NFSA Connects with Aunty Shirley Lomas

BY IMELDA COONEY

Christine Olsen and Aunty Shirley Lomas at the nationwide NFSA Connects session for Rabbit-Proof Fence

A scene of terrified children being snatched by a policeman while their mother struggles to grab them back was the focus of our most recent NFSA Connects event. 

Christine Olsen, screenwriter and producer of Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Aunty Shirley Lomas, a member of the stolen generations, shared their experiences with students studying the film.

Christine’s detailed description of the filming of the scene left no doubt that it was a harrowing experience for all who witnessed it. 

They only did one take — it felt so real that the actors and crew were emotionally drained.

Aunty Shirley’s testimony of being removed from her family at the age of three captured the attention of students, all of whom listened intently. Aunty Shirley’s inclusion was deeply appreciated. As one teacher commented, her ‘first-hand stories added an authenticity that can only come from guests who have actually experienced the situation.’

Other images from the film, such as the matron admonishing a dormitory of Aboriginal girls, helped illustrate what happened, but were also a trigger for Aunty Shirley’s memories.

Students were keen to learn where and how things were specifically filmed, how the young girls were prepared for the filming of the scene where they were stolen and how Christine gathered all the historical information that was included in the film.

Aunty Shirley’s memories took the discussion of the film to another dimension, with one student asking ‘What was it like to be stolen?’ Another wondered how our guests deal with stolen generation deniers. Aunty Shirley’s response was devastatingly simple and direct: ‘If you have something that belongs to you and I come and take it without your permission, that’s stealing.’

This NFSA Connects event was our first nationwide educational videoconference, taking schools from every state except the ACT. We partnered with Electroboard, a technology solutions company, which managed the successful connection of all schools as well as providing the venue where our guests gathered. More than that, this was an event requiring lots of supporters as teachers without dedicated videoconferencing equipment needed to seek out nearby institutions. Cooee PS travelled to the University of Tasmania Cradle Coast campus; Brunswick College in Victoria travelled to John Fawkner College and Geraldton Grammar in Western Australia connected from the Geraldton library.

Every school in NSW has its own videoconferencing equipment so Gulmarrad PS, Banora Point HS and Sydney Secondary College, Blackwattle bay campus, were able to stay put. Heatley SHS in Queensland and The Hutchins School in Tasmania are one of few schools in their respective states with videoconferencing. Casuarina College in the Northern Territory and New Norfolk HS in Tasmania were connected by alternative technology.

The feedback from schools is testament to how teachers and students felt: ‘The students were buzzing with excitement afterwards after hearing both from Christine and from Aunty Shirley; ‘Our school very much appreciated the information they received in this session. It was a first for our school to link with classrooms around Australia and with people from the film industry. A very exciting and successful experience’.

And Aunty Shirley? ‘As a member of the Stolen Generation I thoroughly enjoyed my first experience in an interactive videoconference setting discussing Rabbit-Proof Fence. This film resonates with Aboriginal people from all over Australia. To discuss my personal experience helped me in my journey of healing.’