The First Australians: Ten great films about indigenous Australia

OzThe twenty-sixth of January has passed for another year, although most of my readers will be unaware of the significance that the day holds for Australians. It is Australia Day, a celebration of our national character (perhaps akin to Thanksgiving in the United States) on the date that the First Fleet arrived in 1788. The day is generally spent at barbeques with friends and usually involves what would normally be considered the consumption of an abhorrent amount of Australian beer. However, with each passing year I find myself less at ease celebrating this holiday and more particularly with the date upon which it is held.

I won’t go too far into details, suffice to say that while I am in no way opposed to the celebration of our national history, there is no denying that this particular date is uncomfortable. Firstly, it is perhaps the least fortunate date in the history of the indigenous/Aboriginal Australians – in some circles it is even referred to as Invasion Day or Survival Day. Secondly, it is the day upon which many of our ancestors arrived in chains (a genetic pool made up of those who didn’t die during the journey), having been taken from their friends and families and dragged halfway across the world.

But in recognition of the first point and with the conciliatory desire to still celebrate the cinematic achievements of this great nation, I’d like to take a look at ten of my favourite films that concern themselves with representing the historical plight of the indigenous people of Australia.

Ten Canoes (2006)

Rolf De Heer’s stunning yet simple look at Aboriginal life prior to the arrival of the west oscillates between the day to day activities of an ancient Arnhem Land tribe and the myths they tell of their ancestors. A wonderful attempt to open a window into another time, De Heer’s film won the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.

Walkabout (1971)            

Nicolas Roeg’s Australian set masterpiece sees a young boy and girl taken into the outback by their father, where he attempts to kill them before taking his own life. Stranded, the young children are near death when they come across a young aboriginal boy who helps them survive. Roeg’s wonderful film contrasts the seemingly unnatural complexities of modern life with the raw, honest and ancient ways of a people who have a profound (and perhaps enviable) relationship with the land.

Samson and Delilah (2009)

The first feature from aboriginal director, Warwick Thornton, follows a young indigenous man and woman living in a bleak and remote aboriginal community. The devastating and disenfranchising effects of a remote location, alcohol and drug addiction, and exploitation have left their home a seemingly devastated place. After a series of unfortunate events, they steal a car and head into the city with the intention of… starting fresh? It is unclear, the young man does not speak, and the young woman is lost in grief due to the recent death of her grandmother (her parents were apparently already deceased). This stunningly shot story (comparisons to Mallick abound) provides a small glimmer of hope that all is not lost, while never flinching away from harsh reality.

Samson and Delilah won a ridiculous number of international awards, including the Caméra d’Or (Gold Camera Award) at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)

An adaptation of the novel by Thomas Keneally (who also wrote Schindler’s Ark which became Schindler’s List), this brutal film directed by Fred Schepisi deals with the troubling true story of a young aboriginal man who is exploited until he can take it no longer. An act of violence allows the white community to validate their negative behaviour towards him, and the film spirals towards what is an inevitable conclusion.

The Sapphires (2012)

The Sapphires, which screened at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival to a ten-minute standing ovation, is the first feature from aboriginal director, Wayne Blaire. The film is based on the true story of four aboriginal sisters (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens) who form a soul group in the 1960s to entertain US troops in Vietnam. Managed by Dave (Chris O’Dowd), a charismatic and drunken Irishman, the group escape the restrictions that race places on them in 1960s Australia to become hugely popular with African American troops in Vietnam.  While the film does have a few problems, it deals effectively with the disenfranchisement of aboriginal people in Australia in a manner that addresses the problems of the past while also providing a message of hope for the future.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)

A Phillip Noyce film based on the true story of a group of “half-caste” girls (they are half-white, half aboriginal) who run away from a re-education settlement in 1931. Tragically, “half-castes” were once taken away from their families with the intention of educating them as white people, then having them only breed within the white community until all evidence of their aboriginal heritage was diluted through future generations. Nasty stuff, and this film is a window into a moment in history we cannot allow ourselves to forget.

The Tracker (2002)

Another film by Rolf De Heer, this time involving the story of a racist police officer in the 1920s, who uses an aboriginal tracker to hunt down the killer (also aboriginal) of a young white woman. However, once they are on their way the outback provides a vacuum in which all prejudices are released and the situation begins to escalate.

The Proposition (2005)

A western relocated to the Australian Outback in the late nineteenth century, John Hillcoat’s masterpiece is, perhaps heretically, one of my favourite entries in the genre. Following the traditional narrative of lawman versus the outlaw gang, but with an approach that makes the morality of every side seem perverse, this is certainly one of the more brutal westerns you will ever see. While the film does not take the plight of indigenous people as its central narrative, the depiction of aboriginal culture (and the horrifying contempt for it) are depicted with an accuracy that is considered almost unrivalled in Australian cinema.

