The still image discovered among Bill Onus' things showing the same scene from the 1946 film. Courtesy Tiriki Onus
The still image discovered among Bill Onus' things showing the same scene from the 1946 film. Courtesy Tiriki Onus
Stories & Ideas

Thu 12 Aug 2021

Ablaze: uncovering the first Indigenous filmmaker

AustraliaFilmInterviewRepresentationThe Story of the Moving Image
Matt Millikan
Matt Millikan

Senior Writer & Editor

Co-writers and directors of Ablaze Tiriki Onus and Alec Morgan talk cross-cultural collaboration, resistance and reclamation through the story of William "Bill" Onus, Tiriki's grandfather and the first Indigenous filmmaker in Australia.

Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung academic and opera singer Tiriki Onus had just given a lecture to Melbourne University students on Lousy Little Sixpence (1983), a documentary about the early days of the Stolen Generations by Alec Morgan and Gerry Bostock.

“Not half an hour later… I get this phone call,” Tiriki explains over Zoom. On another square of screen is Alec Morgan, who smiles as Tiriki imitates him in a deep, officious voice. “‘Oh hello Mr Onus, my name’s Alec Morgan and I am a filmmaker.'”

Of course, Tiriki knew that and immediately assumed that a student had taken exception to something he’d said about Alec and had told the filmmaker. “He’s ringing me up to rip me about something I’ve done,” Tiriki explains. “So I’m very much on guard… I paused for a moment and Alec said, ‘Do you know your grandfather might’ve been the first Aboriginal filmmaker?’”

While telling this story, the easy relationship between the pair is apparent. They barter back and forth, spirits high having finally finished Ablaze, the documentary they co-wrote and co-directed that is currently streaming as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. Considering they’ve spent the last six and a half years making a film together, it’s safe to assume that Alec hadn’t taken exception to anything Tiriki had said during his lecture – it was a coincidence that he had found the 10-minute 1946 silent film while trawling the National Film and Sound Archive, and that it featured Tiriki’s grandfather, the Yorta Yorta and Wiradjuri activist, artist and entrepreneur William “Bill” Onus Jr – the subject of Ablaze.

Born on the Cummeragunja Reserve, Bill became a trailblazer of First Peoples activism from 1939, when he helped reform the Australian Aborigines' League, until his death in 1968. A gifted orator, he drew attention to the struggle for First Peoples rights during rallies and events, lobbied to change racist government policies and campaigned in the successful 1967 referendum. He also fought for Aboriginal self-determination through the arts, particularly theatre and his involvement with the screen industry, appearing in Charles Chauvel’s Uncivilised (1936), Harry Watt’s The Overlanders (1946), Alcheringa (1962) and Forgotten People (1967).

Bill Onus hosting Alcheringa. Australia, 1962. Courtesy ABC Library Sales.

Bill Onus hosting Alcheringa. Australia, 1962. Courtesy ABC Library Sales.

While Tiriki knew about those productions, and some home movies, the Onus family believed that most footage Bill shot was lost in a caravan fire in the late 1950s, but within weeks of first speaking, Tiriki and Alec huddled around a laptop, watching “extraordinary footage” shot in and around Gore Street, Fitzroy.

In the film, Bill paints young men for a performance of White Justice, a production that he staged at the New Theatre in Melbourne based on the 1946 strike of over 800 Indigenous pastoral workers in the Pilbara. In one snippet, Bill teaches young men how to throw boomerangs and spears on a farm in Heidelberg. In another, Reg Saunders appears in his job as tram conductor – he had previously served in WWII and was the first Indigenous officer in the Australian Army. But the film also captured the grim reality of daily life in Melbourne for First Peoples during the period.

“I was blown away by the narrative,” Tiriki says. “Whilst it showed people living in abject poverty... there was all this community building, showing their vitality and strength in the face of adverse and enormous external pressures. At the same time, they had the wherewithal to make this film and there was Bill in the midst of it all. To see a sovereign Indigenous voice back then was nothing short of revelatory for me.”

A colourised snippet of White Justice from the 1946 film.

A colourised snippet of White Justice from the 1946 film.

At a time when First Peoples had little to no control over how they were represented in the media – newspapers, radio and newsreel – and while facing government attempts to destroy their culture, Bill’s work in theatre, and what’s captured in the film, demonstrates his dedication to Aboriginal self-determination and equality. It was also a necessity. According to Tiriki, it was still largely illegal for First Peoples to speak or sing language on Country, but if Bill and his contemporaries put it on stage and called it a performance, they could “hide in plain sight”.

“He used not only film, but… theatre as well,” Alec agrees. “I think his whole life was about getting this call for equality – and this call for doing the right thing – out all the time.” Part of the way that Bill achieved this, aside from his dedication to racial justice, was through sheer force of personality and the ability to persuade others. “Bill was an incredible, charismatic person and he got enormous support,” Alec continues. “You can see it in some of the photographs – there’s just groups listening to him.”

Bill Onus in Fitzroy in 1946. Courtesy Eric Onus.

Bill Onus in Fitzroy in 1946. Courtesy Eric Onus.

