Starring: Ngarla Kunoth, Robert Tudawali, Betty Suttor
Director: Charles Chauvel
Distributor: Screensound Australia
Jedda is, without a doubt, one of the most marvellous, magical movies in our national screen history. Not only was it the first Australian feature film to be shot in colour, it was also the first one to be screened at Cannes. Even more important than any of that, though, is the fact that it was the first cinematic attempt to dramatise issues around the government’s policy of assimilation and question its efficacy in such a profound manner.
Half a century on, the dialogue in Jedda often sounds hilariously dated with references to ‘lubras’ and ‘piccaninnies’ in abundance. There are even characters with names like ‘Charcoal’ and ‘Moonlight’ and Jedda, herself, is referred to as ‘a nice piece of chocolate’. Despite such language and Isadore Goodman’s overblown score, this film remains an absolute landmark with images so powerful that they seep into your sub-conscious and resonate there for a life time.
The original trailer for the film, which can be viewed on the DVD, is a classic time capsule catapulted straight out of the ’50s. It describes the eponymous Jedda as ‘a small black bundle of humanity’ who ‘grew up only to surrender to the tribal instincts of a thousand years’. The narrator builds to fever pitch as he recounts the story of how Jedda’s white mother’s attempts to civilise her adopted daughter ‘crashed beneath the shameless stare of an aborigine from the stone age people.’ It’s fabulously florid stuff.
The terrifying Marbuk was actually Robert Tudawali, a motor mechanic from Darwin and Jedda was a 17 year old Alice Springs girl called Rosalie Kunoth who, at the suggestion of director Charles Chauvel and his wife Elsa, borrowed her sisters name, Ngarla, to make her appear more authentic. While such efforts now seem misguided, the Chauvels did get terrific performances from their principal cast. They also created a unique Australian mythology.