In ‘The Australia Wars’, Filmmaker Rachel Perkins Wants Us To Own ‘Australian’ Violence

"In their first fight for the nation, so-called Australians were not the brave underdogs, but a brutal, exploitive invading force fighting for ownership of land that was not theirs to take."

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Arrernte and Kalkadoon filmmaker Rachel Perkins was always reluctant to pursue her project about so-called Australia’s first wars, yet with The Australia Wars, Perkins breaks down the bloody battles that formed this nation, and have always been right in front of us.

There are many euphemisms for the guerilla warfare, battles and massacres that were enacted by the colonists against First Nations peoples during the “founding” of the nation. The Frontier Wars, Pioneer Wars, First Wars — all of them refer to the fight between Aboriginal people and European colonisers that raged from the late 1700s to the mid-1900s.

That period of resistance and bloodshed has never had an official name, but Perkins’ decision to call the series, The Australia Wars is one rooted in inclusion and accountability.

“Right towards the end of it, actually, I decided to change the title to The Australia Wars because it was called First Wars initially,” she explains. “Frontier Wars, Colonial Wars, Guerrilla war, etc — it should go into our vernacular as something that we understand and something that we own, you know? To understand that this is what founded the modern Australian state.”

General awareness and investigation into Aboriginal resistance to the first colonisers’ attempts at genocide have been increasing over the years. The popular podcast, The Frontier Wars is ongoing and continues to shed light on various sites, battles, and key figures during this time.

The University of Newcastle has also shared groundbreaking research into the massacres committed by settler colonialists, including an interactive map of various locations where these massacres occurred. Most recently, their research concluded that the majority of the hunting down and murdering of Aboriginal people was enacted by civilian settlers.

The casual nature, and even encouraged game-like attitudes toward ‘hunting natives’ that Perkins discovers in newspapers, postcards and letters between colonialists is among the series’ most harrowing revelations.

“I hope other people watch this and realise that, genocide or attempted genocide, it had to be perpetrated by people.”

“It wasn’t this nebulous thing that just sort of happened like the weather. It was this thing that was very much fought for and fought against and that’s complicated and bloody and awful, but it should be in the very least recognised if we ever hope to have things like a treaty one day.”

For many First Nations people on this continent, the wars that were fought in an attempt to claim “Australia” are far from new information. They are first-hand accounts passed down through generations; tales of resilience and resistance that, for many of us Blakfellas, are the only reason we’re here at all.

Perkins’ family history is no exception. In fact, her familial connection to ‘The Australia Wars’ is one of the many reasons she’d been reluctant to pursue her exploration of the frontier.

“I really felt like it was going to be more important for me than any other show or film I could make,” Perkins told me over Zoom. “It’s painful material, but it is an incredible story. People are fighting for their livelihoods, their land, their life. It’s also a story that I think the country really needs to digest, you know, and have presented to them.”

“So as much as I didn’t really want to do it, it was the thing I’m most wanted to do. Isn’t that a total contradiction?” she says. “You sort of do what you think you need to do, even though you don’t necessarily want to do it.”

Why Everyone Needs To Talk About The Australia Wars

The myth of Australian identity, at least as it was forged in battle, is so often tied to the story of the ANZACs. The failed World War 1 mission is taught in schools, immortalised in history books and commemorated during ceremonies as the moment Australia carved out what’s often called its “spirit,” owing to the great courage shown by the men doomed to die in Gallipoli on April 25th, 1915.

Rachel Perkins’ The Australia Wars proposes this nation’s identity was created in bloody battles conducted well over 100 years before the ANZACs were even born. The fight for the country’s soil and its “ownership” was fought by Australian settlers, convicts, and the First Nations peoples.

“I wanted all people to watch it because it’s a story that belongs to all of us, you know, because it’s about our country that we share,” Perkins says, emphasising the implications of the Frontier Wars’ legacy with all viewers, not only First Nations ones.

“I wanted to have an inclusive approach because in all warfare there are always victims on all sides. The British Empire — the upper classes — used convicts as their equivalent of fodder, and they were in a way bought here without a choice and thrown into this sort of battle. You know, the impoverished criminal classes were thrown into this war, whether they liked it or not. And this story deserves to be told as well.”

“I included white Australians as well. Otherwise, I would be doing what’s been done to us which is erasing their history,” Perkins says.

The Impact Of The Frontier On First Nations Women

Warfare is never just fought on the frontlines and The Australia Wars were no exception. In her series, Perkins takes the time to investigate how the war against this land’s custodians impacted Aboriginal women.