Where the Green Ants Dream (1984)

Werner Herzog’s first film in English follows a conflict that ensues between an aboriginal community and a mining company when they decide to mine an area of land that the aboriginals believe cannot be touched without destroying the world. The film demonstrates Herzog’s usual flair for beautiful and engaging cinema, and in his usual fashion it is less concerned with historical or cultural accuracy than with highlighting a more general set of concepts. An oddity worth seeing, but take it with a grain of salt.

First Australians (2008)

I am cheating a little by including a documentary television series, but this comprehensive look at the aboriginal experience from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 to the Government recognition of the indigenous population’s right to native title in 1993, is easily the most significant filmic work on the subject of post-colonial aboriginal history. Visceral and educational, a stunningly beautiful piece of filmmaking.


James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

70 thoughts on “The First Australians: Ten great films about indigenous Australia

  1. Im trying to remember an old movie in which an english officer left his army who were killing aboriginals and jioning them,protecting them and kill his army..any help Please?

  2. Im trying to remember an old movie in which an english officer left his army who were killing aboriginals and jioning them,protecting them and kill his army..any help?

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  5. I’m trying to remember the name of a movie. It’s a story about an American kid who travels to Australia and ends up lost in the Outback with his dad. He then has to find his way back to civilization and the film ends with him discovering a tourist cave where he gets rescued… Any help? By the way it’s not walkabout, last ride or Outback…

  6. Hi James,
    That is one good compact list. Even though I wasn’t born in Australia and not of European or Indigenous heritage, movies like these are what introduces me to the history of this awesome country and makes me relate to my adopted home. A question outside of this list though, I saw a little bit of this indigenous movie at work about two young aboriginal boys cycling through the outback. With this old man explaining them about their home country. Don’t know what the exact story was or the title as I only got to see 15-20 mins of the movie. the violin music in the movie was ABSOLUTELY amazing! I know this is a long shot but if anyone knows the name of that movie, it will be great as I really want to listen to that music again! Thank you!

  7. Great post, reminded me of a movie I watched many years ago on this topic, Once were warriors. Amazing film, though very disturbing. Have you seen it? Thanks for the follow.

  8. I haven’t been back to Oz in a lot of years but always like to watch Australian films whenever I can. They differ remarkably fro the usual Hollywood stuff as they are usually clever and often thought provoking.
    I understand your thoughts about Australia Day, I think America has the same issues re Thanksgiving, perhaps not a nation’s most shiny hour. I think though it is an opportunity to look forward, driving acceptance and understanding. I think the work of these films is to do just that and I rate them all highly!
    Of course, you can’t just blame those in charge for the bad times, they were a function of their time – they thought very little of their own people, why would they think to treat ‘foreigners’ any better?
    Your blog is well worth reading

  9. When I was in college I had a crush on my Computer design teacher. He was from New Zealand and often went home and spent time with the aborigines. I forgot what the name was, but they had a nick name which translated into Big Beak. Anyway, You made me think back on many of his stories and I have a smile on my face.

  10. One Ozploitation film I saw many many years ago was Journey Among Women. A very odd piece of work, very amateurish in many ways, but so powerfully evocative of a primordial Australia. I wonder what I would think seeing it now.

    Not that its on topic, but having just seen the amazing Act of Killing, I want to go back and look at The Year of Living Dangerously. I was intitially ozified by his Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave.

  11. Certainly a great selection, only two of which I’ve seen (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and Storm Boy, my favourite)! However, I thought that Ten Canoes was a Phillip Noyce movie as I have seen a documentary about it on TV. Would be interested to learn what you think about any of Richard Frankland’s movies.

  12. Great list. I’ve seen them all except the Herzog film, which I wasn’t even aware of! But then again, he makes so many films that it’s hard to keep up even in this day and age.

    If anybody is interested here are some more fab titles to seek out: Beneath Clouds, Jindabyne, Mabo and Storm Boy. Out this year are Mystery Road and Satellite Boy.

  13. Much agreed. Anytime I go on %source_url&%, I find a website
    that is insightful and challenging.. It’s generally helpful to examine writing from fellow authors and incorporate certain things from other sites.

  14. I have to admit, and I’m sorry, that when I first saw this list I missed number 3, Samson and Delilah, which I think is an extraordinary film. Walkabout, Jimmy Blacksmith, the Proposition, Ten Canoes. Great films. Great post. Haven’t seen the Herzog film, but will search it out. Thanks.

