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FILMS FROM THE CENTRAL AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL MEDIA ASSOCIATION (CAAMA)




1:30PM, Sunday April 26
AFTRS

Directors: Warwick Thornton, Dena Curtis, David Tranter
Country: Australia
Runtime: 105 minutes
Language: English, Eastern Arrernte, Alywarre, with English subtitles
Format: Colour, Sound, HD Digital (originally Digibeta, 35mm)
Rating: MA15+

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Launched in Alice Springs in 1988 as the video unit of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, CAAMA productions has produced an extensive catalogue of ground-breaking film and television.


The production house has been instrumental in developing and supporting the careers of many of Australia’s most celebrated film-makers including Warwick Thornton, Beck Cole, Ivan Sen, Rachel Perkins, Dena Curtis and David Tranter. 

Presented in partnership with NITV, Cinema Reborn will screen a selection of four short films to pay homage to CAAMA Production’s work and to the Media Association’s powerful use of film and the broadcasting arts and sciences to maintain and sustain Indigenous Language and Culture in Central Australia. The program includes Samson and Delilah director Warwick Thornton’s Rosalie’s Journey (2003, 22 mins), the story of Jedda star and activist Rosalie Kunoth-Monks; David Tranter’s Willaberta Jack (2007, 26 mins), the documentary which formed the basis for Tranter’s script for the recent feature Sweet Country; Dena Curtis’s Eight Ladies (2010, 22 mins); plus Thornton’s AFI Award-winning short drama Green Bush (2005, 22 mins).

Source: Ronin Films
Introduced by Anusha Durray and Dena Curtis



Notes by Philip Batty:


Freda Glynn and the Evolution of CAAMA: A Personal Reflection



Throughout the 1980s, Freda Glynn and I worked together on the development of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA), now considered to be a cultural icon of national significance. Under our joint management, CAAMA launched the first Aboriginal-owned radio broadcasting network in Australia (8KIN-FM); founded the first Aboriginal video production company (CAAMA Productions); recorded over 40 Aboriginal artists on the first Aboriginal-owned recording label (CAAMA Music) and successfully bid for a licence to build and operate the only Aboriginal-owned satellite television service in the country (Imparja Television). Working with Freda during those extraordinarily productive years was without doubt the most thrilling period of my life and, indeed, a great privilege.

CAAMA also trained a whole generation of young Indigenous people who went on to form the nucleus of today’s Indigenous media culture in Australia. The long list includes: Freda’s son, Warwick Thornton and his fellow Central Australian, Rachel Perkins, now both internationally acclaimed filmmakers; Freda’s daughter Erica Glynn, former manager of Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department and executive producer on ABC TV’s Redfern Now (2015); screenwriter Stephen McGregor who, with another CAAMA trainee, David Tranter, co-wrote Thornton’s Sweet Country. Other CAAMA trainees and former employees have also achieved outstanding success including Allen Collins (AACTA award for cinematography), Beck Cole (AACTA award for direction), Priscilla Collins (producer, Channel 9), Robyn Nardoo (director), Jason Ramp (cinematographer), David Liddle (journalist), and many more. More recently, a new generation of Indigenous media workers fostered by CAAMA are making their mark, including Freda’s grandson Dylan River (director) and granddaughter, Tanith Glynn-Maloney (producer).

The evolution of CAAMA and the career of Freda Glynn as a progenitor of today’s Indigenous media culture are more or less synonymous. Although Freda makes the modest claim that her work at CAAMA represented just ten years in her long life they were, beyond doubt, ground-breaking years that helped change the way Australia sees itself. In this overview, I provide a personal reflection on both the evolution of CAAMA and my work with Freda.

* * *

I first met Freda in 1979 at a demonstration in Alice Springs. At the time, Central Australia was a politically fractured place. The Whitlam Labor Government’s Land Rights Bill had inflamed pastoralists throughout the Northern Territory; the new Aboriginal Legal Aid service threatened the old local judicial system; bigoted police had come under investigation and missions had been abolished and their property handed over to Aboriginal organisations.

