Women of the Sun - Being and Belonging: Studies in Culture and Identity via University of South Australia
Peter World wrote to me earlier this year - "I'm am studying a degree in Indigenous Studies through UniSA and am currently enrolled in a paper titled "Being and Belonging: Culture and Identity" under the guidance of Dr Rosie Roberts.
I have an assignment to select a TV series or film as a case study to answer the question, discuss connections between language, culture and identity.
I have chosen Women of the Sun as my case study."
I asked if I could publish his work on this site and what follows is his piece.
by Peter John Worland
Language is a fundamental part of personal and group identity and can provide information about a person’s nationality, culture, religion, age, gender, level of education, profession or socio-economic class. Drawing upon appropriate academic literature and using one or two TV series or films as case studies discuss the connections between language, culture and identity.
This essay presents a case study of the historic, four-part Australian television dramaseries Women of the Sun as a way to discuss the connections between language, culture and identity. The 1981 series signals dramatic shifts for Indigenous voices, national television broadcasting and academics writing on Indigenous culture of the time, as well as presenting a historical perspective heretofore unheard or seen by a mass audience.
Widely acclaimed as ground-breaking television, screening a representation of colonisation in Australia from first contact to the present day (early 1980’s), Women of the Sun is a unique collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people for which
the experience of making continues to resonate today. It has the authenticity of Aboriginal voice and a rich Indigenous philosophy that emanates authority, wisdom, truth and power. Twenty-five years later a followup documentary shifted the Women of the Sun narrative on from it’s original, historical basis to deeper conversations around how the series came to be, consolidating the series it to it’s current position as a highly respected exemplar of Indigenous knowledge transmission, relational responsibility and interconnectivity.
Throughout this essay I acknowledge the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ of modern-day Australia and respectfully use language-group and traditional names of people and places where possible. In the making of movies we have to consider not just the narrative in the production, the storyline, but the narratives about production, what "we" think we are doing. (Muecke 1994, p. 5)
Women of the Sun was the inspiration of Yorta Yorta/ Wurundjeri woman Hyllus Maris who returned to Australia in the late 1970’s after studying social policy and community development with sociologist Richard Hauser, in London (FNAWN 2017). Maris was a visionary leader following in the footsteps of her Elders to fight for Aboriginal rights, to walk off the Aboriginal reserve of Cummeragunja and to realise her own dream of building the first independent Aboriginal school in Victoria, Worawa (eagle in Aboriginal language)
College, which opened in 1983 (Dept. Premier and Cabinet 2014). As Huggins (2005, p. 1) states, “Maris’ achievements were all about using relationships between people to improve communities for everyone” and the five-year collaboration with television writer Sonia Borg on Women of the Sun was no exception. McCallum (2009, p. 266), writing about theatre in the late 70’s and early 80’s, recounts that the era heralded “stories focused on communities and individuals who had previously been the Other in Australian drama which challenged ideas about identity and culture” and “opened up new conceptions… about multiculturalism.” This was the environment into which the Women of the Sun scripts arrived on the commissioning editor’s desk at the newly formed public broadcaster SBS
and into the hands of television producer Bob Weis who, although never having met an Aboriginal person, committed to making the series as a matter of personal and national importance.
Speaking of Others
In his 2006 documentary Women of the Sun - 25 Years Later, Weis shared that his natural empathy toward the Aboriginal people of Australia was akin to the pain he felt for his own family who experienced persecution in the Holocaust of World War II. It was this sense of connection, responsibility and justice that propelled him to bring the history of colonisation, and it’s continuation in Australia, to public attention by producing Women of the Sun (Weis et al., 2006). From an Indigenous standpoint there are risks in such cross-cultural
representations of Aboriginality, and, as Muecke (1994, p. 2) points out, can be “whitefella obsessions - romantic love of difference, the exotic, the mobilisation of knowledge, liberationist politics, [or] guilt trips”, particularly when being intersubjectively negotiated in
collaborative, creative pursuits such as television.
Goldman (2000, p. 9) adds that “we are all participants in historical and contemporary colonial clashes, falling into one or more of the categories: survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders [and] no person who is resident in Australia can claim ignorance or neutrality in
this struggle.” With both Women of the Sun productions Weis did not shy away from his intersubjectivity instead proceeding with “a dialogue situation in which both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people participate in a mutual construction of identities (Langton in Muecke 1994, p. 3)” and heeded Langton’s advice that “[Whitefellas] should analyse their comings and goings around Aboriginal communities (Langton in Muecke 1994, p. 3)”.
