NFSA Restores: The Coolbaroo Club
NFSA Restores: The Coolbaroo Club
Guest contributor Stephen Kinnane, the co-writer and co-producer of The Coolbaroo Club (1996) and a Marda Marda from Miriwoong Country, tells the story behind the award-winning documentary about the Coolbaroo League.
Warning: this article may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Formation of the League
The Coolbaroo Club (1996), winner of the 1996 Human Rights Award for Media, is a dramatised documentary that tells the story of the Coolbaroo League – a fiercely independent Aboriginal organisation that was created by Perth Aboriginal leaders in the spirit of equality, freedom and celebration of community.
'Coolbaroo' means ‘magpie’ in Yammatji, the language of two of the League's founders, Yammatji men George and Jack Poland. The name was chosen to represent Black and White coming together.
The Coolbaroo League, which ran the Coolbaroo Club, was formed in 1946 after the Second World War, an era of fervent political activity in Western Australia. Aboriginal service members, such as the Poland brothers, who risked their lives at war returned as non-citizens to a world of continued segregation, prohibited area laws, controlled menial labour and co-habitation laws that segregated Black and White. Located on Whadjuk Noongar Country, the City of Perth (Boorloo) had become home to thousands of Aboriginal people from the over 100 language groups that exist within the boundaries of the state of Western Australia.
Aboriginal people lived in what were known as the slums of East Perth, in reserves and camps pocketed throughout the city, and eked out their living on the margins of White society. By the Second World War years, the community survived in these Black spaces in the White city, avoiding authorities but without any place of their own where they could gather as a people.
Time for Change
In 1946, Aboriginal pastoral workers had begun the Pilbara Strike and Aboriginal people were learning of civil rights movements in the United States. Founders of the League – such as Helena Clarke (Yawuru), Bill Bodney (Noongar) and Ronnie Kickett (Noongar) – decided the time was right for change. They created the Coolbaroo Club dances, just outside the edge of the Prohibited Area of Perth boundary in Aboriginal East Perth, and the League never looked back.
The Coolbaroo Club’s popular dance nights were attended by Indigenous people from all over the city and from neighbouring camps and towns. They also attracted Black musicians, performers and celebrities from all over the world, some of whom were barred from performing in other venues.
Club guests included Nat King Cole, Harold Blair, Albert Namatjira and the Harlem Globetrotters. The League published a newspaper, The Westralian Aborigine, and became a political organisation advocating for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues and changes to the laws that affected their lives until 1962. Then its members transformed their advocacy into the Aboriginal Advancement League and focused their efforts on achieving success at the 1967 referendum.
The Making of the Coolbaroo Club
I’m a Marda Marda from Miriwoong Country, raised in Noongar Country. From 1988 to 1992 my non-Indigenous partner and collaborator, writer Lauren Marsh, and I finished a major oral history project focused on Aboriginal child removals in WA. During many interviews as witnesses shared harrowing stories of removal and also personal stories of survival, memories of the Coolbaroo Dances of the 1940s and 1950s were a common thread of hope, joy and achievement – something people cherished.
Hearing of an opportunity with the then WA Film and Television Institute (FTI), we submitted a detailed treatment that we worked up into a script which was supported by local FTI Development Producer, Pieter Aquilia. By 1993 the project’s scope and breadth had grown to receive development support from the WA Film Commission and the Australian Film Commission (now Screen Australia), which enabled script editing by Sydney-based Murri Artist and filmmaker, Tracey Moffatt and WA-based drama editor, Ken Kelso. Coolbaroo Club docudrama script in hand, we attended the 1993 International Documentary Conference in Sydney looking to recruit a director.
Aboriginal filmmakers at that time were few and far between – and busy. We plumbed film community contacts for leads. Carole Sklan (Australian Film Commission) and David Noakes (Film Finance Corporation) were supportive. Producer Sue Maslin recommended Melbourne-based producer Penny Robins, and with Penny on board as producer, we approached the multi-talented, Melbourne-based drama and documentary director, and cinematographer, Roger Scholes.
We needed a director who could work faithfully with witnesses to realise the depth of memory, imagery and biography and create a dramatic interpretation of the club in the absence of an archival record. Like Penny, Roger set out with heart and soul to help realise the ambitions of the film. Next followed the path to financing the film beginning with an ABC commission, support from Film Victoria and a distribution guarantee from Ronin Films, who remain our partner distributor to this day.
We carefully built a wonderful team of performers and composers and a sympathetic production crew. Musicians and singers were key to the Coolbaroo Dances. Perth-based musical director, and Grammy Award-winning musician, Lucky Oceans collaborated with renowned local Yindjibarndi jazz singer Lois Olney to create a beautifully haunting original soundtrack, grounded in Lois’ lived experience and Lucky’s ear and interest in songs of resistance and freedom. Coolbaroo’s editor, Tony Stevens, has a big CV in music films and he and Roger drilled in to achieve the shared vision – interlacing archive, memory and drama – respectfully and creatively.
We were successful in securing a short national theatrical release of The Coolbaroo Club from Palace Films prior its initial screening on ABC TV in 1996. Since that time, The Coolbaroo Club has screened to thousands of people across many generations and is regularly shown on NITV. Its story lives on through the work of programs such as NFSA Restores, so that it can be shared for future generations.
— Stephen Kinnane
Associate Professor Stephen Kinnane is a Marda Marda from Miriwoong Country, raised in Noongar Country. He has been a researcher, writer and lecturer for more than 20 years and is Co-Chair of Indigenous Studies, Nulungu Research Institute at the The University of Notre Dame Australia.
With thanks to Penny Robins for her input to this account.
The NFSA restoration of The Coolbaroo Club premiered at the 2023 Melbourne International Film Festival.
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Main image: People dancing at the Coolbaroo Club. A re-creation from The Coolbaroo Club, 1996. NFSA title: 1728132