Review | ‘Ablaze’ spectacularly restores First Nations stories

Ablaze | Dir: Alec Morgan and Tiriki Onus | ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 

Tiriki Onus’s grandfather had died before he was born but he found a suitcase full of photos that William Bill Onus had had taken with his Brownie Box Camera in the 1930s and 1940s. One photo was of three young Aboriginals, painted in traditional designs, gathered around a movie camera.

Tiriki had been told by his father that his grandfather had made many films, and was possibly the first Aboriginal filmmaker, but the films had been lost in a fire. When he discovered an untitled 70 year-old silent film in the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, featuring his grandfather, he goes in search of the other people in the film and the stories they have to tell.

Bill was born in 1906, on a mission at a time when the Aboriginal children were punished for speaking their language or practising their culture. Aboriginal people had no legal recognition and were used as unpaid forced labourers. They were excluded from many public places like shops and pubs, segregated in many other places such as cinemas and had their culture misappropriated by White filmmakers.

The footage shows Indigenous activists fighting for rights and dignity, and this 11 minute film is a culturally significant time capsule. It shows returned Aboriginal servicemen who were not allowed to join their White colleagues in return home victory parades after World War II. And it shows the terrible conditions and inhumane treatment endured by Aboriginal people.

The filmmakers have combined the archival footage with the photographs, personal letters and eye witness accounts, and created animated sequences to bring to life memories that have been passed down orally. In unearthing his grandfather’s life story, Tiriki has exposed a greater story of hardships and indignities endured and early struggles for a more equitable Australia.

Ablaze has limited screenings, opening at Luna Leederville with a virtual Q&A on Thursday 26 May with the filmmakers – Alec Morgan and Tiriki Onus.

Lezly Herbert

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