The Sources of Knowledge
In 1985 Nancy Peck filmed interviews with Hyllus Maris and her mother Mrs Geraldine Briggs for the Victorian Women’s Film Unit production, Return to Cummeragunja. The interviews reflect the deep connection between generations of Aboriginal women and
illustrate the lived experiences contained in the storylines of Women of the Sun. Within two lifetimes we hear first-hand accounts of when fluent Wemba Wemba and Yorta Yorta language was heard, when Aboriginal people answered the prayers of and fed starving
missionaries, when Briggs stood up against the tyranny of mission-station matrons and when together they walked off Cummeragunja Mission Station in a sign of defiance and autonomy (Peck 1985).
The frequency of references by both women to their ancestors and ancestors’ ancestors are presented in a process akin to Martin’s (2003) Indigenous Ways of Knowing, Being and Doing. It becomes apparent that the narratives of Women of the Sun come from the ground-up, from what Maris (1985) describes as a “spiritual culture… [that] can never be broken down, as it’s part of the land.” This example of Aboriginal identity-creation stands in stark contrast to what Goldman (2000, p. 6) describes as the desire for many Anglo-Australians to “try and forget the past, or easily gloss over [it], so as to get on with the future.” Indeed McAuley’s (2006, p. 289) book of academic essays called Unstable Ground illustrates too that there was a priority for intellectuals to remedy the colonial past and reach a ‘conciliation’ between “Anglo mainstream and the Aboriginal minority… to achieve… [a] kind of social order that all can comfortably live with.”
Timing and Politics
Although the Australian socio-cultural environment of the early 1980’s was hostile to marginal voices “timing, as well as a political and broadcasting climate… played a part in the production of the original [Women of the Sun] series (Kalina 2006).” The formation of
Australia’s second, non-commercial television broadcaster SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) early that decade was the result of 30 years of post-war immigration policy and the next multicultural step in answering the high proportion of middle-class, Australian
voters from non-English speaking countries (Smaill, 2002, p. 396). Apart from screening foreign language programs SBS also purchased and commissioned content from independent producers, pushing it to the “forefront of social, cultural and aesthetic transformations (O’Regan 1989, p. 13).” It seems ironic that multiculturalism, in replacing the failed assimilation, should also provide a screen-home for Australia’s First Peoples and awaken White Australia to Aboriginal history with Women of the Sun.
Bob Weis (2006) recalls SBS’s founding manager Bruce Gyngell, with Maris’ and Borgs’ finished scripts in hand, being asked by a senate committee hearing ‘what are you doing about Aboriginal Australia?’ and replying 'I just got these scripts that I'm going to do’ (Kalina 2006). Couple this uncanny timing with a recent merging of talent between feature-film and television production creatives, and Women of the Sun acquired a vanguard status “becoming an important sign that innovative, cultural and socially important work was being done in TV (O’Regan 1989, p. 15).” Apart from being the first time an Aboriginal language had been heard on mainstream television Langton (Weis et al., 2006) says the series was way ahead of it’s time, before historians, anthropologists and sociologists confirmed the
veracity of Aboriginal accounts of Australian history, and the series sparked a nationwide discussion (see Appendix B).
Against Cultural Hegemony
According to Smaill (2002, p. 394) public broadcasting in Australia shares the principles formed by John Reith for the BBC, to provide equality of access and education, making it a place where viewers can measure themselves against national narratives. Even in
multicultural Australia the “prevalent mode of identification has functioned… to foster a sense of unity and oneness (Smaill 2002, p. 394).” Maddison (2012, pp. 701 - 703) adds that “both settler and immigrant Australians derive pleasure in feeling that as a nation we
share the values of equality and ‘mateship’”, connected via television in the comfort of our own living rooms.
Australian commercial television in the 1980’s reflected the attitude of the times, “greed was good” (Television.au 2017), and produced a host of Anglo-Australian, saturated shows including A Country Practice (1981), Sons and Daughters (1982), Neighbours (1985) and
Home and Away (1988) that reinforced a “narrow citizenship and… left the nation as a whole ill-equipped to deal with contemporary diversity (Maddison 2012, p. 701).” Even though Women of the Sun was first broadcast in this cultural setting it’s impact suggests
the mainstream audience was ready to move from what Hall (in Longhurst et al., 2008) calls a ‘dominant-hegemonic’ reading to a ‘negotiated’ one. As Kalina (2006) points out Women of the Sun’s “accounts of the stolen generation, of the dispossession of Aboriginal
homelands, of challenges to white Australia's laws and customs… put the untold history of Indigenous Australia on the agenda.”
