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Representations of Indigenous People in Film and Text

The play "Radiance",and the novel "The Day of the Dog" represented in film as "Blackfellas" contain representations of Aboriginal people that centre on similarity to Anglo-Australians as well as difference. The problem of ascertaining whether these representations of Aboriginality are "authentic" is examined as well as the issues of subjectivity, censorship and racism.

"Radiance" and "Blackfellas" were both written by white Australian males. Archie Weller, however, the writer of "Blackfellas", describes himself as an Indigenous Australian (Stretton, Interview). As the question of Weller’s Aboriginality is a contentious one, I am including a third film by an Indigenous writer, "Bran Nue Dae" for examination and analysis.

The question of Weller’s identity as an Aboriginal should probably be referred to the Aboriginal community to which he claims to belong. From my point of view as an Anglo- Australian, I am inclined to perceive him as non-Indigenous because of his white appearance. However, the Commonwealth definition of Aboriginality is that "it is more social then racial. An Aboriginal person is defined as a person who is a descendant of an indigenous inhabitant of Australia, identifies as Aboriginal, and is recognized as Aboriginal by members of the community in which he or she lives as Aboriginal" (Langton, 29). Archie Weller, however, would not suffer the alienation of "difference" based on darker skin colour or non-Anglo facial characteristics.

The question of the ‘authentic’ representation of Aboriginal characters is problematic in film and novels which are written as ‘fiction’. Literary narrative or fiction is "feigned or invented, and does not purport to be historical truth" (Abrams, 62). The concern with the question of the "truth-value" or fictional text has been taken up by philosophers and literary critics such as Abrams and James Phelan who have asserted that ‘fictional sentences’ – "which seem to refer to nonexistent persons, places, and events – are to be taken as references to a special world ‘created’ by the author, which is analogous to the real world, but contains its own settings, beings and mode of coherance" (Abrams, 62). I.A. Richards and others have held that fiction is a "form of emotive language, composed of pseudostatements; and that whereas a statement in "referential language" is "justified by its truth, i.e. its correspondence... with the fact to which it points" a pseudostatement " is justified entirely by its effect in releasing or organising our attitudes (Richards qtd Abrams, 63).

The distinction between the theme or thesis of a work and the description of scenes, persons, events is made by most modern theorists, however. The central or controlling generalisations or theme of the work which may be "implied", "suggestive" or "inferrable" function as "assertions that claim truth, and that therefore serve to relate the fictional narrative to the factual and moral world of actual human experience" (Hospers qtd Abrams, 63).

Unlike writers of historical documents or biographical works, writers of fiction claim an immunity from accountability for the veracity of their work while at the same time, implicitly or explicitly, make assertions that claim truth and are able to shape or confirm readers’ perception of events, people and places.   The role of the beliefs of the reader in this interaction with text is a topic taken up by W.J. Rooney, M.H. Abrams, W.B. Michaels and others. The problem raised is the extent to which a "reader’s moral, religious, and social convictions, as they coincide with or diverge from those explicitly or implicitly put forth in a work, determine the interpretations, imaginative acceptability, and evaluation of that work by the reader" (Abrams, 64).

Marcia Langton comments on the way in which the persistence of racist representations of Indigenous people are linked to the "viewers’ ideological framework" (Langton, 24). However, she states that "to demand complete control of all representation .. is to demand censorship, to deny the communication which none of us can prevent" (Langton,10). Instead, Langton stresses the importance of placing Aboriginal people in a "social relationship with the filmmaking and television world in an analytical sense" (Langton, 26). "We need to contribute to the decentering of Western culture" by entering into a "dialogue with the other culture .. within frameworks we bring with us" (Langton, 25).

Anne Hutton states that "misrepresentation of blacks and their history and culture and over-simplification of moral/social issues (historical or contemporary) will continue until they, and all groups, are able to counter hegemonic attitudes with films of their own" (Hutton, 333). This point of view is reiterated by Graeme Turner in "Breaking the Frame: The representation of Aborigines in Australian Film", where he examines the problems inherent in "white Australian academics attempting to step outside their ideological frame and interrogate white Australia’s construction of the Aboriginal" (Turner, 135).

