Peripheral visions: Blak screens and cultural citizenship

Faye Ginsburg

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    The questions framed by Sally Riley1 - filmmaker, dramaturge, and advocate for the development of filmmaking by Indigenous Australians - are precisely the ones I want to address. What has enabled the emergence of such vibrant filmmaking across many genres - and in particular the development of feature films - in what one might think of as the periphery's periphery? Aboriginal people comprise only about 2 percent of the population of Australia, a small nation that is itself seen as being "off-center."2 Given this kind of cultural location, how is it that Australia's Indigenous media makers - particularly those oriented toward feature filmmaking - have managed to attract the attention and support of the wider Indigenous community, as well as non-Indigenous communities at home and abroad?3 Research into how the "media worlds"4 of Indigenous feature filmmaking came into being in Australia is part of the broader project of the burgeoning work in the ethnography of media, which turns the analytic lens on the production, circulation, and consumption of media in a variety of locales. Indigenous filmmaking in any part of the world raises important questions about the role of media in the discursive evolution of diversity. In Australia, such work contributes to the expanding (if contested) understanding of Australia as a culturally diverse nation. It offers alternative accountings to those presented by unified national narratives and it also demonstrates the value of analysis that takes into account the offscreen cultural and political labor of Aboriginal activists and their fellow travelers whose efforts at gaining a space in this cultural arena have made this work possible. More broadly, the study of Indigenous media is part of the broader discussions regarding how contemporary settler states and their citizens negotiate diversity - what some call cultural citizenship - a topic that has gained considerable currency over the last decade, but which gives only occasional attention to media, despite the foundational work of Benedict Anderson5 in clarifying the role of print media in the formation of modern nations.6 As an exception to that tendency, Australian media theorist John Hartley has argued in his work on this topic that "the evolution of new forms of citizenship is matched by post-broadcast forms of television, in which audiences can be seen as organized around choice, affinity, and the production as well as consumption of media. These developments have powerful implications for the way nations are narrated in broadcast television⋯ Indigeneity points the way to new notions of nation and television."7 Hartley's work points to the critically important role that Aboriginal media have played in Australia over the last two decades in the creation of an Indigenous public sphere.8 His deployment of Jürgen Habermas's language to capture how media made by and about Indigenous people has created a new space of representation for their concerns has a colloquial counterpart: the term Blak screens, used in the title of this article. I draw on its use in the title Blak Screens/Blak Sounds, given to the inaugural (and now annual) 2001 Message Sticks Festival of Indigenous film and music held at the Sydney Opera House. The use of the Aboriginal English Blak takes up a term of pride and assertion of cultural identity, marked by its orthographic change from Black to Blak, which emerged along with the Aboriginal activism of the 1970s - a period in which symbolic politics borrowed heavily from the language, strategies, and tactics deployed by the U.S. Black Power movement. To associate Blak with the term screens in this context inverts the usual association of the idea of the black screen in film or television as blank (and in this case devoid of Indigenously authored stories and images), and rather claims it as Blak, or proudly Aboriginal, now that Indigenous directors are creating their own work. The development of Indigenous filmmaking in Australia, which is the central concern of this chapter, has been a two-decade-long effort on the part of Indigenous media activists to reverse that erasure of Aboriginal subjects in public life (what we might call the blank screen) through their cultural labor, by making representations about Blak lives visible and audible on the film and television screens of Australia and beyond. Indigenous media in Australia's national film and television industries have contributed to the ongoing process of narrative accrual9 through which an Australian national imaginary is produced, contested, and transformed. This argument about the place of national cinema in the imagined community of Australia has been central to the work of Australian media scholars and public intellectuals over the last two decades.10 Most recently, it was reframed by Felicity Collins and Therese davis in Australian Cinema after Mabo, who argue that the 1992 Mabo decision, which supported Indigenous claims to land and recognition by overturning Australia's founding doctrine of terra nullius (which asserted that the continent was empty land when the British settlers arrived in the eighteenth century, despite the presence of Aboriginal people) irreversibly destabilized the way in which Australians relate not only to the land but also to their colonial heritage, a paradigm shift, they conclude, that shaped the new antipodean films following that judicial landmark. using the central image of backtracking, Collins and davis suggest that in the narrative drive of a range of films made during the last decade - including a number of works examining Indigenous/settler relations by Euro-Australian directors, such as The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002), as well as by Aboriginal directors such as Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1998), One Night the Moon (Rachel Perkins, 2001), and Beneath Clouds (Ivan Sen, 2001) - there is a renewed and more complex exploration of Australia's past. These works backtrack through the nation's history not in triumphalist terms, but in ways that address the legacies of grief and violence wrought by settler colonialism, a significant transformation in the country's sense of its own legacies, and a recognition that it matters whose stories are told and by whom. Books such as Australian Cinema after Mabo offer an occasion to think about Australia's film industry, a privileged arena of national visual culture, within the context of the country's cultural politics. Is a term such as the post-Mabo era merely symptomatic of a changed sensibility in the kinds of stories told or does it index a transformed recognition of who is authorized to tell these stories? What does such periodization mean in the crucial offscreen world on which a complex form of cultural production like filmmaking depends? Collins and davis provide important discussions of shifits in cultural policy and the critical role played by certain key producers that helped bring at least some of this work into being. Here I want to underscore the crucial role played by Aboriginal cultural activists and their fellow travelers who pushed to get support for the programs and resources necessary to create the kind of films that are expanding, if not transforming, Australian national cinema. Indigenous filmmakers hoping to enter into feature filmmaking face a far more complex and costly field of cultural production than those who started the 1980s outback experiments in small-scale video. The histories of initiatives to develop Indigenous feature film, launched in a systematic way a decade ago, are instructive not only for understanding the Australian case but also for recognizing more broadly the capacity of peripheral cinemas to offer fresh perspectives on the problematic dimensions of multicultural arts policies; in particular, the impact of culturally bounded categories of support for this form of Indigenous cultural production. Are new arenas emerging for cross-cultural recognition beyond the screenings of the films themselves? Furthermore, it is important to think about other offscreen dimensions of this work, and ask whether the post-Mabo framing is the most significant way to understand what is shaping these works as, increasingly, they circulate beyond Australia, implicating such work in broader trade relations and political economies in which culture is progressively caught up. debates about Australia's cinema industry and its value have been key in considering the nation's place in a global economy. In particular, questions have been raised about the consequences of the Australia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (signed February 8, 2004) for what the department of Foreign Affairs and Trade calls "the audiovisual sector," which raised industrywide anxieties that this agreement will facilitate the displacing of Australian media by American products. These changing global trade relations are crucially reframing national debates about what can be seen on Australian screens, while also resituating the place of Indigenous Australians not only in the national narrative but also as icons of Australia on the world stage. I would argue that the cultural capital available to Australia's Indigenous filmmakers through the international circulation of their media work at prestigious film festivals and media markets, from Cannes, to Sundance, to Toronto, has given added value to their claims to cultural citizenship - they increasingly find themselves serving as representatives of their own communities and also (somewhat ironically) of Australia.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationCinema at the Periphery
    PublisherWayne State University Press
    Number of pages20
    ISBN (Print)9780814333884
    StatePublished - 2010

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Arts and Humanities


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