Essie Coffey and Martha Ansara, facsimilie, Alec Morgan, National Archievs of Australia, 1978
Essie Coffey and Martha Ansara on set, facsimilie, Courtesy Alec Morgan, National Archives of Australia (1978)
Stories & Ideas

Tue 04 Jul 2023

Honouring Elders Aunty Essie Coffey and Uncle Norm Hunter

Factual media First Nations Representation
Jasper Cohen-Hunter - S&I author

Jasper Cohen-Hunter

Host of the Mirring Yalingwa Podcast

Jasper Cohen-Hunter pays tribute to two revolutionary Elders who protected, documented and sustained First Nations culture and lore through storytelling, on and off screen.

(Read the transcript)

This special episode of the Mirring Yalingwa Podcast, hosted by Wurundjeri and Ngurai-Illum-Wurrung man Jasper Cohen-Hunter, was recorded at ACMI to kick off NAIDOC Week for 2023. Produced by Jasper, the podcast focuses on Australian cinema and First Nations-led cinema productions.

Jasper Cohen-Hunter: Across every generation, our Elders have played, and continue to play, an important role and a prominent place in our communities and families. They are cultural knowledge-holders, trailblazers, nurturers, advocates, teachers, survivors, leaders, hard workers and our loved ones.

That's why this NAIDOC Week 2023, I want to acknowledge Aunty Essie Coffey and Uncle Norm Hunter. Essie Coffey was a Murawarri activist, advocate and filmmaker concerned about the influence of white culture and education on Indigenous children. She was the first Indigenous woman to direct a documentary feature My Survival as an Aboriginal (1979). Uncle Norm Hunter was an advocate for education, he was instrumental in establishing the Gunung-Willam-Balluk Learning Centre, a part of the Kangan Institute. He was a proud Wurundjeri Elder who documented the stories of his mum, Nanna Jessie Hunter, the last girl born on Coranderrk Aboriginal Mission. Together they created a set of tapes to permanently tell her story, so that it was never lost to time.

Episode 2 of the Mirring Yalingwa Podcast was recorded in collaboration with ACMI this NAIDOC Week, and I want to personally thank them for facilitating Culture, Language and Lore during such an important time for Mob.

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Jasper Cohen-Hunter: Welcome to the Mirring Yalingwa Podcast. This is the second episode. I'm so excited to be here because this is being recorded and will be published on NAIDOC Week 2023. The theme this year is For Our Elders. If you are already making your way to the podcast, then you already know who I am, so I'm not going to introduce myself. I'm going to acknowledge my elders first before you learn anything about me. I want to first acknowledge William Barak, who was born Barak, who was an activist and civil rights leader for the Wurundjeri people. I want to acknowledge all of the ancestors of the Wurundjeri people. I want to acknowledge his sister Annie Borate and I want to acknowledge my third great-grandmother, Jemima Burns Wandin Dunolly. I want to acknowledge Robert Wandin, my third great-grandfather. I want to acknowledge Martha Nevin, my second great-grandmother. I want to acknowledge Jessie Hunter, my great-grandmother and I want to acknowledge Norm Hunter, my grandfather.

Today's episode of Mirring Yalingwa is being recorded in ACMI. I'm really thankful for this opportunity because it shows that ACMI not only cares about the traditional owners of the land, but also cares about uplifting and supporting the voices of elders. Today, I want to discuss the works of Essie Coffey, the Bush Queen of Brewarrina, and I also want to discuss the works of my grandfather, Uncle Norm Hunter. I want to discuss this in depth because last night, I sat down and watched the two documentaries filmed by Essie Coffey and that is My Survival as an Aboriginal released in 1979, as well as My Life as I Live It, 1993. Both of these documentaries are free to stream on SBS On Demand. Now, unfortunately, they're actually only there for another month, so if SBS On Demand could go and extend that, that would be brilliant. But at the moment, because with the podcast, I'm trying to extend free-to-air services for people to watch these two documentaries are the perfect examples that I'm going to discuss today.

After that, I'm going to discuss the works of my grandfather, Uncle Norm Hunter, who created documentaries on VHS tapes depicting life and the stories of Coranderrk Aboriginal Mission, as well as interviewing how life was growing up on the mission with my great-grandmother, Auntie Jessie Hunter.

Essie Coffey (voiceover):

Aboriginal culture, it should be taught in all schools to Aboriginal kids. They're completely forgetting about their own tribe, their culture, and their tradition. That is the most important that you kids just remember what you are, that you stand tall and you stand proud on your own land, what you're standing now, and it's Black land, Aboriginal land.