  15. Thanks for reminding me of some films that I want to rewatch — Rabbit-Proof Fence, Walkabout — and some that I’d like to find. I’m surprised that you left out The Fringe Dwellers, which was the first film I ever saw about the plight of Australia’s native peoples.

  16. Great list! I remember preparing for a presentation about indigenous Australians and how surprised I was at everything I learned. I hadn’t heard anyone talk about any of the things I was reading. Now, I live in Sweden and not Australia, but I still think the complete lack of mentioning of this part of history (and the current day situation for aboriginal Australians) is kind of strange.
    And what do you do when school fails? Turn to movies! I’m definitely going to arrange a movie night with some theme that will allow me to screen one or two of these films sometime.

  17. James, thanks for this post. I was an exchange teacher in Australia and tried to understand the history and situation for Aboriginal people. I saw some of the movies listed above and it helped to understand how complex race relations are in Australia. (As an American, I’m no stranger to horrific, shameful history. We’ve got an abysmal track record.) The stories from the Stolen Generation are so heartbreaking. I understand what you mean about Australia Day being uncomfortable. Thanks for sharing the movie clips and thanks for stopping by Travel Oops — Cheers, Steph

  18. First off, thanks for following my blog. Second, the only one of these I’ve seen was Rabbit Proof Fence. Kevin Murphy of MST3k recommended it too many quite a while back. It was a huge eye opener for me and it’s also a top notch film. I’ll have to look into the rest of the films on your list. So please, keep up the good work!

  19. How did the name “Aboriginee” come to represent the indigenous people of Australia. In Canada, we are referred to as “Aboriginal.” In the bible, aboriginal refers to people who are “not original.” That term has never sat easy with me. I self identify as Inuvialuit, or “real people” in our Inuit language. I am a filmmaker as well and identify with all the themes in the films you profile. My father travelled to Australia in the early seventies at the request of the Aboriginees to share his experience asserting Inuit rights in Canada. Perhaps I could share some of my work there one day. My website is

    At one time technology was used to suppress and eradicate our identities as indigenous people. Now we use it to enhance and preserve our identity.

    • Hi,

      Good question. The term was applied by the British early on, and at some stage the definition here shifted from the broad to the specific (possibly due to our geographic dislocation). I certainly understand the discomfort with the term given its historical definition (which I’d never heard).

      I hope you CAN come and share your work at some point. Good luck! 🙂

  20. Hi there,
    Thanks for the follow on amusinghabit! I really appreciate this compilation of Australian films. I’m especially excited to watch ‘Walkabout’ and ‘The Sapphires’. I’ll let you know what I think once I figure out how to get ahold of ’em.

  21. So you did it, and used the Aboriginal ‘slant’ too! Well done James, great recommendations. I have seen ‘Rabbit proof fence’, Jimmy Blacksmith’, ‘The Propsition’, ‘Walkabout’ (of course), and ‘Samson and Delilah.’ (Also The Last Wave’, mentioned in comments). I will look out for the others. Regards, Pete. Norfolk.

  22. Hi James,

    Firstly, thanks for following my blog Dharma Junk! Secondly, I’m glad I read this article, because Australian Cinema, and films about indigenous Australians aren’t massively accessible here in the UK. What I mean to say is, in this internet-age, of course it’s accessible, but noones teaching it in film courses or showing it at local art-houses.

    You’ve intrigued me, and I shall be looking for these titles next time I run out of films!

    Many Thanks,
    Tom Hodgson

  23. I absolutely love “The Last Wave.” Super creepy, atmospheric and thought provoking. Glad they put it out on a Criterion Collection version.

    Some great suggests in this post too!

  24. Ive actually seen rabbit proof fence!! but there is a movie that I forgot the name of…something about mining jade or some other precious stone….Its been a long time since I’ve seen it maybe you know what it is……..That was a great Australian movie.

  25. Thanks for posting this summary. Last night I was watching the excellent documentary, Coming to Light, about Edward S. Curtis and his lifelong work of photographing North American Indians and I wondered if there was a corresponding figure for Australian Aboriginals. My wife and I are planning to visit your country in the third quarter of this year and, geek that I am, I spend months studying the history and geology of places before showing up. I almost enjoy the research as much as the actual traveling. If you have any more suggestions about notable historical Australian photographers and filmmakers please elaborate.

    • Hi John – not sure about the details of historical Australian photographers (though I vaguely recall that there are a few prominent ones). I’ll be happy to compile a list of films/directors that you should check out and email them through.

      Enjoy the trip – I have no doubt you’ll have an amazing time 🙂

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