The importance of the countering of hegemonic attitudes by people from minority groups is also stressed by Karen Jennings. However, she adds that handing the camera over to the subject will not automatically restore the subject and convert the process into a "transparent act of auto-inscription" (Michaels, qtd Jennings, 76). Therefore, Jennings stresses the importance of distinguishing "between racist and liberatory constructions regardless of the identity or race of the producer" (Pettman, qtd Jennings, 77). According to Jennings the recognition of racist constructions of identities involves an analysis which defines difference while recognising "affinity across category boundaries" (Pettman, qtd Jennings, 77).

Therefore, it seems that the logical course for me to take in my examination of the construction of Aboriginality in the films "Radiance", "Blackfellas" and "Bran Nue Dae" is to define differences between white Australians and Aboriginals while recognising similarities. However, this is not as simple as it sounds. The very process of defining differences and similarities suggests a homogeneousness that does not exist in either culture (Langton, 27).

"Blackfellas" is set in Perth and describes the activities of groups of Aborigines who may loosely be described as Nyungar (as a general term to refer to descendants of Aboriginal people in the southwest of Western Australia). I have followed the lead of Palmer and Collard in using the general term Nyungar in this essay to include the Wongi, Yamagi, Nunga, Mirrie, Koori, Tiwi and other generic or regional groups of Aboriginal people (Palmer, 115).

The main characters in "Blackfellas" are Doug Dooligan, Floyd ‘Pretty Boy’ Davis, Silver, Polly and her sister, Valeris. Doug Dooligan is described as ‘thin, forlorn and shabby’ (Weller, 7), a description that could apply equally to white or black. Doug shares his father, Carey’s dream of returning to their black ancestor’s land – "what happened to all his father’s dreams of owning his special little piece of country that has all belonged to his ancestor’s once?" (Weller, 28). This aspiration could be also ascribed to dispossessed white Australians. However, it is generally accepted that the Aboriginal attitude to land involves a deep sense of belonging and a spiritual meaning that is non-existent in Anglo-Australian culture where land is regarded as a possession which can be traded off for profit making purposes and/or used for the purpose of increasing an individual’s status. In Veronica Brady’s words: land "to its Aboriginal inhabitants .. is the source of life, material, an aspect of memory, of all that is abiding, sustaining and worshipful. It is not a mere contrast of self and world, as in colonial ideology" (Brady, 298). Doug’s work skills and aspirations centre on rural activities. Historically, the Nyungar were instructed in animal husbandry and agriculture by early white settlers who needed labourers for their farms (Attwood, 32).

Doug, together with Floyd and Silver (a white Australian) are involved in repeated brawls with each other and other Aboriginals as well as binge drinking and criminal activities. These activities are in accordance with popular stereotypes and assumptions made about the Nyungar people (Palmer, 115). However, as Palmer and Collard point out, the overwhelming majority of Nyungar young people are not involved in substance abuse, violence or crime (Palmer, 116). "Blackfellas", however, misleadingly represents the activities of these characters as the norm.

The theme of ‘cultural disintegration’ central to "Blackfellas" is expressed repeatedly in the representation of the characters and in the tone of hopelessness that pervades the novel:

There would always be husbands drunk and brothers gambling and sons in jail and fighting and swearing and everyone giving up. (Weller, 15).

Polly, Doug’s girlfriend is "like most Aboriginal girls of her age .. ‘on the run’ from the Community Welfare Department" (Weller, 12). "At the age of three she was taken from her sad, drunken wreck of a mother and placed in Sister Kate’s home where she remained with a kindly cottage mother for two years before being reclaimed by a grandmother influenced in part by vague feelings of affection but even more by a desire to claim the child endowment" (Weller, 12). The grandmother is represented to the reader as a person whose traditional ideas of kinship have been distorted into a way of extorting money.

The theme of ‘cultural disintegration’ is based on the misconception that "Aboriginal cultures are merely remnants of an imperfectly remembered traditional past, particularly for those living in urban or fringe areas" (Moore qtd Palmer, 117). Palmer and Collard assert that "contrary to popular view, distinctly Nyungar languages and practices continue to exist in urban centres like Perth" (Palmer, 117). Not only do distinctly Nyungar language and practices continue to exist but the proximity of cultures has resulted in the adoption of aspects of Nyungar culture by white youth.

The most apparent adaptations are evidenced in language changes. "On the inner city streets of Perth, non-Aboriginal young people can be heard warning their colleagues about emerging ‘monarch’ (Nyungar term for police), perhaps joking about the last time they had a ‘moony’ (sexual intercourse) or frequently ending their sentences in ‘unna'" (isn’t that right) (Palmer, 120).

