How Indigenous Films Could Be More Universal

In my last essay I explained how Australian feature stories lack universality.
Today I will focus on the one sub-category where I see this lack at its most blatant:  In the case of films that depict indigenous characters and culture.

by Steven Fernandez

For the purposes of this essay, I will define an “indigenous film” as one that has indigenous characters who are central to the film’s story.  Under this definition I will not concern myself with the race of either the writer or director.  Even if they happen to be white.

In my view, indigenous films have consistently been the worst written of all Australian films.  And the principal reason why they are so bad is because minimal or no attempt is made to make aspects of indigenous culture meaningful and relatable to the worldwide audience.  Only Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) comes to my mind as a credible exception to this rule.

indigenous films have consistently been
the worst written of all Australian films.

For those of you who want to brand me as ethnocentric, I say two things:  Firstly, in what way is an untranslated and unrelated presentation of tribal dances, rituals, and beliefs, any more respectful of that culture than a piece of 1930’s newsreel footage?  And, secondly, do you seriously expect an overseas viewer to pay money and watch an indigenous film if little attempt is made to make the native culture meaningful to him or her?

Allow me to explain what I mean by way of an example …

Australia: Aboriginal Culture 006

Suppose we have some indigenous film where the central character is a troubled young urban black man.  Suppose, in addition, that his uncle takes him to the outback to help him ‘rediscover his roots’.  Once the young man arrives at the tribal camp, it won’t be long before we, the film watchers, will be presented with some tribal ritual, dance, or whatever.

We will be presented with an involved sequence of shots showing, for instance, some body-painted elder posturing and prancing about with a spear in his hand.  We may later be told that this is the traditional dance of, say, “The Leaping Wooka-Wooka”.

Now, there may well be an urban sophisticate set who would be quite content to watch and applaud footage of some colourful native rite.  They may well be politically correct enough to pass over the fact that the significance of this dance has not really been explained to a viewer who is outside of that culture.  But their well-meaning charity will not negate the fact that woeful storytelling has happened here.

Why woeful?

Because the significance of this dance has not been meaningfully related to a non-indigenous viewer!  This is the Dance Of The Leaping Wooka-Wooka, is it?  Well, so what?!  Why should we care if it is?  What difference does it make to the central character?  How is a viewer from London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, or New York supposed to value this tribal dance if all they got to go on is some footage and a word-label?

This is a typical failure of universality that indigenous films make.  Their writers (whether black, or not) assume that the audience’s multi-cultural tolerance will excuse them from having to exert the effort to make the film universal.  They could not be further wrong!

How is a viewer from London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, or New York supposed to value this tribal dance if all they got to go on is some footage and a word-label?

Before leaving this example, let me briefly go over how the Wooka-Wooka dance could be presented far more effectively and universally …

Suppose the uncle mentions the dance to the young man as he drives him to the outback.  Suppose the young man scoffs that this dance – “whatever it is” – is primitive and irrelevant.  Now let’s make the uncle wily at this point.  Suppose he exploits his nephew’s pride and overconfidence by betting him that he could not master this dance inside of two weeks.  The young man enthusiastically takes the bait.  Later they are at the tribal camp and the full complexity of the dance is portrayed.  Suddenly the nephew looks like he has just swallowed a bar of soap!  For he is now committed to mastering something that is far more complicated than he (or we, the viewers) ever supposed.

Fellow writers:  This is the way to do the Wooka-Wooka effectively and universally!  For now the dance means something to the viewer.  If only because the nephew’s pride and status is now on the line over it.

The one film that all makers of indigenous films should study is Slumdog Millionaire.  Why?  Because Simon Beaufoy (the principal writer of Slumdog) paid full attention to the importance of making his story universal.

DharaviSimon Beaufoy did not make the mistake of limiting himself to being just a custodian of Hindi language and culture.  He did more than simply present authentic Hindi dialogue and customs.  He, over and above that, crafted a story that everyone in the world could relate to.  And, importantly, he did not at all count on his viewers already knowing much about Indian culture.

These operating principles are precisely what makers of indigenous films need to learn and live by!  They should – at once – stop ignoring the critical need to make elements of indigenous culture globally meaningful.  Fail to do that, and you will – quite frankly – fail to make a film that is worth seeing.

As my remedy of the Wooka-Wooka example, above, shows, it’s not good enough to simply present authentic bits of native culture and just leave it at that.  Those bits of culture need to be made meaningful to the viewer.  And, ideally, these bits of culture should make a clearly understandable difference to the film’s protagonist.  It’s not good enough that they be left as background colour.

 It’s not good enough to simply present authentic bits of native culture

In summary, then, the key thing makers of indigenous films need to understand is that native culture must be translated in a way that anyone anywhere in the world can relate to and make sense of.

The viewer should never be expected to have prior cultural knowledge – or politically correct sympathies – before they can enjoy the film.  Better still, elements of the native culture should make a real difference to the film’s protagonist.  Even if the protagonist spends the whole of the first third of the film doing nothing but scoffing and dismissing all those elements.

Photo Credit: Steve Evans – India Kangaroo

-Steven Fernandez

Steven Fernandez is a writer-director of short films and theatrical shows in Sydney, Australia.

He is currently writing Human Liberation – an epic novel and screenplay package set in mythic ancient Greece.

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