Ningla-A’na Review – Australia’s Biggest Protest Movie Ever | australian movie
Jhe great Australian protest documentary Ningla-A’na returns to cinemas with a new restoration timed for the 50th anniversary of the film and its subject. Capturing the beginnings of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – a hugely influential symbol of sovereignty that began as a parasol erected by four activists (Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey, Michael Anderson and Bert Williams) in 1972 – is not just a document historic but a kind of evergreen bugle call and electric time capsule, burning with incandescent energy and a keen sense of purpose all these years later.
The launch of the embassy tent marked the first time many saw First Nations people confront the establishment. In Ningla-A’na, we watch protesters gather, march, occupy public spaces and confront cops, including in a shocking sequence that has become a widely seen and highly influential depiction of police brutality. This moment, as curator Liz McNiven wrote for the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia website, “brought international attention to the struggle of Indigenous peoples for land and human rights” and even “fundamentally changed the way the world viewed Australia”.
Italian-born director Alessandro Cavadini structures the film – which was clearly made from within the movement – around indigenous voices. Given his message that black activists don’t need white spokespersons, it was an odd choice to open with an elderly white pacifist and former veteran, Jim Leacock, commenting on his life and attitudes towards the war before finally moving on to the subject at hand. , describing the push for Indigenous land rights as “the most important direction we can take to help right some of the injustice”.
But then Cavadini takes to the streets and never looks back, capturing many gripping subjects and the intense feeling and fervor of what would become a watershed moment in Australian history. Probably the coolest subject is the great activist and artist Gumbaynggirr Gary Foley, who is what they in the documentary world call a “great talent” – a punchless presence who is talkative, charismatic and crazy as the hell. After a temperamental exchange with a well-dressed white woman, Foley discusses the need for the black community to represent itself, criticizing previous iterations of the movement for being “full of white liberal shit” and arguing that “people like her have fucked up our movement for 20 years”.
Foley then responds to the suggestion that the movement might find more support from the wider community if it tones down its use of language. His replica is one for the ages. On the notion of obscenity: “You think my language is obscene…I think what’s happening in black communities in this country is obscene.” And to be offensive: “I find it very, very, very offensive that a black born person, if he puts his foot in a bloody artery, he will get his head kicked… I find it very offensive that the highest infant mortality rate in the world in this country among black children …. it’s offensive to me.
Ningla-A’na’s restoration took seven months, cost around $40,000, and was crowdfunded by financiers including Russell Crowe. Hopefully the re-release will introduce it to a new generation and give the film its rightful status as the greatest protest film ever made in Australia: so alive and so galvanizing that it seems to have its own electromagnetic force.
There have been some good protest documentaries in recent years (including The Tall Man, Defiant Lives, Brazen Hussies and Frackman) but nothing that registers this kind of impact. And nothing that doesn’t capture so clearly such an important event in modern Australian history, when activists (among many other things) created, as Jennetta Quinn-Bates put it, “a deliberate reminder of ongoing atrocities subjected to the oldest living culture on the planet”. and a space where Indigenous people – in the words of Roxley Foley – can “heal something within themselves”.
Cavadini takes a multi-faceted approach to exploring activism, moving from tumultuous sequences to quieter moments exploring topics such as the role of feminism within the movement, the birth of modern Indigenous theater and the shocking state of health native, articulated in a powerful sequence by Professor Fred Hollows. Cavadini went on to co-direct another historically significant documentary, Two Laws, which introduced many white Australians to the concept of this country having two kinds of laws, one of course existing much longer than the other.
Over time perhaps this production will also be restored and its presence renewed in the spirit of the times. For now, all eyes should be on Ningla-A’na: the very definition of a must-see Australian film, which is returning to the big screen like a thunderclap.