Opera singer and academic Tiriki Onus turns detective, historian, and documentarian (along with co-director Alec Morgan, who gave us Hunt Angels and Lousy Little Sixpence) after the discovery of a scrap of film in the National Film and Sound Archive. The film in question appears to be the work of Tiriki’s grandfather, the late Bill Onus: a Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta man, an entrepreneur, a showman, a professional boomerang thrower (always looks good on the resume), and a fierce fighter for Indigenous rights. And he was also very likely the first Indigenous Australian filmmaker.
What unfolds is an engrossing and at times absolutely enraging journey through the Indigenous experience of the 20th century, from Bill’s birth at the brutal Cummeragunja Mission on the Victorian-New South Wales border in 1906, through to his death in 1968, not long after the 1967 referendum that saw Aboriginal people recognised as part of the Australian population for the first time.
Directors Onus and Morgan excel at using Tiriki’s personal quest to uncover the details of his grandfather’s life and work to illuminate the bigger picture of Indigenous struggle. It helps that Bill Onus seemingly had a knack for being close to the centre of not just the battle for Aboriginal rights, but the emerging Indigenous art scene.