Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955) wr. Charles Chauvel, Elsa Chauvel; Ngarla Kunoth (Rosalie Kunoth-Monks), Robert Tudawali, Betty Suttor, Paul Reynall; young Aboriginal woman raised by white family and torn between two cultures; 101 min., colour
The Noble man who is too Savage to live; and the little girl torn between cultures. An important film, and not just because it was the first to be shot here in colour.
The premiere was held on 3 January 1955 at the Star Theatre, Darwin, attended by the Aboriginal stars and press representatives from around Australia. With the film's distributor, Columbia, Chauvel mounted a strong publicity campaign, and the film opened at the Lyceum Theatre, Sydney, on 5 May with initially excellent commercial results. Critics at home and later overseas had much praise for the film's visual grandeur and the sincerity of its script. Robert Tudawali attracted attention for his performance, and was praised variously by the press for his 'sheer animal magnificence' and his 'natural mystery'. Stardom did not rest easily on Tudawali's shoulders and after one further film role (Dust in the Sun, 1958) he found difficulty in adjusting to life in Darwin and died in 1967. In 1960 Ngarla Kunoth joined a convent in Melbourne, but in 1969 left the order to work in Aboriginal welfare in Victoria. Pike & Cooper: 220.
There is an argument that in Jedda we see Australian cinematic racism at its worst. This view has it that in Jedda we are confronted with the inevitable racism of whites who constitute the Aborigine as barbaric, dangerous, distant and sexually risky. Indeed Langton (1993: 47) suggests that with the benefit of history we might today see Jedda as sickening and laughable in its racism. Johnson (1987: 47) suggests that it might be reasonable to describe the film's central character, Marbuk, as having all the features of a 'Tarzan in black face.' In Turner's (1988: 140) view, it is surely the case that the film regularly slips into Aboriginalist discursive strategies that collapse distinctions between the Aborigine and nature, invoke ideas about the Aborigine as the sign of darkness and evil and constitute Aborigines as helpless and animal-like.
However, to see Jedda as simply a classic example of Aboriginalism at its worst would be to risk losing its multi-dimensional qualities and to miss the range of competing themes that run through films about Aborigines. Dave Palmer & Garry Gillard, 'Aborigines, ambivalence and Australian film', Metro, 134, 2002: 128-134.
Colin Johnson [Mudrooroo] 1987, 'Chauvel and the centring of the Aboriginal male in Australian film', Continuum.
Karen Jennings 1993, Sites of Difference: Cinematic Representations of Aboriginality and Gender, Australian Film Institute, Research and Information Centre, South Melbourne, Vic.
Marcia Langton 1993, Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television: an essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking, Australian Film Commission, North Sydney.
Graeme Turner 1988, 'Breaking the frame: the representation of Aborigines in Australian film', In Anna Rutherford ed., Aboriginal Culture Today, Dandaroo, Sydney: 135-146.
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