The Impossibility Of Pleasing Everybody: A Legitimate Role For White Filmmakers Making Black Films

by Frances Peters Little

© all rights reserved

 Originally published in Art Monthly May 2002. Reproduced here with permission.

Filmmakers and writers who make films that contain Aboriginal content remind me of the coloured balls that spin uncontrollably in a plastic circle. Of the sixty or so a chosen handful of balls are elevated by a protruding tube that elevates them above the others releasing them to the outside world making someone else lucky or rich. Although not as frequent as the weekly lotto draws, cinematic films featuring Aboriginal themes and references have been highlighted in recent months in Australian cinema. From Phil Noyces Rabbit Proof Fence to Paul Goldmans Australian Rules, all films have seemingly captured the imagination and sympathy of white interests in Aboriginal drama. It is clear however that some films have become more celebrated than others have; this is inevitable but perhaps for reasons other than those usually cited.1

While Phil Noyces Rabbit Proof Fence has received much acclaim some reviewers have felt the need to defend Goldman’s right to make Australian Rules. For example;

Rabbit-Proof Fence is more than a good film, it’s a great film, not just because of the bruising, divisive but necessary debate over the stolen generations but because it fulfils its promise to the audience.2

As with most films caught in controversy before release, Australian Rules struggles to live up to its recent headlines. It is not the film’s fault, for this small-town-footy-meets-embedded-racism tale merely aims to scratch the surface of its central issues.3

This is not to compare one film against the other, but it is to question why some films have been agreeable to Aboriginal protocols than others.

The notion to have protocols and guidelines about how film crews must enter and film Aboriginal communities are not new. In fact as early as 1987 the plan to make good representations about Aborigines became bound by legal and cultural protocols when a report entitled Guess Whos Coming To Dinner In Arnhem Land?, written by Chips Mackinolty and Michael Duffy Published by the Northern Lands Council. The report was specifically concerned to ensure that Aboriginal communities of Arnhem Land would benefit from film crews. It dealt with issues ranging from the cost of film permits, to how to make films about Aborigines which demonstrated strong ethical positions on sacred sites, privacy rights, editorial control, distribution, employment, environmental issues and legal rights.

By the early 1990s the Australian Film Commission (AFC) had been concerned about setting guidelines for funding and assessing films containing Aboriginal content, so they contracted Aboriginal consultant Shirley McPherson to carry out interviews and surveys with Aboriginal communities. McPhersons report drew the attention of the AFC to the views of Aboriginal producers, which were noticeably and consistently different from those of Aboriginal people working in Aboriginal community organisations. The result was that the majority of Aboriginal producers did not support a separate indigenous unit because they felt they should compete with non-Aboriginal filmmakers in the industry and be assessed on their merit rather than their Aboriginality. The final report stated;

The attention of the AFC is especially drawn to the responses provided by Aboriginal producers. These exhibit much greater knowledge of the industry and are noticeably and consistently different from the views expressed by others. In particular their views are significantly different with respect to a separate Aboriginal unit in the AFC.4

Despite these objections, the AFC established a separate indigenous unit in January 1993.

In more recent times, the guidelines proposed by Aboriginal filmmaker Darlene Johnson and presented to SBS in 2000 clearly demonstrate a more sophisticated knowledge of film production, funding bodies, and broadcasting networks. Proud of its engagement with indigenous Australians in film and television production, documentary and drama, SBS declared that both black and white filmmakers could make programs involving indigenous peoples and issues. They stressed their commitment towards supporting Aboriginal people in the film and television industry and culture, and aimed to affirm protocols of moral rights in stories. In every case the key principle was to maintain respect for indigenous traditions and heritage. Johnson writes:

Development, production and dissemination of films involving Aboriginal issues and stories are subject to ethics common to media practice in all their works. And issues of appropriation, of respectful cultural representation, of equity and creative control are particularly pertinent to collaborative processes in relation to Aboriginal stories.

The SBS Independent guidelines, which aim to respect indigenous participants while working with indigenous cultural beliefs and values, state that filmmakers must inform indigenous participants of their rights as storytellers, within the filmmaking process; assist non-indigenous filmmakers to respect indigenous participants, while working with indigenous cultural beliefs and values; and respect the integrity of the filmmaking process and facilitate cross-cultural education.*

From these various sets of guidelines that have been evolving over decades has emerged a general requirement that filmmakers should gain the approval of Aboriginal communities, individuals, and talent before being permitted to film them. This approval would be given on the basis of informed consent, and given on specially designed release forms. Release forms signed on the basis of informed consent have become as necessary to the filmmaking process as they are for academic research, but they have become a contentious issue for some non-Aboriginal filmmakers who film across different cultures. Described as often not worth the paper they are written on, release forms and the notion of informed consent are rules that in fact place strain upon the relationship between the filmmaker and their talent, the moment they are asked to sign. They also hold filmmakers and the talent to the contract forever, protecting the funding body or the broadcasters involved, and they can be ethically fraught because lawyers, for whom they are really written, have little appreciation of the sensitive and intimate relationship between a filmmaker and their talent.