“There is a lot of emphasis put on people who were fighting at the front. And you can understand that. But there’s all sort of devastation that happens on the edges of that, and the thing that really defined this war in many ways was the sexual exploitation and abuse that went with it,” Perkins explains.

“At one point we focus on the women who are sitting at the feet of the Native Police as their sort of ‘wives’,” says Perkins, darkly. “We were desperately trying to cut it down to get it to length … and someone says to me, ‘I’ll get rid of that’. And I was like, well, you can’t get rid of that, because actually, you know, there was a huge impact on Aboriginal women because of the native police and that’s the women’s side of the story … why shouldn’t we have that in it?”

During the process of creating the series, Perkins discovered a recording of her own grandmother, Hattie Perkins, who survived the infamous Blackfellow’s Bones’ massacre.  The recording was made in the 1970s.

“The exploitation of women was so much a part of the frontier. It was often the first thing that happened when colonists would arrive. So it’s embedded, and some of the stuff that is so tough to read.”

It’s Hard To Watch, But Harder To Ignore

Throughout The Australia Wars series; historians, descendants, archivists, and activists share their connection and knowledge of the frontier wars that birthed the colony. Alongside these accounts, Perkins and her team filmed ferociously realistic re-enactments of the period — mainly using a handheld camera to lend a compellingly present vision of the bloodstained past that leaves little to the imagination.

“It makes you see what it might be like to be at the governor’s table and, you know, be Bennelong in shackles. It just it allows you to recreate things that perhaps people can only imagine,” Perkins says, explaining why the re-enactments were so important for her to include.

“Rather than just sort of showing what happened, we tried to sort of go, well, what’s the emotional turning point in here? Or what were the characters’ feeling? What’s that moment?”

High production value notwithstanding, there are undoubtedly many who would avoid Perkins’ series because of its confronting subject matter. But Perkins hopes viewers draw inspiration and determination from their reaction.

“People have said to me, well, you know, this material is very upsetting. And I agree it is upsetting. It demands tears. You know, I think if I haven’t moved people in making this presenting this material, then, I will have failed.” But Perkins doesn’t wish for viewers to merely despair over the truth The Australian Wars brings to light.

“I think that it’s a subject that can be inspiring too, you know? We should feel inspired by the people who survived and kept their family safe and defended their country,” she continues. “Hopefully people will channel what they feel, whether it’s rage or distress or pride or whatever it is they feel. Hopefully, they feel something good and do something good with that energy.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Colonial Australia has almost always tied its identity to moments in history where it was the triumphant or tragic underdog. From the invasion of Papua New Guinea to Gallipoli’s beaches, the second World War, to Australia’s assistance in the USA’s invasion of Iraq — the colony has consistently made heroes from those who represented the nation in combat, regardless of whether that combat was right.

Arguably, nobody in the continent’s colonial history did this more aptly than those whose blood soaked the soil on which the state was built. Yet you will not see these battles commemorated in the Australian War memorial — an injustice Perkins acknowledges is a complex one.

“When the director of the War Memorial says to me that what I call the Australian Wars, Frontier Wars, the Colonial Wars should be at the museum, down the road, I feel I’m back in 1960s Australia,” adding, “I feel deeply troubled that the war that defined this country somehow shouldn’t be in that institution.”

In their first fight for the nation, so-called Australians were not the brave underdogs, but a brutal, exploitive invading force fighting for ownership of land that was not theirs to take. To commemorate these battles and those who fought them, State institutions would destroy the narrative that so-called Australia was founded in bloody, personal attempts at genocide.

This is perhaps why the very institutions that have stood to benefit from the Australia Wars do not acknowledge them. Indeed, should recognition from the State even be strived for by First Nations peoples? Perkins herself questions this.

“I feel like, well, why, why am I wanting for our people to be recognised in this institution? You know, why am I coming? Politely asking, can we please be in this place?”

She continues, “Well, if that is the national institution that acknowledges warfare, we have a right to be in that,” Perkins says. “We have to be in all places in society, you know, we have to be in parliament, we have to be in the war memorial. We have a rightful place in all of those institutions as First Nations people, and so does our history.”

At the end of the day, the greatest legacy of The Australia Wars is Australia, and, as Perkins says, the nation’s settlers and surviving First Nations peoples now share. Thus, their recognition is also the responsibility of all who benefitted from the carnage.

“I hope that they take away a lot of complicated feelings, but that ultimately they recognise that the war — this country didn’t go down without a fight, and it didn’t go down at all. There is still that resistance that persists.”

All episodes of The Australia Wars are streaming on SBS On Demand.