Two Laws: A Filmmaking Journey

Alessandro Cavadini was born in Italy and educated at Accademia di Belle Arti, Milano. He worked in design, theatre and film and continued in these fields in Paris and then in Australia. In addition to his own films with Reddirt Films, which he produced, directed, shot, and edited, he has worked in various capacities in 15 other projects in Paris, Australia and the United States. Cavadini lived in Australia in the 1970s and early 80s where he worked as a journalist for Nuovo Paese (an Italian newspaper in Sydney) and was a member of the board of the Sydney Filmmakers Cooperative and of the editorial board of Filmnews. While making his now historic film Ningla-A-Na (Hungry for Land) (1972) he met Carolyn Strachan and they formed a working partnership that became Reddirt Films. Strachan was born in Australia. She was also on the Board of the Sydney Filmmakers Cooperative and of the editorial board of Filmnews. As well, she was a member of the Feminist Film Workers collective and, under these auspices, she wrote and designed an audiovisual presentation for the Sydney Film Festival entitled “Images of Women in Australian Feature Films”.

Linda a-Wambadurna McDinny, Two Laws
Linda a-Wambadurna McDinny, Two Laws

Strachan and Cavadini are recognised internationally for their work on Two Laws, which is widely regarded as a watershed in both documentary and cross-cultural film. Less known is that they produced many films and videos with Aboriginal communities throughout Australia prior to making Two Laws, in what was a very particular filmmaking journey in political cinema based on a strong commitment to the Australian Aboriginal Land Rights movement of the 1970s. After completing Two Laws they relocated to New York, where they still reside and work. In 2006 they returned to Borroloola for the first time to film the ceremonial handing back by the Northern Territories government of Australia of the Pellew Island Group in the Gulf of Carpentaria. These islands were formally returned to the Yanyuwa people after thirty years of a legal battle that was first documented in Two Laws. In 2009, documentary scholar Jill Godmilow (Emeritus Professor at the University of Notre Dame) produced the Two Laws DVD (Facets Video). It includes Strachan and Cavadini’s The Handback on Centre Island (2006), as well as a new short film, Bing Bong, 25 Years Later (2006), and an annotated version of Two Laws, which was produced with the help of John Bradley and members of Borroloola community. The DVD contains additional subtitles and other important cultural information. Strachan and Cavadini travelled to Melbourne in June 2010 to participate in the U-matic to YouTube symposium and help celebrate the 30th anniversary of Two Laws, with the first commercial public screening of the film in Australia in more than twenty years. What follows is a transcribed excerpt from their presentation at the symposium in which they reflect on their filmmaking journey and the political context of Two Laws. (Therese Davis)

Alessandro Cavadini:

How did I get involved in the struggle for Aboriginal land rights? I arrived in this country in ’69. I came from France with a big luggage of political change associated with May ’68 and other events that were happening around the world: Eastern Europe, United States, Latin America. When I arrived, I had the chance to meet up with a Spanish anarchist who was trying to understand what the political reality of Australia was at that time. Together we went to see an Australian anarchist who was underground in Sydney, and I filmed their encounter. I found that discussion very informative, especially regarding the emerging Aboriginal political movement in Sydney. Subsequently, somebody told me to get in touch with Aboriginal political activists Gary Foley and Paul Coe in Sydney, in Redfern. That was the first time I’d heard of Redfern as a centre for Aboriginal culture in Australia, so I was very interested. I met Paul Coe first and then Gary Foley later. The Aboriginal Embassy was about to be set up in Canberra and, since I had the film in the camera already running, I asked if I could come with them to record that event. That started my learning of the Aboriginal land rights movement. I followed this group of young Aboriginal people, all the programs they were setting up, the breakfast program, a medical centre, legal services, The National Black Theatre. You know there was an incredible energy that was sweeping basically all of Australia behind the land rights movement, and I recorded that moment in a film called Ningla-A-Na (Hungry for Land).

During the shooting of that film I met Carolyn. She came up with a strategy about going around Australia with the film to high schools and universities, places where we could pick up on the energy that was available in Australia at that moment in political terms. So that’s what we did.

Working on Ningla-A-Na, I obviously became very close to the people involved, to Aboriginal people. I wanted to know more, and they basically said if you want to know more you have to travel north; go to Queensland, go to Palm Island, that’s where you’ll get some answers. So we did. And we did the same work as we did with Ningla-A-Na – we went around Australia showing the film we’d made with the community on Palm Island, Protected (1975). We took it overseas also.

After that we needed to take a pause, because problems were arising for us in making films with Aboriginal communities. I realised we were going backwards in time, in the sense that we were leaving a political urban setting for the country, and then later to the outback; that created some problems because we were of a different political background, really, to the people we were working with. We were trying to fit our politics to suit theirs or, rather, change our politics. There were difficulties vis-à-vis the Aboriginal communities that we were working with, issues about finding a way to fit in their society. Where do we get money? How do we survive? All these things were part of the discussion among ourselves as filmmakers. We felt we’d gone as far as we could [as white filmmakers].