Because the filmmaking process is frequently a long and unfolding process, it is not unusual for even the filmmakers not to know how anyone fares in their film until the fine cut stages. In observational films one might be shooting the talent for several weeks or sometimes years. It is much harder, then, for those filmed to know how they will appear in the finished film. Yet the release form gives the impression that they can control this uncontrollable situation. Sometimes you could even see people performing for the camera, vainly trying to present only a public face, the moment release forms are signed. There are many aspects of filmmaking that make it difficult to give interviewees control over the filmmaking process. Many people do not understand how films work. It is not unusual to find people who feel that their lives are not all that extraordinary, and are therefore bewildered why anyone would want to make a film about them in the first instance. Expecting those interviewed, the talent, to take equal control during a films production can actually heighten their defensiveness and unease, particularly during the post-production stages. Bringing people into the editing suites or sending them videotapes of the process can actually induce anxieties that are needless as it is not easy to know how to view material that is still in the process of being edited. Viewing a rough-cut is very different from viewing the final film. With many hours in the can a rough cut may have a duration of six or more hours, which is ultimately going to come down to one hour or so. Furthermore the technicial treatment such as the juxtaposing of images, graphics, super-impositions and addition of musical tracking, can add new meanings to the primary visual message. Therefore when talent are invited to come join the editing process they see film very different from the finished product, and it can be a despairing process for them.

Making things more difficult is the fact that talent are the worst judges of their own voices, images and characters when looming larger than life on the screen. Some may not sympathise with the filmmakers time and financial constraints, or may want to have control over what other people are saying, or may disagree with the filmmakers vision and knowledge of his/her audience. Some talent make unreasonable requests, such as insisting that filmmakers include more interviews, shots or information. Therefore if we are to give talent and communities copies of the film it is best to hand them over after the final cut has been made. Yet this, too, can be disastrous if one of the many people are filmed decides that the film is offensive or non-beneficial to their community or to themselves.

In fact, the protocols are almost impossible to follow. When observational Aboriginal documentary filmmaker Ivan Sen directed Shifting Shelter in 2001, he made a bold film in which we meet several Aboriginal teenagers who endure the repressive experience of being a black teenager in rural NSW. Seeing these teenagers as neithernoble nor savage, the film gathers as much sympathy for as it does frustration with the talent, painting the landscape of their environment with as many colours as there are in real life. It seems unlikely that these diffident teenagers eagerly signed release forms or wanted to join Sen in editing the program back in Sydney.

Filmmakers, writers and artists are constantly faced with the demand that their work be approved by the Aboriginal community, yet this demand is almost impossible to meet. One can never be certain how audiences are going to view a particular film. In some cases filmmakers and writers can be more sympathetic to the talent than their audiences turn out to be, and vice versa. Filmmaker Rachel Landers Whiteys Like Us, provides one example. This observational film follows a group of non-Aboriginal people who undertake a night course on Reconciliation. The group, whose members have various opinions about Aborigines, are shown to be in conflict with each other, with hardly any of the participants coming to an agreement about what Reconciliation means. In one scene a young white man begins to express his frustrations at what he feels are the unequal advantages that Aborigines have been given through positive discrimination policies. He reveals the intimate details of his life as a survivor of sexual abuse. Although he asks the cameras to be turned off they continue to roll. It is a poignant moment, which leaves audiences to ponder our intrusion into his private life whilst trying to decide whether his own personal experiences can justify his lack of sympathy for Aboriginal people.

My experience as the maker of Tent Embassy was that some viewers interpreted the film to be taking a purely sympathetic view of the demise of the Aboriginal tent embassy, while others saw the film as an attack on the bureaucratisation of Aboriginal affairs. In my view, the film is about both and many other things, and the film reflects many opinions which are not necessarily my own. It is surprisingly common to hear comments from who strongly believe a film to have a single interpretation and meaning, when in fact it is their interpretation and meaning that they have read into it. Audiences, including Aboriginal audiences, who yearn to have their values reflected in films, have had to face the fact that the reason they may like a particular film are exactly the same reason someone else dislikes it.

With the advent of stringent policy and ethical guidelines written to protect Aboriginal communities from potentially harmful effects of wide public exposure, communities have become diligent about taking back as much as they have given outsiders who wish to appropriate Aboriginal intellectual and cultural knowledge and property. Film crews, black or white, are required to adhere to the principle that one must benefit the community as a form of exchange. This becomes problematic is when black or white film crews are left deciding who is the community and how should they be benefiting them. Defining what benefits a community is not straightforward, and the guidelines provide little help on this issue. Generally the notion of giving back to a community assumes that film crews ask the community to suggest how their film can provide a practical outcome for that community. Independent filmmakers offer anything from shares in their production to having their films used as evidence in native title claims. It is not unusual for filmmakers to contribute to community organisations or individuals in the form of cash payment.

