Sport has long been one of the few avenues for disenfranchised people to excel and in rugby league Indigenous people have thrived.
The game has always been largely meritocratic, a “leveler”, where talent and team playing is more important than skin color or ethnic background.
This is league's strange dichotomy: when Aboriginal players were representing their country in this sport, they could not attend the same schools, theatres, public houses, hospitals, and swimming pools as white Australians.
Men like Arthur Beetson, Eric Simms, and Bruce Larpa Stewart paved the way to acceptance, painting the game with their own style and brilliance. Today the 'Indigenous All Stars' team, a national indigenous guernsey and an annual Koori Knockout competition are the legacies of these league legends.
This has become the sport of choice for Indigenous people, helping them to receive recognition and a voice seen and heard by millions of Australians.
A short summary of the issue the documentary is addressing
The most important issues in this film are social awareness, racial relations, family, social history and cultural interconnections. This film will show how rugby league has been a binding force among a people largely forgotten and ignored by the mainstream. Indigenous people have given new expression to the sport, most notably the annual Koori knockout, one of the nation’s few Aboriginal sporting events which exist on a large scale. It is a sporting carnival but it is much more. It is where Aboriginal people from remote areas can assemble, discuss issues of relevance, remind themselves of their state in the nation and of course, build social networks and cement friendships. It's not widely understood that this game is about kinship, giving rise to families who now garner respect, influence and even power in their respective communities - and beyond. This film is their story, told by their people - how Aboriginal people have put their mark on the game.
What is the impact vision statement of the documentary?
This film is about how a sport can be a vehicle in forging pathways for Indigenous people. While Indigenous leaders and community are now pushing for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice in parliament, Rugby League has that voice. How it got it, how it maintains and encourages Indigenous pride, prowess, and passion for a sport that now treats them as equal is what this film is all about. What has been successfully achieved by Koori's on the field, applies equally to all walks of life.
What outcomes does the project hope to achieve from making this documentary?
We believe this subject has never been archived - we want to be the first to pull together materials that have been thought to be lost, forgotten or neglected. We also hope to engage with community resources and talent in areas where people would normally have little access to the art of film-making - remote areas of Queensland and New South Wales where the sport is beloved. This is about sector development and capacity building opportunities. We want the grassroots and emerging film-makers to be involved in all aspects of production leading to local film-makers creating their own projects. We also need to bring this world to non-indigenous audiences and shed light on the personal and communal stories of these people - a world this audience has never been exposed to. There are social discrepancies here - fans love the most celebrated players including Latrell Mitchell, Greg Inglis, and Jonathan Thurston, and yet society still fails to understand their history, culture and humanity.
How will this documentary achieve its outcomes?
We believe we should take this film to the correct sector - a good example is the Screen Makers Conference - the leading event for emerging and early-career screen content makers across Australia. We could see this being shown at other major film conferences and marketplaces, as well as producing a roadshow which could encompass schools, juvenile correctional centres, First Nations community organisations such as Aboriginal medical services and youth services. We envisage event nights where we could either be presenting the progress of the film, including excerpts and trailers or conducting live interviews with current and former Indigenous stars, asking them about their careers, the challenges they have faced, their hopes for their communities and their feelings around acceptance within the sport and in society as a whole - a major theme of this film.
How will partnerships with this project help inform the project development?
We have strong partnerships with the sport’s peak bodies. These include the National Rugby League (NRL) and NSW Rugby League (NSWRL) organisations, which gives us unprecedented access to the rugby league community - it’s participants which encompass former and current players as well as administrators.
We have links with the indigenous pathways managers for NSWRL which will also give us a foray into the Queensland equivalent. Our producer will be looking at Indigenous talent, as part of his everyday job. One of the important roles is to ensure that there are strong cultural connections and that the playing environments for young indigenous players are culturally safe. We are on the ground with the players and the administrators, mentoring new players, as well as kids coming from remote and rural communities who often need to be properly inducted into city life. This film will show that process.
Audience Engagement and Social Impact
What actions does this project hope for its viewers after seeing this film?
This film will give an entirely new perspective on Aboriginal people, how they are understood and wish to be understood. We want this film to push Australians as a whole to re-engage in the conversation and realise there is another culture the rest of the country has failed to grasp. Already rugby league is further down the track than society as a whole. The NRL has reached ‘elevate’ status for the 2018-2022 Reconciliation Action Plan, the first national sporting organisation to do so. If this film can properly showcase Indigenous exceptionalism, it will inspire even more writing, films and art on this subject. Those who see it should take this film as a starting point for their own film-making as well as other creative ideas and activities.Sport is proven first step in conciliation, but after this comes art and understanding. The best result is that viewers of this film take positive action, having viewed this as a positive and yet unfettered view of the Aboriginal sporting world.
Measurement and Evaluation
What is the projects indicators for success?
There are two indicators of success. If we can find the funds to take this film on the road - especially to remote Aboriginal communities in greater New South Wales as well as in remote parts of Queensland - and garner strong interest, we know that we have achieved something that nobody else has done. Box office receipts are important too - there is the other end of the spectrum that in knowing there is wide viewership outside the regional communities, the message that these communities wish to impart is in fact, being seen and heard. We need to demonstrate wide viewership across many platforms. This could be a syndicated release through various partners, both nationally and internationally.