of their situation. Being fair skinned, Koorine is able to ‘pass’ for white and so her dreams of swimming fame may seem more attainable to her, although she finds the deception troubling. Koorine’s mother, who has greater understanding of the challenges faced by her daughter and of the entrenched racist views in the town, sees Koorine’s ambitions as unrealistic.
  • Koorine refers to her heroes Dawn Fraser (1937–) and Esther Williams (1921–) in the clip. Fraser won eight Olympic Games medals and six Commonwealth Games gold medals during her career as a swimmer for Australia. Williams, a US swimmer and actress, appeared in 26 movies during the 1940s and 50s. The film’s title, Two Bob Mermaid, is an ironic reference to Williams’s movie Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).
  • Two Bob Mermaid (1996) is a short film that was written and directed by Darlene Johnson, a Dunghutti woman from the east coast of northern NSW. The film is included in an anthology of six short films from Indigenous filmmakers called From Sand to CelluloidTwo Bob Mermaid won the Film Critics Circle of Australia Award for Best Australian Short Film in 1996. Johnson’s other writing and directing credits include Stolen Generations (2000) and Gulpilil: One Red Blood (2002).

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Core Films
Antonia Barnard
Supervising producer:
Graeme Isaac
Darlene Johnson
Darlene Johnson
Produced with the assistance of the Indigenous Branch of the Australian Film Commission