Spoiler Alert: Just as the movie now contains a warning at the beginning for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders that there is depiction of images and the names of persons now deceased, this article contains a warning that what follow contains spoilers. Do not read the article if you do not want key moments, scenes and the ending revealed.
In the early 1960’s my mother and father took my brothers and I out each Sunday for “The Outing”, which usually consisted of driving somewhere and having fish and chips. Sometimes the trips were further afield and more varied: a day at the beach, fishing in the Hawkesbury River, or sometimes a trip to La Perouse to watch the “Snake Man”, the chap who handled the snakes and lizards. La Perouse was populated almost entirely by aboriginals in those days. I can remember watching the black kids dive for coins thrown from the wharf into the water by the white tourists.
It was in about the mid 1960’s when I first saw Jedda, on TV. My mother did not let my brothers and I go to movie theatres because of her conviction that they were used by teenagers as “passion pits”. She was right but only for the back of the theatre. Still, my mother and the mother in Portnoy’s Complaint have a lot in common.
Even then Jedda struck me as a strange, powerful and mystical movie, unlike any others that were on the TV at the time. Remember that this was the days of Bonanza, Father Knows Best and Skippy. The referendum to change the Constitution to count aboriginals as part of the population was still a few years away, that happening 1967.
Long before the movie Australia depicted the relationship between a white woman and the aboriginal child she adopts, there was Jedda, which told the story in 1955.
Copies are hard to find but worthwhile hunting down. I bought a DVD at the National Film & Sound Archive in Canberra recently. There is also an office of the NFSA in Pyrmont: Level 1, 45 Murray Street, Pyrmont NSW 2009, Tel: 8202 0100.
Sarah McCann, the wife of the station owner of a cattle station in the Northern Territory, loses her newborn child to illness. When an aboriginal woman dies giving birth, the baby is brought to Mrs McCann who originally intends to give the baby to one of the station aboriginal women. Instead, she raises Jedda as her own, isolating her from aboriginal life and raising her as European. Although Jedda feels the pull of her aboriginal blood and culture, Sarah McCann denies her any contact. When she is a young woman (Ngarla Kunoth), a handsome tribal aboriginal, Marbuck (Robert Tudawali), arrives at the homestead. She is curious about him and is attracted to his campsite by his singing her to him. He abducts her and heads for his tribal lands.
Joe the foreman, who is the descendant of an aboriginal mother and Afghani father, tracks them for days. He is in love with Jedda. When Marbuck reaches his lands, the tribal council condemns him for breaking their marriage rules by bringing a woman of the wrong ‘skin” group. He is sung a death song but Marbuck defies them and heads into the taboo lands. Joe catches up with them but by this stage Marbuck has been driven insane by the death song. Marbuck goes off a high cliff, taking Jedda with him. Joe says that says her spirit has joined “the great mother of the world, in the dreaming time of tomorrow”.
- Neither Robert Tudawali or Ngarla Kunoth had acted before.
- Robert Tudawali was a buffalo and crocodile hunter in real life. His wrestling the crocodile in the movie is with a real croc.
- Robert Tudawali’s skin was the shining black of the coastal and island aborigines, he coming from Melville Island. Ngarla Kunith’s skin was the softer brown of the Central, Arunta tribe, with the consequence that she had to receive darkening makeup each day to avoid the strong contrasts in skin colour.
- Ngarla Kunoth was really named Rosalie Kunoth-Monks. It was considered that this was not aboriginal enough so she was given her sister’ name, Ngarla, for the movie credits.
- Robert Tudawali appeared in one more movie, did some TV work and became an advocate for indigenous films and arts, so much so that the indigenous film awards are known as the Tudawali awards. (Is anyone able to clarify for me how the awards can be so named when aboriginal cultural belief is that the name of a deceased indigenous person is not supposed to be spoken again?).
- Robert Tudawali had problems with alcohol and alcohol related offences in later life. He died in 1967 of burns sustained when he was thrown onto a fire or had a fire lit around him by some men whilst he was intoxicated, after an argument had broken out because he refused to surrender his 11 year old daughter in marriage.
- Ngarla Kunoth was a nun in a convent for 10 years following Jedda. After leaving the convent she was involved in various projects to improve indigenous education, health and housing and is presently Chancellor of the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education.
- In 2007 Ngarla Kunoth was presented with a Northern Territory Tribute to Women Award at the opening of the National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame in Alice Springs.
About the movie:
- The best, and last, film of Australian producer and director Charles Chauvel.
- Made in 1955, it was the first colour feature film made in Australia.
- The idea of the movie came from a suggestion by a Time magazine reporter to Chauvel in Manhattan, of making a movie using aborigines. Everyone laughed at the suggestion except Chauvel, who did exactly that.
- The colour technique used, Gevacolour, could only be processed in England. The film was so heat sensitive that it was stored in caves to prevent it being affected.
- The last roll of film was destroyed in a plane crash on its way to England for developing. Unable to afford reshooting in the Northern Territory, the Chauvels reshot the last scenes, including the death of Marbuck and Jedda, at Kanangra walls in the Blue Mountains. The cliffs were painted red to match the NT colouring.
- For the UK and US release, the movie was renamed Jedda the Uncivilized.
Significance of the movie:
- The first Australian movie to portray aboriginal culture sympathetically.
- Expresses the idea that Aboriginal Australians have loved the land longer than the later white arrivals.
- Raises issues that became the focus of the “stolen generation” much later ie aboriginal children being separated from their aboriginal culture and society, and raised as whites.
- It also raises issues of nature v nurture: is being of a particular race also in the blood as well as the heritage?
- Raises the issue as to whether races should be kept apart, separate and distinct. The movie rejects the idea that indigenous persons should be assimilated in the sense of having to conform to the culture and expectations of European Australians.
- Bold for its time in raising sexuality and having a sexually charged understory within an aboriginal context that also engages the audience.
- The landscapes suit the story and help convey the sense of an ancient people within an ancient landscape that existed long before the whites came. Original use of the landscape, the geography and the colour.
- Quote from Susanne Carlsson, daughter of Charles Chauvel:
Film clips:“…I believe that in Jedda he was making a simple statement - a plea for better understanding of our indigenous people, rather than efforts to thrust them into a ‘white’ man’s mould, and in this sense Jedda was possibly a few steps ahead of its time.”
There are 3 film clips on the NFSA website at:
There is also a clip at:
One of the movie posters is shown below. Note the tag: A story of EVE in EBONY!