In this fraught atmosphere it was not unusual to find oneself at demonstrations. The one at which Freda and I met, was organised to protest against a group calling itself ‘Citizens for Civilised Living’. The all-white ‘Citizens’ wanted to stop a government plan to move a small number of Aboriginal families from the squalid fringe camps of Alice Springs to the town’s better-serviced white suburbs. A number of people – many of them so-called ‘southern white stirrers’ like myself – turned up to disrupt a meeting of the ‘citizens’ . Freda was the only Aboriginal person at the protest and her bravery in confronting a hostile crowd of white people left a strong impression on me.

Eight months passed before I met Freda again; this time, at an event that would change both of us irrevocably. It was a tentative public meeting held in Alice Springs to discuss the formation of an organisation that proposed to work towards the establishment of an Aboriginal voice in the media.

The meeting was organised by me and a gregarious Aboriginal man from Oodnadatta, John Macumba. Our first few attempts to hold the meeting failed but on the third try, a number of Aboriginal people attended, including Freda, who voted with the majority to form a new organisation, tentatively named the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association.

At the time, Freda was a single mother with five children: Sue, Erica, Scott, Robert and Warwick (then a ten-year-old boy). She had separated from her husband, Bob Thornton, and was cleaning hotels to support her family as sole breadwinner. This made any full time involvement in CAAMA impossible. Although she attended CAAMA committee meetings and helped where she could, it would be another 18 months before Freda took up the position of co-director of the new organisation.

In the interim, John Macumba played an invaluable role as we established the basic foundations of CAAMA. Certainly, without his seminal contribution, the organis-ation may not have survived its shaky beginnings. At one of the public meetings we organised to drum up support for CAAMA. John encapsulated the new organisations objectives when he said, ‘We the Aboriginal people … have been bombarded with just white European media … and it is very important that we set up our own media association … so that we can hear and see ourselves … and keep our traditions alive.’

A brief summary of John’s energetic commitment to the organisation’s early development is essential if we are to understand the evolution of CAAMA. Indeed, if the ten years I later spent working with Freda was the most thrilling decade of my life, the 18 months I spent working with John were the most intense.

When I met John in early 1980, he had only recently moved to Alice Springs with his wife Ellen and their three children. As a boy, he had been fostered out to an Adelaide family and spent most of his childhood in the city. He now wished to reconnect with the Aboriginal community in Central Australia and, as he said, ‘shake things up’. By contrast, I was an over-radicalised young whitefella from Sydney who had grown up during the Vietnam War era. Three years before meeting John I had taken up a teaching job at the Aboriginal community of Papunya, 300 kilometres west of Alice Springs. I was shocked at what I perceived to be the oppressive conditions under which Aboriginal people lived at Papunya and many other communities in the region. This kindled a latent activism within me that I took to Alice Springs after leaving Papunya.

In early 1980, John and I happened to meet at a house party in Alice Springs and soon found that we shared an interest in media and its potential power to alter the status quo. Not long after our encounter, we began working together on The Aboriginal Half Hour, a weekly program broadcast through the commercial radio station, 8HA. The program was an initiative of the Northern Territory Education Department, due mainly to the efforts of Chris Majewski, a senior officer in the department. The show had a large and responsive following, which was not surprising given the fact that over half the population of Central Australia was then Aboriginal.

From the outset of our collaboration, John and I had ambitions that went far beyond the Half Hour. We spent many nights around a campfire while living at Basso’s Farm, an abandoned artist’s colony on the outskirts of Alice Springs. We were trying to work out how to establish, in the absence of any precedents, an Aboriginal-owned broadcasting station and video production facility. Our relatively recent move to Alice Springs and resulting lack of long-term connection with the local Aboriginal community was also problematic. Some members of this community viewed with suspicion anyone who claimed to act on their behalf, whether black or white. Nonetheless, the community meeting we organised to discuss our proposal and, more particularly, Freda’s membership of the new body, resolved this issue.

