Seven gems from down under

“Samson and Delilah.’’
Scarlett Pictures
“Samson and Delilah.’’

Movies with central Aboriginal characters have been rare until recently, even in Australia. Now there are indigenous filmmakers such as “The Sapphires” director Wayne Blair and Rachel Perkins (“Bran Nue Dae”) joining non-indigenous filmmakers in creating memorable films about the Aboriginal experience. Here are seven worth checking out, all widely available except where noted.

Walkabout (1971)

The first film I remember seeing with an important Aboriginal character was Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout,” a movie that always seemed to be playing in one of Boston’s repertory houses in the late 1970s. I had no idea how rare Roeg’s film was. Not until the international success of “Rabbit-Proof Fence” in 2002 did awareness about Aboriginal issues enter the mainstream at cinemas in Europe and the United States, ushering in more films about the subject. Roeg’s visually stunning cult classic is about two British children (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg, the director’s son) who are rescued in the Australian outback by a young Aboriginal (David Gulpilil). It was fully restored in 1997 to its director’s cut for a remastered video and DVD release.

Backroads (1977)

Miramax Films
Tianna Sansbury as Daisy, Laura Monaghan as Gracie and Everlyn Sampi as Molly in "Rabbit-Proof Fence."

Twenty five years before he made “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” director Phillip Noyce’s first feature is this taut road movie about two outcasts, Jack (Bill Hunter, who was in “Gallipoli”) and his Aboriginal friend Gary (played by Australian Aboriginal activist Gary Foley). They steal a car in Western New South Wales, drive along the coast, pick up some hitchhikers and are eventually pursued by police, with a devastating outcome.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)


Noyce’s masterful film was based on the true story about three “half-caste” girls (offspring of one white and one Aboriginal parent) who ran away from the government institution where they’d been sent in 1931 to be trained as domestic servants. The film follows the girls, two sisters and a cousin, ages 14, 10, and 8, as they walk for nine weeks along 1,500 miles to return home, following a fence erected to keep out rabbits. The girls manage to elude an Aboriginal tracker, Moodoo (David Gulpilil). Deborah Mailman, who stars as Gail in “The Sapphires,” has a supporting role in the film and Kenneth Branagh plays A.O. Neville, the real-life “protector” of Western Australian Aborigines who enforced the relocation policy.

The Tracker (2002)

Artmattan Productions
David Gulpilil and Gary Sweet from "The Tracker."

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David Gulpilil, star of “Walkabout,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” and many other films, won Australia’s best actor “Oscar” for his performance in Rolf de Heer’s mystery/drama about an Aboriginal tracker in 1922 who leads a racist policeman and a civilian through the Australian outback on the hunt for an Aboriginal man accused of killing a white woman. During the tense, grueling journey, the tracker endures brutality and degradation as he quietly plots his revenge.

Why me? Stories From the Stolen Generations (2006)

This Australian documentary from Rick Cavaggion (available at ) looks at the lives of five indigenous adults who were forcibly removed from their homes as children in the 1950s and ’60s. Some were reunited with surviving parents; others remain cut off from their biological families. The film puts their experiences and problems, including alcoholism and loss of culture and identity, in the context of the government policies that, between 1905 and 1971, were aimed at assimilating Aboriginals into mainstream society.

Here I Am (2010)

Three generations of Aboriginal women are the focus of indigenous filmmaker Beck Cole’s debut feature. Her gritty drama, filmed partly inside the Adelaide Women’s Prison, centers on Karen Burden (newcomer Shai Pittman), a young woman who is released from prison and tries to rebuild her life at a shelter for Aboriginal women. Eventually, Karen takes steps to reconnect with her estranged mother and her young daughter. Cole’s realistic depiction of the women’s struggles establishes her as another strong voice from Australia’s indigenous film community. Cole’s partner, Warwick Thornton (“Samson and Delilah”), shot the film in and around Port Adelaide.

Samson and Delilah (2009)

Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton based this coming-of-age film on his own experience growing up. Two indigenous 14-year-olds (Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, both first-time actors) in a remote Aboriginal community fall in love and steal a car to flee their difficult lives. The film won the Caméra d’Or for best first feature film at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

Loren King can be reached at