In a key scene of Luigi Zampa’s 1971 film Bello, onesto, emigrato Australia sposerebbe compaesana illibata, Carmela, a young Calabrian mail-order bride who has only just recently arrived in Australia, finds herself lost in the tropical rainforest of Queensland. Frantically looking for help for her travel companion Amedeo, who is suffering from an epileptic seizure, she stumbles upon an Indigenous man, who first asks her for a cigarette and then points her in the direction of the nearest hotel and of help. Running through the rainforest in her swimming suit, Carmela then briefly encounters another group of Indigenous people, naked and armed with spears while gathered around a camp fire to cook a goanna. While non-diegetic tribal drums and the sounds of the forest build tension for the scene, Zampa alternates between long shots that frame the assembled group as part of this hostile and exotic landscape and close-ups of Carmela that convey her scared and puzzled reactions. This brief sequence encapsulates what Kamilaroi and Uralarai scholar and filmmaker Frances Peters-Little identifies as the dominant and most persisting representation of Indigenous Australians on both Australian and international screens: exotic, innocent and mostly voiceless «noble-savages» that guard the natural realm while being torn between their own world and settler colonial society (2003). Just one year after Zampa’s film contributed to maintain and popularise dominant settler colonial ideologies and stereotypes also amongst the Italian audience, Italian filmmaker Alessandro Cavadini would provide a very different perspective on what encounters between Italian migrants and Indigenous Australians can instead consist of, showcasing the decolonising potential of transcultural filmmaking collaborations.
Cavadini moved to Sydney in 1969, where he initially worked as a technical designer before starting to develop animation shorts with other Italian filmmakers and creators. In 1972 he first got in touch with members of the Indigenous community living in the Sydney suburb of Redfern and quickly established long-lasting relations with key Indigenous activists and artists like Gary Foley, Chica Dixon and Bob Maza. The first outcome of this long-lasting relation was Ningla A-Na, the documentary that he realised that same year, that first brought the story of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and the 1972 Indigenous land rights movement to the attention of the world. Cavadini would then go on to work with his brother Fabio, with Australian filmmaker Carolyn Strachan and with a number of Indigenous communities across Australia on two more landmark documentaries and a short film: Protected (1975), Two Laws (1982) and We Stop Here (1977). As numerous Australian film scholars have stressed, these are amongst the first documentaries that set out to disrupt existing models of collaborative filmmaking, developing instead a participatory framework which exposed the enduring nature of settler colonialism through the lenses of indigenous aesthetics and epistemologies (Davis and Plate, 2008; Ginsburg, 2008; Kahana, 2009). The work of Cavadini thus provides an essential prompt for us to reconsider how dominant cinematic representations of Italian migration to Australia can be complicated and unsettled if we shift our gaze from how stories of encounters between Italian migrants and Indigenous Australians were framed «on screen» to how different Italian filmmakers have collaborated «behind the camera» with Indigenous Australian communities, activists and cultural producers.
Italian and Australian films and documentaries on the lives of first-, second- and third-generation Italian migrants to Australia have very rarely addressed how these stories intersect with those of Indigenous Australians or of other migrant communities, focusing instead on how Italian migrants’ sense of belonging were constructed and negotiated through their relationships with Anglo-Celtic settlers (Dutto, 2016). As we learn from the work of scholars like Joseph Pugliese and Francesco Ricatti, this lack of interest is not incidental nor due to the absence of such stories, but should be understood rather as constitutive of how migrants’ identities were and continue to be negotiated in settler colonial Australia (Pugliese, 2002; Ricatti, 2013). Discussions on national identities and belonging in the Australian context are often structured around a dichotomy that sees them falling either into the «Indigenous vs non-Indigenous» or into the «non-Anglo migrants vs Anglo-Celtic mainstream society» categories (Curthoys, 2000, p. 21). By positioning migrants as «perpetual foreigners within the Australian state» and Indigenous people as «non-Australians» (Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos, 2004, p. 33), the settler colonial state can thus maintain the «white-nation fantasy» and silence the relationships between migrants and Indigenous people in Australia (Sonn, Quayle et al., 2014, p. 554). This does not mean that all interactions between Italian migrants and Indigenous Australians have the potential to deconstruct this dichotomy. Rather, they exist on a complex and multi-layered spectrum between complicity with colonial ideologies and opposition to the settler colonial project. Focusing on four specific case stories and on the role that screen media productions have played in either representing these encounters or in enacting them through cross-cultural collaborations, these reflections explore how cinematic encounters can both reinforce and disrupt migrant frames of representation.
