When it comes to First Nations representation on film, there’s been many firsts: the first footage shot in Australia was in the Torres Strait Islands, the first colour film was Jedda, and the first pirated community television was Ernabella Television at Pukatja (SA). With First Nations traditions in oral storytelling, film has offered another expression of our stories. However, when it comes to archival materials, it has all too often been framed from the colonial gaze. So, what does it mean for First Nations artists to use archival material in expressing and reclaiming our stories?
I am a writer, director and producer across film and theatre. To me, story is about the imagination, the spirit, the memory and the way we gather every experience of our existence to understand the path we walk in this life. Storytelling is a process that seems beyond the self, but yet deeply rooted in an awakening and opening of consciousness – so as to become a vehicle to reflect story. I often think when working with archival material we are igniting flickers of memories, bringing them back into our collective consciousness. In my experience, it can be a very conflicted process, with stories embedded in trauma inflicted from heinous and relentless acts; colonial violence that perpetuates acts of aggression by attempting to wash away the truth by the tide of history.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with archival material in both theatre and screen contexts. Whilst writing the play The Return (Malthouse Theatre, 2022) – a piece exploring repatriation of First Nations Ancestral remains – I came across the term ‘memory institutions’ when referring to museums, libraries, archives and galleries. If memories are the idea of encoding, storing and retrieving knowledges, the idea of ‘memory institutions’ both fascinated and disturbed me. The notion that there would be an ‘instituted memory’ that would shape and inform our own collective memories suggests a form of social engineering.
These memory institutions are often the cultural pillars of a colonial construct. They are keeping places for stories, housing cultural belongings such as films, writings, images and artefacts. All cultural belongings are equally important; they contain pieces of our story that, when gathered, can reveal parts of our stories that were hidden. Often, it’s the collective information brought by First Nations people and others to a cultural belonging that reveals its meaning or significance.
These fragments of memories from the past can be curated and framed for the public to tell a story that becomes part of our collective memory. Sadly, the curation of these memories often perpetuates a national amnesia. The nature of how these cultural belongings were collected at times speaks more to the colonial interaction with First Nations people, than the cultural belonging itself. But disturbingly, in the curating and framing process the story of ‘collecting’ is kept silent. The object is framed in a way that assumes ‘fact’ with the inference that the institution is the authority on that object.
At its core, instituted amnesia is caused by the traumatic events or experiences of our colonial past. Manifesting from this is a collective colonial memory formed in a way that subjugates First Nations voices, stories and memories that offer another version of truth – in turn challenging or disrupting this memory. The term has struck me again on my current film project Still We Rise, a film about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra (established in 1972), made entirely from archival film. The film is made predominantly from ABC archives, which involves extensive searches to bring the threads together. Other films are housed within the National Film and Sound Archive or from collections here and overseas and can be viewed through secure links. I watch through hours and hours of historical footage, watching in slow motion the void between the voices of First Nations people and non-Indigenous people.
In drawing the material together, I can see the construction of a colonial mythology of the country, with the leader of the realm claiming sovereignty where it clearly doesn’t exist. Often there are claimed ‘truths’ or ‘facts’ within the material – but it’s merely a construct to support the colonial mythology. The view has been composed from a non-Indigenous perspective and as the frames flick by the light it illuminates and galvanises this colonial myth. The ‘truth’ lies elsewhere and requires our First Nations voices to be heard.
The first film ever shot in Australia was in 1898 in the Torres Strait by Alfred Haddon. It was on Murray Island and involved filming of Meriam dancers and was one of the first films ever made in the world. Alfred Haddon was an influential British anthropologist and ethnologist who had been sent from Cambridge University in England with his team and had documented stories across the Torres Strait. And this would be the first time that stories would be accorded to people – perhaps the first time a colonial gaze began to look beyond the ‘savage’ gaze that was held in the colonial consciousness.
That said, it was still the understanding of natives through a colonial gaze and in the instance of the film, the frame was literally composed from a colonial perspective. As a Torres Strait Islander, I found it fascinating to see this footage. On a visit to London, I had a chance to read some of the London Missionary Society (LMS) records that were ‘housed’ at a university there. The LMS were in the Torres Strait at a similar time to Haddon. I read journals written by the missionaries about their visit to my motherland, Saibai Island in the Torres Strait. Reading these records written by the missionaries made me wonder what it was like on Saibai Island in the late 1800s. I felt compelled and drawn into what lay between the lines written in the journals. I wanted to share these stories with our Elders, to hear their interpretations of the events and fill the void between lines that the missionaries had written. I knew somewhere beyond the words scribed on the page, that a truth lay waiting to be revealed.
Perhaps that’s what draws us as First Nations artists to archival material. A foundational objective of the colonial process has been to systematically obliterate the stories and collective memories of First Nations people. In doing so it allows the coloniser to draw upon their own history and laws to create an identity that they can feel empowered and proud in. And from it can grow a contemporary colonial mythology that not just mispresents First Nations people, but leaves us entirely out of the picture and out of the national memory.
By reframing and reinterpreting archival material, we are collapsing time to bring a contemporary resonance that enables us to reclaim our stories and cut through the thick cloud of amnesia in the nation’s collective memory. And it’s a very thick cloud that hangs across the country; you only need to consider your last long-distance road trip to realise this. How many ‘welcome’ signs to towns did you see where there was no recognition of the First Nations people and Country? Or how many memorials have you seen where terrible massacres and mass killings had taken place? If I think about the early colonial paintings of this country, First Nations people were painted as exotic native creatures of the land and as noble savages. And today we see a vibrant, contemporary and diverse First Nations visual arts practice. Film has followed this progression to a degree. If cinematography is the act of painting with light, then we’ve been painted on screens in iconic characterisations that mirror the colonial paintings: as primitive natives, the noble savage, destitute and hopeless, or angry and militant. Like objects in a museum, the films often say more about the one holding the camera, than the ‘subject’ within the frame.
First Nations storytelling has always been multi-artform and fluid in its expression. Here I use the word artform, but the act of me using the term artform is in and of itself a Western construct. Artform provides lanes for artists to share their stories. It provides a Western definition to categorise storytellers as novelists, dancers, musicians, filmmakers and painters.
And in the same way that archival materials exclude the voice of First Nations women, so too do much of the film archives. The film gaze is often from a white privileged male perspective. Sometimes it involves the view of a First Nations man, but rarely does it ever involve the voice and perspective of a First Nations woman. The voice and framing of First Nations women on screen are not dissimilar to depictions and representations in various other forms of archival material.
The reinterpreting, reframing and reclaiming of archival materials as a tool for First Nations storytelling embeds our experience, our voice and our truth within the framed story of this country. There are so many aspects of the archives that are problematic. The value in them isn’t in what their original purpose was – but the light that we bring as First Nations storytellers to illuminate the truth to the story. And in this way archives can reveal our past, our present and find voice for our shared future.
John Harvey is a writer, director and producer across the screen and stage. He is the Creative Director of Brown Cabs. Selected film and television projects include writing and directing: Still We Rise, an archival film about the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra (ABC); Off Country (NITV); Kutcha’s Koorioke (NITV); Katele (Mudskipper); Out of Range; Water; and producing Spear and television series The Warriors (ABC). For theatre, John has written The Return (2022); wrote and produced Heart is a Wasteland (2022 & 2017); co-wrote Black Ties (2020) and directed A Little Piece of Heaven (2019). John was commissioned by ACMI to create Canopy; a multi-channel video installation that sits within The Story of the Moving Image exhibition.