How did you first become involved with Indigenous communities?
Coming back from art school in London, everyone was listening to the bloody Rolling Stones and smoking dope. Sydney was just horrible and getting out of there was the first thing on my mind. I got asked by Gil Weaver who took kids from Redfern out to western New South Wales to take my puppet show around to Aboriginal communities. I developed these stories based on the beautiful Turkish shadow theatre tradition. It was political satire and the stories made fun of bureaucrats and police and authority figures. I landed in Brewarrina at a place called Dodge City – it was the toughest mission around – and the interesting thing was that all the kids immediately identified with these stories because of their situation. Immediately I sort of got adopted by those communities and was known as ‘the puppet man’.
And it was there that you met Indigenous activist, musician and filmmaker Essie Coffey?
Yeah, I lived with Essie at Dodge City. We used to travel around with my puppet show and Essie’s band and two other Aboriginal bands. We would hold dances and concerts in halls but no white people would ever come. I worked on Essie’s film My Survival as an Aboriginal (1978) with Martha Ansara, which came as a sort of counter to [Phil Noyce’s] Backroads. I had a reel-to-reel videotape recorder and Essie would say, ‘Go down and speak to the old people by the river’. The elderly ladies I spoke to mentioned being taken away and apprenticed out from a place called Cootamundra and that’s when I thought, ‘What is this?’.
What was your reaction to hearing about the Stolen Generations?
It’s hard to imagine now but there was nothing written about it. I thought, ‘What the hell are universities doing?’. I’ve stumbled over something just in one community – three elderly ladies talking about the shame of their lives being taken away – and there’s absolutely nothing I can read about this. The term ‘stolen generations’ had only just been coined but you’ve got to remember that that was just in a pamphlet that Peter Read had written at AIATSIS. I met Coral Edwards and she’d just made a short film (It’s a Long Road Back, 1981) and had started Link-Up. But that was about the level of it. There was a massive ignorance in Australia at that time. No one was interested in Indigenous Australia – Vietnam had absorbed a lot of people’s energy. The divide between the two worlds was something that most whites would never cross over.
The film incorporates both oral testimony and extensive footage drawn from newsreels in the NFSA collection. How did you begin compiling it?
Gerry [Bostock, who produced the film with Alec] and I would go down to Canberra to research at the National Library and stay in a caravan, we never had any money. Finding archival film was absolutely important because it was moving images of something that was being denied. You know, as they say, ‘the image doesn’t lie’. Being among Aboriginal people gave me some understanding of how the story should be told – I was very serious that it should be an Aboriginal face speaking directly to the camera. I asked one lady, ‘Why do you want to make this film?’. And she said, ‘Well I told my children about what happened to me and they’ve come back from the white school and said, “Oh no, you’re lying”’. You start to see history as this nasty piece of elimination – a lot of my work since that time has been to put back into history those sorts of episodes we’d like to take out.
Lousy Little Sixpence premiered at the Sydney Film Festival – what was the initial public reaction?
It was extremely well received. I think it came at a time – like Henry Reynolds’ book (The Other Side of the Frontier, 1981) – when Australians were kind of feeling that there’s a lot we didn’t know. It was like a secret country. At a certain point, when the story started to gather, I knew that it couldn’t be overlooked. It was such an important story because it affected so many people and anyone could identify with taking your children away.
The film was big for Aboriginal people. I still go to communities today in the Pilbara and people mention it because too often whites don’t stand up and tell it like it is. Just about every Aboriginal person I’ve ever met has said ‘You got it right.’ I wasn’t dwelling on the negatives. The side that got picked up was the children getting taken but the other side was the fact that Aboriginal people were the instigators of change. That’s why the second part of the film is about their organisations and you realise that without their push, nothing would have changed. It’s great that a film over 30 years old still has a life and I’m extremely proud of actually finishing it.
Lousy Little Sixpence screens at Black Chat on Wednesday 2 December, 6pm. Book online