FILM - JEDDA
Jedda premiered at Darwin’s Star theatre on 3 January 1955 to an audience divided by race and class. The Aboriginal stars, Ngarla Kunoth in the title role, and Robert Tudawali as the leading man, Marbuk, were with the silvertails upstairs from where they looked down on the seating known as “the blacks”.
During a 1950 publicity tour of the United States for Sons of Matthew, a Time Magazine journalist had alerted producer-director Charles Chauvel to “those Stone Age people of yours” as “something that [Hollywood] cannot get the ingredients for outside your country”. Two years later, with “no idea of what the story was to be”, Charles and his working-partner wife Elsa set out with a photographer on a 10,000-mile safari to identify locations and to find Aboriginal stars.
In recording their travels, Elsa revealed an array of prejudices but none as daft as those she encountered across the Northern Territory after they announced their intention to cast real “primitive natives” and not use white professionals in black face. Aborigines “had the smallest brain box of any human living”; they could not concentrate for more than ten minutes; they would not work from one day to the next but would go walkabout, and their occult spirits would possess the Chauvels.
The travellers spotted the man they wanted in Arnhem Land but he disappeared during the night. He had, recalled Elsa, “greased his fine, muscular body from head to foot”, leaving “Charles with a pattern and a determination to model his leading actor upon this strange symbol of stone-age man”.
They then realised that they would need people who had been in contact with Whites. Back in Darwin, they found a twenty-four-year old Tiwi “boy”, “a true ‘blue-black’ – the darkest shade of Australian native”, one who “could climb a tree as swiftly and as nimbly as a chimpanzee”. As part of the publicity about the film’s exoticness, they “gave him his tribal name of Tudawali”, in place of Bob Wilson.
Finding the right girl was no easier. No bushman “liked to own up to knowing anything about pretty lubras”, most claiming to “never look at the ugly little monkeys.” The Chauvels heard of one likely candidate at Roper Bar Station but the girl’s mother refused to let her daughter be taken away. When the whites persisted, she took up “a big stone and constantly beating her head with it, until blood trickled down, wailing, “No takum away, plenty debil-debil catchum – no takum – no takum – aie…aie…”. Those debil-debils included the officials who were rounding up the stolen generations.
Again the film-makers resorted to the partly assimilated, this time at an Anglican mission outside Alice Springs where they found their “Eve in Ebony” in Rosie Kunoth, whom they de-baptised into Ngarla for publicity. Rosie needed many inducements to get “Me properly shy fellah” even to be photographed, let alone to act her scenes. She sulked because she was too embarrassed to explain why the touching required for her scenes with Tudawali were forbidden to her.
In 1956, the critical response to Jedda was almost universally favourable, both as a piece of cinema and to its portrayal of Territory life and “the Aboriginal problem”. The magazine of the New South Wales Aboriginal Welfare Board, Dawn, told its readers that, although the Outback and tribal scenes were as remote from them as from White Australians, “Jedda is YOUR film”. The cultural quarterly from the Communist Party, Overland, dismissed it “a thoroughly bad film. It peddles the worst kind of racist nonsense. It is technically and artistically third-rate”. Jedda went to the Cannes Festival but did not fare well at the box-office back home.
Divisions of opinion about the plot and characterisation deepened once Aborigines projected their own images of Indigenous identity. Moreover, every brand of cultural critic has had a shot at reinterpreting the film according to academic fashions in theorising about race and gender.
Jedda has had to carry this camel-load of exegesis because there had been so few Australian films about anything, and none where black-white tensions were so highlighted. Jedda was also only the nineteenth feature made in Australia since the war.
The motivations of the Chauvels cannot be understood without recognising that Jedda reworked devices that Charles had deployed throughout the nine films that he had directed since 1926. The first principle was that a real woman needed a real man. This urge applied to all women - white, black or brindle. The society gal in Greenhide (1926) tells her jazzing friends that she is going outback in the hope of getting “sheiked by a real live bushranger”. Thanks to Valentino, “sheiked” then meant fucked. In Uncivilised (1936), Chauvel has a woman city novelist fall for the white chief of the tribe that has raised him after killing his parents. In a parallel move, Jedda is drawn away from the Afghani-Aboriginal head stockman, Joe, because he is too domesticated.