The photographs that Alec references were discovered about two years after the pair had begun making the film. Remembering that there was a suitcase of Bill’s at his mother's house, Tiriki went rummaging for it in the basement. “Here was this photo of two young men crowding around a Bell & Howell 35mm camera,” he recalls. “And I realised damn, they’re the same people from the film.” They'd also previously found an article about the film scene of Bill teaching spear and boomerang throwing in Heidelberg, “which talked about this cultural revival that Bill had started on a farm of a white sympathiser”.

“That suitcase he left behind is phenomenal, the amount of photographs that Bill had taken or collected... that’s how we could make the film,” Alec adds, with the photos used throughout Ablaze.

It’s these three artefacts – the film, photographs and article – that led Alec and Tiriki to believe that Bill made the 1946 film and was the first Aboriginal filmmaker. Another key piece of evidence is Bill’s previous experience working as an extra on Uncivilised and The Overlanders, the latter of which was released the same year, and the cinematic techniques apparent in the film.

“He was exposed to people and the making of film,” Tiriki says before relating a comment made by a filmmaker friend who had seen Bill’s home movies from the late 1960s. “There was a wide panning shot, an establishing shot, close-ups: everything could be cut together and I think those fundamentals had been introduced to Bill through working with non-Indigenous filmmakers, who were in many ways ahead of their time and sympathetic to the cause and wanted to amplify black voices.”

This cross-cultural collaboration is also apparent in Bill’s theatre work. In order to stage White Justice, as well as the successful 1951 production Out of the Dark: an Aboriginal Moomba at the Princes Theatre, Bill needed supporters. After moving to Melbourne he became a trade unionist and was the first Indigenous leader to lead the May Day parade in 1946. He also had ties to the Communist party through his wife Mary McLintock Kelly, who was a party member. Alec believes he likely had help in his art and activism from trade unionists, the Communist party and other unnamed backers, particularly with the 1946 film as there was a commentary recorded (since lost) and it was filmed on 35mm, suggesting it was made for theatrical exhibition.

So while the pair believe Bill made the film, the question of his collaborators remains a mystery – and there’s a reason for that. “If you were a filmmaker [during the time], particularly more left-wing or associated with trade unions or radical thinking you were in danger of losing your job if you worked on something like Bill’s film and they knew that,” Alec explains, pointing to Joris Ivens’ Indonesia Calling (1946). “Harry Watts, who made The Overlanders, actually worked on that for years but denied it.”

In this way, cross-cultural collaboration is an act of resistance. As Alec outlines, until the mid-1970s, government policy aimed at “destroying a race of people in terms of their identity”. If Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists didn’t resist through art, protest and progressive thinking, the “colonial grouping” of politicians would’ve succeeded with their assimilationist policies to decimate Indigenous language, culture and communities. “That would be Australia today if [they] had no resistance to it,” Alec says, exasperated. “I don’t know what these people are so afraid of but history has proved they were wrong. It was stupid and they’re still bloody doing it!”

For Tiriki, one of the most important aspects of working with Alec to tell Bill’s story is to dispel the idea that “we’re doing things for the first time” by trying to effect change in 2021 and we need to “look at the historical precedent for non-Indigenous people to take pride in aspects of this struggle that their own families and communities have been a part of”.

“I think Bill really embraced that in his work. He always maintained his voice and authority, but there were people around him that wanted to help amplify that voice as well,” Tiriki says. “I see working with Alec as a natural continuation of what he started. I think that’s an important message because as we seek to reclaim more of our stories and delve into these archives, the job is too big for two-and-a-half percent of the population to carry on our own shoulders. How we engage in allyship that empowers Indigenous voices and is going to become more and more present the further we go on."

Bill Onus campaigns ‘Vote Yes for Aboriginal Rights’

Bill Onus campaigns ‘Vote Yes for Aboriginal Rights’, 1967. Courtesy AAP Image / National Library of Australia

And there's an obvious need to go further to achieve equality. Before Bill’s death in 1968, he at least got to see 90.77 percent of Australians vote Yes in the 1967 referendum but First Peoples today are still not recognised in the constitution, are disproportionately incarcerated and over 470 First Peoples have died in custody since the Royal Commission, not to mention they experience shorter life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, poorer health and lower levels of education and employment. The two friends hope Ablaze can play a part in continuing the fight for Indigenous rights.

"We need to educate people about this history," Alec explains. "I think deep in our hearts we both agree that maybe there's some Indigenous kid up north incarcerated in one of those terrible jails who may see the film and think life is worth living and be inspired by Bill."

Tiriki agrees, relating his own experience in primary school when he was taught that "there were no more Aboriginal people in the southeast of Australia", that they were extinct, their language was no longer spoken and that they didn't know where they came from.

"I was taught that not just in the 1980s, when I was a little kid, but all the way through into the 90s. The chance now, for my kids, the eldest of whom is six, to be going into spaces where they're not [considered] extinct anymore and know that it's because of Bill and everyone around him is huge. If a kid somewhere in greater Melbourne sitting in a classroom somewhere can be reassured by the fact that despite that textbooks may have said in the past, you are not extinct and you still have your culture, your land and your stories – that would be a pretty bloody big win for me."

– Matt Millikan

Stream Ablaze now as part of Melbourne International Film Festival. In 2021, it will also screen at the Brisbane International Film Festival and the New Zealand International Film Festival, and at the Antenna Documentary Festival in 2022.

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