It was around seven years ago when the National Film and Sound Archive approached documentary filmmaker Alec Morgan, who specialises in archival history films, to look at a reel it found in a vault, where it had been sitting for some 50 years.
On it was a 10-minute silent film, shot in the 1940s, showing members of the Aboriginal community in Fitzroy. There was no reference to where the film came from, or who put it there, but Morgan recognised within it civil rights activist Bill Onus – who would go on to be campaign leader for the 1967 referendum – and his brother, Eric.
Morgan connected with Bill’s grandson, opera singer Tiriki Onus, who told him that he had known Bill made films, but believed most had burnt up in a caravan fire in the late ’60s.
Tiriki was driven to understand his grandfather better; the pair put their heads together to try to uncover the mysterious film’s origin. Co-writing and co-directing what would go on to be Ablaze, they uncovered Bill’s remarkable story, that of Australia’s first Aboriginal filmmaker.
Following a Melbourne International Film Festival premiere, a theatrical showing and an a run on the ABC, Ablaze is now one of six films to contend this year’s AACTA Award for Best Documentary.
Also earning nominations today are Lachlan McLeod’s Melbourne International Film Festival closer, Clean, a portrait of the late Sandra Pankhurst, and Jason van Genderen’s phone-shot Everybody’s Oma, an homage to his family’s matriarch.
Others to earn a nod include Kasimir Burgess’ look back at the ’80s campaign to save the Franklin River, the aptly-named Franklin; Ben Lawrence’s Ithaka, following John Shipton’s tireless campaign to save his son, Julian Assange; and Jennifer Peedom and Joseph Nizeti’s visual and orchestral meditation, River.
Each of the films were voted on by AACTA members, with the second round of voting, which will determine the winner, to take place in October.
Last year, AACTA adjusted its voting framework so that rounds per category are staggered throughout the year. Short film nominees were announced in early August, with other categories to follow ahead of the awards luncheon and ceremony in December.
“After receiving a high volume of competitive entries, we are proud to have a line-up of nominees that delve into moving real life stories and issues,” said AACTA awards and industry development manager Ivan Vukusic.
“We can be reminded that Australia is responsible for producing some of the best documentaries available globally.”
Morgan agrees Australia’s prowess in documentary filmmaking is showcased in this year’s field, noting many inspired him and Tiriki.
He hopes the new government get behind Australian content, and documentary more generally, noting there are a lot of Australian stories – like that of Bill Onus – that still haven’t been told.
“One writer said, ‘If he was white, there would be statues to him in every township’. There’s a lot of stories that we need to tell about ourselves,” head said.
“It is a privilege to be nominated for Best Documentary, because there are so many good documentaries out there, but there’s probably so many good documentary stories that aren’t going to get told because people can’t find the funding for them.
“Even a story like this one, which has picked up some major awards now, you have a difficult time having to go through the the rounds of convincing people of its importance, and it’s very competitive. That’s why we’re really chuffed and happy. It gives us inspiration, and tells us to keep going on our next project.
“The bruises do go away, and the film is left. It’s getting out to people, which is great. That’s the purpose of why we fight these battles and go through this long process, because we know that the stories are important.”
Australian history is also at the heart of Franklin, whose nod comes at an opportune time – it launches its theatrical campaign on Sunday, timed to Father’s Day.
Narrated by Hugo Weaving, the doc follows environmentalist Oliver Cassidy as he retraces his late father’s trip to down the Franklin River to attend the 1980s blockade that saved it from being turned into a hydroelectric dam. Alongside the film features archival footage and interviews with significant figures in the campaign, including former Greens leader Bob Brown and Tasmanian Aboriginal elder Uncle Jim Everett.
Producer Chris Kamen tells IF he and the team are blown away by the nomination for the film – a labour of love for almost 10 years, assisted to screen by the support of 791 crowdfunders.
He was encouraged by the response to the film at recent sold-out screenings at Melbourne International Film Festival, where it also ranked among the audience’s favourites, and is hopeful the nomination will further encourage people to see it on the big screen.
“It’s a very cinematic experience,” he says.
“Our ultimate goal is to introduce this incredible story of the Franklin to a younger generation, to show solidarity for young activists today who are fighting for a safer climate and countless other environmental issues. We think it’s an inspiring and an informative case study of how peaceful activism can actually help make the world better.”
More details about each nominee below:
Opera singer Tiriki Onus finds a 70-year-old silent film believed to be made by his grandfather, Aboriginal leader and filmmaker Bill Onus. As Tiriki travels across the continent and pieces together clues to the film’s origins, he discovers more about Bill, his fight for Aboriginal rights and the price he paid for speaking out.
Director: Tiriki Onus, Alec Morgan Writer: Tirki Onus, Alec Morgan Producer: Tom Zubrycki
An insight into the world of trauma cleaning through the journey of larger-than-life business owner Sandra Pankhurst and the workers at Melbourne’s Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services. As the film states, Pankhurst has “lived numerous lives as a childhood abuse survivor, suburban parent, drag queen, sex worker, funeral director, business owner, motivational speaker”.
Director: Lachlan McLeod Producer: David Elliot-Jones, Charlotte Wheaton
Filmmaker Jason van Genderen is obsessed with making home videos about his family, and their Dutch matriarch, Oma. He and his wife Megan embrace caring for Oma’s dementia in increasingly whimsical ways, accidentally turning her into an online celebrity. Their unassuming home videos, shot during the pandemic, attract over 100,000,000 views globally. Everybody’s Oma follows in the NSW Central Coast family’s footsteps as they navigate Oma’s failing health under the spotlight of an enthusiastic audience of well-meaning strangers.
Director: Jason van Genderen Producers: Jason van Genderen, Roslyn Walker, Olivia Olley
Featuring never-before-seen archival footage and interviews with key players such as Bob Brown and Uncle Jim Everett, the eight-year-long ‘Franklin campaign’ is revealed as the most significant environmental protest in Australia’s history; an inspiring example of the power of non-violent direct action to bring about lasting change.
Director: Kasimir Burgess Writer: Kasimir Burgess, ClaireSmith, Natasha Pincus Producer: Chris Kamen
Filmed over two years across the UK, Europe, and the US, an exploration of 76-year-old retired builder John Shipton’s tireless campaign to save his son, Julian Assange. Assange remains a remand prisoner at UK’s maximum security Belmarsh Prison as he appeals an extradition order to the US where he could face 175 years in prison for his role in the release of classified US diplomatic files.
Director: Ben Lawrence Producer: Adrian Devant, Gabriel Shipton
A cinematic and musical odyssey that explores the remarkable relationship between humans and rivers. Throughout history, rivers have shaped our landscapes and our journeys; flowed through our cultures and dreams. River reunites the award-winning creative team behind Mountain, including composer Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, cinematographer Renan OZturk and narrator Willem Dafoe.
Director: Jennifer Peedom, Joseph Nizeti (co-director) Writer: Jennifer Peedom, Joseph Nizeti (co-writer) Producer: Jo-Anne McGowan, Jennifer Peedom, John Smithson