Freda had deep connections with the people and history of Central Australia, which gave the fledgling media organisation a secure grounding in the Alice Springs Aboriginal community; something that was of fundamental importance if the organisation was to get off the ground. Certainly, she had a remarkably eventful life growing up in the Central Australian region.

* * *

Freda was born on Woodgreen station, north of Alice Springs, in 1939. Her mother, Topsy Glynn, was a traditional Kaytetye woman who spoke several Aboriginal languages before English. Topsy received training at the station as a cook and subsequently worked for the owners. Freda’s father, Alfred Price, was the son of Frederick Price, the second last postmaster of the Overland Telegraph Station in Alice Springs. Freda, or more correctly, Alfreda, was given the female version of her father’s name, Alfred. Freda’s only sibling, her older sister, Rona, was fathered by Alfred’s brother, Ronald.

As an infant, Freda was afflicted with a life-threatening illness and was sent, tucked up in a wooden egg box, to the ‘Bungalow’ (aka ‘The Half-caste Institution’) in Alice Springs to receive urgent medical care, accompanied by Rona and her mother. As Freda required prolonged care, her mother was allowed to stay at the Bungalow where she was later employed as housekeeper and head cook. Freda says that this was ‘the best thing that could have happened to me and my family’ as it opened up the possibility of education, employment and a better life in Alice Springs. Her mother had no wish to return to Woodgreen station despite the owner’s repeated requests to the welfare authorities to have her returned. Like other Aboriginal people, the Bungalow offered Freda and her family what Freda describes as a ‘safe and secure home’ away from what was then a harsh physical and social environment.

When war broke out in 1942, a Japanese invasion of the Northern Territory was a real possibility and most of the civilian population of Alice Springs were evacuated to the southern capitals. Freda’s family was sent to Moree in New South Wales, and later billeted with the Lindemans, a family of wealthy wine merchants, in Vaucluse, Sydney. Freda’s mother’s reputation as an accomplished cook seems to have preceded her as she was employed as head chef and housekeeper at the Lindeman establishment. The Lindemans had a close connection with the Sydney art world and several portraits were produced of Freda as a young girl during their stay; one of which later found its way into the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Returning to Alice Springs in 1949, Freda and her sister were enrolled at St Mary’s Children’s Home, run by the Church of England Missionary Society. It was a place for which Freda still holds fond memories, particularly for its head, Sister Eileen Heath, with whom Freda kept in touch throughout her life. Freda’s mother worked at St Mary’s for several years, again as a cook, and was thus able to see and talk with her daughters on a daily basis. Freda says that her mother was ‘with us all the time’ when they were growing up and that she never ‘took much notice of the welfare people’ with whom she was ‘always arguing’.

After leaving St Mary’s in the mid-1950s, Freda was immediately offered training and a job at the only photographic studio in Alice Springs, and for 17 years she captured practically every baptism, wedding and birthday in the town. Working alone in the studio’s darkroom, Freda enjoyed listening to the ABC, then the only radio service available in Alice Springs. She says that this gave her a ‘great education’ about the world beyond the confines of Central Australia.

Remarkably, in 1960, Freda’s mother secured a bank loan to purchase a house in Alice Springs – the first Aboriginal woman in the Territory to do so – and paid off the loan in three years. Freda’s sister, Rona, was an equally remarkable person. She was an outstanding school pupil who became the first Indigenous teacher in the Northern Territory. She also wrote a newspaper column for the local Centralian Advocate. Rona later studied nursing in Melbourne and New Zealand and was such an exemplary student that she was later appointed head of the maternity ward at Alice Springs Hospital. Although she supervised over 2000 births, Rona died in tragic circumstances, giving birth to her own child in 1965. The Rona Glynn Pre-school in Alice Springs was named in her honour.

With the election of the federal Labor Government in 1972 and the creation of the first federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA), people like Freda were in demand. Employed by the Department in the mid-1970s, she received training in development management at the South Australian Institute of Technology in the Task Force program. She was subsequently offered work back in Alice Springs as a Community Development Officer, assisting people living on the town’s fringe camps.

