'Filmmaker Charles Chauvel’s final production marked a watershed for Australian films and paved the way for Indigenous actors.
Jedda was the last film made by director Charles Chauvel, one of the few prominent film-makers in the first 50 years of Australian cinema. But this watershed 1955 production is best remembered for heralding a number of firsts: the first Australian film featuring two Aboriginal actors in the lead roles, the first to be shot in colour and the first to compete for the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or award.
The story of an Aboriginal girl born on a cattle station who is raised by a white family following the death of her mother, the film is a Romeo and Juliet-esque tragedy that unfolds in front of magnificent Northern Territory backdrops. The film does shows its age by substituting these backgrounds for fake ones in several scenes - large painted canvases that look preposterously unreal, though this technique was not uncommon at the time.
When Chauvel’s horizon-pointing cameras venture out into the wilderness, the film summons a real sense of spirit and largesse, as well as several kinds of beauty - not least in the face and mellow demeanour of Rosalie Kunoth-Monks (credited as Ngarla Kunoth) in the title role. Neither she nor co-star Robert Tudawali - who is magnetic as her love interest Marbuck - had any prior experience as actors.
Jedda’s unsubtle political perspective has stood the test of time and resonates 60 years down the track. By having Jedda’s mother killed during pregnancy and the girl’s addition to a white household as a result, Chauvel softens what could have been a stinging commentary on the stolen generations - but goes hard with an anti-assimilationist message highly critical of the idea of a uniform culture.
“It is our duty to do something for them, bring them closer to our way of living,” Jedda’s adopted mother says of local Indigenous people, although it becomes clear the film-maker (who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife Elsa) thinks otherwise. Every year Jedda watches fellow Aborigines go walkabout but is never allowed to join them. Soon after she meets Marbuck he sets fire to a camp and kidnaps her, absconding to the bush.
The real sting in the story occurs when Marbuck introduces Jedda to his fellow tribesmen. They reject her, arguing she is not of the right skin group. This paves the way for one of the most dramatic and tragic conclusions of any Australian film.
The screenplay is a melodrama in the traditional sense, in that the story largely dictates the movements of the characters (rather than the other way around). The film is at its best when Jedda and Marbuck, on the run, chip away at each other’s personalities and develop a close relationship. Little dialogue is exchanged but their feelings come across in spades, partly a result of their acting and partly of a script that communicates emotional messages in generally unsubtle ways - from straight-speaking lines to moments of obvious physical peril.
When Jedda lies on a bark raft while Marbuck navigates it through reeds, the film taps into a beauty that feels both raw and cultivated. This is a stark contrast to the simplistic and borderline banal stereotypes the supporting cast rub up against, in both white and black characters.
Jedda is still a powerful film; that ending is not quickly forgotten. Nor are Kunoth-Monks and Tudawali’s spirited performances. The pair paved the way for many more strikingly naturalistic debut lead performances by Aboriginal actors in Australian films, which include Tom E. Lewis in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson in Samson and Delilah, Daniel Connors in Toomelah and Cameron Wallaby in Satellite Boy.'
And now for some 50s' words in the description of the film in the trailer.