Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Alfred Hitchcock. The Auckland Theatre Company production of North by Northwest had me along last Sunday to discuss the director prior to the show with a small audience. In preparation for this, I was compelled to consider the filmmaker’s career, what his gifts were to the form as one of the most famous examples of a true auteur working during the 20th Century. In I Am Alfred Hitchcock, part of a series of documentaries highlighted in Rialto Channel’s Film Icons and Pioneers series, which highlights mark-making creatives that changed the industry from Burt Reynolds to early-days-of-cinema black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, a compelling case is made. The director’s vision, his instincts and interests and hidden desires, were so immense and powerful that his work shaped the attitudes of filmmakers for decades to come, and imprinted powerfully on the psyche of so many who viewed the films.
The moving, illuminating centrepiece of Rialto Channel’s forthcoming Film Icons and Pioneers series is this powerful piece of cultural excavation from the family of a forgotten visionary. It marks a milestone in recognising the work of indigenous filmmakers in a still-evolving artform.
Auteurism – the idea that a filmmaker is the leading creative voice in the crafting of the film, the essential ‘author’ – comes in many shapes and forms, and is often misinterpreted or outright mislabelled in cultural conversations. It is, first and foremost, a way of looking at a film as a means of artistic expression of the maker’s inner state, and the best films by and large live by this expression. In the case of indigenous and POC filmmakers, this expression is often laden with the expectation of representing an entire culture, so rare have the opportunities to express at all been given to such filmmakers. And then, in other cases, as with the filmmaker at the centre of the wonderful documentary Ablaze, that expression provides a link, a form of cultural excavation and rediscovery that allows indigenous people to reconnect to aspects of their culture thought lost to time.
In Ablaze, opera singer and academic Tiriki Onus follows the trail formed by a tiny scrap of black and white film of indigenous Australians performing ceremonies in front of a camera to discover the film life of his grandfather, Bill Onus, a Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta auteur, businessman, theatre-goer and entrepreneur. In uncovering the threads of his life, the works of what could arguably be thought of as the first indigenous Australian filmmaker are given a rightful and deserved reverence. Though much has been lost – many of his films tragically burned in a caravan fire, and much of his work was suppressed by those who wished to stamp out any indigenous expression – the images that remain, restored and polished, thrum with life and energy.
The film itself is part biography, part detective story, in a way that put me in the mind of a range of other documentaries, including Sarah Polley’s mysterious filmed photo-album Stories We Tell and Aotearoa’s own celebration of one of our most important filmmakers, Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen. In archival footage of Onus fighting and debating for the rights of indigenous Australians, I was struck by similarities to footage of James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro. Like these films, the personal is intricately tied to the political in Ablaze, a work that takes a grandson’s desire to discover more about the life of his grandfather and in doing so crafts a parallel narrative that speaks to the immense challenges and cruelties indigenous Australians have been subjected to, and the resilience of artists who simply must create, no matter what. In so doing, they forge a lifeline between past and future, a form of remembrance that lives on in the descendants who carry the culture in their hearts. That is, after all is said and done, the work of a true auteur.
Ablaze premieres Wednesday November 9, 8:30pm only on Rialto Channel.
Movie title: Ablaze (Morgan, Onus, 2021)
Movie description: The moving, illuminating centrepiece of Rialto Channel’s forthcoming Film Icons and Pioneers series is this powerful piece of cultural excavation from the family of a forgotten visionary. It marks a milestone in recognising the work of indigenous filmmakers in a still-evolving artform.
Date published: November 3, 2022
Author: Alec Morgan, Tiriki Onus
Director(s): Alec Morgan, Tiriki Onus