It was during this period that I first met Freda at the demonstration against the ‘Citizens for Civilised Living’, and a few months later, at the community meeting to establish CAAMA. As already indicated, she was working full time to support her five children and was only able to participate in monthly CAAMA meetings and assist John and myself, on occasion, with the Aboriginal Half Hour. For the time being, John and I would continue to work on
the foundation of CAAMA.

* * *

In mid-February 1980, we presented a written submission to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs announcing the formation of CAAMA and seeking financial support. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Liberal Fraser Government, Fred Chaney, was receptive but felt that his colleague, Minster for Communications Tony Staley, should fund CAAMA.

While the ministers debated their respective responsibilities, the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD) in Alice Springs offered their support. They hired filmmaker Clive Scollay to organise a CAAMA media tour of public broadcasting stations in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne and, more significantly, to arrange meetings with Chaney and Staley (then a Cabinet minister) to push CAAMA’s case.

Obligingly, the ministers agreed to meet the CAAMA delegation at Parliament House in early April. While Chaney was somewhat equivocal, offering little support for CAAMA, the opposite was true of Staley. When we entered his office, he said, with his feet on his ministerial desk, ‘The government would like to offer you a gift: the old ABC studios and broadcasting facilities in Alice Springs,’ and with that, he lit up a cigar. Stunned at such generosity, we thanked Staley and headed back to Alice Springs. In the meantime, he issued a press release notifying the public of his magnanimous offer. However, on inspecting the ‘studios’ we discovered that they were in a ruinous state and devoid of any equipment. Contact was immediately made with Staley’s office to alert him to the real state of the ‘gift’.

Six weeks later, on 28 May, Staley and Chaney flew to Alice Springs to speak with us. During this critically important meeting, it was resolved that the old studios would be renovated and production equipment installed for CAAMA’s use; that the new ABC studios and offices in Alice Springs would be made available to CAAMA while the renovations to the old studios were completed; and that DAA would consider funding CAAMA’s production and operational costs. I still find it surprising, if not astonishing, that a small, untested group from the desert was able to extract support from some of the most powerful political figures in the nation, including a Cabinet minister. Such, perhaps, was the goodwill that then existed towards Aboriginal people.

At about the same time, the federal government established a committee of inquiry into the ABC (the Dix Committee) and it happened to be holding a hearing in Alice Springs. This represented an unprecedented opportunity for CAAMA, then the only Aboriginal media organisation in the country. John delivered a powerful speech at the hearing, pointing out that the ABC was providing no Aboriginal programming in the country and that it must immediately rectify this ‘appalling oversight’. Two ABC executives present at the hearing – John Newsome and John Hartley – later recalled that John’s speech hit them ‘like a ton of bricks’.

Within a matter of months, CAAMA was contracted to produce radio programming on the local ABC outlet (8AL) and the ABC itself planned to launch its own pilot Aboriginal radio program through the same station and on a national basis. This had major repercussions for Freda. The ABC offered her training and a full-time position at the ABC producing and presenting their local program, which she accepted.

Much else was undertaken during this brief, hectic period: CAAMA played a role in establishing Alice Spring’s first public radio station, 8CCC; the first Indigenous media training programs were created; licence applications were submitted; radio programs were produced; building and equipment were installed; and much more. Indeed, from January 1980 to June 1981, CAAMA went from nothing but an idea through to a burgeoning organisation, producing and broadcasting daily radio programming in four Aboriginal languages through three outlets: the public station, 8CCC, the regional ABC station, 8AL and the commercial station, 8HA.

In May 1981, John decided to leave CAAMA and Alice Springs. He had been offered a substantial managerial position that he could not refuse in his home town, Oodnadatta. Despite my pleadings, he headed south with his family and remained there for several years with occasional visits to Alice Springs. Sadly, John passed away in 2010 at a relatively young age. He will always be remembered for his pioneering efforts at CAAMA and in promoting Aboriginal participation in the media in general.

