In her new book Jane Mills reinterprets and critiques one of Australia’s most controversial film classics, Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955).This book belongs to the Currency Press Australian Screen Classics series. The aim of the series is to both celebrate/promote Australian cinema/screen culture and to educate readers by inviting passionate advocates write about their ideas, opinions and interpretations of a chosen film or television series. Jedda is a valuable contribution to this series. The book is engaging and easy to read. Mills’s writing style is conversational and confessional. Her descriptions, reflections and machinations are fascinating. I was transported by her eloquent imagery and enraptured by her insightful and empathetic approach to film analysis and deconstruction of the film text.
Jedda: The Film
Jedda, the film, has received ample attention over the years. It is a pivotal text in Australia’s fragmented film canon. Jedda was the first Australian feature film to employ Aboriginal actors (Robert Tudawali and Ngarla Kunoth) in leading roles, the first to be shot entirely in colour and also the first to be invited to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival (p. 16). Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive have thus deemed it a classic. They claim, Jedda “is arguably the first Australian film to take the emotional lives of Aboriginal people seriously” (quoted in Mills, p. 16).
That said, many film theorists, including Jane Mills and Barbara Creed, admit to having a problematic relationship with this film. Fundamentally, because it still represents a racist, paternalistic and patronising viewpoint. Yet as Creed aptly observes, in her essay from The Cinema of Australia and New Zealand, Jedda has unexpected pockets of clarity and potential progressiveness. She states, “it is in these moments that the film earns its reputation as one of Australia’s cinema classics” (1). It is fair then, to describe Jedda as a contested classic, one that is plagued with contradictions but also an irreconcilable haunting and pervasive power.
“My Jedda”: The Book
Mills begins her deconstruction of Jedda with a detailed examination of emotion, location and landscape. She attempts to uncover exactly what it is about the film that continues to seduce and repel her. Her subjective style of film analysis and exploration makes for easy reading. Like Mills, filmic landscapes resonate strongly and complicate my emotional response to a film so I strongly identified with her desire to resolve this uneasy relationship with Jedda and its controversial themes.
In her early chapters, Mills uses Chauvel’s obsession with locationism (or his desire to shoot the ‘true’ country) to inform her own close analysis of Jedda’s filmic landscape (p. 18). She describes in fine detail her experience of visiting each of the film’s different locations and her subsequent emotions, something she felt she needed to do to help her find ‘her Jedda’. Her descriptions of the landscape are beautiful and insightful. She details, with a certain resignation, how her feelings of belonging/not belonging to these places changed her understanding of the film and revealed to her Chauvel’s own love of the Australian outback. She concludes this section of the book with the following realisation: “Jedda combines showing and telling in a way that captures my imagination more than it captures my desire for story. It is the ‘hide and seek’ elements of Jedda’s story that intrigue me most…” (p. 26). The use of the expression ‘hide and seek’ here, seems to refer to the complex or hidden layers of meaning to be found in Jedda. More specifically, it reveals the conflict that exists between the film’s explicit and implicit messages. Intentionally or not, Jedda demonstrates to its audience the disparity between those who are given the opportunity to speak versus those whose voices are silenced. This complicates the viewer’s relationship with the text and asks them to confront Australia’s deep-seeded discomfort with its colonial contact history.
Jedda’s Story and Generic Conversions
In the second section of her book, Mills traces the film’s generic conversion through Jedda’s narrative. She argues that Jedda oscillates between the genres of Melodrama, Travelogue and Western. Mills observes: “audiences tend to feel satisfied when their expectations are realised, discomforted when a film appears to promise one thing but delivers another” (p. 27). Mills’s central argument appears to be that this unusual oscillation between genres creates an uncomfortable storytelling platform, which allows for its audience to pick up on the narrative gaps and silences that potentially emphasise a more progressive/postcolonial reading of the film. Jedda is a complex character. She is considered both Aboriginal and white but at the same time neither. Jedda must negotiate her place in the world of the cattle station as an outsider. The starkest realisation I had whilst reading Mills’ book was that Jedda’s voice and opinion is absent from the film. All of Jedda’s attempts to make sense of her situation and to discover who she really is are thwarted by the unreasonable demands of others. Herein lies the true tragedy of this film. Jedda is never given the chance for successful self-discovery. As Mills firmly states,
“I feel strongly that killing off the main protagonists is no way to end this film. They are, after all, not only the first leading roles for Indigenous characters but they are also played by Indigenous actors. The film seems to say that, ultimately, the land wins. And the land we see is Chauvel’s framed land. What’s more, Doug’s cultural separatist argument also seems to win: no amount of piano lessons and clean clothes have been able to remove Jedda’s essential blackness” (p. 54).
It is evident from the quote above that a clear Social Darwinist and/or assimilationist message rears its ugly head with the sudden elimination of the film’s central characters. It is in this moment that the film’s racism is perhaps most potent. Arguably though, this swift removal of the two central indigenous characters also only reinforces its director’s (and by default his audience’s) inability to reconcile his (their) discomfort with white Australia’s fractured relationship with indigenous peoples and the land.
Mills concludes her book by providing a social and political context for the film and how it has continued to influence and inform contemporary Australian filmmakers, most notably: Baz Luhrmann and his epic Australia (2008), and Tracey Moffatt and her art film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989). Her final remarks are deeply reflective and induce in its reader a strong desire to return to the film to re-watch it – a sign perhaps that Jedda is a classic with an eternally haunting and pervasive power.
Jedda, Jane Mills (Strawberry Hills, NSW: Currency Press, 2012).