The tragedy and heartbreak of the “blackbirding” era has had a ripple effect all throughout the Pacific, yet it’s a history that remains largely under-acknowledged and unknown.
By AMIE BATALIBASI
Writing for SBS Television
THERE are some stories that never leave you – they exist in your waking thoughts, your dreams, your ancestry and your being.
They well up in your soul, compelling you forward into a world that is full of stories that don’t reflect the one you’re trying to tell.
My name is Amie Batalibasi, my tribes are Feralimae and Kosi from the Solomon Islands.
My people are the saltwater people of the Langalanga Lagoon.
In 1863, Australia began a practice known as ‘blackbirding’ – the term used to describe the removal of Pacific Islanders, often by force and coercion, from their homelands to work on Australia’s sugar cane fields.
For over forty years, tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples were taken to labour, often under slave-like conditions, in Queensland and New South Wales.
Generations of islanders were stripped of their family, language, culture and identity in the time leading up to the White Australia Policy.
The tragedy and heartbreak of the blackbirding era has had a ripple effect all throughout the Pacific, yet it’s a history that remains largely under-acknowledged and unknown.
I talk to people every day about this history and everyday people say: “I didn’t know”.
Historically, Pacific Islander narratives have been caught up in colonialism, ‘otherness’ and a point of view that is not our own.
So, in 2015, after making documentary films for many years, I embarked on a journey as part of my Masters studies, to make my first short narrative film.
BLACKBIRD is dedicated to three of my own ancestors who were blackbirded and never seen or heard from again.
Making the film was the beginning of my own reclamation of this history.
I was able to work closely with my community and family in Mackay, and partnered with YamadiLeraYumi Meta – an Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSI) and Aboriginal aged-care association.
The main Solomon Islander actors, Regina Lepping and Jeremy Bobby, along with the ASSI/ Islander/ Aboriginal extras in the film, have ancestral roots in the history of blackbirding.
In one scene the male protagonist, Kiko (Jeremy Bobby), is tied up on a pole as punishment by his overseer and Kiko’s sister, Rosa (Regina Lepping), is sick and trying to free him.
She sings him a traditional lullaby from their homelands in our language. Jeremy cried in this scene – for real.
When I called “cut”, I turned to see the entire crew also welling-up with tears.
Together we stood on the land where this history took place over 100 years ago and evoked a past long forgotten, honouring our ancestors.
In the first year after completion, BLACKBIRD struggled to gain any recognition from Australian mainstream film festivals with an almost 90% rejection rate.
Thankfully, our film found a warm embrace via international Indigenous and Pasifika film festival communities leading to official selection at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto, Canada – the world’s largest presenter of Indigenous screen content.
Although I wasn’t eligible for Screen Australia funding to attend, I scraped together the $2000 airfare and got myself to Toronto where I finally felt like I’d found my ‘tribe’ – a filmmaking community that I felt a part of, people whose stories reflected mine.
Screenings in New Zealand, Sweden, Finland, Tahiti, France, Hawaii, Australia followed.
But taking the film back home to the Solomons was an absolute joy.
In my village (of over 1000 people), we screened BLACKBIRD using a tablet projector won as a prize at the Pasifika Film Festival.
Usually, film screenings there tend to be old Hollywood blockbuster films, but seeing my family see themselves and hear our language on screen, was a feeling I can’t completely explain.
Right there, I saw the importance of representation, diversity and authentic voices on screen – something I knew was severely lacking in Australia.
In 2016, Screen Australia’s diversity report ‘Seeing Ourselves’ showed the distinct lack of diversity in our TV Drama sector and Metro Screen’s ‘Emerging Visions’ study detailed how “opportunities are increasingly sparse” for emerging filmmakers.
Diversity and gender equity were quickly put on the agenda and when Screen Australia’s ‘Gender Matters’ funding came around I intended to apply with the feature film script of BLACKBIRD I was working on as an adaptation of my short film.
But I was ineligible to apply and I found myself struggling to find industry work, and fell into the black hole of a ‘film school hangover’.
The legacy of an Indigenous woman pulled me up out of the cracks I had fallen through.
In 2017, I received the Sundance Institute MerataMita Fellowship – an award named in honour of the late Māori filmmaker who was the first Indigenous woman to direct a feature film in Aotearoa.
It meant that I had the support of the Sundance Native and Indigenous department to take the first steps in script development.
This recognition on an international platform was significant because back in Australia I had difficulties finding it.
In Australia, I paid cash to a respected Australian script editor who gave me feedback on an early draft.
Although he was generally encouraging, his opinion was that the storytelling was “fairly generic” making the film “just another slave story”, and “if that is all that it is, it doesn’t deserve to get made”.
It felt like a punch in the stomach. This story doesn’t deserve to get made?
Theoretically I should probably have given up. Women Of Colour directors are severely underrepresented in Australian feature filmmaking – we are less than 15% of currently active female feature directors.
But I look to Rachel Perkins, Catriona McKenzie and Leah Purcell who are changing this; I look to my mentor, native trans woman Sydney Freeland, who is breaking glass ceilings in film and TV in the States; I look to MerataMita who has paved the way before me.
These women are disrupting the narrative. Taking it back.
I feel grateful for the opportunities I’ve had so far.
I come from a long line of storytellers and a tradition of oral history.
So, I will dig deep into the courage, strength and resilience of my ancestors.
I will keep writing my feature script for BLACKBIRD. And I will tell this story. Because I must.