Tetra Tech International Development_First Nations

First Nations storytelling across generations: six films by Indigenous Australian writers and directors


The 2023 NAIDOC Week theme For Our Elders shares that ‘across every generation, our Elders have played, and continue to play, an important role and hold a prominent place in our communities and families.’

Celebrating First Nations’ stories of history, culture, Country, and survival

‘We draw strength from their knowledge and experience, in everything from land management, cultural knowledge to justice and human rights. Across multiple sectors like health, education, the arts, politics and everything in between, they have set the many courses we follow.’ – NAIDOC Org

The significance of First Nations storytelling

As the primary way in which history has been recorded[i], storytelling is at the heart of indigenous culture.

Lisa Erlandson explains that through the cycle of life, once an Elder has passed, the information and knowledge they held is gone forever – unless we embed the value of learning into babies and kids when they are young. This allows them to grow up and appreciate the value of our culture and to know how privileged they are to hold such significant information that has been passed down from the Elders who learnt from their ancestors.

‘That’s why Aboriginal people have such a strong connection within the kinship system. Because we ensure that we not only share knowledge to one child, it’s shared with the extended families. This ensures that the information is passed down, keeping our culture healthy and alive.’

Lisa explains that Aboriginal people have protocols, law (lore) and responsibilities. Even as a young child this involves listening, learning, and observing information. Weather storytelling is translated into paintings, singing, dancing, hunting, or drawing in the sand to communicate what has been done for thousands of years.

The importance of passing knowledge down

Another reason it’s important for stories to be passed down to the younger generation is because the land has many sacred places across Australia – including waterholes, trees, and objects that need to be protected, maintained, and guided to ensure no harm is done.

‘A lot is changing in Australia’s legislation for Aboriginal people and their sacred areas, it’s important to share with non-indigenous people so they are aware of the consequences that may occur when going to sacred places.’

Sharing through songs, dance, and art

Lisa says that at a young age, when participating in ceremonies, you are to be taught to sing and dance from your Elders. They usually participate beside you, guiding you to ensure you are doing it properly.

‘It is up to the younger generation to take the lead, to listen and continue to share stories of one the longest living cultures in the world.’

Within the international development practice, through our Innovate Reconciliation Action Plan, Tetra Tech is committed to ongoing learning, celebration, and integration  of the wisdom and lived experience of Indigenous Australians.

‘Indigenous Australians seem to have done something that hasn’t been achieved elsewhere in the world: telling stories for 10,000 years.’ – Nicholas Reid, 2015

We recognise the Traditional Custodians of Country, and their unique connection to their lands and waters, language, law, kinship and ceremony. In advancing climate outcomes across the Indo Pacific region, considered the most vulnerable to climate change – we acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are the oldest continuous living culture on Earth and have been custodians of the land for millennia.

Six First Nations Australian movies

These acclaimed films tell stories of First Nations Australians spanning multiple generations.

Mabo (2012) – Directed by Rachel Perkins and written by Sue Smith

First Nations Film_Mabo
Still from Mabo Trailer (2012) sourced via Youtube

‘Land is our mother. It’s the source of our identity and culture. We can’t let them take it away from us. – Eddie Mabo

This iconic biographical drama explores the life of Torres Strait Islander and Indigenous land rights activist Eddie Koiki Mabo, who spearheaded the High Court legal case that overthrew the fiction of terra nullius – recognising connection to country and native title in Australia.

Watch on ABC iView

Sweet As (2022) – Directed by Jub Clerc, written by Jub Clerc and Steve Rodgers

First Nations Film_Sweet As
Image: Shantae Barnes-Cowan in Sweet As, photography by Nic Duncan via Cinema Australia

‘It’s a little bit surreal after 10 long joyous years, that we get to see Sweet As take its first steps out into the world with such a robust reception. I’m so proud and eternally grateful to everyone that came on board with open hearts to make this experience so special and memorable. – Jub Clerc, Sweet As writer/director.

This coming-of-age drama premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August 2023. The film follows 16-year-old Murra, an Aboriginal Australian girl who, on the verge of self-destruction, finds a new lease on life through a photography retreat for at-risk youth. Jub Clerc was the first Indigenous filmmaker recipient of Screenwest’s West Coast Visions initiative in 2018 and the first all-female creative team with producer Liz Kearney.

Watch now in selected cinemas

Shiny One (2021) – Directed by Viviana Petyarre

First Nations Film_Shiny One
Image by Shiny One (2021) sourced via Flickerfest

Viviana Petyarre is an Alyawarre filmmaker from Utopia in the Northern Territory. Her latest film Shiny One (2021) is about a young man’s dreams of escaping his bush community and finding riches, but soon learns that wealth comes in in many forms.

Viviana’s previous work includes Utopia Generations (2019) and Heaven’s Bridge (2019) drawing on cultural heritage and the community she lives in, in Alice Springs. Her work is screened on NITV, SBS on Demand and ICTV.

Watch now

Spear (2015) – Directed by Stephen Page and written by Justin Monjo and Stephen Page

First Nations Film_Spear
Still from Spear (2015) sourced via Youtube

The land remembers, and so do we.’  – Spear Narrator

This visually striking film combines dance and storytelling to explore Indigenous identity, spirituality, and the connection to country. A young man reconciles ancient tradition with the modern world.

Stream via SBS on Demand

The New Boy (2023) – Directed by Warwick Thornton

First Nations Film_The New Boy
Still from The New Boy (2023) sourced via Youtube

Writing from the truth that’s inside you is a really powerful place to write.– Warwick Thornton

The story of a nine-year-old Aboriginal boy and orphan. Set in 1940 Australia, he arrives in the dead of night at a remote monastery run by a renegade nun (played by Cate Blanchett). His presence disturbs the delicately balanced world, telling a story of spiritual struggle and the cost of survival.

Watch in Cinemas now

Samson and Delilah (2009) – Written and directed by Arrernte filmmaker Warwick Thornton

First Nations Film_Samson and Delilah
Still from Samson and Delilah (2009) sourced via Youtube

‘We’ll find a place where we can be happy, yeah? Somewhere far away, where no one can touch us.’ – Delilah

Sampson and Delilah set out on a road trip to Alice Springs in search of a peaceful live. This acclaimed drama tells the story of two Indigenous teenagers who find solace and strength in each other as they face the challenges of life in a remote community.

Stream via SBS, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple TV

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