A mysterious film leads Tiriki Onus to trace the life of his grandfather and pioneering Aboriginal activist Bill, revealing a stirring personal story and the dark history of Australian suppression of Indigenous rights.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2021
When Australian opera singer Tiriki Onus begins investigating the life of his grandfather Bill, he comes across a mysterious film that may have been directed by him – which would make it the earliest known film by an Aboriginal filmmaker.
As Tiriki sets out to find out more about the film’s origins and intended function, his personal journey naturally unfolds into a fascinating biography of Bill Onus: actor, activist, impresario and pioneer in the revival of Aboriginal culture and fight for Indigenous rights.
This layer, in turn, unfolds into a startling social history of Australia in the 20th century, a tale of slavery, segregation, surveillance and suppression, culminating in the 1967 referendum that finally recognised Indigenous Australians as citizens and granted them basic civil rights. Along the way, we learn about the hard life of urban Indigenous Australians in the Melbourne slums, the 1946 Pilbara strike – the first industrial action by Aboriginal people – and 1950s nuclear tests on tribal land. At every point, Bill Onus was there, protesting and creatively finding ways to get information out to white Australia and the world beyond.
Tiriki Onus and co-director Alec Morgan pack their small film with rich context and detail, using archival footage (including some shot in secret by the Australian spy agency ASIO) and animation to tell a vast historical story in an intimate, accessible manner. The result is a memorable upbeat/downbeat mix: an exposé of the dark history of our trans-Tasman neighbours that doubles as a celebration of a genuine Australian hero. — Andrew Langridge