* * *

Although Freda was now employed full time at the ABC, she continued to attend CAAMA meetings. However, with the unexpected departure of John, the question of her taking a more hands-on role with CAAMA arose. Indeed, I was concerned that if someone could not be found to replace John, CAAMA might falter. Fortunately, Freda readily agreed to leave the ABC and take up the position of co-director of CAAMA in July 1981.

A good start had been made in laying the foundations of CAAMA, but the work of turning it into an organisation with its own independent radio and television services, with a strong production capability and well-resourced training program was yet to be achieved and it was to this end that Freda and I worked together up until the end of the 1980s.

Similar in some ways to my time with John, working with Freda entailed the writing of numerous submissions and attendance at countless meetings with government officials, politicians, media groups, Aboriginal organisations and many other people and bodies. In all this work, one could say that I supplied the bullets and Freda fired them, at least that’s how we both saw our working relationship, more
or less.

One of our most important submissions at this time (presented to the federal government in 1983) focused on Australia’s forthcoming national satellite, AUSSAT, due to be launched in 1985. We pointed out in the submission that the satellite would, for the first time, make available a wide range of telecommunication services, including TV, to hundreds of remote Aboriginal communities. We insisted that these communities should be afforded some measure of control over what we described as the ‘avalanche’ of television about to pour into their homes. We also argued that Aboriginal people should be given the ability to produce television programming on their own terms and in their own languages as a way of moderating this forthcoming ‘cultural televisual dominance’.

To back up these arguments, Freda and I attended a number conferences and seminars in the southern capitals where Freda made impassioned speeches about the potential impact of the satellite. At this point, the federal government was still making up its mind about how AUSSAT would be regulated and who would have access to it.

Our arguments concerning the need for Aboriginal production of Aboriginal programming in the face of the impending satellite were also put to the Australian Film Commission (AFC). Responding positively, the AFC, then headed up by Cathy Robinson, and later Kim Williams, provided CAAMA with enough funding to establish the CAAMA Video Unit at the end of 1983 (later, CAAMA Productions Pty Ltd). Clive Scollay was re-engaged to set up the Unit with four Aboriginal trainees. While technically ‘trainees’, they were thrown into intensive production work, including a number of contracts for government departments. One of the trainees was Erica Glynn. It now seems to me that the fast and often bumpy learning curve she and the other trainees experienced in the Unit proved to be a valuable asset in future employment. Certainly, it gave Erica the skills she later applied with great dexterity as an executive producer and manager of the Indigenous Department at Screen Australia.

Moves were also made in 1983 to establish CAAMA’s own independent radio broadcasting network. A detailed application was made late that year to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT) for a licence to operate a public radio station in Alice Springs with repeaters at the Aboriginal communities of Hermannsburg, Ali Curung and Santa Teresa. A year later, the ABT convened a public hearing in Alice Springs at which Aboriginal organisations and people throughout the Northern Territory came to speak in support of the application, including Pat Dodson, then director of the Central Land Council. After a brief deliberation, the ABT officially awarded CAAMA its long-awaited broadcasting licence in September 1984; the first-ever awarded to an Aboriginal organisation. In making its decision, the chairman of the ABT, David Jones, said it was ‘an historic occasion in Australian broadcasting’

By May 1985, CAAMA’s radio network, 8KIN-FM, had been installed and tested and John Macumba was invited back from Oodnadatta to officially launch the station on the 27 May. To celebrate this momentous occasion, we invited numerous Aboriginal bands, choirs, solo artists and traditional dancers from communities throughout Central Australia to perform on stage in front of the new station. Such was the enthusiasm of the enormous crowd that attended the opening that it proved almost impossible to bring the celebrations to a close. I remember Freda, standing on the stage as night fell, trying to persuade thousands of people to go home – with little success.

