A new film unravelling the life of William “Bill” Onus (1906-1968), a Yorta Yorta and Wiradjuri man from Victoria who was challenging the status quo of Australian social and political affairs as early as the 1940’s, is coming to the big screen.
Co-written and directed by Yorta Yorta man Tiriki Onus, and multi-award winning filmmaker Alec Morgan; Ablaze features rare archival footage, state-of-the-art animation and eyewitness accounts of the civil rights movement led by Onus and supporters.
Tiriki, who is Onus’ grandson, weaves past and present together in a narration of his life.
Tiriki said Onus was unwavering, unflinching, and uncompromising in his fight for justice.
In the backdrop of genocidal assimilation legislation, Tiriki said Onus’ demands would have seemed extreme, but were in fact the “minimum of what is required”.
Tiriki is quick to say this story is not just his own, saying the idea for Ablaze came from the, “Incredible generosity of Elders and community members,”
“[They] gave it that genuine framework,” he said.
“This was about blak people telling our stories.”
And now 70 years on, Onus’s story continues to spread like wildfire, with connections regenerated all the way from the Pilbara to Melbourne.
The Pilbara connection was always needed, Tiriki said, but finding the missing pieces was not straightforward.
Described as an unruly endeavour, both Morgan and Tiriki unearthed hidden parts of the collective story.
“Bill was making film in a day when he was connecting with progressive filmmakers, connected in a place like the communist party,” Morgan said.
“People didn’t write down that they were making these films because if it became public that they were making these films they could lose their jobs.
“As far as history goes, Bill was probably one of the first Indigenous leaders who was under investigation from the commonwealth investigation service, in 1946.”
His crime was the fight for equality and justice for his people.
But this isn’t the battle of one man, and in the dogged fight for equality, Onus was a key player in rallying support for the famed Pilbara Strike from 1946-1949.
Tiriki said taking the story back to the Pilbara brought with it a sense of homecoming.
“To reconnect not just with people, but with place and space and Country, and that significance of taking the film back to Country, to the Country that it belonged to,” he said.
The importance of these stories and sharing collective history is unsurmountable.
“You’re battling against the great Australian silence, collective amnesia,” Morgan said.
“The importance of history is to learn the history, in order to do that we need to have knowledge.”
Ablaze will screen in cinemas nationally May 26.
- Story by Rachel Stringfellow