Inter-racial intercourse, let alone love across the colour line, was a touchy though not a taboo subject. In 1928, Katherine Susannah Prichard’s novel Coonardoo had caused trouble when it portrayed a white man in love with a black girl. Gwen Meredith dared to depict a white woman in love with a part-Aboriginal man in the early 1950s on her ABC radio serial, Blue Hills. The pivot of her tale became whether any child that a white woman bore to a quarter-caste Aboriginal could be a throwback to black blood. One argument was that miscegenation resulted in the worst of both races. This fear of mongrelisation did not apply to the part-Aboriginal Joe and the full-blood Jedda. Nonetheless, their match did test the rules about breeding out the native that underpinned the abduction of Aboriginal children.
For all the scholarly disputation about stereotyping in Jedda, the gender analysts have never confronted all the film’s sexual dynamics. Every commentator has recognised Marbuk, with his cicatrised pectorals, as a sex object, his name resonating with buck nigger. He sends flutters through the station women, producing one of the movie’s several comic moments when a large elderly woman lets off smoke signals of desire from her pipe. Black chicks talking nowadays call Tudawali “deadly”.
The station-owner orders that Marbuk put on trousers, but he never does. Instead, he stalks through the mental and physical landscapes in a brilliant red loin cloth which highlights his greased musculature, and draws our gaze onto his genital area, even when the camera is not focused there. Would Jedda have got past the censors had it been an import?
On Marbuk’s appearance, it is as if the script passes from Gwen Meredith’s polite Blue Hills to Xavier Herbert’s rumbustious Capricornia. The scenery breaks into the Red Centre. The storyline becomes a chase sequence but with the difference that the couple end up fleeing from mystical forces. Marbuk has been “sung” by his own people whom he has defied by returning to country with a “wrong” skin woman. Their deaths are as ineluctable as any from Aeschylus.
Early on, the station owner’s wife refuses ever to have sex again. This decision defied what Elsa Chauvel would define as “the civilized woman’s crusade – too keep her man from her greatest rival, the primitive – which fundamentally is his prototype”. The abstinence imposed on this one marriage was a metaphor for the frigidity that wowserism enforced on Australian daily life and artistic expression. The primitive offered both suburbia and bohemia a way out through a pornography of prejudice. Respectable women could be excited by savages, as Elsa’s memoirs demonstrated by praising one Aborigine for “his figure sculptured in ebony. He walked like a panther”. Her recurrent references to these black men as sculptures kept the animal-spirits under control. This cross-racial passion could not be shown directly on screen. Instead, the matinee ladies would have to get their thrills by identifying with Jedda’s semi-abduction.
Chauvel’s second recurrent device was to weave his fictions around documentary. Half of In the Wake of the Bounty (1933) was a travelogue about Pitcairn, while Sons of Matthew (1949) did the same for the O’Reillys on the Lamington Plateau. The locations for Jedda lurched across the Territory with scant respect for place except as tourist venues or investment opportunities. Chauvel won Commonwealth support on the grounds that world-wide screenings would contribute to developing the north.
Beyond any financial considerations, Chauvel, as the son of a grazier turned Lighthorseman, had a personal commitment to the settler tradition. His cinematic oeuvre embodied the bush legend of tough men sticking by their mates, at pioneering or at war. The cities threatened masculinity, as his had been challenged by becoming an actor and then a businessman. Just as women could secretly identify with Jedda’s desire to be “sheiked”, so white males could revel in Marbuk as the projection of fantasies about their prowess as rugged individualists. Marbuk has escaped from the white law and does not fear Aboriginal law.
The Aboriginal writer known as Colin Johnson had remembered Marbuk as “Tarzan in black face”. By 1987, Johnson could see that Marbuk “steals the show for the Aboriginal male. No rags, no downcast eyes, no sullenness, no drunken stagger, no Jimmie Blacksmith brutality and confusion. He walks into the film proudly, ignoring the castoff trappings of civilization.”
For Johnson, Jedda was remarkable because the natives are not relegated to the romantic backdrop. The theme is not “the Native problem” of assimilation but rather a key question inside Aboriginal culture – the stealing of women, and the reaction of Aboriginal society to wrongway relationships. “In an Aboriginal reading of the film”, Johnson wrote, “as both male and female have broken the law, both deserve to die”.
In keeping with Jedda’s contrary themes, the Chauvels broke their scenario in two. The first part establishes Jedda in station society. Her mother had died in childbirth at the same time as the station owner’s infant. The white woman substitutes the black baby for her own, bringing her up as a European, teaching her the piano and forbidding her to associate with the station blacks. Her husband rejects assimilation for tribal people, acknowledging the dignity they gain from their own ways. Blood will out. Attempts to turn magpies into canaries are doomed to make the position worse.
