Shifting Sands on the Southbank


Shifting Sands, a British Film Institute programme of Indigenous Australian films was part of the celebration of Australian art this autumn and included a talk by Ian Henderson (Kings College) entitled Aboriginal Australian cinema : Storytelling, Silence and Modernity which I attended with an Australian friend. Ian’s talk began with the long aerial tracking shot from Ten Canoes (2006 Rolf de Heer) of an Eden like river and swamp in Arnhem Land and the Aboriginal narrator of the film telling us a story; “It’s not your story, it’s my story.”

These words were to prove the theme of the evening.

Ian had a forthright approach to the subject, he was well aware of the political implications of his talk as a white Australian and made us all laugh with a deconstruction of what he called “Aussie bullshit” :

“The we play sport and that’s it way of talking about ourselves that negates any intellectual achievement or the violence that has happened.”

There were some surprise latecomers to the lecture who Ian explained were prominent members of the Aboriginal Rights Movement. There was a palpable change in atmosphere at this point and the pressure was on for our speaker but he was not the target for the criticism that followed and he continued his excellent talk uninterrupted.

During question time it became clear that there were four Aboriginal people in the audience of perhaps twenty five people. Three women; the writer Dr.Jeanine Leane,, an Aboriginal dance professional and a woman living in London with her family. The latecomers were the activist Sam Watson and his wife, in London for the launch of his book on the Tent Embassy. They had only heard about the talk half an hour before it was due to begin.

They all seemed to feel that the BFI Head of Exhibition and fellow Australian, Clare Stewart should have worked with someone from the Aboriginal community on the selection of films for the programme. One of the women challenged the staff directly on this subject which was interesting! The word appropriation was hanging in the air but no-one actually said it.

The main objection voiced was to the negative representation of Aboriginal people in films, as much the fault of funding bodies in Australia who were reinforcing stereotypes as the selector of the BFI programme. The women emphasised the need for good role models and happy stories as well as tragedies. Nobody (including me) could understand what Walkabout (1971)was doing on the programme.

Calm and tactful Sam Watson pointed out that not all Aboriginal film was good and people should critique it if they are really taking it seriously and also that Aboriginal people have been supported by white people throughout their struggle and still need their support. The debate continued until the BFI staff called time as they needed to close the library.

Apart from the BFI staff who were busy defending their position the rest of the audience were silent, too busy listening and processing this very Australian debate taking place in a London cinema. It’s quite possible that many of the people there had never heard from an indigenous Australian in person before. I’ve been a confirmed fan of Australian arts for more than fifteen years and visited the country several times but I have only ever managed to have one long conversation with an Aboriginal person.

The path from Australia to London is a well beaten one, there is even an Aussie London newspaper called Australian Times  In the late 70’s when my friend arrived here from Australia she could not have imagined a debate between indigenous and non indigenous Australian professionals like the one we witnessed at the BFI this autumn. That’s a big shift in the sands.

What next? An Aboriginal curator for Aboriginal art at the Royal Academy? Nah,that wouldn’t happen would it? Cue rich chuckling from the narrator of Ten Canoes.

Copyright Susan Roberts 2013