"Redfern Now"

Bringing indigenous issues to the fore: Season two of Redfern Now is in production. Photo: Supplied

As Ivan Sen's new feature film, Mystery Road, takes centre stage on Wednesday as the opening night film at the 60th Sydney Film Festival, it's timely to reflect on the rise of indigenous filmmaking in this country.

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When I began my career in film and television in the 1970s, a white (English) man played the central Aboriginal character in the TV series Boney. Films such as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Walkabout and The Last Wave, ostensibly Aboriginal stories, had white directors (Fred Schepisi, Nicolas Roeg and Peter Weir).

This year, Aboriginal director Wayne Blair's The Sapphires continues to roll out to record crowds around the world. Here in Australia, we will see series two of Redfern Now and another prime-time Aboriginal drama series, The Gods of Wheat Street on ABC TV. Feature length films such as Catriona McKenzie's Satellite Boy and Warwick Thornton's The Dark Side, along with Sen's Mystery Road, mean we can confidently say, within a generation, Australian indigenous filmmakers have become a force to be reckoned with worldwide.

More profoundly, Aboriginal writers, directors, producers and actors are now firmly at the heart of contemporary screen practice. They are using film and television to document their cultures, promote social change and entertain and these productions are now mainstream.

Filmmakers such as Blair, Thornton, Sen, Rachel Perkins, Darren Dale and their creative collaborators have repositioned the on-screen presence of indigenous characters, taking them from peripheral to central roles.

Why is it that Australian indigenous stories are being so well received in Australia and on the world stage? What is it that makes their work distinctive and rich? What sets it apart?

The Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) journal Lumina took an in-depth look at these questions in a series of essays by Australian writers and filmmakers.

It noted the rise in appreciation we are witnessing began to bubble up in 2005 - a watershed year for Australian indigenous filmmaking that began with Beck Cole's Plains Empty, Thornton's Green Bush and Tom Murray and Allan Collins' Dhakiyarr vs the King screening at the Sundance Film Festival.

This was followed by Green Bush and Wayne Blair's The Djarn Djarns winning the Panorama Short Film Award and the Kinderfest Crystal Bear, respectively, at the Berlin International Film Festival. Then Sen's Yellow Fella was accepted into Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, thus completing a string of international achievements that well and truly heralded the arrival of Australian indigenous film on the world stage.

In 2007, Sally Riley, then head of the indigenous branch of the Australian Film Commission, wrote: ''We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. I was asked recently when indigenous filmmakers would become mainstream. ''Mainstream'' implied feature films. Of course, there have been several features made over the years: Tracey Moffatt's Bedevil (1993), Rachel Perkins' Radiance (1998) and Ivan Sen's Beneath Clouds (2002). To develop a sustained series of features is a long- term process involving substantial script development, finance and production.

''I'm confident we will see the films rolling out in the next couple of years. Warwick Thornton, Beck Cole, Wayne Blair and Romaine Moreton … have been funded for feature film script development.''

Since then, we have seen feature films thrive in the ''mainstream'', from Thornton's Samson and Delilah to Perkins' Bran Nue Dae and Blair's The Sapphires.

At the same time, ''mainstream'' indigenous television content is on the rise with documentaries and dramas such as First Australians, Mabo and Redfern Now lighting up living rooms across the nation and rating in big numbers.

The development of Australian indigenous screen practice has not been an overnight success. It is the culmination of decades of groundwork by countless individuals and a range of organisations, with various state funding bodies, government film agencies, indigenous media associations, the ABC and SBS and training institutions such as AFTRS all playing a role.

The creation of programs specifically to develop indigenous filmmaking talent - including the establishment of the then Australian Film Commission's indigenous branch and SBS and ABC indigenous units in the late 1980s and a significant funding boost to indigenous training programs at AFTRS - have been supported by governments at both state and federal levels.

This support is unprecedented anywhere else in the world and we, the audience, are all the better for it.

Sandra Levy is chief executive of the Australian Film Television and Radio School and editor of Lumina.