At the time, we were also part of a larger group of independent filmmakers in Sydney – the Sydney Filmmakers Cooperative, which was very interesting; it was not a political partisan body as such, but a group which included all different kind of politics and filmmakers. So there was a dialectic going on there, which allowed us to do the work we wanted to do independently. We didn’t have to go to the large, known media institutions to be funded.  We were going to the new government film agencies. I know, obviously, the government is an institution, but it was easier to go to them than to go to the ABC directly, for example, because we didn’t have to explain our political intentions to these agencies. [1]

Over time, our films were seen by the Aboriginal community around Australia. At one point, when we were in Darwin doing other political film work, some people told us about Borroloola. When we came back to Sydney we got a call from Leo Finlay (who was then a member of the Northern Lands council and what was then known as the Tribal Council at Borroloola), saying that he wanted to meet us and that he would be coming to Sydney for an eye operation very soon. So we did meet, and at that point we really didn’t want to make any more films with an Aboriginal content or in that particular political context, because of the reasons I mentioned earlier. Leo Finlay told us that some other filmmakers – David and Judith MacDougall – had started making a film with the community in Borroloola, but they didn’t have the time to commit themselves to that work. So we met the MacDougalls and they showed us some footage they shot there with Finlay. It was a conventional ‘talking heads’ interview with Finlay by the MacArthur River in Borroloola. Then when we saw Finlay again and he said to us, “Listen, we have a story and we want to film the story”. He briefly told us the parameters of what the film would be, and we felt that it was a very precise and strong story, so we said, “Okay, we’ll do it”.

So that’s how we got to Borroloola and began making Two Laws. I remember the first day we arrived there. I think it was the toughest day of my life. We were introduced to a very important senior member of the community. At the time, it didn’t mean much to me, but I sensed, as I looked around – and it was a very large flat area, it was hot, the corrugated iron shack did nothing more than cast a shadow for our host – well, I knew that something different was happening here. It was very difficult for me to capture and comprehend all that was happening in such a short time, but I remember how all the preconceived ideas of filmmaking I had were fast fading away.

Carolyn Strachan:

In 1970 I was doing Honours in History at UNSW, studying Australian history. There was no Aboriginal content in the history programme, and I guess it was that fact that got me started. I became a bit of an agitator within the History department, demanding that we have Aboriginal content. This passionate demand came from the fact that, even though my grandmother fiercely denied her Aboriginality, we grew up knowing or believing that she was Aboriginal. Her fierce humiliation of being labelled Aboriginal made me want to redress that situation and make her proud of who she was. This was part of my passion. I didn’t really want to continue doing Honours if there wasn’t Aboriginal content. At the same time, there was a film being made in Redfern, and I was living there. The film was Ningla-A-Na, which was redressing exactly what I had been longing for throughout my whole childhood. I dropped Honours and joined the film, determined to not only study history but to make history, to record history, including especially an Aboriginal history that was sadly missing. So that’s how we began our journey as filmmakers.

Our filmmaking practice evolved by sitting with our film’s audiences over and over again, paying meticulous attention to how it was being perceived. We found that every screening raised questions, and we tried to answer these in the next film we would make. We travelled a lot with Ningla-A-Na, and a lot of people who saw it, knowing very little about Aboriginal postcolonial conditions, asked us why these young men, the Aboriginal activists, were so angry. After that, as Alessandro said, some members of the Aboriginal community in Redfern suggested we should go to Palm Island, because this is where we’d find an answer to that question. We went and made Protected, which explains the Reservation Protection Act at that time, and it helped to show the horrors of what was really an apartheid system in Queensland. Also, that film had a very different form from Ningla-A-Na. Every time we made a film we created a new form to match the content and conditions of the community. And, as I said, it was important to us that each new film could answer questions that the previous film had posed for the audience. So it was through this long tradition of making films – working out a different structure for each film in order to get the message about Aboriginal history across, working with Aboriginal communities for ten years – that we arrived at Two Laws.

In this film, we developed a very specific form. In consultation with the community we surrendered control, becoming facilitators, and in this process a new aesthetic evolved. Using a wide angle lens throughout plus total community involvement and control, a unique and distinctive film emerged. But it was a process of learning and working with many Aboriginal communities that got us to that point.

[1] The film was funded with the assistance of the Creative Branch of The Australian Film Commission and the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council ($12,000 total).  Editing facilities were provided free of charge by the Department of Anthropology Film Unit, University of Sydney.

About the Author

Alessandro Cavadini and Carolyn Strachan

About the Authors

Alessandro Cavadini

Alessandro Cavadini was born in Italy and educated at Accademia di Belle Arti, Milano, Italy. He worked in design, theatre and film. He continued in these fields in Paris and then in Australia. Apart from his own films with Reddirtfilms in which he produced, directed, shot, and edited films, he has been hired in various capacities, as a director (including "Muhammad Ali" for Australian TV), and as a Director of Photography, as sound recordist and as an editor for over 15 films in Paris, Australia and the United States. Cavadini has worked as a journalist for "Nuovo Paese" (an Italian newspaper in Sydney), was a member of the board of the Sydney Filmmakers Cooperative and a member of the editorial board of "Filmnews". In the United States Cavadini has taught film at Hofstra University and at Film and Video Arts. Alessandro Cavadini continues to work in film and audio/visual installations and is the Audio Visual director at The Jewish Museum in New York.

Carolyn Strachan

Carolyn Strachan was born in Australia. At an early age, she was an apprentice on avant garde and documentary films and in 1972 she formed Reddirtfilms, a production company with Alessandro Cavadini which produced many films and videos with Aboriginal communities throughout Australia. Strachan was on the Board of the Sydney Filmmakers Cooperative, a national distribution company of independent film and founded a film workshop program for Sydney high school students at the Sydney Filmmakers Cooperative. Strachan was a member of the editorial board of the Australian national film newspaper, "Filmnews". She was also a member of the "Feminist Film Workers" and under these auspices she wrote and designed an audio-visual presentation for the Sydney Film Festival entitled "Images of Women in Australian Feature Films". In the United States, Strachan has done lecture tours with Reddirtfilms. She has taught film in New York at Fordham University, School of Visual Arts, City College and currently teaches film at Hunter College and at Borough of Manhatten Community College.View all posts by Alessandro Cavadini and Carolyn Strachan →