In the early days of Australian cinema, the depiction of Aboriginals was confined to marauding savages, comic sidekicks or being viewed as part of the natural fauna. To add insult to injury, Aboriginal characters were often portrayed by white actors in blackface. Charles Chauvel’s 1955 production of Jedda was a marked departure, with the main characters being played by Aboriginals Rosalie Kunoth and Robert Tudawali.
Tudawali uses the uncertainty surrounding the actor’s death as a means to not only explore his life, but also the wider issue of White Australia’s treatment of the country’s indigenous population. Thus, against the backdrop of Jedda's production we encounter the well-meaning though slightly patronising Elsa Chauvel, the paternalistic yet at times racist attitudes of Government bodies and the hand-wringing apologies put forward by a friendly journalist.
So it’s disappointing that while the film succeeds in highlighting some uncomfortable truths about the wider issue of Australia’s recent history, it is less successful in more intimate territory. The lack of any discernible connection between the characters limits any empathy the audience wants to feel.
After Jedda, Robert Tudawali went on to appear a few more projects, including a TV play based on Rosalie’s life. A review of that play could just as easily have been written about this biopic - "It's a pity this missed out, because there is a goldmine of material... waiting for a skilled, sensitive writer to tap it."
as Robert Tudawali
as Rose Kunoth
as Charles Chauvel
as Elsa Chauvel
In keeping with the official open finding into Tudawali’s death, the film remains ambiguous as to how he received his fatal burns. Though it proffers a few theories, it neglects to mention that Tudawali apparently told police an argument broke out because he refused to surrender his 11-year-old daughter Christine in marriage.
Apart from incorporating actual scenes from Jedda, Dust in the Sun and the television series 'Whiplash', this biopic also recreates the final scenes of Jedda.