The Aboriginal people depicted in "Bran Nue Dae" (based on Aboriginal people from Broome), are markedly different from those represented in "Blackfellas". Far from giving up, they are representative of a "lively and thriving present day Aboriginal culture that takes and integrates diverse influences from other cultures, as well as contemporising and mimicking "traditional" Aboriginal concepts, all of which contribute to its distinct Aboriginality" (Neumann qtd Palmer, 117). Bran Nue Dae exemplifies one of the sites of difference between Aboriginal culture and Australian culture – that of ‘identity’. The notion of ‘discrete individual personality’ is a concept particular to white culture. In the context of ‘traditional culture’, Aboriginals define themselves more in ‘terms of social roles within a system of kin relationships’ (Attwood, 138). In Bran Nue Dae characters are not drawn in the Western tradition with its emphasis on using characterisation to personify good and evil. Instead , characters occupy social roles within the movie thereby reflecting Aboriginal concepts.

The concept of solidarity based on kin appears to be represented by the Aboriginals in Blackfellas, especially in the area of revenge. Doug and Lloyd spend most of their time avoiding the Nylers. The ‘war’ with the Nylers, which has carried on for generations, however, represents a division within a family.

There is a story that there were five sisters who all had a fight once, years ago. From that time on, all the sister’s children and their children’s children kept the fight up. The older people in the camps or houses would keep the memories smouldering, like coals ready to stir up into heat. Then the younger kinsmen would burst forth like flames into flickering violence. (Weller, 55)

Whereas Western literature is based on a ‘sin culture’, Aboriginal cultures are based more on ‘shame’ (Attwood, 50). This ‘shame’ culture includes a strong sense of pride and a sensitivity to the opinion of the wider group (Attwood, 50). This difference is evidenced in "Blackfellas" where Silver is able to ‘shame’ Floyd into participation in a robbery against his better judgement: "The thing is you’re too gutless to try for the big time"..."(Floyd) cannot lose his pride; that is all he has" (Weller, 155). The robbery, Doug’s separation from Polly and Doug’s death as a result of a police chase occur in "The Day of the Dog". In "Blackfellas" , Floyd is vindicated at the end as he gives up his life for Doug and Polly who escape into the night.

In Blackfellas, the male characters play a central determining role, while the female characters, Polly and Valerie in particular, have their life events determined for them by their respective males. Valerie loses her flat and has to move to a camp on the outskirts of Perth because of Floyd’s actions and Polly follows Doug to the country to help him look after his land.

In Louis Nowra’s play "Radiance", males are absent and the characters are all Aboriginal women. Set on the central Queensland coast at Kinka Beach near Yeppoon, the play was written with the actresses , Rachael Maza, Lydia Miller and Rhoda Roberts in mind (Nowra, v). Three half-sisters come together for their mother’s funeral.

The three characters, Mae, Cressy and Nona are initially symbolically constructed according to the clothes they are wearing. Mae wears a ‘dowdy black dress’ (Nowra, 1), Nona ‘made up for a party’ wears a ‘little black dress’ (1), "looking like a streetwalker" (6) and Cressy is dressed in a ‘stylish and expensive black dress’ (6). Their depictions centre on ‘sin-based’ Western stereotypes – those of a ‘good, respectable woman’ , a ‘sinner’ or ‘fallen woman’, and a ‘modern woman’.

The theme of secrets and lies dominates the play as each woman reveals a secret that she has kept all her life and in the process uncovers the lies that have been told to conceal these secrets. By the end of the play we learn that Mae is not all she seems, that beneath her facade of respectability lies an obsessiveness that expresses itself in secret drinking and an affair with a married doctor that resulted in criminal action. "I showered him with presents ... nicking the money from the nurses fund". (Nowra, 39). After she was caught, she ended up with a good behaviour bond and had to pay back the money she stole.

Nona reveals her obsession with her unknown father, the ‘Black Prince’ and expresses her secret desire to have a sexual relationship with him (Nowra, 51). Cressy, ‘angry and anguished’ by Nona’s fantasy reveals her secret. She is not Nona’s half-sister but her mother. One of her mother’s boyfriends raped her when she was twelve and Nona was the result. (Nowra, 52).

Each female character in the play is constructed as consisting of contradictions and moral dichotomies. The character, Mae, revels irreconcilable contradictions as she shifts between respectability, where she chides Nona for her choice of dress, to the description of her obsessive love and her secret drinking habits. Her obsession with burning down the house they no longer have a right to, is realized at the end of the play (Nowra, 49).

