Twenty Exceptional Films by Indigenous Australian Filmmakers That You Can Stream Right Now
Celebrate Australia's First Nations filmmakers with these Top End rom-coms, outback noirs, Aussie westerns and expressive dance flicks.
January 23, 2023
In 2017, when Warwick Thornton's Sweet Country first reached cinema screens, the blistering Indigenous Australian western won awards in Venice, Toronto, Luxembourg and our own backyard. It's a sublimely shot and performed work of art that powerfully interrogates Australia's past and draws parallels with the country's present, so that's not surprising — and it joined a long list of acclaimed work by Indigenous Australian filmmakers.
Thornton himself is no stranger to the spotlight, with his debut Samson & Delilah winning the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 2009. Sixteen years earlier, Australian artist Tracey Moffatt premiered BeDevil at the prestigious international festival, too, with her feature marking the first ever directed by an Australian Aboriginal woman.
From Ivan Sen's Mystery Road and Goldstone to Rachel Perkins' Bran Nue Dae and Jasper Jones, the list of exceptional films by Indigenous Aussie directors goes on. Showcasing the breadth and depth of the nation's filmmaking talent — and, crucially, showcasing Indigenous Australian stories — they demonstrate Aussie cinema at its best. And if you're wondering where to start, here are 20 movies that you can stream right now.
MYSTERY ROAD, GOLDSTONE AND TOOMELAH
When Ivan Sen and Aaron Pedersen teamed up for 2013 film Mystery Road, they gave Australia the ongoing gift of outback noir. Sen's writing and directing was so finessed, Pedersen's performance as Indigenous Australian police officer Jay Swan so riveting and the movie's entire concept so engaging that it's no wonder everyone wanted more. So, another followed. Across fellow big-screen effort Goldstone, Swan went to a different remote corner of the country, tried to solve a different case and became immersed in a different set of small-town politics.
In both films, the franchise lays bare the state of Australia today, especially when it comes to the nation's treatment of its First Nations peoples. And if you're instantly hooked, it has also spawned its own two-season TV series also starring Pedersen — plus an exceptional prequel series as well.
Also worth seeking out: Sen's 2011 drama Toomelah, as set in the titular New South Wales town, with ten-year-old Daniel (Daniel Connors) at its centre.
SAMSON & DELILAH AND SWEET COUNTRY
Before Warwick Thornton turned his camera on himself in the personal and reflective TV documentary The Beach — which is the best piece of Australian television that hit screens in 2020 — he directed two of the great Aussie films of the 21st century. The first: a love story, a tale of fighting to survive and an unflinching look at teenage life in Australia's red centre, aka 2009's equally heartwrenching and stunning Samson & Delilah. Indeed, it's little wonder the multi-award-winning movie firmly put Thornton on the international map.
With Sweet Country, he then returned to the Northern Territory with a film that makes a firm statement, as becomes clear when an Indigenous stockman (Hamilton Morris) kills a white station owner in self-defence. He's forced to flee with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber), but a local posse is soon on their trail. As Sweet Country decisively confronts this all-too-real situation, it also confronts the country's history of racial prejudice.
One of Australia's most astonishing films — and yet one of the country's lesser-celebrated gems — Tracey Moffatt's BeDevil took the Queensland visual artist, photographer and filmmaker to Cannes and back. That external validation is all well and good; however it's really just the cherry on top of a potent triptych of haunting tales that demands attention on its own merits.
In not only her first and only feature, but the first feature by an Australian Aboriginal woman, Moffatt takes inspiration from ghost stories told to her as a child by both her Aboriginal and Irish relatives. A thoroughly distinctive and immersive horror movie is the end result, and one that smartly and engagingly explores Australian race relations in a disarmingly unique way. Surreal, eerie and simmering with intensity, it'll also show you the Aussie landscape in a whole new light.
THE DROVER'S WIFE THE LEGEND OF MOLLY JOHNSON
A searing and impassioned take on a well-known Australian tale — a First Nations, feminist and anti-colonial version, too — The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson is the film that Leah Purcell had to make. See: her lengthy history with Henry Lawson's short story of almost the same name. In 2016, she adapted The Drover's Wife for the stage. In 2019, she moved it back to the page. Now, she's brought it to the big screen — and the end result is a must-see.
Only minutes in, in what marks the actor-turned-director's feature filmmaking debut, it's easy to see why Purcell keeps being drawn to retell this 19th century-set story. In her hands, it's a story of anger, power, prejudice and revenge, and also a portrait of a history that's treated both women and Indigenous Australians abhorrently. And, ever the powerhouse, she writes, helms and stars.
BRAN NUE DAE, JASPER JONES AND RADIANCE
When Rachel Perkins brought hit Aussie musical Bran Nue Dae to the big screen in 2010, she turned an already beloved stage musical into one of the country's cinema box office successes. The lively love story takes a road trip through 60s-era Australia, and brings plenty of famous faces along for the ride, with Jessica Mauboy, Ernie Dingo and Deborah Mailman among the cast.
Then, in 2017, she adapted another Aussie classic. This time, she set her sights on Craig Silvey's novel Jasper Jones, which examines race relations in a rural Australian town — particularly the treatment of the teenage titular character (Aaron L. McGrath), who is considered an outcast due to his ethnicity. The book was already intelligent, thoughtful and engaging, and the film proves the same.
