The premiere of the digitally restored groundbreaking film Wrong Side of the Road (Ned Lander, Australia, 1981) at the 60th Sydney Film Festival in 2013 gave the NFSA a unique opportunity to not only celebrate the restoration of this important film, but to recognise the achievements of those involved and to honour the memory of those that have passed.
Warning: this article may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The NFSA Indigenous Connections team worked with director Ned Lander and producer Graeme Isaac to reunite the 10 surviving Aboriginal cast members in Sydney.
We wanted to conduct a series of oral history interviews to capture some of the stories about making Wrong Side of the Road, as well as explore the impact this film has had on their lives and that of communities across Australia.
The significance of this event was evident when everyone arrived in Sydney, with pioneers of Aboriginal music and members of the bands No Fixed Address and Us Mob joining friends and associates.
It was a very emotional experience for everyone involved. Some were reconnecting after a 20-year period. Others were reflecting on their shared experiences of the trials and tribulations of challenging adversity through music, experiences that became the foundation of the film.
For the Indigenous Connections team, it was an honour to work with these legends of Aboriginal music and a humbling experience to have them share their stories with the NFSA.
The songs of No Fixed Address and Us Mob gave voice to the concerns of the Aboriginal community at that time. Their uncompromising and politically charged music and lyrics challenged mainstream society's views about Aboriginal people, and this was reinforced by the release of the film.
The oral history project undertaken by the Indigenous Connections team highlighted the significance of capturing these stories. The interviews gave band and cast members an opportunity to tell their stories about their involvement in the film, its social and political message and the connection with their music. A wide range of issues was discussed including racism, deaths in custody, identity and land rights.
These stories, entwined with the powerful messages portrayed within the film, ensure that a greater appreciation and continued understanding of the film and its important message comes from the essential element of the Aboriginal voice. The importance of the NFSA in facilitating this appreciation and understanding was highlighted during both the oral history project and the screening of the film.
Watch a clip from Wrong Side of the Road:
While there was cause for much celebration and reflection during the event, there was also a deep sense felt by many that now more than ever there was a need for the challenging messages within both Wrong Side of the Road and the music of No Fixed Address and Us Mob.
Many felt deep disappointment that in the three decades since the film was made, not much has changed in the experiences of many Indigenous Australians from those conveyed within the film.
The Indigenous Connections team feel it is important to capture the stories of No Fixed Address and Us Mob to ensure that the bands' legacies can be found within the national audiovisual collection.
This 1981 documentary-style drama follows the Indigenous bands Us Mob, Coloured Stone and No Fixed Address as they move from gig to gig in South Australia. It is partly a road movie, as well as a protest film, a political film and a rock film.
It came out of the Centre for Studies of Aboriginal Music (CASM) at the University of Adelaide, where Graeme Isaac (who co-wrote and co-produced the film) was helping young Aboriginal people to form bands. Dorothy Leila Rankine was involved in the founding of CASM, and her daughter Gayle was one of the students who appeared in the film.
Isaac told australianscreen online, 'We wanted to take an audience, principally a white audience, onto the other side of the road for a while. And just to have them share in the day-to-day experiences of a group of young black Australians.'
Wrong Side of the Road, directed by Ned Lander, evolved as a collaboration between the filmmakers, the community and the musicians featured in the film. Although it has a strong documentary feel to it, the film is a constructed drama.
Its themes and content – including the personal stories woven throughout – emerged from workshopping the central characters. Much of the dialogue in the scenes was improvised by the actors, based on their own experiences.
Watch Wrong Side of the Road interviews with Bart Willoughby, Graeme Isaac and Gayle Rankine on our website and see more interviews on our YouTube channel.
You can stream Wrong Side of the Road in full as part of the Buwindja collection on NFSA Player.
This article was first published in 2013 and updated in 2023. It includes content from the Wrong Side of the Road entry on australianscreen online by Romaine Moreton and Paul Byrnes.
Main image: a scene from Wrong Side of the Road (1981). NFSA title: 26957