The new station was located in Little Sisters, a renovated former Catholic convent on the southern outskirts of Alice Springs, next to a town camp, also named Little Sisters, which could sometimes become extremely rowdy. On occasion, when one of the radio announcers failed to turn up, Freda would grab her teenage son Warwick to fill in. This experience later formed the basis of Warwick’s award-winning short, Green Bush (2005).

The old convent also accommodated the CAAMA video unit, audio-visual library, administrative offices and other facilities. In 1984, a recording studio was constructed next to the convent and a recording label, CAAMA Music, created. Within three years the label had grown into a substantial business, selling more than 30,000 cassettes and CDs annually, from a catalogue of some 40 albums. The recording studio was managed by music producer Bill Davis, working with Aboriginal trainees including Mark Manolis who later found work in the recording industry. Bill and his team later produced a series of award-winning radio programs for schools located in Aboriginal communities throughout the Northern Territory known as Bushfire Radio.

The launch of the 8KIN network and CAAMA Music label were far from the only undertakings initiated by CAAMA at this time. Our original bid to obtain access to the national satellite, AUSSAT, as outlined in CAAMA’s 1982 submission, took a new turn. In 1984, the federal government finally made a decision about who would have access to AUSSAT.

Briefly, Minister for Communications Michael Duffy decided that licences would only be granted to commercial television operators to provide services from the satellite. Further, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal would decide who was to be awarded these licences through a competitive process after public hearings. If anyone else wanted access to the satellite, they would have to negotiate with the successful licensees.

This meant that community-based bodies like CAAMA would have to beg these commercial operators for access with no guarantee of success. It seemed, at the time, as if we were completely locked out. There was however one small chink in this seemingly impenetrable armour. CAAMA could create its own commercial TV company and bid for one of the licences in its own right and thus obtain unfettered access. Indeed, one of the satellite’s service areas covered all of those towns and regions that CAAMA had always wished to reach.

This created a huge dilemma. CAAMA had no interest in operating a commercial TV service, but if it did not submit a licence application it would have no guaranteed access to the satellite. I remember having long, anxious discussions with Freda and the CAAMA committee about whether to apply for the licence. We would have to broadcast predominantly commercial television programming, yet CAAMA was established to counter such material. In short, we would be forced to sup with the devil. In the end, we decided to apply for the licence as there was no alternative. Although we did not know it at the time, this decision would lead, through a complex, painful route, to my departure from CAAMA, as well as Freda’s.

A communications consultant, Brian Walsh, was hired to co-ordinate the bid and a substantial two-volume application was eventually delivered by hand to the ABT’s Sydney office, less than an hour before applications closed in late December 1984. It contained proposals to broadcast a mix of community television programming, along with mandatory commercial material, catering to both the Aboriginal audience (then about 35% of the total), and non-Aboriginal viewers. We created, on paper, a television company, Imparja (meaning ‘track’ in the Arrernte language) to facilitate the bid. One small problem remained, however, CAAMA had no money to actually establish the service.

With the application securely lodged, we waited for the ABT to set a licence hearing date. In the meantime, Freda and I conducted a tour of Indigenous television satellite services in North America. Whilst in Canada, we visited the remote Arctic Circle where satellite technology had been delivering TV programming in the Inuit language for many years. Here, we were warmly welcomed by representatives of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation who offered to appear at the hearing (via satellite) in support our application. The insights gained during the trip eradicated any lingering doubts about our decision to apply for the satellite TV licence; it also gave us plenty of ammunition to present at the forthcoming hearings.

The first hearing was held on 6 August 1985 in Alice Springs. Two contenders had applied for the licence, CAAMA and the Darwin-based commercial TV station, Channel 8, which was acquired in the middle of the hearing by media magnet and Australia’s richest man, Kerry Packer. We had 24 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal witnesses to support our case, including eye surgeon, Fred Hollows; the former head of the reserve bank, H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs; Minister for Education in the South Australian government, Lynn Arnold, (later premier of that state); Rosemarie Kuptana, head of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (via satellite); and many Aboriginal community representatives.