Jasper Cohen-Hunter:

Today, I want to discuss the landmark documentary film, My Survival as an Aboriginal, released in 1979 by Murawarri activist Essie Coffey, the Bush Queen of Brewarrina. Set in Brewarrina in the reserve nicknamed Dodge City, the film is a slice of life into poverty and social issues faced by the Aboriginal people living in Dodge City and the greater town of Brewarrina. This film is followed by a sequel 15 years later called My Life as I Live It, which uses archival footage from the original film while also following up on the young people featured in the documentary, where they are today and the progress that the Murawarri people have made in the town. This film is the first documentary to be directed by an Indigenous woman and that's an important landmark in itself, but the history of the film and its international acclaim, while receiving some censoring on the national film stage, shows a testament to the lack of admission for film audiences in the larger nation of the time.

This film received international acclaim across the world and it showed the desperate situation for Aboriginal peoples of the time while also exposing a light onto the Australian federal government and the New South Wales government. One notable history with this film is that Essie Coffey gave a copy of this film to Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of the New Parliament House in 1988. That brings shivers down to my spine, and I'm sure that if we were able to recollect the moments of this encounter and this exchange that we can see what Essie was doing here. She was a leader for her people. She was a co-founder of the Western Aboriginal Legal Service, as well as sitting on the boards of the New South Wales Lands Trust and the New South Wales Advisory Council. She held a lot of positions. In the 1990s, she was a co-founder of the Aboriginal Heritage and Culture Museum of Brewarrina, co-founder of the [inaudible 00:05:57] Aboriginal Women's Issue Organization, as well as sitting on a range of other boards.

The life work of Essie Coffey was phenomenal, but the directorial debut that she created in Dodge City is a marvel in its own. If suddenly a documentary was to come out in two and three years depicting the life of Essie Coffey, it probably wouldn't even be able to tell the entire scope of her life work. Seen in the documentary, which I remember the first time I watched it, she raised eight children and 10 stepchildren. There's this comedy Black humor moment in the documentary where Essie is introducing her family and they all come stepping out from the door. There's so much big auntie energy because she keeps bringing people out again and again, introducing their hobbies, where they come from, and what they enjoy doing. It's like a magician pulling out tied handkerchiefs from their sleeve. She keeps pulling out all these children that she's helped raise. She was such a community leader that you see it in the faces of the children.

When I first saw this documentary, I watched it with the First Nations Film Club and this was the inaugural event for the First Nations Film Club with ACMI. They screened a range of films, but they showed My Survival as an Aboriginal. It was so enlightening for me to watch that, not just in the first meeting, but also in NAIDOC Week 2021 because I'd never seen such a beautiful depiction and documentary on the screen and Essie Coffey being the first Indigenous woman to produce a documentary is phenomenal in itself because she paved the way, but created work that is so perfect to this day. When you watch it on SBS On Demand, you're going to see very high definition footage because it was digitized by the National Film and Sound Archive, and that label's at the start of the documentary. Everything there is so crisp. She had this beautiful vision with Martha Ansara to create a documentary that was not only truth telling, but was also striking in its audio and striking in its visuals as well.

I was speaking to my girlfriend because she had just watched it yesterday and she says to me that she felt her soul shaking from the country music that was being played in between certain moments of the film. It's also notable that Essie Coffey was a country singer and a guitarist as well, but you can hear her voice and you can hear the guitar playing in between these small cuts. It really provides that slice of life that feels authentic with that beautiful sound of the guitar. (singing) There are some really authentic moments in this film that I feel that one could possibly see when just walking down the street. Documentaries can often fall into a trap of reenaction or a failure to depict the real world when somebody knows there's a camera in their face. But there's these beautiful interactions down at the local pub, at the legal service that are so authentic that you feel like you're in the room with everyone. Of course, I have to give grace to the HD digitization for us to feel so there.

The filming of Brewarrina can only stick to me like the work of Frederick Wiseman and Frederick Wiseman was a master of documentary filmmaking with authentic and realistic depictions of life from across the globe. It's not just the people and the characters within the town as well. It's also the depiction of the natural land and the buildings and the streets of the town that show the environment itself of Dodge City doesn't change at all. That's such a disappointing thing to see from a social perspective as a viewer. I watched them back to back on the first day of NAIDOC Week because I wanted to listen to the voice of Essie Coffey. Watching those films back to back is so shocking. They sit in different formats because one, the first film, you're right there. You're right there while it's filming at the time in the 1970s. But the second one is introspective and reflective because the archival footage that they use is all black and white. You're seeing this juxtaposition between 15 years ago and now, and they're recorded on different formats as well.