Luigi Zampa’s exotic and racialized representation of Indigenous Australians in his 1971 comedy is the result of anthropological theories formulated not only within the framework of English colonialism by English scientists,1 but also of the work of nineteenth century Italian anthropologists and naturalists like Enrico Hillyer Giglioli, who in 1865 boarded the Italian warship Magenta for a scientific expedition to Australia that would last three years. Giglioli was a Darwinist interested in demonstrating the «ethnic unity» of Indigenous Australians and the collection, and production of portrait photographs played a key role in achieving his aims (Lydon, 2014, p. 78). Like Paolo Mantegazza and Cesare Lombroso, Giglioli was convinced of the scientific truth of physiognomy and of social evolutionism, often describing in his writings Indigenous Australians as a primitive population doomed to extinction and endorsing, as Lydon puts it, «the link between female appearance and male violence that has remained central to representations of Aboriginal gender» (p.79). If Giglioli advocated a clear hierarchical and evolutionist relationship between races in his writing, the portraits that he realised during his trip are somewhat less univocal and provide us with a more complex and layered representation of his own encounters with Indigenous Australians. As Lydon concludes, unlike in the work of previous anthropologists and ethnographers, the subjects of Giglioli’s photographs are not portrayed as caricatures or as noble savages, revealing his ambivalent feelings towards Indigenous Australians and ideas of race (2014, pp. 87-93).
The complex attitude of Giglioli towards his own encounters with Indigenous Australians takes us to another story that showcases how this ambiguity is not only relational, but also embodied. As Francesco Ricatti discusses in his latest book, the long history of representation of Southern Italians as «almost African» and «almost black», proved popular also in Australia (2018, p. 55). Here, it was not enforced only by a settler colonial state that portrayed Italian migrants as white or black according to the needs of the moment, but also appropriated by the migrants themselves, who tried to exploit it by acting as «a relatively permeable buffer between the colonisers and the colonised, or other subaltern groups (slaves, indentured labourers, darker migrants)» (Ricatti, 2018, p. 56). This might very well be the case for actor Paul Clarke, a third-generation Italo-Australian (Clarke, 2005), who in 1955 wore blackface to play the role of the Indigenous stockman Joe in Charles Chauvel’s Australian film Jedda. While Jedda was the first Australian film to feature Indigenous actors in leading roles (Rosalie Kunoth-Monks as Jedda and Robert Tudawali as Marbuck), Chauvel chose to employ a non-Indigenous actor to play the key role of Joe, whose role in the narrative is not only that of the «civilised» Indigenous stockman who tries to rescue Jedda after she is abducted by the tribal warrior Marbuck, but also that of the narrator of the events. Clarke’s blackface interpretation of the assimilated stockman, who, as Benjamin Miller notes, ultimately drives Marbuck and Jedda to their deaths leaving the land open to white occupation (2007), speaks to the complexity of Italian identity within a settler colonial context and asks us to reconsider how, even when technically «absent» from on-screen representation, Italian migrants played an important role in enforcing and promoting settler colonial racist representations of Aboriginality.
A different representation of the racial ambiguity of Italian migrants emerges in the 2001 short film Hey Sista by second-generation filmmaker Jan Cattoni. Here, the teenage Italo-Australian protagonist Lisa strikes a new friendship with a group of Indigenous girls after being rejected from the Italian community of a small town in Far North Queensland. Set in 1975 and based on Cattoni’s own experiences, the short drama showcases the racism of Italian migrants towards Indigenous Australians and the unexpected network of solidarity that Lisa is instead able to create when she becomes part of the Soul Sistas Indigenous basketball team. Cattoni is part of a growing number of Italian and Italo-Australian directors and filmmakers that since the 1970s have created prolific «behind the camera» relations with Indigenous communities and cultural producers and consistently work on projects that are not connected to representations of Italian migrant experiences, but of Indigenous histories and cultures (Rando, 1997; Rando, 2004, pp. 179-226). Italian and Indigenous cinema share connections that can be traced back to the landmark documentaries of Alessandro Cavadini, passing through the work of director Fred Schepisi with Murrungun actor Tom E. Lewis on The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) and the involvement of producer/director Rosa Colosimo in the TV documentary series Women of the Sun (1981), to reach the ongoing collaborations of director/cinematographer Fabio Cavadini with Indigenous directors and producers like Larissa Behrendt, Jason De Santolo and Gadrian Jarwijalmar Hoosan.
