TravelGuides – Bill Onus: rediscovered footage casts new light on a groundbreaking life and legacy | Movies


TravelGuides – Bill Onus: rediscovered footage casts new light on a groundbreaking life and legacy | Movies

The late Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta activist William Townsend “Bill” Onus Jr was a bigger-than-life activist, boomerang champion and theatrical entrepreneur.


But Onus may additionally have grow to be as well-known for the cinematic portrayal of the plight of his individuals, had his documentary movie work ever seen the light of day.


In 1939, Bill Onus was a chief of the Aboriginal mass strike at Cummeragunja in New South Wales, the reserve he was born on, in 1906. Ten years after his beginning, he fled along with his mom and siblings, after they have been warned welfare would take youngsters away. Towards the tip of his life, he was a key marketing campaign determine within the profitable 1967 referendum that amended the structure to rely Indigenous individuals as Australian residents for the primary time.

“Ongoing mythologies have sprung up around Bill,” says his grandson Tiriki Onus. Born 12 years after Bill’s 1968 dying, Tiriki can be “constantly told growing up how much I looked like him”; one aunt even approvingly knowledgeable him he had a “Bill-shaped head”. A bass-baritone, Tiriki was solid by Deborah Cheetham to play his grandfather within the 2010 opera, Pecan Summer.

Tiriki knew his grandfather made movies, however had no concept to what depth and extent. One day, he was rifling by way of an previous suitcase in his mom’s basement, which contained pictures of Bill – together with some taken by Bill’s spouse, Mary, who had married Bill towards her rich white household’s needs. One picture confirmed three Aboriginal boys in ceremonial paint taking a look at a Bell and Howell 32mm film digital camera, on location in Heidelberg, Melbourne, in 1946.

Three boys on the Heidelberg, Melbourne set of Bill Onus’s rediscovered 1946 film with a 32mm Bell and Howell movie camera.
The {photograph} Tiriki Onus discovered amongst his grandfather’s possessions. Photograph: Onus archive

Some time later the movie-maker Alec Morgan, identified for the 1983 documentary Lousy Little Sixpence, rang Tiriki to introduce himself, and to ask: “Do you know your grandfather was the first Aboriginal film-maker?” Onus replied: “I know he filmed stuff, but all those films were burned, they were lost.”

Morgan countered: “I’ve found this film in the archives that I think belonged to Bill.”

While Bill Onus had appeared as an additional in Charles Chauvel’s Uncivilised of 1936 and Harry Watt’s The Overlanders a decade later (gaining little credit score for his cultural advisory position with Watt), household lore held that he had additionally made his personal movies, which had been destroyed in a caravan hearth within the late Fifties. Tiriki is uncertain of the movies’ content material, however there have been tales of him filming proceedings of “significant meetings of Aboriginal activists up and down the east coast”.

Now right here was a black-and-white silent movie, rediscovered in a tin on the National Film and Sound Archive, which some bygone archivist had merely marked “Aborigines in the community” – displaying the identical boys from the suitcase images dancing round a gum tree and Bill throwing a boomerang, recalling his youth performing in a travelling present.

The story of this rediscovered, although untitled, 9-and-a-half minute piece of postwar footage – footage from a presumably longer documentary, or a newsreel movie – is advised in Alec Morgan and Tiriki Onus’s documentary Ablaze, which is able to premiere on the Melbourne worldwide movie pageant in August.

The rediscovered movie additionally exhibits Tiriki’s nice-aunt Wynne and nice-uncle Eric appearing in a dance drama known as White Justice in 1946 on the New Theatre in Flinders Street, Melbourne, wherein Aboriginal performers reenacted the Pilbara strike of a whole bunch of Aboriginal pastoral staff earlier that yr.

At one level, the stage performers are chained to at least one one other by the neck, which Bill Onus himself reported seeing whereas filming The Overlanders in northern Australia that very same decade. Other scenes have been filmed in slum terraces of Fitzroy, and on a Melbourne tram.

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Tiriki Onus and Alec Morgan noticed the sturdy political nature of Bill Onus’s movie-making. It was clear Bill needed to take his movie to a cinema viewers, to inform the story of Indigenous Australians’ impoverished lives and combat for equal rights. They realized he had even lined up a cope with a distribution firm for a theatrical launch.

“He was directing stuff designed to function in a very specific way for the causes he was fighting for,” says his grandson. “This wasn’t a hobby; this was a powerful tool in Bill’s arsenal.”

The documentary postulates that political strain was utilized to the movie firm to drop Onus’s movie, for which he had doubtless recorded a voiceover narrative that’s now misplaced. His activism and his 1947 marriage to Mary McLintock Kelly, whom he met at a Communist occasion rally, attracted the eye of Australia’s safety businesses: Mary was a occasion member, though Onus was not.

Bill and Mary Onus in 1947.
Bill and Mary Onus in 1947. Photograph: Onus archive

Later, when Onus needed to journey to the United States to talk about the Indigenous Australian plight as a part of the burgeoning US civil rights motion, his passport was instantly cancelled. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, it transpired, had handed his surveillance file to the US embassy.

“There’s solid evidence for the cancelling of the passport, and for the things being done to suppress Bill,” says Tiriki. “This is one of the great gifts that Asio has given us: they kept really good records … Bill has got a weighty Asio tome.”

Onus pursued Indigenous equality by different means. In 1951, as an example, he helped produce and carried out within the profitable Out of the Dark: an Aboriginal Moomba at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre – groundbreaking for utilizing Indigenous performers in an period of blackface. He established a store within the Dandenong Ranges wherein he bought boomerangs and different souvenirs, drawing guests by demonstrating his boomerang expertise.

Bill Onus at the march for Aboriginal rights referendum in 1967.
Bill Onus on the march for Aboriginal rights referendum in 1967. Photograph: Fairfax Media/Onus archive

But Onus was quickly drawn again to the town for one remaining marketing campaign, lending his elder standing to the sure marketing campaign for the 1967 referendum, by this time as the primary Aboriginal president of the Aborigines Advancement League, in addition to its consultant on the Victorian Aborigines Welfare Board. Onus lived to see 90.77% of Australians vote in assist of Indigenous individuals being included within the nationwide census, and to permit the federal authorities to make legal guidelines that included Aboriginal individuals. He died of a coronary occlusion in 1968, age 61.

Can he be definitively known as Australia’s first Aboriginal movie-maker?

“As the record stands at the moment, yes it would seem that Bill is the first Aboriginal film-maker,” says Tiriki Onus, who sings the Yorta Yorta-language music Ngarra Burra Ferra whereas cloaked in possum pores and skin on the finish of documentary.

“But it doesn’t particularly excite or interest me that much, the idea of [his] being first. What really does excite me is the way that [his legacy] has grown – the fact that now here I am as his grandson, 70 years later, being able to tell his story, to carry on in his footsteps.

“There’s something exciting for me about being in much broader company like that, to be a grain of sand on the beach.”

TravelGuides – Bill Onus: rediscovered footage casts new light on a groundbreaking life and legacy | Movies


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