1955 / Director. Charles Chauvel.
Review by Glenn Cochrane.
JEDDA is the unintentionally racist film that remains an important and pivotal point in Australia's cinematic history. A lot of context needs to be understood before approaching this film and an understanding of 1950's social standards is important. For all of its outrageous depictions of aboriginal culture and its people, JEDDA was actually a turning point for indigenous relations. It was the first Australian film to showcase two Aboriginal actors in top billing above any of the white actors. It was also the first Aussie film to be shot in colour... and so when those two factors are combined, it's very significant. It tells the story of an aboriginal orphan named Jedda, who is raised on an outback homestead in the Northern Territory where her white adoptive mother raises her as a white girl. With a strong compulsion to connect with her indigenous roots, she yearns to leave each year when the farm-hands go on their annual walkabout. She meets a man and runs away. He takes her to his tribe and the two find themselves outcast. The tribe rejects her "whiteness" and so the man kidnaps Jedda instead of letting her return home. And so a man hunt ensues. That is the general gist of the story and for what it is, it's made well. If you can see beyond the stereotypes, caricatures and unintentional bigotry then there is no doubt that JEDDA is a thrilling film and I can only imagine how captivating it would have been at the time. Where the film succeeds in bridging the gap between black & white (at the time) was its respect for the beauty of aboriginal cultures. It depicts them as spiritual and good people who have a strong connection to their land. The cinematography is beautiful as it presents huge, vast sweeping shots of outback Australia and putting blackfellas in the lead roles was unprecedented at the time. Robert Tudawali, in particular, became one of Australia's biggest movie-stars as well as a spokesman for Aboriginal affairs. A bio-film about his life was later made in the late 80s starring Ernie Dingo. Where the movie fails in retrospect is how it depicts the aboriginals. There's one character called Charcoal and his name is spoken without a bat of an eyelid. Other people are referred to as "blackie" or "darkie" without any comprehension of insult. At the time this was simply the norm and they didn't know any better. The indigenous people in the film are shown to be uncivilised for the most part and the white characters often talk in frustration about them being unable to adapt to European culture. The film is definitely respectful to the indigenous culture itself when isolated from white... and it would suggest that the two races are better when separated from each other. Writer/director Charles Chauvel made a noble attempt to shine a new light on the aboriginal people and his attempt to bring greater understanding amongst the white community is very clear. Unfortunately he was a victim of his own era when aboriginals were still considered "fauna" under the constitution and had no rights. He wanted them to be better understood and respected but at the same time he used language and stereotypes that contradicted his cause. He wasn't to know any better and at the end of the day, sixty years later the film serves as an important time capsule that shows a turning point in Australian history.