This thesis is concerned with a number of feature films released within the period 2000-2011 and considers these films as part of a corpus of work produced in the time directly after the formal political period of reconciliation in Australia. I argue that reconciliation can be seen as a discursive realm of reference that each of the films considered here engages with. While Indigenous characters had long been the subject of white filmmaking, this period saw not only a renewed interest by filmmakers in making films about Indigenous people and communities, but also a rise in the number of films made by Indigenous directors—prior to 2002 only five feature films had ever been made by Indigenous Australian directors. Moreover, within this emerging body of work there was a high incidence of films featuring young Indigenous protagonists. This points towards a preoccupation with representations of youth as symbolic of the cultural transition that Australia, as a nation, was experiencing.
Felicity Collins and Therese Davis argue that it is useful to understand Australian cinema during the 1990s and early 2000s in light of the effect of the 1992 Mabo decision as creating a trauma within the nation, one that manifested in film in a variety of ways. However, Collins and Davis’s text focuses on Australian cinema more generally and I would argue that, when concerned with films that deal specifically with Indigenous characters and issues during the 1990s and 2000s, it is more useful to think about them in terms of their engagement with the discourses of reconciliation. This provides a space for discussions about Indigenous disadvantage, reduced health and education outcomes, land rights and Indigenous sovereignty as well as other key debates that were part of the reconciliation period. It also provides a framework in which to compare and examine films featuring Indigenous characters released after Collins and Davis’s text in 2004. Clemence Due and Damien Riggs have written extensively about the representation of Indigenous Australians in the mainstream news media and discuss the overwhelmingly stereotypical and negative portrayals of Indigenous people—arguing that they are either criminalised or presented as victims in need of white intervention. Their term “discourses of futility” (xi) is one that I will borrow to explain a tendency of the earlier film-makers discussed here towards representations of characters that appear to have no way out of a life predicament or social situation.
I argue that there is a paradigm shift visible in the changing landscape of Australian cinema which features representations of Indigenous characters and issues directly after the formal political period of reconciliation and beyond. The early films Yolngu Boy (Dir. Johnson 2000), Australian Rules (Dir. Goldman 2002), Beneath Clouds (Dir. Sen 2002) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (Dir. Noyce 2002) engage explicitly with the dominant public discourses of reconciliation that had been prevalent in the decade preceding. While they do this in this different ways, examination of these films reveals a self-conscious engagement with the past and the way that we can understand the continuing legacies of colonialism in Australia. The later films discussed within this thesis, Bran Nue Dae (Dir. Perkins 2009), Samson & Delilah (Dir. Thornton 2009), Mad Bastards (Dir. Fletcher 2011) and Toomelah (Dir. Sen 2011), while not distancing themselves from the past, engage with history and reconciliation in different ways. Instead of actively concerning themselves with the problems (and failings) of Indigenous-white relations, they position themselves within Indigenous worlds (often with near total exclusion of white intervention) and consider the ways in which Indigenous communities might themselves intervene to resolve the contemporary problems faced by Indigenous communities and youth. In this way the later films tend to feature more optimistic resolutions, rather than concluding with a lack of resolution or a presentation of the futility of the situation in which the characters find themselves. Through engagement with the themes above, I argue that these films, collectively, can be seen as reconciliation cinema.