Ironically, the requirement to contribute financially towards benefiting the community harms Aboriginal more than non-Aboriginal filmmakers. Such a requirement can really only apply to (usually white) independent filmmakers who have control over the shares, interests and sales of the film, or have it distributed or used for fund raising. Aboriginal filmmakers, on the other hand, mostly produce for the ABC or SBS, who have policies that do not allow financial contributions to be made to the subjects of films, or they work for small community organisations that have no profits. The community being filmed may allow Aboriginal filmmakers and writers access without placing the same financial demands upon them, but this then leaves those crews obliged to that community much more than a non-Aboriginal crew, culturally, legally and politically. Thus non-Aboriginal independent filmmakers have more control than Aboriginal filmmakers over the films that are made in Aboriginal communities, simply because they have more freedom with their films and because they control their own finances.

Much of the desire to control and monitor the actions of filmmakers comes from people who are convinced that white filmmakers almost always make films with a surreptitious intention of rubbishing or mis-representing Aborigines. These people also want to ensure that Aboriginal filmmakers present only a positive view of Aboriginal people and their morals. This cuts to the very core of the purpose of Aboriginal filmmaking. If a value of Aboriginal filmmakers derives from their greater ability to delve deep into Aboriginal communities, and to debate issues of greater complexities than non-Aborigines then their work can be seriously compromised by the control of Aboriginal community protocols and guidelines that may be problematic. If we follow this line of thinking for much longer the result will be not only putting a stranglehold on those white (and black) filmmakers who want to expose the real problems occurring within Aboriginal communities, but also paradoxically putting a gag on black creativity and self-criticism.

The notion that Aboriginal filmmakers possess a certain connection to truth and instant rapport with any Aboriginal community or individual is naive. To think that Aboriginal filmmakers can shoot any Aboriginal community and capture the core of their history, politics, culture, personal relationships and social interactions without offending or misrepresenting anyone is presumptuous to say the least. Conversely there are many examples of white filmmakers have made strong connections with Aboriginal individuals asking them to expose the internal disputations within Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal filmmakers while they share in something that is essentially Aboriginal by necessity or nature does not guarantee that they make stronger, more accurate or beneficial films for the Aboriginal community or individual than non-Aboriginal filmmakers. Questions of filmmaking ability involved. As David MacDougall said at the Cross-Cultural Filmmakers Conference you can be someone who makes very bad films but speaks the language perfectly. Being an Aboriginal filmmaker does not make you a better filmmaking in Aboriginal communities. Sometimes you just have to be a good filmmaker.

The task that lies ahead for the filmmaker is not an easy, particularly with the mounting surge of Aboriginal protocols and guidelines designed by Aboriginal art bureaucrats and activists.5 Critics of films with Aboriginal content ought to consider the impossible expectations they place on these filmmakers. Not only are they required to create, represent, and entertain audiences, but they are also required to protect the moral standards of everyone they film (regardless of whether they agree with them or not). In addition, they are expected to benefit those communities in whatever form the community asks, while having to educate the wider general audience. They must work within the restrictions laid down by executive producers, commissioning editors, as well as funding bodies and their assessors, let alone please the Aboriginal community. It would be no wonder if those filmmakers who want to challenge audiences and include new ideas and styles in Aboriginal films were discouraged from further making films on Aboriginal subjects in the future. I am an Aboriginal filmmaker and historian, and I certainly am not encouraged to make films under the conditions of many of the protocols and guidelines currently approved by certain funding bodies, and Im an old activist from the 1970s.

There is however an increasing number of Aboriginal filmmakers, few of whom have the freedom that artists such as Tracy Moffat had in her work, but even she had to leave the country. I can only hope that more filmmakers will be able to have a right to critique and benefit the Aboriginal community, although I suspect current protocols and guidelines may get in the way of essential and rigorous debate between black and white Australians. Of course some filmmakers will get it right and some will get it wrong, and like the coloured balls in the plastic circle each week, not everyone will see what they want to see – perhaps that is the nature of the industry. What I most hope for is for black and white filmmakers to become more courageous in their representations of Aboriginal people, as human beings deserving of justice and constructive criticism. And I support the rights for all filmmakers to express themselves, especially Aboriginal filmmakers without the burden of protocols and guidelines that may gag them. Self criticism may still be a long way off for Aboriginal filmmakers, and seeing ourselves creatively and constructively without fearing what whites may think of us is yet to occur, however I suspect that if white audiences do not get the point in our films, at least Aboriginal audiences will.

Frances Peters-Little is an Aboriginal Historian and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University in Canberra. Frances is currently revising her thesis for publication with Aboriginal Studies Press entitled, The Return of the Noble Savage: By Popular Demand.

This essay was originally published inArt Monthly May 2002. Reproduced here with permission.


1Debates on Insight with Paul Goldman, Lydia Miller and Sandra Hall with Jenny Brockie, SBS TV, 28th March, 2002.

2 P. Thompson, Film Review, Sunday Program, Nine Network, 24th February, 2002.

3 Ben McEachen, The Advertiser, 6th March, 2002.

4 McPherson and Pope, Promoting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Involvement in the film and video industry, p. viii.
5 D. Johnson, Indigenous Protocols, Sydney, SBS Independent, 2000, p 2-4.

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