Interview: Tiriki Onus Talks About Having a Conversation with His Grandfather Bill Onus in the Documentary Ablaze

Ablaze is the essential documentary about Yorta Yorta and Wiradjuri filmmaker Bill Onus and the untold history of his work in Australian film. Lost films and hidden history are rediscovered and brought to vibrant life by Bill’s grandson, Yorta Yorta man Tiriki Onus, who alongside co-director Alec Morgan, has crafted one of the most important documentaries in recent years. Bill’s work as an activist in the civil rights movement, an established filmmaker, and more is explored in this grand documentary.

In this interview, Tiriki discusses the conversation he had on film with his grandfather Bill, what it means to be an Australian artist, and more. Tiriki is also an opera singer, and works as the Senior Lecturer and Head of Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development, Associate Dean (Indigenous) and Deputy Dean (Place) for the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music at Melbourne University.

Ablaze screens at the Screenwave International Film Festival on April 22nd and 30th. Tickets are available here.

I watched Ablaze last year through the Melbourne International Film Festival, and I was astounded by it. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in recent time.

Tiriki Onus: Oh wonderful. Thank you so much. It was certainly a labour of love. We had to stick with it as long as we had to get it made. It’s been incredibly worthwhile now to see it out there. The response from people such as yourself and others who have come back and talked about how impactful it was has been really quite astounding. We knew that we had a story that we wanted to tell and we thought was pretty compelling.

But after you’ve lived with it for that long, you start to be a bit too close to it and wonder to yourself, “Is it still cool? Is it right?” We were happy now just to see the way that others have embraced it. It has been quite humbling.

I understand it was six years in production, is that correct?

TO: That’s right. Six and a half, really. Which was an awfully, awfully long time. It came from a brief conversation that Alec Morgan and I had way, way back when and then all of a sudden there it was. We struggled for a long time to find the funding for it. But we were convinced that this was a story that needed to be told.

So whenever we got some resources, we’d get a little bit of money, we’d come together, shoot for a week, go away again. Some months later, find a little bit more money, come together, shoot. And it wasn’t really until we got some substantive support towards the end, through Film Victoria, now VicScreen [that] we were able to really go on the final push to bring it all together and then to edit everything up and turn it into a real proper film.

You’re somebody who is tied into different aspects of art in Australia, from being an opera singer to now working in documentaries. What does it mean to be an Australian artist for you?

TO: That’s a very good question. I’m not entirely sure I’ve got an answer to you. But for me, to be an artist in this country has always been about having a voice and having an opportunity to tell stories that have been kept from us. Whether that be through visual art, whether it be through performance and now whether it be through film, there’s a tremendous power and privilege that is afforded (to) the artist to be able to in many ways dictate the terms on how we want the world to be seen.

We’re given that opportunity to let others see the world around us through our own eyes.

And here in Australia, I think there’s so much of our story which has been kept from us, both intentionally and – indeed now perhaps for many of those with whom I worked – accidentally. We still live with the legacies of a past which sought to exclude certain voices from these conversations. And sometimes we can find ourselves perpetuating those structures without even realising or understand we’re doing. So being an artist for me is about tremendous responsibility.

Yes, there’s an element of personal satisfaction – dare I say even indulgence at times – but there is a tremendous responsibility that goes along with that. And hopefully through my creative practice and through collaborating with other extraordinary people like Alec Morgan, Tom Zubrycki, and everyone else who worked on this film, there’s a chance for us to be able to bring others along to collaborate in these spaces, to make safe spaces where we can have these conversations, and being very grown up about being able to acknowledge what we’ve missed out on, and start trying to redress that balance for us all.

Definitely. I know in the past that you’ve talked about the need for collaboration to continue that archiving, and the search through the archives for more films, for more work from either Bill or other Aboriginal directors at the time. How has that journey been for you since the film has come out?

TO: The conversation certainly has continued. It does require a great deal of dedication and passion, particularly with the very, very limited resources that are available to our national archives, like the National Film and Sound Archive. It’s a real challenge.

We were really, really fortunate there have been people who have been willing to support this with their own time and efforts in this space. We don’t necessarily give history its due quite often. We like to always think that we’re looking toward the future. But when we are focused like a laser beam in one direction, we tend to neglect all of the lessons of our past and those who have gone before us as well.

Certainly, the conversation is ongoing. Even at showings of the film, there have been extraordinary opportunities to connect with people who have new memories and new perspectives of these times and their stories. Indeed, opinions about where we would, should and could go next. And that’s a lovely, lovely space to be in, to be able to have real strength-based meaningful conversations about what we would like to see and do into the future. And it will continue to grow. But it is going to be hard graft. It’s going to be hard work, particularly when those who are doing this fantastic work are doing it with very little support and resource. We’re really fortunate for the passion and love that others have found in this space.

One of the things which I found really exciting about Ablaze was that it recontextualises Australian film history. The established history is that modern Australian films really started back in 1969, 1970, but Ablaze hints at the suggestion that there might actually be decades of work that has been neglected, lost, and cruelly abandoned. For you, how much does this recontextualisation of history mean to you as an artist?

TO: It means everything to me as an artist. You know, I think about my own creative practice which is quite varied and diverse, I get bored easily, so I do lots of different things. My own creative practice is very much one of lineages, of looking back at who taught me and who taught them and so on and so forth. And quite often times we come up against walls or barriers. Quite often we come up against the perception that something started at a certain point. Rarely do we see the whole picture.

And I think that’s something that’s very much brought home to me as an artist, that I’m not doing anything in a vacuum. That in fact, I can trace the lineage and histories of the greatest practice that I have now back prior to the 1770s, back to traditions of storytelling and knowledge transmission and placemaking that have always gone on here in this place. And I think that’s true for many of us as artists – Black, white, brindled, wherever we come from.

