WARNING: this article contains names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
In February 2022, the NFSA screened the documentary Ablaze (2021) in Arc cinema. After the screening, Public Programs Manager Karina Libbey hosted a Q&A with co-directors Tiriki Onus and Alec Morgan:
Ablaze tells of Bill Onus, a Yorta Yorta/Wiradjuri man from Victoria, and a truly heroic cultural and political figure. He revived his people’s culture in the 1940s and ignited a civil rights movement that would, against enormous odds, change the course of history.
Ablaze is the compelling tale – part detective story, part contemporary opera – of how Bill and his supporters brilliantly orchestrated their campaign for equality through performance, entertainment, film and sheer audacity and outsmarted mighty forces seeking to destroy Indigenous cultures, languages and communities.
The story is told by Bill's grandson Tiriki through rare archival footage, state-of-the-art animation, vividly created digital motion graphics and eyewitness accounts. Learn more about how that footage came to light in the NFSA collection from Simon Drake, below.
We were honoured to be able to share Tiriki’s family story, shed light on Australia’s first Aboriginal filmmaker and have a robust discussion about these topics with Tiriki, co-director Alec Morgan and our audience.
BY SIMON DRAKE
Sometimes documentaries have a long gestation period. In the late 1990s, while researching the documentary series Our Century, Alec and I recognised Bill Onus, Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls and the opera singer Harold Blair in a film in the NFSA’s collection with the given title Aborigines in the Community (NFSA Title No. 64).
The 35mm black-and-white film was approximately 10 minutes in duration, silent and included close-ups of a number of (at the time) unidentified Aboriginal people in and around Fitzroy, Melbourne in the late 1940s. It culminated in a stage play in which a pair of Aboriginal people are chained by a white man.
Years later, while researching another archival TV series Raising the Curtain (2012), about the history of theatre in Australia, Alec realised that the play was likely a performance of White Justice at Melbourne’s New Theatre in August 1946, featuring Bill Onus’ Australian Aborigines League and the Margaret Walker Dance Group. The play was a response to the first Indigenous stockworkers' strike in the Pilbara, which began in May 1946.
After Alec had commenced post-doctoral research at Macquarie University, he mentioned the film to his friend, opera singer Tiriki Onus, grandson of Bill (and son of the artist Lin Onus). Tiriki told him about a cache of photos he’d found in his mother’s house, including one that showed Bill with a 35mm movie camera filming a group of young Aboriginal men preparing for corroboree.
Alec recognised the photo as a production still from the unidentified film, thus setting in motion an archival detective story about the film found in the NFSA collection.
Tiriki and Alec decided to make a documentary about their search. With veteran producer Tom Zubrycki on board, they received funding from the Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Fund, Film Victoria, Screen Australia, the Australian Documentary Foundation, Create NSW and Macquarie University.
The resulting film, Ablaze, reveals that Bill Onus, who grew up on the Cummeragunga mission, learned about movie-making while working as an assistant on Charles Chauvel’s Uncivilised (1936) and later as a cultural advisor to Harry Watt on The Overlanders (1945). Furthermore (spoiler alert), we discover that Onus was our first Aboriginal filmmaker. Previously, it was thought that Bruce McGuinness and his 1972 film Black Fire – in which Sir Doug Nicholls also participated – had that honour.
The NFSA had completed a preservation scan of the only film component of Aborigines in the Community in 2018 for Australia in Colour series 1 (co-directed by Alec). When we provided a copy of the footage to the Onus family, they were able to identify many of the people in the film.
They included other members of the Onus family; Captain Reginald Saunders, the most highly decorated Indigenous person to serve Australia in the Second World War; Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls, preaching inside his church in Fitzroy; and unique footage of the great David Unaipon, who appears on the $50 note.
Main image: Tiriki Onus, co-director of Ablaze.