Resurfacing vital Indigenous history through historic film footage


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Finding old family photographs in a suitcase is fairly common – almost infinitely less so that one of those pictures, combined with footage unearthed by a filmmaker, would lead to a feature-length documentary that tells the story of a key figure in Australian history.

Such was the case for Tiriki Onus, a Yorta Yorta man, opera singer, artist and Head of the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development at the University
of Melbourne.

More than six years in the making, and something of a detective story, the seed for the documentary was planted when filmmaker Alec Morgan contacted Onus with a strong hunch that a nine-minute black-and-white silent film he’d discovered at the National Film and Sound Archive in a tin labelled
“Aborigines in the Community” was made by Onus’ grandfather, William “Bill” Onus.

Bill Onus was a Yorta Yorta/ Wiradjuri entrepreneur, boomerang champion, theatre empresario and political activist, who became the first Indigenous president of the Aborigines Advancement League in 1967. He played a key role that same year in the referendum that allowed Indigenous people to be included
in the census.

The find was all the more remarkable because the vast majority of films shot by Bill were lost in a caravan fire in the 1960s. The near-confirmation of the film’s provenance, made more certain by the cross-checking of old family photographs Onus had looked at many times without realising their
significance, led to the pair working on the documentary that would eventually become Ablaze.

In the absence of any supporting material or sound (they later discovered a voiceover had been recorded by Bill but was lost) it was initially difficult to date the film.

“In the end, we were able to date parts of it to an exact month in 1946,” Onus says. “There’s footage of Captain Reg Saunders, the highest-ranking Aboriginal serviceman, working on the trams as a conductor after the Second World War. He only did that for a very short period because
the racism was too much, but behind him, on the tram, is a poster advertising the film The Hard Way, which we found out was playing for a short time in Melbourne in 1946.”

From there, they were able to locate the records that would allow them to date – and better understand – intriguing footage of a theatre show that features in Bill’s film.

“Bill had worked long and hard to challenge the neck-chaining of Aboriginal people in Western Australia, and that’s one of the things being depicted in the performance,” Onus says. “It also shows people having rations withheld and women being abducted. And then, two non-Indigenous
figures come on stage and dance along with the other actors, and there's a judge and a court case being played out.

“We discovered this production was put on as a collaboration between the Australian Aborigines' League, of which Bill later became president, and the New Theatre, a socialist worker's theatre in Melbourne, in support of the Pilbara Strike in Western Australia, which began in 1946.”

The strike, which saw Aboriginal workers walk off pastoral stations in Western Australia to demand independence alongside better human rights, wages and working conditions, inspired the broader campaign for Aboriginal rights, of which Bill Onus was very much a part.

In a tragicomic twist, the research for Ablaze was made easier by Australian intelligence operatives, who for some time had kept Bill (and many other activists) in their sights, his determination to keep Koori culture alive seen as a clear and present danger to non-Indigenous Australia.

“We were very fortunate that ASIO and, before them, the Commonwealth Investigation Branch were very good at keeping records of the things Bill and others were doing,” Onus says. “We're also really fortunate that ASIO started using movie cameras to record people and all of that footage
is now in the public domain.

“The irony isn’t lost on me that, in doing so, ASIO actually created resources which are now empowering First Nations communities to reclaim our culture, exercising our sovereignty and being self-determined. It's a wonderful turnaround after all those years that they’re now able to
supply us with resources to keep this work moving forward.”

In Ablaze, Onus and Morgan travel to the Pilbara to show the film to descendants of the Pilbara Strike. In doing so, and in line with the documentary’s approach overall, Onus was keen to stress that Bill was no one-man show.

“We wanted to create space for other voices to come in,” he says, "to be able to acknowledge the collaboration, the multiple voices that were coming together at that time. I think we can get very, very passionate about thinking of someone as ‘the one’, or ‘the first’,
seeing people as standing alone in a space. That doesn’t really interest me hugely because there's something much more empowering, to me, in thinking about how a body of people come together, thinking about what collaboration across cultures looks like, and you can see that all through this film.”

Observing theatre and film being used in such a powerful way by his grandfather has had a significant impact on Onus. “It’s made me feel good about the career and life choices that I've made to be in the space that I'm in now, too.”

Indeed, the arts and their transformative potential form something of a through-line in Onus’s family – in his own case, he blends being a performer, visual artist and filmmaker with being a senior academic and advocate for Indigenous students in the arts. His father, Lin Onus, was a celebrated
painter, sculptor, and printmaker. His grandfather, Bill, in addition to his many other talents, set up a business called Aboriginal Enterprises in Melbourne in the 1950s, making items that showcased Indigenous designs.

Beyond art for art’s sake, Onus appreciates the role of art in protecting and promoting Indigenous culture both now and in the past.

“It’s interesting that a lot of the work Bill and his contemporaries were doing in the early and middle part of the 20th century in cultural reclamation was about finding smart and innovative ways to practise culture and tell stories,” he says.

“For a lot of that time, across a lot of Australia, it was illegal for people to speak their language, to engage in ceremony and dance. Oftentimes, they weren’t even allowed to fraternise with their own family members.

“But when you did all those things on a stage and called it a performance, you could get away with it. So, much of the cultural reclamation and revival of that time was happening within the public gaze – or hiding in plain sight, if you will. Because, while people didn’t necessarily
want Aboriginal people having access to this knowledge, there was still a huge ethnographic curiosity in Aboriginal people and a fetishisation of the culture.”

Poignantly, and pointedly, Ablaze shows Onus wrapping his first-born daughter, Ninda, in a possum skin cloak he has made, and onto which he has inscribed elements of Bill’s story.

“For a long time, people weren't allowed to make possum-skin cloaks,” he says. “But the aspiration to make our cloaks again formed the basis of a story that Bill told my father, Lin, who then told it to me. And after three generations of being promised that we would once again make
our cloaks, I finally did. And the first one I completed is the one I wrap around Ninda in the film.”

During their research for Ablaze, Onus and Morgan discovered that Bill’s film had secured a distributor for cinema release only to be suppressed and never shown. Which makes it hard not to also wonder, and feel touched by, what Bill might have made of the fact that it would finally be watched in cinemas as part
of a documentary made by his grandson some 70 years later.

“There's something quite lovely about being able to bring that story to the world finally,” Onus says. “And in many ways, I think Ablaze is a great embodiment of the type of cultural reclamation Bill and others were engaged in, and the type of work I’ve tried to continue to do, this idea that stories never go away. They’re not pushed out of the world – they’re still out there and we just need to
create space to be able to embrace them. I think that’s borne out by this film.”

Ablaze premiered in August 2021 at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

This is an edited version of a story by Paul Dalgarno, originally published on Pursuit.

First published on 11 July 2022.

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