On January 26th, 1972, four Aboriginal men drove to Canberra and planted a beach umbrella on the lawns of Parliament House. Armed with placards and demands for land rights, this historic protest became known as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
Despite being erected over 50 years ago, it has become a symbol of the Indigenous fight for sovereignty and self-determination. The term “embassy” was used as a nod to the fact that First Nations peoples had become “aliens in [their] own land”, according to activist Gary Foley.
“So like other aliens, we needed an embassy,” said Foley.
John Harvey’s 2022 documentary film Still We Rise tackles the sprawling history of the Tent Embassy, weaving together the different threads that culminated in the oldest continuing protest site in the world. Screened as part of the UTS First Nations Film Festival, the film is a poignant reminder that the struggle for Indigenous land rights and recognition not only continues to endure, but has endured for decades.
Drawing upon archival press footage and interviews, Harvey paints a political picture of Australia in 1972: a government failing to meet the demands of its Indigenous population while its white citizens struggle to understand their motivations. In spite of mass protests in the streets, many Australians were shocked by the new level of pushback from First Nations communities.
One clip features a television interview with Aboriginal rights activists Paul Roe and Bobbi Sykes, in which the pair are asked by a presenter: “Do you hate white people?”
“No, I don’t hate white people. I could use our common phrase – some of my best friends are whites,” replied Roe dryly.
As the Voice to parliament referendum date grows closer, Still We Rise is irrefutable proof that if there’s any time to start listening, it’s now.
While the Tent Embassy was founded on Canberra/Ngunnawal soil, Still We Rise takes great care to highlight the nationwide fight for Aboriginal land rights, showcasing footage of different Indigenous groups around the country. From removing the Tjungundji peoples from their lands in Mapoon in 1963 to the 2002 Yorta Yorta case, Harvey pieces together the continued denial and rejection of Indigenous rights. It is angering as it is sobering.
However, as much as Still We Rise sheds light on the anguish and pain faced by Indigenous communities, it also aims to celebrate Indigenous voices and creatives.
Clips of protests in the ’60s and ’70s are soundtracked by songs from First Nations artists, such as King Stingray and DENNI. The juxtaposition between archival footage and contemporary Indigenous music honours their fight to be heard, whether that fight is held in the streets or in a recording booth.
Similarly, Still We Rise also draws upon footage of Basically Black, a comedy television show notable for being the first television program written and created by Indigenous Australians. Its satirical sketches help to undercut the heavy subject matter with some levity.
One clip depicts two Indigenous men watching a celebratory reenactment of the First Fleet landing. As Captain Cook declares ownership over the eastern coast, one of the men says to the other: “You know what? In the long run, I think we’re better off with a stricter immigration policy.”
On the surface, Still We Rise is merely a documentary film about the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy. But in reality, it’s a documentary about the unceasing struggle for Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination in the face of countless governments who have done too little, too late. The fight to be heard is one that has been growing for decades. And as the Voice to Parliament referendum date grows closer, First Nations voices are getting louder than ever. Still We Rise is irrefutable proof that if there’s any time to start listening, it’s now.
Still We Rise is available to watch for free on ABC iview. For information about the UTS First Nations Film Festival, visit here: https://events.humanitix.com/uts-first-nations-film-festival
Main image, screenshot from Still We Rise.