A Negotiated Representation
As the work of historians, anthropologists, linguists and cultural scientists now attest the veracity of Women of the Sun’s screen content is bonafide but also a negotiated representation. Episode 1, Alinta - The Flame depicts first contact between the ‘Nyari' people and the shipwrecked convicts and early settlers from Great Britain. For producer Bob Weis there was no argument about making the film in Aboriginal language (Weis et al., 2006) and, despite the concerns of the Yolngu community portraying the original inhabitants, the men and women wore traditional dress meaning partial, if not shameful, nudity. Twenty-five years after playing the character of ‘Alinta’, Nakalyan of the Yolngu people shared that “she is still being taught culture by her Elders” and lamented that “Yolngu and Balanda (Yolngu language for white man) laws are on their own” not knowing if they will ever come together (Weis et al., 2006). The making of Episode 1. on the coast of Princetown, Victoria, traditional Gadubanud country, was viewed by the visiting Yolngu tribe as a respectful reenactment of the Gadubanud people’s survival and was portrayed in memory of their ancestors and on behalf of their surviving relatives (Weis et al., 2006). Non-Indigenous farmer Matt Bowker recalls, as a nine year old, the cast and crew of Women of the Sun coming to Princetown and staying at his parents camp Kangaroobie, and the significance of the Episode’s narrative relative to his own family story (Bundle
Bowker (Bundle 2014) shares that the Aboriginal midden sites on the property where the episode had been filmed have been scientifically dated to thousands of years eclipsing his own family’s 150 year connection to the site, a similar realisation of Goldman’s (2000, p.
167) that he is more deeply connected to the struggle and history of Indigenous Australians than he had previously thought.
The Uses of Language
Actress Justine Saunders shares that she was encouraged to follow her own instincts as a black woman when portraying the character ‘Nerida’ in Episode 3. of Women of the Sun and to let the words of the script tell their own story, as “honesty was so important” (Weis
et al., 2006). As mentioned previously one of the greatest achievements of the series was the respect for and listening too other voices which also highlights the centrality of language in the formation of group culture and individual identity. When convicts ‘McNab’
and ‘Findlay’ are washed up on the lands of the ‘Nyari’ people, in Episode 1., they are given Aboriginal names, translating as ‘Man of the Sea’ and ‘Hair of Fire’, their presence explained in Aboriginal terms as being ‘displaced from their people… lost’. Unable to
speak ‘Nyari' language they are dependent on the goodwill of their hosts for nourishment and safety, and quickly learn that without a shared understanding their lives are imperilled. Language is centre-stage again in Episode 2. with the insistence by church missionary
'Mrs McPhee’, played by Julia Blake, that English is the only language to be spoken on the mission, the rationale being that it is the language of the Lord, the result however being cultural genocide; control the language and you control the people. Later in the year of
1890, the time setting of Episode 3., the Aboriginal people interned on ‘Koomalah Aboriginal Reserve’ turned the colonisers’ language against them petitioning the government for Indigenous rights with a command of English. Today, language is still the
site of contestation over sovereignty on the international stage (Berson 2009, p. 43).
Towards the Culture of Sharing
As actress Eva Johnson (nee. Birrit) who played ‘Alice Wilson’ in Episode 4. recounts, it was the viewing of Women of the Sun that led nurses on the ward of her dying mother to initiate a turbulent, real-life, mother-daughter reunion, a not uncommon story for Aboriginal
peoples of the stolen generations (Weis et al., 2006).
Johnson’s lived experience of that event, as recorded in Women of the Sun - 25 Years Later, is well-equal to the emotional impact of the analogous, fictional drama in which she plays, and ironically she “was afraid of not taking the opportunity to do the film on behalf of
the women who did have their children taken from them (Weis et al., 2006).” The connections that Women of the Sun made between history, people and place was not lost on Weis and extended to the male and non-Aboriginal directors of the series (McNiven
2017) acutely illustrated by a photograph of director Geoffrey Nottage and Johnson in ATOM's (Australian Teachers of Media) study-guide (see appendix A). The photograph illustrates a knowledge-relationship resonant with the character ‘Findlay’ and the ‘Nyari’
people of Episode 1.; Nottage captured with all the intensity of a non-Indigenous, first-time viewer of cultural practice and Johnson poised with Indigenous percipience. Despite the cross-cultural learnings of the past, Indigenous women still struggle to pave the way for the
next generation as Lisa Flanagan describes of playing the first Indigenous female character in Home and Away in 28 years of the show’s history (Rawsthorne & Byrnes 2016), a decade and 473 episodes of which were also directed by Nottage, without female
Indigenous representation (IMDb 2017).
