Director Alec Morgan,Tiriki Onus / 2021 / Australia

Viewer advice: Contains themes of violence and oppression against Indigenous Australians

Entrepreneur, impresario, entertainer, activist. Tiriki Onus thought he knew his grandfather Bill, until an unearthed film reel suggests he might have been the first ever Aboriginal filmmaker.

Yorta Yorta and Wiradjuri man Bill Onus is a revered figure in Australia’s civil-rights history. After a disadvantaged upbringing at the Cummeragunja Mission, in the 1940s and 50s he ignited a struggle for Indigenous rights in collaboration with the Australian Aborigines’ League and stalwart advocates such as Douglas Nicholls and Faith Bandler. When, 70 years later, a silent film believed to have been made by Bill is discovered, his already rich legacy – and our broader understanding of the Indigenous rights movement – is thrust under a new light.

Narrated by opera singer and academic turned debutant co-director Tiriki Onus and vividly visualised through archival footage, animations, photographs, re-enactments and interviews, Ablaze presents a compelling untold story of activism, resistance and politically-driven art-making. With the intrigue and slick pace of the best detective fiction, this absorbing documentary follows Tiriki as he chases down myriad leads about his grandfather, while also recounting key events in Australia’s sociocultural past: from workers’ strikes and early titles in a nascent national cinema, to trailblazing Aboriginal-led stage-plays and the first ever Moomba. Much like its subjects, this MIFF Premiere Fund–supported historical kaleidoscope embodies the power of art to educate and to stimulate social change.

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