In many ways, Ablaze is a story of allyship; of people who had power and privilege who didn’t really like the world in the shape that it was, and decided that they wanted to do something about that. And so they contributed to the amplification of other people’s voices, contributed their knowledge and skills and privilege and ability to make these new spaces again and again and again. That is quite a powerful lineage to be part of as well.

When I think about how we look back, when I think about what it means to my own creative practice, I’m very taken with these influences. I’m enamoured with the dedication and the passion and the struggle that others have gone through before me in this space, and the thought that there will hopefully be other artists who come along behind. There isn’t really a start and an end point, particularly when you think about the life of a story, when you think about the influences and the passions of people who have brought them to the screen or the stage or to the canvas or whatever the medium might be. That again and again and again, we’re able to trace these stories back. But we do frequently only tell and are frequently only given a part of that history.

What I found really beautiful is that this feels like you’re having a conversation with Bill as the film goes along. What was that experience like, learning about his past, learning about what he actually filmed and created?

TO: I’m pleased that you see it like that, because I certainly see it that way too. Ablaze was, on a very personal level for me, so much about reconnecting with Bill. Our lives are separated by some twelve years. But at the same time, he’s always figured hugely in my life; stories of Bill, stories of what he did. When going and visiting family members, you’d always been be treated to a story of Bill or told how much I looked like him and even what I was doing now, how Bill would have approved of. That’s come up again and again throughout my life. Bill has always existed very heavily and very strongly in my life.

All of our families have these mythologies that we build up around family members who aren’t there anymore. The extraordinary thing about Ablaze was that so much of that was reaffirmed and shown to be true. There was wonderful evidence of his work. And it brought Bill and I closer. I’m pleased you see it as a conversation because it really was, and it remains that way as well. It is very much a conversation between me and Bill, and the conversations that we have with those who aren’t here anymore, to ourselves and the space perhaps.

But I was always asking myself as we went through this, “Is this what Bill would have done?” Trying to theorise and explain what his motivations were, and constantly grilling and questioning myself as to whether or not I was on the right path with the stories that I was telling too. And I arrived to the conclusion that I was.

It is an interesting and challenging space to be in when you’re trying to remain true to someone’s legacy and vision, particularly someone as passionate as Bill. And to do that in the 21st century, wondering what his experience of the early and mid-20th century might have meant to how he would view the world as it is now; I think we’ve ended up at a pretty good place.

I certainly think that Bill and I have grown a lot closer in the making of this film. I think I know him in a very different way to what I thought I knew him before. Well, time will tell if that if that’s right or not one. One day when we eventually see one another again, he can either tell me if I’ve done a good job or a bad job. Now I’m choosing to believe we’ve done an okay job by Bill, and that we have realised that vision.

I think you’ve done a brilliant job. I would hope that he would be very proud of you because this is powerful filmmaking, it’s powerful storytelling, and it just grabs you straight away in a way that reminds you of this history that we don’t know about.

What did it mean to you in taking the footage back to Country, back to the place where a lot of this stuff might have been shot, and be able to screen that for the people who might have known him?

TO: Taking Bill’s work back to Country was probably one of the most powerful experiences within the making of the whole of this film. I probably fought the idea for a little while, as to whether or not it was appropriate, whether we were manufacturing something there. I toed and froed and wondered if it was relevant or not.

Certainly, finally getting there and bringing the story, particularly the story of the film and White Justice, back to the Pilbara and the communities from once they had come was staggering and awe-inspiring. To think that we could bring to a close a piece of work and a relationship that had been started on one side of the continent at least over seventy years beforehand, to finally bring that back full circle back to the community whose voice was being represented was quite extraordinary.

Even then I had no idea- Bill had no idea what these communities in the Pilbara were going to make of this work from back then. The lives of Bill and his contemporaries and communities over in the far west were so controlled that there was never an opportunity for them to connect up. So not knowing was an interesting space to be in. Not knowing how are people going to respond? Is this something that they want?

But then to have such a hugely positive response, to see the way in which people celebrated not just Bill and the film, but their own stories and histories was really wonderful. I think that’s a big part of what Bill was about. A lot of work is, I think, very much about changing how we have conversations and changing narratives. When you look at the stuff that Bill shot in 1946 down here in Melbourne, not just the White Justice show, but others, it’s all incredibly strength-based. There’s no deficit discourse, there’s no ‘Oh poor me’ stuff, it’s ‘Look at everything that we’ve done, look at everything we’re continuing to do’. And you can be a part of this if you want, but it’s going to happen one way or another, anyway. That was a part of taking that film back to the Pilbara that I really loved.

Similarly being able to take it up to places like Cummeragunja, being able to take it to communities and elders who had lived in and around Little George Street in Fitzroy who remembered what it was like to be there was extraordinary. We came at an amazing time. Had we waited another generation for this film to be found – and it would have taken another generation for this film to be found – we would have missed out on that immediate connection. I’m so grateful that we did have that moment, that it didn’t pass us by, that we were able to make those connections again. Whilst Bill may not have been there personally for it, there was a sense of bringing him and his histories back home, taking his films back to Cummeragunja, taking his story back to community again. It hasn’t been forgotten.

In many ways, we’re just playing a very, very long game here. Sometimes it takes multiple generations, but it does come around eventually. And I think that’s exactly what Bill and others were fighting for. They were fighting for broad change that was going to last, not just something that was going to be over and done within a matter of moments. You don’t do these things for yourself. You do them for your children and your grandchildren. You have to think that many generations into the future, and it takes great genius and insight from activists of the past to be able to see that, I think, and to be able to plan and work accordingly. And great selflessness, too.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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