‘Pemulwuy’ biopic will salute an Indigenous hero

(L-R) Jon Bell, Catriona McKenzie and Andrew Dillon (Photo credit: Mark Rogers).

To his direct descendants and the wider Aboriginal community, Pemulwuy, Australia’s first Indigenous resistance fighter, was a martyr, a leader, a patriot and a warrior.

Putting the man and his deeds in a contemporary context, writer Jon Bell says: “If Australia was invaded tomorrow and one man managed to keep those invading forces confined to the city areas for 10 years, he would be enshrined in Australian lore and there would be a national holiday.”

Bell is part of a creative team of leading black and white figures who are preparing a biopic on Pemulwuy, a member of the Bidjigal clan who led the opposition to British forces’ attempts to take over traditional hunting grounds from the early years of the colony until he was shot dead in 1802.

Phillip Noyce, who has wanted to tell this story for 50 years and is serving as the executive producer, is collaborating with Bell, director Catriona McKenzie and producers Andrew Dillon and Ian Sutherland.

Reg Cribb (Bran Nue Dae) penned the first draft and Bell, whose credits include Cleverman, The Warriors, The Gods of Wheat Street and Redfern Now, is writing subsequent drafts.

Direct descendants including Uncles Richard Green, Vic Sims and Colin Isaacs and Aunty Yvonne Sims are serving as ambassadors and custodians on the film.

Businessman Mathew Walker agreed to fund the development after watching the 2010 documentary Pemulwuy: A War of Two Laws, produced by Grant Leigh Saunders for the ABC’s Indigenous unit.

Pemulwuy will follow the subject from birth and boyhood while a large part of the story will deal with the battles and guerilla warfare with the British. Bell expects the fight scenes will have a visceral quality that is similar to films like Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans.

Bell marvels at the man’s Superman-like indestructibility, noting: “He was shot and didn’t die. He was imprisoned and he got out. He got a fractured skull and he recovered.”

Dillon tells IF: “What we want to capture is what life in Australia was like before white settlement. A lot of the story will focus on white settlement but we also want to show the beauty of our culture and a way of life that no longer exists.”

Phillip Noyce with Catriona McKenzie (Photo credit: Mark Rogers).

The plan is to shoot Pemulwuy in the latter part of next year. Dillon says the intention is to fund the production by normal sources including Screen Australia, the Producer Offset and MGs from the Australian distributor and international sales agent.

This is Dillon’s first project since leaving Screen Australia where he served as an investment manager, supporting numerous titles including Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan, Hearts and Bones, Goldstone, The Warriors and Grace Beside Me.

Sutherland, the director of Origin Productions and a former group director marketing at Amalgamated Holdings (now Event Hospitality and Entertainment) and MGM executive VP for international theatrical distribution and marketing, has been a mate of Noyce’s for 30 years.

McKenzie will focus on the project after she finishes directing an episode of the sixth and final season of the US ABC network’s How To Get Away With Murder, which follows Professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) as she leads her class through their final semester in law school.

The producers hope the film will help persuade the Brits to locate and repatriate Pemulwuy’s skull, which is believed to have been given to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1802 and has since been lost.