Similarly worth watching is Perkins' moving 1998 filmmaking debut, Radiance, about three sisters (Rachael Maza, Deborah Mailman and Trisha Morton-Thomas) working through their baggage after their mother's death.
Radiance streams via SBS On Demand.
THE SAPPHIRES, TOP END WEDDING AND FIRESTARTER — THE STORY OF BANGARRA
An actor and a filmmaker, Wayne Blair boasts an eclectic resume. You've seen him on-screen in Wish You Were Here, The Turning and Emu Runner, and he both directed and featured in episodes of Redfern Now and the second season of the Mystery Road TV series. Behind the lens, he's also helmed episodes of Lockie Leonard, and directed the 2017 US TV remake of Dirty Dancing.
But, Blair is probably best known for The Sapphires and Top End Wedding. They're both big films — and Blair has a definite feel for feel-good material. One follows a group of four Indigenous Australian female singers (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell) sent to Vietnam to entertain the troops. As for the other, it tracks an Indigenous Australian woman's (Tapsell again) whirlwind quest to stage her perfect nuptials in her hometown of Darwin.
Also on Blair's resume: recent documentary Firestarter — The Story of Bangarra, about Australia's acclaimed Indigenous dance theatre. Co-directed with Nel Minchin (Matilda & Me, Making Muriel), it's a powerful portrait that also steps through the nation's past and focuses on three siblings — Stephen, David and Russell Page — with dreams as big as their talents.
On paper, it might seem easy to spot exactly why Satellite Boy proves so charming. Writer/director Catriona McKenzie smartly enlisted the now-late David Gulpilil as Indigenous elder Jagamarra, one of ten-year-old Pete's (Cameron Wallaby) guardians and the person teaching him about life on the land. It's a stroke of casting genius, clearly — and crucial to the film.
That said, this dreamlike 2012 movie has several impressive casting touches as it traverses the Western Australian landscape, including unearthing young Wallaby as its lead and similarly finding fellow debutant Joseph Pedley to play Pete's pal Kalmain. McKenzie's feature also boasts a delightful narrative, which sees the two boys take to the bush en route to the city to save the home that Pete adores: a rundown drive-in cinema that this big-dreaming kid simply wants to get back into action.
An Australian dance movie that uses its fancy footwork to step through the plight of the country's First Nations peoples, Spear is a striking cinematic achievement. First-time feature helmer, Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires choreographer, and Bangarra Dance Theatre artistic director Stephen Page turns the company's performance work of the same name into a big-screen spectacle unlike anything crafted locally, or anywhere else for that matter.
Mood, music and movement are pivotal, as a teenage boy wanders from the outback to the city to try to reconcile his ancient culture in a modern world. His journey is just as transporting for those watching as it is for everyone within the movie, as well as anchoring one of the most expressive pieces of Australian film perhaps ever made. Watch his with the aforementioned Firestarter — The Story of Bangarra for a fantastic double feature.
BUCKSKIN AND FINKE: THERE AND BACK
The past few years have been memorable for Dylan River. The Alice Springs filmmaker directed delightful SBS web series Robbie Hood, was the cinematographer on rousing Adam Goodes documentary The Australian Dream, worked as the second unit director on the aforementioned Sweet Country, lensed The Beach (with the latter two both helmed by his father, Warwick Thornton) and co-directed Mystery Road: Origin.
He also wrote, directed and shot two impressive documentaries of his own: Buckskin and Finke: There and Back. The first tells the tale of Jack Buckskin, Australia's only teacher of the near-extinct Kaurna language, while the second covers the rough, tough, two-day off-terrain trek that gives the doco its name. Both prove insightful, and showcase the astute skills of one of Australia's emerging filmmaking talents.
HERE I AM
Marking not one but two feature debuts — for writer/director Beck Cole and star Shai Pittman — Here I Am tells one of the oldest tales there is. It's also a prime of example of taking a familiar narrative and giving it a new voice; viewers have seen this story before in various guises over decades and decades, but never championing Indigenous women.
When Karen (Pittman) is released from prison in South Australia, she embarks upon a quest for redemption, including reconnecting with her unimpressed mother Lois (Marcia Langton) and her young daughter Rosie (Quinaiha Scott). Unsurprisingly, that reunion doesn't go smoothly, but both Cole and Pittman are committed to riding the ups and downs. Both hit the big-screen for the first time in a striking fashion, and with a film that proves both intimate and clear-eyed in its multi-generational portrait.
SERVANT OR SLAVE AND LOOKY LOOKY HERE COMES COOKY
Watching a documentary directed by Steven McGregor involves exploring Australia's complicated history. There's much for the director of Black Comedy and co-writer of Mystery Road, Redfern Now and Sweet Country to cover, of course. In 2016's Servant or Slave, he turned his attention not only to the nation's Stolen Generation, but to the Indigenous girls who were forced to work as domestic servants. The powerful film features five women recalling their experiences — and it's impossible not to be moved and horrified by their accounts.
With 2020's Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky, the filmmaker takes a more irreverent approach to Australia's past, while still remaining just as probing. The charismatic Steven Oliver leads the show on-screen, as this clever and engaging movie revisits the story of Captain Cook from a First Nations perspective, including via songlines with the assistance of Indigenous performers.
Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky streams via SBS On Demand.
Top image: Daniel Boud.
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