Five Australian activists and the documentaries that followed them

From Gary Foley to Anne McDonald, here are just some Aussie changemakers who’ve had their stories told on the silver screen

The advertising for the Australian documentary Wild Things (which arrived in cinemas earlier this month) claims the film chronicles “a new generation of environmental activists”. Capturing the Save The Tarkine and Stop Adani campaigns, plus the formation of the Australian wing of School Strike 4 Climate, it in fact details only a small portion of the eco-activism movement. There is nary a mention, for example, of the local iteration of Extinction Rebellion, which brought one of the largest displays of sustained disruptive eco-action in 21st century Australian history.

Director Sally Ingleton nevertheless introduces audiences to several climate heroes, among them Dr Lisa Searle – who is known as a “serial tree sitter” – and Milou Albrecht and Harriet O’Shea Carre, who were inspired by Greta Thunberg to create the local offshoot of the famous Swede’s school striker’s group. They join the ranks of other protestors whose stories have been immortalised in local documentaries spanning many topics, from environmentalism to Black rights, disability rights, women’s rights and gay rights.

Below are five legendary Australian activists, plus the films that capture their stories and rabble-rousing ‘never say never’ energy. Perhaps the one thing that binds this diverse group together is a belief expressed by the author and anthropologist Margaret Mead, who once famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Or, if more incendiary calls to action are your jam, there’s also the words of Rage Against The Machine: “We gotta take the power back!”

Gary Foley (Ningla A-Na)

Exploring the black rights movement in Australia in the ’70s and particularly the formation of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Alessandro Cavadini’s 1972 film Ningla A-Na is among this country’s most historically significant documentaries. But it is far from a dry history lesson: the film has an intense electric pulse and furious anti-establishmentarian energy that still comes on like lightning all these years later.

Watching it today, in an era of greater social awareness and with the Black Lives Matter movement unfolding in the real world, the vitality and relevance of this film feels amazing and terrible. Amazing for the efforts and tenacity of the activists, who achieved significant steps forward for Black rights in Australia, and terrible given the countless injustices still inflicted on Indigenous people in this country – from deaths in custody to dramatically lower life expectancy and the continued absence of a treaty.

Cavadini’s key subjects include the activist, actor, writer and academic Gary Foley, who is, as they say in documentary parlance, “good talent”, given his magnetism, loquaciousness and galvanising all-or-nothing attitude. Early scenes capture Foley in passionate debate with various people, one of them a woman who criticises him for using obscene language. Foley’s response, played over dramatic footage of street protests, is one for the ages.

“You think my language is obscene? I think that what is going in the Black community in this country is obscene,” he says, discussing how he finds it “very very very offensive that a Black man” will “get his head kicked in” for simply walking down a street. And how he also finds it “very offensive” that Australian Indigenous communities have “the highest infant mortality rate in the world”. Foley concludes: “If people find me offensive I don’t give a damn, because I find what they’re doing much more offensive to us.”

Anne McDonald (Defiant Lives)

Before there was Crip Camp – Netflix’s fist-pumping 2020 documentary about the disability rights movement in America – there was the 2017 Australian film Defiant Lives, which explores the same movement from a broader perspective, encompassing the history of disability rights activism in Australia, the US and the UK.

Like Crip Camp, the film touches on the stories of differently abled people fighting tooth and nail for important initiatives such as accessible transport and infrastructure, and adequate healthcare and education opportunities. One interesting tangent explores the protests against Jerry Lewis’ telethons, which perpetuated outdated and offensive representations of people who have disabilities.

One of many subjects the film follows is Anne McDonald, a nonverbal Australian activist and writer with cerebral palsy who was the subject of the 1984 Australian feature Annie’s Coming Out. McDonald was placed in an institution at the age of three and suffered countless indignities over many years. When she turned 18, McDonald launched – and subsequently won – a landmark court case to fight for her release.

By all accounts when McDonald finally left the institution her growth was extraordinary, and she was able to pursue hitherto unavailable opportunities – such as completing a Bachelor of Arts degree from Deakin University. Defiant Lives includes a brief interview with her carer, Rosemary Crossley, who says it was “absolutely clear” to her from the start that McDonald “was smarter than I was”. The documentary also has a moment with the “anti-institutions activist” herself, filmed before she passed away in 2010. In it, with the assistance of a speech-generating machine, McDonald says: “I love you all. I wish I could use my voice to thank you.”