While we were able to put forward a convincing case in terms of our Aboriginal programming and special audience needs, we did not of course have experience in operating a television station. More problematically, we had been unable to secure financial support, despite several funding submissions to the federal government. In sharp contrast, Channel 8 had the required funds and the technical experience. They planned to relay their existing commercial television material through the new satellite service, together with some local news, but there would be no programming for the substantial Aboriginal audience.

Freda and I held out little hope of winning the bid, in fact no one on our team did. We were therefore astonished when the ABT decided that neither CAAMA nor Channel 8 qualified for the licence and that another hearing would be called to decide the matter. In short, CAAMA had ‘impressive’ programming, but zero finance, while Channel 8 possessed the finance, but no Aboriginal programming. The next hearing was set down for 17 March 1986, giving both parties six months to re-boot their applications. As the communications academic Eric Michaels suggested, the ABT sent both applicants on a ‘treasure hunt’: ‘CAAMA had to come back with six million dollars’, while Channel 8 had ‘to find some Aboriginal content’.

With the real prospect of winning the licence, Freda, myself and other CAAMA staff (including ‘Shorty’ O’Neil, formerly of the North Queensland Land Council), organised an intensive round of new meetings with government funding bodies. In the end, we were able to obtain an undertaking that if CAAMA won the licence, the funds would be forthcoming, subject to ministerial approval. About 30% of this money was to come from the Australian Bicentennial Authority, which had been established to celebrate, in 1988, the 200th anniversary of European settlement in Australia. The Authority had substantial funding for ‘nationally focused’ Aboriginal projects and an Aboriginal-owned satellite television service appeared to fit the bill.

Some city-based Aboriginal groups protested against CAAMA accepting the bicentennial ‘blood money’ and, on several occasions, Freda fronted up to these groups to argue that all government funding to Aboriginal organisations could be described as ‘blood money’. Indeed, at a particularly hostile meeting, I remember thinking back to the first time I met Freda when she was confronted by the all-white Citizens for Civilised Living. On this occasion, it was an all-Aboriginal crowd she faced with the same bravery.

Following the second, tumultuous hearing, the ABT awarded the licence to CAAMA in August 1986, stating that ‘on balance’, CAAMA could provide a more ‘comprehensive’ service. Channel 8 had made some limited attempt to develop Aboriginal programming but it failed to impress the ABT. Miraculously, once we had secured the license, the funding bodies made good on their promise to provide the required $6 million funds. The decision produced a near hysterical response from the conservative Northern Territory Government. As recorded in Hansard, Chief Minister Ian Tuxworth thundered, ‘This is a joke … giving a television signal that covers one-third of the Australian continent to a group … that is incapable, incompetent and unfinancial (sic), is madness.’

Channel 8 launched an appeal against the decision, but that too failed. By the end of 1986, CAAMA was ready to build its own satellite service, Imparja Television.

* * *

Along with the licence came $3.5 million in promised funding to train over 30 Aboriginal ‘media cadets’ in association with the Australian Film Television and Radio School, to be coordinated by the School’s Julie Wiggins. Two of these trainees were Warwick Thornton and Rachel Perkins.

One could say that Warwick grew up with CAAMA. Indeed, Freda used to refer to him and his sister Erica as her ‘CAAMA babies’. As a 12-year-old, Warwick could often be found riding his BMX bike around the CAAMA radio studios, pestering his mother. As we have seen, his initial role at CAAMA was that of a ‘fill-in’ radio announcer, up until he had his own program. When he took up one of the new traineeships after the license victory, he received on-the-job training, using the CAAMA video unit’s new camera equipment. It was clear from the outset that he had a particularly acute ‘eye’ and aesthetic sensibility, which would lead him onto a successful career. Rachel Perkins had grown up in the southern cities, but she too had close ties with Central Australia. Her famous activist father, Charlie Perkins, was born in the region and, like Freda, had spent time as a child at the Bungalow home in Alice Springs. Rachel had quite different interests to Warwick. When I first met her, she was halfway through a Dostoevsky novel and already talking about films she planned to make. My immediate thought was, this young woman will go far.