Cressy, ostensibly a successful Opera singer, reveals that she too, is dysfunctional in her own way. While on tour, she developed a habit of stacking all the furniture in her sleep. (Nowra, 25).. She explains her aberration in terms of ‘overwork and strain’ (25). Both Cressy and Mae were removed from their mother at an early age and placed in the care of Nuns. Their ‘successful’ careers as a nurse and an opera singer, respectively, may be inferred to be a result of this removal (especially when compared with the child who stayed with her mother, Nona, and her lack of ‘achievements’). In this way, Nowra is reinforcing a popular traditional assumption that Aboriginal people can only achieve the white Australian concept of ‘success’ if they are removed from their Aboriginal parents.

Nona switches between sentimentality and sensuous sexuality. Her fantasy surrounding her father represents one of the more obvious moral dichotomies. She sentimentalises the burning of cane on the Weller’s plantation and interprets it as a sign of love for her mother. "Maybe he’s burning it off in Mum’s honour" (Nowra, 37). Nona enjoys arousing the priest at her mother’s funeral with her short dress and lack of undergarments (10).

In his interview with Candida Baker, Nowra described his family as "a unit that existed in silences, secrets and not touching" (Baker, 243). Nowra also revealed his theory that ‘madness is something that happens when a person can’t reconcile the opposites or contradictions within themselves". According to Louis Nowra, recovery from madness entails the reconciliation of opposites (254).

By interpreting the representations in the play within the framework of Louis Nowra’s theories on madness, I have to come to the conclusion that each female character is a representation of "irreconcilable differences" or "madness". Therefore, the play "Radiance" is in my opinion, primarily a representation of the theme of madness. The characters represented in the play are superimposed on this theme and could have been portrayed by white Australians.

In Von Sturmer’s words, "every act of representation involves a positioning of self: each act of representation is an act of self-representation." (Von Sturmer qtd Langton , 57). Both the play, "Radiance" and the movie, "Blackfellas" contain a representation of the viewpoints and backgrounds of the respective writers, Louis Nowra and Archie Weller and contain each artist’s version of their perceptions of Aboriginality. Whereas there are aspects of "Blackfellas" which may be considered to accord with Nyungar attitudes and viewpoints there are also themes of violence, crime and cultural disintegration that misrepresent the majority of Black Australians in south-western Australia. As for Bran Nue Dae, it appears to me, to be a refreshingly authentic representation of some of the Aboriginal people in Broome.


Nowra, Louis indent "Radiance". Currency Press, Sydney. 1998.

Baker, Candida indent "Yacker 3. Australian Writer Talk About their Work" Pan indent Books (Australia) Pty. Ltd, Sydney.1989.

Weller, Archie indent "The Day of the Dog". Allen and Unwin. Australia. 1981

Stretton, Andrew indent "Interview with Archie Weller" in "Aboriginal authors indent of Themes 1" SBS Broadcast. Australia. 1997.

Langton, Marcia. indent "Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the indent television.." Australian Film Commission. NSW. 1993.

Abrams, M.H. indent "A Glossary of Literary Terms". 5th edition. indent Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers. USA. 1988.

Hutton, Anne indent "Black Australia and Film: Only if it makes money" in An indent Australian Film Reader, Ed. Albert Moran and Tom indent O’Regan.Currency Press. Sydney. 1985

Turner, Graeme indent Breaking the Frame; The Representation of Aborigines in indent Australian Film" in Aboriginal Culture Today. Ed. Anna indent Rutherford. Dangaroo Press . Kinapipi. NSW. 1991

Jennings, Karen indent Sites of Difference. Cinematic representation of indent Aboriginality and Gender" in The Moving Image. Ed. James indentSabine. Australian film Institute Research and indent Information Centre. 1993

Attwood, Brian indent The Making of the Aborigines" Allen & Unwin. Australia. indent 1989

Palmer, Dave & indent Aboriginal young people and youth subcultures in Youth
Collard, LenindentSubcultures. Theory, History and the Australian Experience. indent Ed. Rob White. National Clearinghouse for Youth studies. indent Tasmania. 1993

Chi, Jimmy indent Bran Nue Dae.

Brady, Veronicaindent Towards a New Geography in Construction Gender, indent Feminism in Literary Studies. Ed. H. Frazer and R.S. White. indent University of Western Australian Press. W.A. 1994

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