Had Chauvel tried to make a kitchen-sink drama out of the prospects for the Commonwealth’s renewed drive for assimilation, Jedda would have been forgotten as soon as it was released. What made the movie memorable was the striding onto the screen of the outlaw Marbuk. He sings Jedda to him, with an erotic dance, the equal of David Gulpilil’s in Walkabout (1971). His rhythmic stomp, as he writhes with a giant python, drives her towards masturbation. The first food that Marbuk makes Jedda put in her mouth is his snake, threatening to beat her with a thick branch if she refuses
The Bulletin’s reviewer described the scenery in Jedda as “typical Namatjira country”, confident that its readers
would know what to expect from reproductions of the Hermansburg School
on placemats and greeting cards. Jedda
introduced many Australians to the tones of Central Australia since
colour in printing and still photography remained technically very
demanding until the late 1960s.
The Chauvels shot Jedda in Gevacolour, a Belgian Process, chosen because it promised to convey the ochres of Central Australia. Since Australia had no laboratories in for processing 35 mm. colour film, the “rushes” had to be flown to London. The stock had to be kept cool:
Canoes were fitted with boxes packed with ice, flown specially from Katherine. As a magazine came off the camera, it would be paddled downstream to one of the sandstone caves which honeycomb the river. Here, an Aborigine stood beside each cooling box keeping the hessian cover constantly wet, ensuring that the film would remain cool.
At the end of the day’s work, the film would be taken from the caves, packed into a refrigeration car and transported to Mataranka homestead until nine o’clock at night. Cars would then leave for the 80-mile trip to the aerodrome at Katherine, where it would be put in a refrigerator until it could go by plane at dawn on its way to London.
The film crew waited for cables to hear whether a take would have to be done again. A plane crash at Djakarta cost several thousand feet of film, necessitating a re-shoot of the death leap, this time from a Blue Mountains cliff-top painted red for the occasion.
The high regard for the visuals dimmed until the Gevacolour had deteriorated so badly that, by the 1970s, Jedda looked soggy and insipid, as if a watercolour had been exposed to sun and rain. The strong effects have been restored to be available as a DVD from ScreenSound Australia for $34.95.
Jedda was not the first feature film to be shot here in colour. That distinction belongs to Kangaroo, which opened on 4 June 1952. Maureen O’Hara starred on £2000 a week but refused to join the Communist-led Actors Equity which at least stopped Twentieth-Century Fox paying lower wages to Aboriginal extras than to white ones. The plot was a formulaic Western, despite emphasising the corroboree that broke the drought. The two speaking parts for Aboriginal characters were in blackface. That Jedda should be mis-remembered for its being the first colour feature rather than for the radicalism of the skin-colour of its stars is one more instance of White Australia’s being more comfortable with the natural environment than with its prior inhabitants.
Another of the ways in which attitudes have shifted during the past fifty years is that there is a smaller market for the china ash trays that allowed Australians to stub their cigarettes out on the faces of Jedda or Marbuk. More in keeping with the current mood were the portrait plates of Tudawali and the infant Jedda that Joan Strack submitted for the Archibald Prize in 1954 as part of her determination to lift the status of Aborigines. Strack had employed native girls as household helps on Sydney’s North Shore in the 1930s until she realised that they had been kidnapped and mistreated by the Government. Her chinaware entries in the Archibald, like their rejection, were measures of how invisible Black Australians then were in the world of art.
The Chauvels went on to make a 13-part series, “Walkabout”, for the BBC television which could be screened here only in black and white. Its travelogue format allowed the couple to express their attitudes more openly. Their creative partnership ended with Charles’s death in 1959.
Tudawali never again achieved the status that his characterisation had brought to the screen. Infected with Tuberculosis, and drifting between menial jobs, he fell into the grog culture that had so damaged Namatjira’s final years. Alcoholism is one aspect of Territory life omitted by the Chauvels for which they have not been abused by their critics, perhaps because it is as embarrassing to White sympathisers as drunkenness is destructive of Aborigines. Tudawali suffered several convictions for supplying Wards with alcohol before the Ordinance was abolished in 1964. Elected Vice-President of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights in 1966, he supported the Gurindji strikers. He died from burns in July 1967, claiming that his drinking mates had set fire to him after he refused to give his pre-pubescent daughter in marriage, a reprise of Jedda’s fate.
Rosalie Kunoth joined an Anglican order of nuns in Melbourne but left a decade later to marry and work for the Aboriginal advancement that she had advocated before the racially-divided Star theatre fifty years ago last Monday.