With the training program underway, work began on the establishment of Imparja TV, and after a frantic 12 months or so, Imparja went to air on 15 January 1988. Rachel’s father, then head of the Aboriginal Development Commission, officially launched the station before a crowd of some 500 guests. In a subsequent press interview, Freda said: ‘After all the hard work, this is a proud moment for our mob.’

And, indeed, it was.

During the first 18 months of Imparja’s on-air operations, we lived up to our promise to broadcast a mix of Aboriginal programming and commercial fare. Using Imparja TV’s production studios, the CAAMA Video Unit produced two weekly programs: Urrpeye (Messenger), a current affairs show, and Nganampa Anwernekenhe (Ours), presented in three Aboriginal languages (Arrernte, Pitjantjatjara and Warlpiri), focusing on news and events in local Aboriginal communities. The Unit also produced a number of short segments on Aboriginal health, welfare services, legal aid, nutrition and child care that were broadcast throughout all Imparja programming. Further, the 8KIN network could now be heard right across the Northern Territory and South Australia via Imparja’s satellite signal.

Unfortunately, by the end of 1990, a serious internal argument had arisen within CAAMA concerning the operations of Imparja TV. Briefly, as the service developed, it came under pressure to maximise its commercial income. This had an increasingly detrimental effect on the production of Aboriginal programming. For example, more priority was given to the production of local advertisements on equipment originally purchased through funds intended for the creation of Aboriginal programming. Freda and I insisted that Imparja should remain true to its original intentions of providing quality Aboriginal programming, along with the commercial fare. This, we argued, was the reason we had won the license. Our opponents claimed, however, that as Imparja was licensed as a commercial television station, commercial considerations should take priority.

When the dispute was finally presented to members of the CAAMA committee, they failed to support us, leading to our eventual resignations. Only later did we discover that senior government figures had surreptitiously communicated with committee members recommending our removal. They were apparently concerned that our actions could lead to the collapse of Imparja and a major embarrassment for the government.

While this is not the place to analyse the events surrounding our departure, one thing is clear, after we left, locally made Aboriginal programming on Imparja eventually disappeared and what had been hailed as a ‘flagship of Aboriginal culture’, became a very basic commercial TV station. This was a great tragedy, given the enormous potential Imparja had for delivering targeted programming to Indigenous communities. Nonetheless, there were several positive outcomes from this debacle: some of the annual profits from Imparja funded other CAAMA projects; the $3.5 million for CAAMA’s training program would not have been made available if we had failed to win Imparja’s license, and the basic fact that CAAMA owned a satellite service set a precedent for similar services in the future.

Setting aside Imparja, less than eight years after the first tentative moves to establish CAAMA, the organisation was operating a radio network (8KIN-FM) that could be heard over a third of the Australian continent; a video and television production company (CAAMA Productions); a music recording and distribution business (CAAMA Music); and three retail outlets (CAAMA Shops). Furthermore, the immense video, audio and musical archive produced by CAAMA over this decade now constitutes a national treasure house of Indigenous culture, history and heritage that has continued to expand.

We were also engaged in a major training program that would eventually produce a generation of young Indigenous people who would go on to form the bedrock of today’s Indigenous media culture in Australia. Indeed, former trainees and employees of CAAMA can be found throughout Australia’s broadcasting and film world. Moreover, following CAAMA’s example, over a hundred other independent Aboriginal media and broadcasting services have emerged across Australia, which set the stage for the launch of the Indigenous Community Television network (ICTV) and the National Indigenous Television network (NITV), both of which now provide programming for remote Aboriginal communities and a national audience.

Working with Freda and many other people on these developments had been a wild and incredibly productive journey that achieved outcomes we could never have imagined possible. For Freda – born on a remote station and transferred in an egg carton to Alice Springs as a baby – these achievements are even more outstanding. I will always cherish these years spent with Freda and our enduring friendship.




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Cinema Reborn would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.