The words of ‘Doug Cutler’ warning his daughter ‘Lo-Arna’ against contacting her Aboriginal birth-mother, in Episode 4., “why… the highest jail rate, terrible social problems, drink, the lot”, could well be the language used tomorrow by Australia's media to describe
Aboriginal culture, some 35 years hence. As Hyllus Maris and her mother Mrs Geraldine Briggs illustrate we inherit stories over generations, stories in the Indigenous sense that need telling and retelling to maintain culture and connection with the past, to guide our
future. The cultural abyss between the world’s oldest peoples, Aboriginal Australians, and the world’s most invasive coloniser, Great Britain, is bound to confound personal identity, contest language and blur cultural boundaries, but as Women of the Sun illustrates,
connection, understanding and shared histories are possible if not crucial for everyone’s wellbeing. As Bob Weis’ personal journey of longing and belonging and Eva Johnson's family reunion both attest, reconnection with the past is rarely pain-free, but more often
than not the resulting clarity of purpose and place (identity) outweighs the mediated, hegemonic culture which numbs our humanity.
In today’s contexts of reconciliation, treaty and sovereignty Women of the Sun continues to question how we relate to each other through language, how we propagate our culture on and off the screen and how we view ourselves, reflected and through each other, to form
our identities, in the endless process of becoming.
ABT17: Being and Belonging: Studies in Culture and Identity, University of South Australia - Lecturer Dr. Rosie Roberts
Women of the Sun - Broadcast Dates (SBS - Channel 0/28)
Episode 1. Alinta - The Flame, first broadcast - 5th July 1982
Episode 2. Maydina - The Shadow, first broadcast - 12th July 1982
Episode 3. Nerida Anderson, first broadcast - 19th July 1982
Episode 4. Lo-Arna, first broadcast - 26th July 1982
1982 United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Prize
1983 AWGIE (Australian Writers’ Guild) Outstanding Script of the Year
1983 AWGIE Best Original Writing for Television
1983 Grand Prix - Banff Television Festival
1983 Penguin Awards x 5 - Television Society of Australia
2005 Hyllus Maris memorial lecture - union hall of the Melbourne (Bundoora)
campus, Latrobe University, Aboriginal and Islander health worker journal, Vol. 29 - 5.
IMDb, 2017, Geoffrey Nottage - director, producer, writer, website, viewed 22nd Feb. 2017, http://
Kalina P, 2006, Return to women of the sun, The Age - Green Guide, 3rd August 2006.
Longhurst B, Smith G, Bagnall G, Crawford G and Ogborn M, 2008, Introducing cultural studies,
2nd Ed., Routledge, New York.
Maddison S, 2012, Post colonial guilt and national identity: historical injustice and the Australian
settler state, Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, Vol. 18 - 6, pp.
695 - 709.
Martin, K & Mirraboopa, B 2003 Ways of knowing, being and doing: A theoretical framework and
methods for indigenous and indigenist re-search, Journal of Australian Studies, 27:76, 203-214,
McAuley G, 2006, Unstable ground: performance and the politics of place, Peter Lang S.A.,
McCallum J, 2009, Belonging: Australian playwriting in the 20th century, Currency Press,
Strawberry Hills, NSW.
McNiven L, 2017, Women of the sun (1982) - curator’s notes, website, viewed 22nd Feb. 2017,
National Film & Sound Archive, http://aso.gov.au/titles/tv/women-of-the-sun/notes/
Muecke S, 1994, Narrative and intervention in Aboriginal filmmaking and policy, Continuum: The
Australian Journal of Media and Culture, Vol. 8 - 2.
O’Regan T, 1995, Film and its nearest neighbour: the Australian film and television interface,
webpage, viewed 11th February 2017, Culture & Common Reading Room at http://
Peck N, 1985, Return to Cummeragunja: Hyllus Maris and her mother Mrs Geraldine Briggs speak,
video, viewed 15th February 2017, Victorian Women’s Film Unit, http://search.library.unisa.edu.au/
Rawsthorne S. & Byrnes H, 2016, Home and away heads to Alice Springs to film ‘special event’
with Braxton brothers storyline for Foxtel, webpage, viewed 22nd Feb. 2017, The Daily Telegraph,
Smaill B, 2002, Narrating community: multiculturalism and Australia’s SBS television, Journal of
Communication Inquiry, Issue 26 - 4, pp. 391 - 407, Sage Publications.
Television.au 2017, 1980-1989, website, viewed 21st Feb. 2017, http://televisionau.com/timeline/
Weis B, Hyllus M & Borg S, 2006, Women of the sun: twenty five years later, documentary film,
Generation Films and Ronin Films, A.C.T.