'The Sapphires' just one film that put indigenous Australians in starring roles

Posted 6:43am on Monday, Apr. 01, 2013

The feel-good Australian musical The Sapphires -- about a group of backcountry girls in the 1960s who decide to put together a pop group -- finally hits North Texas on Friday after wowing audiences at Cannes and at home, where it became one of that country's highest grossing films last year.

What's more intriguing than the movie's box-office receipts, though, is that it offers American viewers a glimpse into a culture they don't see much of: Aboriginal Australia.

With all the successive waves of Australian films, bands and actors that have landed on American shores in the past 30 years -- from The Road Warrior to Russell Crowe, AC/DC to Gotye -- indigenous Australia has been mostly invisible.

Part of that is due to sheer numbers. Aboriginal people make up less than 3 percent of the Australian population of around 23 million.

The other aspect is that, until relatively recently, Aboriginal culture was ignored or derided. Until 1967, Aborigines were officially considered part of the "flora and fauna" by the Australian government.

But that started to change in the '70s and has picked up steam more recently. In 1971, British director Nicolas Roeg made the pioneering Walkabout, the first time many filmgoers outside Australia were exposed to Aboriginal culture. Today, Aboriginal directors like Wayne Blair ( The Sapphires) and Ivan Sen (the glorious arthouse road film Beneath the Clouds) are telling their own stories.

If there's a through line in much of the film work by and about Aborigines, it is the overwhelming presence of a haunting, roughhewn Outback landscape coupled with the urge to return home.

With that in mind, if you find your interest in Aboriginal culture piqued by The Sapphires, here are nine films and one TV series worth checking out. All are available on DVD or through streaming services.

Walkabout (1971) -- Roeg's masterwork meditation on the schism between civilization and nature pairs two white children, lost in the Outback after their dad abandons them, with an Aboriginal boy who navigates them through his country's barren beauty. The boy was played by David Gulpilil, who became the first Aboriginal movie star and later appeared in Crocodile Dundee.

The Last Wave (1977) -- The first film from Peter Weir ( Dead Poets Society, Witness) to capture the world's attention is a haunting, understated tale of the coming apocalypse which, according to Aboriginal legend, will be by water. Richard Chamberlain plays a lawyer who, while defending a young Aboriginal man (Gulpilil) on murder charges, becomes obsessed with Aboriginal mysticism and the concept of Dreamtime.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) -- Based on a novel by Thomas Keneally (who also wrote the book that is the basis for Schindler's List) and directed by Fred Schepisi ( Six Degrees of Separation), Blacksmith is based on a 19th-century incident in which a young Aboriginal man went on a murder spree after years of abuse.

Beneath Clouds (2002) -- Like Walkabout, Beneath Clouds takes young people on a trip through Australia's "dead heart," but these kids are less innocent. Mixed-race Lena (Dannielle Hall) is heading to Sydney to find the white father she never knew, and Vaughn (the late Damian Pitt) is an Aboriginal boy who has escaped from juvenile detention. Together, their initial mistrust flowers into something resembling friendship. As director Sen's first feature, the beautifully shot Beneath Clouds is breathtakingly impressive.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) -- Director Phillip Noyce is known for his big thrillers ( Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger), but he returned to his native Australia for this intensely moving story about "the stolen generations." This refers to the Aboriginal children who, between 1909 and 1969, were spirited from their families to be raised by white parents as domestics and absorbed into white society, theoretically for their own good. Amateur anthropologist Daisy Bates in 1938 came up with the phrase that summed up the attitude of the time: "to smooth the pillow of a dying race." But Rabbit-Proof Fence, a true story about three girls who refused to be maids and decide to go home, shows that resistance was very much alive.

Jindabyne (2006) -- The body of an Aboriginal girl found in a small-town river becomes a point of contention after a group of white fishermen decide to delay in reporting it. Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne star in this compelling, well-acted drama.

Ten Canoes (2006) -- The first movie to be filmed entirely in an Aboriginal language, the slow, poetic and entrancing Ten Canoes -- about a group of tribal men hunting goose eggs -- was reportedly inspired by a 1936 photo of a group of Aboriginal hunters. It's narrated by David Gulpilil and stars his son, Jamie.

Samson and Delilah (2009) -- The title characters in this haunting, often wordless drama are a 14-year-old boy and girl who are outcasts from their Aboriginal community but not accepted anywhere else. The film, made by Aboriginal director Warwick Thornton, won the Camera d'Or for best feature film at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

Bran Nue Dae (2009) -- Not a great film by any stretch, but an infectious one. Based on a hit play, this musical about a boy (Rocky McKenzie) running away from his Catholic school in the city to get back to his Outback home has a winning sensibility. Sapphires co-star Jessica Mauboy, Geoffrey Rush and singer Missy Higgins are also in the cast.

The Straits (2012) -- This 10-episode TV series, about a family of drug suppliers in Far North Queensland and Papua New Guinea, has its soapish moments. It's The Sopranos at the beach. But kingpin dad (played wonderfully by Scottish actor Brian Cox), his Polynesian wife (Rena Owen, Once Were Warriors) and their four adopted indigenous adult children make for an enjoyably dysfunctional clan as they fight off rival gangs. The lush, tropical scenery is an added bonus to all the scheming and backstabbing. Available for streaming through Hulu.com.

Cary Darling, 817-390-7571

Twitter: @carydar

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