Now, I can't particularly remember the camera that they used, but it is a digital camera, perhaps a VHS recorder in the 1990s. It's not just a stark difference in the young men growing up and the stories of what has occurred in the past 15 years, it's also a format change that I think is so striking because you're able to see very clearly that time has changed through the cinema lens. In closing, my final thoughts about Essie Coffey's work is that as a filmmaker or in general as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, get out there and document the culture, language, and law of your community. This is what Essie did, and live like Essie. It doesn't mean that you need to have these fancy camera equipments and setups. It means getting out and witnessing and capturing culture while it's here so that future generations can see what life was like.

Essie Coffey (voiceover):

They took the people and they dumped them in [inaudible 00:13:25]. They took the people against their will. They didn't want to go. The people didn't want to go. They was made to go. They're not happy people. They're sad people. They're very depressed and frustrated. The white man forced them to live in a white man world. They want to live like they all live and they can't.

Jasper Cohen-Hunter:

For the second half of the podcast, I want to discuss the works created by my grandpa, Uncle Norm Hunter. Norm Hunter's traditional name was Wungga, which is the bronze pigeon. Uncle Norm Hunter was an advocate for education. His work was instrumental in creating the Indigenous Learning Center with the Kangan Institute, the Gunung-Willam-Balluk Learning Centre, which still sits there today in Broadmeadows. I feel as his grandson that in everything I need to do, I need to uplift and share the works that he created and the work that he started. It must have been a few years ago now, but I had the opportunity to watch some VHS tapes that he had created with my nan and my pop. They went out to Coranderrk Aboriginal Mission and he interviewed them in front of the Coranderrk Cemetery of how life was like for my nan growing up on the mission. My nan, Auntie Jessie Hunter, also known as Tiny, and her traditional name was Gumbri. She was the last girl born on the Coranderrk Aboriginal Mission and she was born in 1921.

He filmed these meticulous VHS tapes, which were done with no editing software, no editing capabilities, simply pressing start and finishing to create these polished works which documented what life was like growing up on the mission. There were stories from my nan that were documented by grandpa of her telling stories about my third great-grandmother Jemima Wandin. Through watching this, I was able to see a passing down of culture that even though he wasn't able to tell the story himself to me or my nan wasn't able to tell the story to me herself, I was able to hear the stories of how they lived and where they came from through the camera lens. Watching it on the television was so surreal because when I decided to come up with the pairing of the works today, I felt that I saw similarities with what Essie Coffey was trying to depict in Brewarrina and what my grandpa was trying to show on Coranderrk Aboriginal Mission. They were trying to share culture and share law and share language and how life was through a medium which hadn't really been touched yet.

They were trying to show how life was so that one day, someone could pick it up and watch it and know how they lived and knew the story of the Murawarri and the story of the Wurundjeri people. There are some funny tapes that my grandpa put together and they feature my mom when she was young. They feature some aunties. The way that I see it is that anyone who puts a sequence of shots together in order to educate or tell a story is a filmmaker in my books. While he never got a festival release or his films were never seen by a wide audience or anything like that, I felt touched by it. So to me, my grandfather is a filmmaker. Lastly, before wrapping up the podcast, I want to thank ACMI for letting me in today during NAIDOC Week. It's often a very, very busy time, but to be able to have this opportunity to talk about the work of my grandfather and the work of Essie Coffey is phenomenal. So I want to thank ACMI, but I also want to talk about the First Nations Film Club.

I joined the first event of the First Nations Film Club, which was possibly one or two years ago now during NAIDOC Week, where we first saw My Survival as an Aboriginal. Those events run bimonthly. You can also tune in on Zoom so you can watch them if you can't make it. The opportunities from having a Black membership or coming through with the First Nations Film Club are phenomenal. So take a look on the ACMI website, especially by searching up NAIDOC Week ACMI on Google to see the link directly there to see what opportunities you can get. If you are a young First Nations person and you are interested in connecting with ACMI and the opportunities, then it's amazing. You'll be able to find some beautiful works to watch on their bimonthly events and also have access to exhibitions and their newsletter and screenings, which is amazing. I'm yet to go to a screening myself, but I get emails all the time where I can even bring a friend along. Isn't that amazing?

So I just want to shout out to that and that ACMI facilitates that space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That is amazing. Anyways, everyone, [foreign language 00:19:38]. Thank you. Hope you're all having a fantastic NAIDOC Week, and if you were listening to this after NAIDOC Week, I hope it was swell for you and you went to lots of events. And if you're listening to this during NAIDOC Week, then please have the best time possible and respect your elders. See you later, everyone.