Western Australia has a rich history of festivals celebrating and performing Aboriginal cultures. Two of the festivals held on the Perth Esplanade on the banks of the Swan River are represented in the NFSA.
The 1983 Aboriginal Arts in Perth Festival was billed as the first cultural event of its kind in Australia. People thronged to see the variety of performances by community singers, dancers and storytellers from Perth, Brisbane, Warmun (Turkey Creek), Mowanjum (Derby) and the Pitjantjara Lands. The festival also staged urban theatre with a performance by the cast of The Dreamers and music events with bands like Jimmy Chi and Kuckles singing Bran Nue Dae. There was also an exhibition of prisoners’ art introduced by artist Jimmy Pike, workshops demonstrating Aboriginal arts and crafts, and forums on cultural issues and education. Playwright Jack Davis commented in the festival brochure: ‘It’s a tremendous step forward in the revival of Aboriginal culture … We’ve been waiting for this nearly 200 years now’ (see Milliya Rumarra Brand New Day: Documentation, 1983. NFSA).
This now-historical festival was captured for posterity in the video Milliya Rumarra Brand New Day (1983). In a first for West Australia the directors, David Noakes and Bryan McLellan, trained an Aboriginal film crew to work with them. The documentary was launched in 1984 before audiences of Aboriginal men at Cannington and Fremantle Prisons, then at a special screening at the Film and Television Institute in Fremantle (produced and directed by David Noakes and Bryan McLellan, NFSA title: 251660).
The Kyana corroboree festivals held in Perth in 1991 and 1993 were a project of the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation. Festival coordinator Robert Eggington described the central theme as ‘cultural revival [to] strengthen future directions for our people and communities where communities can show and experience their rich Aboriginal heritage and cultural values’(15). They were Aboriginal celebrations that were planned, organised and performed by Aboriginal people (Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation, Kyana Corroboree, 1993, NFSA title: 267127).
The Kyana festivals were ambitious in scope. The 1993 festival had exhibitions of Aboriginal organisations from around the state, varieties of bush foods, historical photographs and arts and crafts. There were dancers from Perth, Warburton, Broome, Kalumbaru and Mornington Island and performances by local and interstate rock bands, notably one of Archie Roach’s first performances of ‘Took the Children Away’, and statements from Aboriginal leaders on issues of concern.
The 2000s ushered in an exciting new era in Aboriginal performing arts in Western Australia with more Aboriginal artists taking charge of representation at all levels. This followed trends around Australia. For example Screen Australia’s The Black List demonstrates the dramatic increase in Indigenous filmmakers nationally contributing to 9 feature films, 16 TV dramas and 275 documentaries from 2000 (16). There were new openings and audiences for Aboriginal performers with the establishment of the Indigenous owned and operated National Indigenous Television (NITV) in 2007. The breakthrough development was the advent of digital technology that revolutionised what could be done behind and in front of the camera, being less complicated, less expensive, more accessible, more immediate and altogether more attractive to a new cohort of Indigenous youth, and encouraging new partnerships between geographically distant organisations and communities.
West Australia had its first Aboriginal movie box-office hits in the 2000s demonstrating the national interest in local Aboriginal stories and performers. Phillip Noyce directed Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) based on Doris Garimara Pilkington’s book about the heroic trek of three Aboriginal girls escaping from Moore River Native Settlement back to their families (NFSA title: 507777). The feature film Bran Nue Dae (2009) by Aboriginal director Rachel Perkins (Arrente) had a mainly Aboriginal cast and crew (NFSA title: 792648). On national television there was the SBS TV series The Circuit (2007) set in the West Kimberley (NFSA title: 740552).
Between 2000 and 2011 the outstanding Broome director, producer, writer, researcher, actor and documentary maker Michelle Torres (Yawurru/Goonyandi) worked on 15 documentaries, including Jandamarra (2011). Michelle works with stories and family and friends from Broome and the West Kimberley. She explains that her films have ‘a message for everyone from all walks of life, all cultures, religion, whatever. So when I have found one that pulls at my heartstrings, I know it will have the same effect anywhere in the world.’(17)
Her documentaries are well represented in the NFSA collection. The film Case 442 (2005) tells the story of Frank Byrne. Byrne was taken from his mother at the age of five and only learned late in life that his mother was subsequently sent to a psychiatric hospital in Perth, where she died 18 years later. The film tells how he brought his mother’s remains back to her country in the Kimberley. In this clip from Case 442 Frank Byrne ponders ‘what purpose’ there was for sending him to a mission and ‘wrecking’ his life and his mother’s.