A still from My Survival as an Aboriginal' (1979) - Essie Coffey holding eucalypt leaves and teaching students
A still from My Survival as an Aboriginal' (1979) - Essie Coffey holding eucalypt leaves and teaching students

The first Aboriginal woman to direct a documentary paved the way for future generations of filmmakers and truth tellers.

The following is an excerpt from 'Blak Women on Screen', published in The Story of the Moving Image Online.

Aunty Essie Coffey was affectionately known as the Bush Queen of Brewarrina (also known as Dodge City) a town specifically built to house Aboriginal people that the government was displacing from their lands.

In the opening sequence of her groundbreaking documentary, My Survival as an Aboriginal (1978), Coffey describes the injustices her community faces. She turns the camera on herself, speaks from her own experiences, and talks directly to the viewer, making clear what she wants for her community, which is self-determination, to manage their own affairs and continue practising culture to combat assimilation.

The film captures the heartbreak of a strong woman rearing children – witnessing attempts to whitewash them through the education system and what they’re consuming on television – as well as the impacts of government policy, alcoholism and the judicial system.

“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 is black land, Aboriginal land," she tells the children in the film.

At the same time, Coffey embeds her wit into the film, evident in a dramatised two-minute scene where the camera pulls away from children watching television to zoom in on Coffey’s face, as though we are entering her mind. We still hear the voices from the television and its laugh track, but we are transported to a scene where Coffey, dressed like a glamorous 70s housewife, is standing in a well-to-do kitchen among the latest in white goods. The colour treatment on the film is toned down, creating a flat, bland palette. She opens the fridge door, bringing out a jug full of orange juice and takes a sip. The clip repeats and each time the pace quickens.

We then see Coffey clocking on to a job in a factory. The sounds of the industrial machinery grow louder and louder, the sound of a clock ticks faster and faster. The soundscape and sharp juxtaposition of imagery gives the scene a horror-like quality. In this scene, Coffey flips the script on the standard practice of non-Indigenous people making films about Indigenous people, by being a Blak woman making a film about white people. She refuses to assimilate and conveys white life not as desirable, but as a horrific, solitary life destined for doom.

Coffey used documentary to amplify her outspoken voice, paving the way for future generations of documentary-makers and truth tellers. She overcame barriers that aimed to keep Aboriginal women silent and broke down stereotypes of what an Aboriginal woman is. In My Survival as an Aboriginal, Coffey spoke directly to the audience, abolishing the idea that Aboriginal women are docile, stoic or in need of saving – she staunchly advocates that Aboriginal people can take care of Aboriginal affairs and takes pride in her culture. No longer were we being spoken about, and not to.

– Kate ten Buuren, Curator

Learn more about Essie Coffey

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