What creates and sustains these connections though, and how do they differ from the cross-cultural collaborations set up by directors of Anglo-Celtic heritage? Speaking about her own experience of growing up in a small town in North Queensland, Jan Cattoni stresses how having an Italian father and an Australian mother contributed to her «not belonging to one or the other of these distinct communities, but to a place somewhere in between» (2011, p. 32). Cattoni defines this particular place as «borderlands», an in-between space that pushed her to establish instead contacts with the local Indigenous community, who she felt shared a similar border perspective. Her experience resonates with that of Alessandro Cavadini, who recalls how the struggle of the Redfern community to take back their land and revitalise their cultures in face of the continued denial of land rights and sovereignty from the settler colonial state resonated with him in 1972, sparking a renewed sense of belonging and identity that finally made him feel at home after many years (2018). Similar understandings of belonging and identity emerge also from the story of Clely Quaiat Yumbulul, an Italian woman from Trieste who migrated to Australia with her parents in 1954 and today lives in Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island, where she married Warramiri leader and artist Terry Yumbulul. As she explains in Diego Cenetiempo’s 2012 documentary Far Away is Home: la Storia di Clely, Clely identifies herself as «Triestine and Arnhem-Landa (from Arnhem Land)», rejecting models of representation that would see her identity as either divided between Italy and Australia or assimilated into Warramiri culture.
As I have argued in a previous paper (Dutto, 2016), these dissent stories can perhaps be best understood as what Walter Mignolo identifies as acts of «critical border thinking», that is, strategies aimed at «delinking» from the enduring colonialism that characterises Western rhetorics of modernity by taking seriously other epistemologies and recognizing the embodied and geographically located nature of knowledge (Mignolo, 2000). By locating their sense of belonging within a transcultural process of exchange with Indigenous epistemologies and rejecting established ways to frame migration and identity in opposition to the mainstream Anglo-Celtic society, these cultural producers achieve what Grosfoguel has identified as one of the key elements of border thinking: that is to say, a «redefinition/subsumption of citizenship (…) beyond the narrow definitions imposed by European modernity» (Grosfoguel, 2011, p. 25). It’s this decolonial redefinition of boundaries that informs also recent projects like Black Post White, where Indigenous elders from Gunai/Kurnai Country, located in the East Gippsland region of Victoria, share their stories of encounters and exchange with the Italian farmers that lived in the area.
From works like those of Enrico Hillyer Giglioli, which were crucial to establish and reinforce social evolutionist and racist views in Italy, to the story of an Italian-Australian actor wearing blackface: from the innovative use of collaborative filmmaking practices of Alessandro Cavadini and his ongoing legacy to dissent stories like those of Jan Cattoni and Clely Quaiat Yumbulul that challenge established migration frames, these are all accounts that add complexity to our understanding of the position that migrants and Indigenous people occupy in contemporary Australia. They shed light on how encounters between Italian migrants and Indigenous Australians can work to reinforce settler colonial ideologies or instead towards decolonisation and the redefinition of new models of transcultural belonging that operate at the borders of different epistemologies and draw on embodied and localised sense of belonging and identity.
1 For an excellent overview of the transnational origins of the myth of the «noble savage» and of its circulation see Ellingson, T.J., The Myth of the Noble Savage, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001.
Cattoni, J. M., Bearing Witness: The Art of Telling Difficult Stories, Doctorate of Visual Arts, Griffith University Film School, 2011.
Cavadini, A., Skype Interview-14 December 2018, M. Dutto, Unpublished Transcript, 2018.
Clarke, P., Oral History Interview, G. Moliterno and K. Berryman, Canberra, National Film and Sound Archive, (2 cd), 2005.
Curthoys, A., «An uneasy conversation: the multicultural and the indigenous», in Docker, J. and Fischer, G., Race, colour and identity in Australia and New Zealand, Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2000, pp. 21-36.
Davis, T. and Plate, C., «Surrendering control: Two Laws as collaborative community film-making: an interview with Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini», Studies in Documentary Film, 2, 2, 2008, pp. 149-68.
Dutto, M., «Reframing encounters between Italian migrants and Indigenous Australians in Far Away is Home. La storia di Clely (Diego Cenetiempo, Australia/Italy, 2012)», Flinders University Languages Group Online Review, 5, 1, 2016, pp. 63-73.
Ellingson, T.J., The Myth of the Noble Savage, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001.
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Grosfoguel, R., «Decolonizing Post-Colonial Studies and Paradigms of Political Economy: Transmodernity, Decolonial Thinking, and Global Coloniality», Transmodernity, 1, 1, 2011, pp. 1-36.
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Nicolacopoulos, T. and Vassilacopoulos, G., «Racism, foreigner communities and the onto-pathology of white Australian subjectivity», in Moreton-Robinson, A., Whitening race: Essays in social and cultural criticism, Canberra, act, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004, pp. 32-47.
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