Zelda D’Aprano (Brazen Hussies)

Director Catherine Dwyer’s invigorating 2020 documentary about the women’s liberation movement in Australia during the ’60s and ’70s focuses on a diverse group of second wave feminists who saw a window for change and fought entrenched sexism in its many iterations. One pioneer, who played a key role in forming the Women’s Liberation Movement in Melbourne, is Zelda D’Aprano, whose legacy reminds us that social issues are often interconnected – particularly, in her case, women’s rights and workers’ rights.

Outraged by the dismissal of a court case in the late ’60s contemplating equal pay, D’Aprano, as she recalls in the documentary, realised “we had to do something outlandish and very unladylike”. So, in the tradition of the Suffragettes, she chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth Building in protest. According to an obituary published in The Guardian, during this action a police officer said to her “Aren’t you embarrassed? It’s just you on your own.” To which she replied: “No. Because soon there will be three, then there will be five, and then there will be…”

D’Aprano was right. Just as the Climate Strike movement (captured in Wild Things) was sparked by one person, Greta Thunberg, before snowballing in popularity, D’Aprano was soon joined by two more women, Alva Geikie and Thelma Solomon. The trio founded the Women’s Action Committee and the Women’s Liberation Centre, which led to the creation of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Melbourne. From there the movement grew and grew. A writer inclined to neat contrivances might at this point be tempted to say “the rest is history,” but of course it’s not: the struggle for equality in a deeply patriarchal world (and in every other movement listed in this article) is ongoing.

Dayne Pratzky (Frackman)

A famous moment in the 2010 anti-fracking exposé Gasland captures US filmmaker Josh Fox visiting the house of a person living in a community adversely affected (to say the least) by fracking. There, he sets the water coming out of his tap on fire. If individual moments in documentaries can have sequels, one helluva follow-up arrived five years later in the Australian film Frackman, in which the colourful and high-powered anti-coal seam gas (CSG) activist Dayne ‘Frackman’ Pratzky set a river on fire. You read that right: a river. Queensland’s Condamine river to be precise, a small part of which goes up in flames – due to contamination from dangerous chemicals – after the activist ignites it using a candle lighter.

Pratzky, a former pig shooter, self-deprecatingly calls himself an “accidental activist” and the “world’s worst environmentalist”. He became a thorn in the side of the CSG industry, big time, after gas sites began dotting his local community in and around the locality of Tara in the Western Downs Region of Queensland. Pratzky tore up an offer from a powerful gas company, QGC, to use his land as a fracking site, then launched all-out against some very powerful forces.

His direct action protests include blocking roads, storming press conferences and interrupting industry events – including a summit at Brisbane’s Sofitel hotel, where he was arrested after trying to lock its front doors. A force to be reckoned with, Pratzky is entirely deserving of his superhero-esque moniker. The documentary that captures his escapades has the cut and thrust of an action movie, beginning late at night with him stealing a water sample from a gas site before capturing how he joined forces with the community and inspired many others to join the fight against coal seam gas.

Timothy Conigrave (Remembering The Man)

The relationship between activist, writer and actor Timothy Conigrave and his longtime partner John Caleo is one of the best-known gay romances in Australian history, thanks to Conigrave’s highly influential 1995 memoir Holding The Man. Exploring the couple’s intimate relationship as well as broader contexts – of the gay rights movement in the ’70s, for instance, and the HIV health crisis of the ’80s – the book was adapted for the stage in 2006 by Tommy Murphy and for the screen in a 2015 production directed by Neil Armfield.

But far more impressive than Armfield’s film was a documentary – directed by Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharpe – that arrived a year later called Remembering The Man. It begins with Conigrave (who died in 1994) narrating his story from the grave, using audio from an oral project the activist participated in one year before his death.

It is a fascinating way to kick off a film that uses the couple’s relationship to establish an intimate core that branches off into many other discussions. There is intense footage, for example, of Australian anti-gay protests and rallies that were held throughout the ’80s and ’90s, replete with horribly derogative language and boosted by wowsters such as the notorious Reverend Fred Nile.

In that era attitudes towards the gay community were very different to today. Conigrave and Caleo are among the many agents for change who had a huge impact in achieving greater tolerance and inclusivity.

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