Image: Michelle Aleksandrovics Lovegrove
Reflections from the Wrong Side of the Road, and I think we are still on it!
By Nicola Butler
Wrong Side of the Road was one of the first major feature films about urban Aboriginal culture. The film was the first Australian initiative to chronicle the experiences of Aboriginal people from our own perspective and won the Jury Prize at the AFI Awards in 1981.
On Friday the 14th June 2013, Wrong Side of the Road, fully re-digitised, featured as part of the Sydney Film Festival in partnership with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) at the Event Cinemas in George Street, New South Wales with some of the original cast and crew attending for a reunion of sorts.
“Roads, rock and racism!” said the Sydney Film Festival media wrap-up, “this iconic ’80s film, hailed as a game changer, has been brought back to life frame by painstaking frame. The soundtrack, in all its reggae-infused glory, has been restored to the filmmaker’s original vision.”
The film follows two days in the lives of Aboriginal bands Us Mob and No Fixed Address, as they trek from Port Adelaide to Point Pearce in South Australia.
The co-writers and band members – Bart Willoughby, Chris Jones, John Miller, Veronica Rankine, Ronnie Ansell, Peter ‘Pedro’ Butler and Wally McArthur – played themselves.
The story was based on their real-life experiences and those of our community.
In terms of genre Us Mob favoured hard rock, No Fixed Address prefered a Jamaican reggae beat.
This uncompromising film and its empowering music is as fresh and relevant today as it was 32 years ago.
These were two of the first Aboriginal bands to be writing in a contemporary style about their own lives and playing to a wide audience, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.
Tough and uncompromising they represented Aboriginal dignity, pride and culture, and showed the closeness and resilience of our Aboriginal and Islander (Including the Torres Strait) families and communities.
‘Possesses a rough-edged power and no-holds-barred narrative that combines to make the movie compelling viewing’ – Rolling Stone
Port Adelaide to Point Pearce. Cars, cops, cattle stations and driving rock and reggae. Two days in the lives of Aboriginal bands, US MOB and NO FIXED ADDRESS, that’s how they describe the film on the video cover, in reality, apart from the excitement of filming, it was just the way things were.
A pretty close and truthful account of what was happening in our families and communities at the time.
I was only 7 years old when my cousin Peter ‘Pedro’ Butler was attending the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) along with my dad Randall Butler and many others that fill my mind when I think about the life that surrounded me at that young age.
It was a very exciting time and one filled with many memories, all that have stayed with me until this day and actually followed me through much of my life as I began and continue my own journey of purpose.
During the filming, I remember waking up on many mornings to a house full of cast and crew, so many friends and family. My mum Sue was always cooking for a host of thousands, well 30 but to a seven year old it felt like there were always hundreds of people at our house in Galway Avenue, Netley back in the day.
My Mum Sue recalls the telephone call Pedro made the night before it all turned to mayhem and madness, “Pedro rang and asked me if he could come and stay with one other fulla, the driver of the van, I said of course. The next morning when we got out of bed there were 30 or 40 people crashed out on the lounge room floor” she said laughing
I remember sitting in the lounge, talking flat out, they called me ‘chatterbox’ back then because I never stopped talking. I will never forget those days Wally McArthur RIP, Tiga Bayles, Andy Kiwat, Ronnie Ansell RIP, Bart Willoughby and my cousins Peter, Mark and Johnny (The original John Butler Trio we call them!), Margaret Brodie, Veronica Rankine RIP, Sonja Arnold and Judith Hardie RIP, they were all there at Mum and Dad’s place, all the band equipment in the lounge and bodies strewn across the floor!
It was a fun time for a small person, lots of excitement and never a dull moment.
My seven year old reality was in stark contrast to the racism and situations faced by the cast and crew at the time and the messages they were portraying in the film, these were and continue to be the experience of many Aboriginal and Islander people – many of whom devoted their lives to trying to turn the tides of culturacide, many who are still working hard at it but are yet to see any real positive change – the life we shared was one of respect and community, we were all family and we stuck together, at least that’s what it felt like to me.
Watching this film brings tears to my eyes every single time, it brings back memories of happy days and people I love and people I missed and some we will never get to see again in this lifetime. It reminds me of a time when my own father was young and creative and full of some kind of optimistic hope.
This film means so much too so many people here in Adelaide and in fact right across Australia, and I remember being at the opening night here in Adelaide and the drama that followed.
Wrong Side of the Road opens with scenes of police breaking up a performance of the two groups, arresting a band member and his subsequent escape from a police vehicle. It continues with run-ins between the musicians and the establishment.
The racism encountered when the bands turn up at a gig and the white hotel manager discovers they are black, the insensitivity of the police and bureaucrats, and the difficulties in tracing one’s family after being adopted out highlighting the impacts and ongoing effects of the Stolen Generations, reflecting the problems encountered by many Aboriginal people.
The story has not changed, in 2013 there are still so many people who are yet to find their families.
Wrong Side of the Road was instrumental in revealing the injustices Aboriginal people constantly face and as I just mentioned continue to face, in this land many call the ‘lucky country’.
Ned Landers talked about the common theme that runs through Wrong Side of the Road, and that is the story played by Les Graham in the film, of a boy looking for his mother, in an interview with ‘The Aboriginal’ back in 2000.
“We constructed the script out of life stories that we recorded from members of the bands, and people around the bands and at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music.” Said Ned
“They weren’t necessarily playing themselves — Les was in fact playing someone else’s story in the film.” He said “It was about a kid who had been taken away from his family, and in fact right through the seventies that was still happening.” He said
“There was many ways that those sorts of situations came about, obviously there were instances of kids being forcibly removed from parents, and also instances of kids being removed for a whole range of other reasons. But always with the same consequence, which was the fragmentation of family, and the dislocation of family, and of kids trying to reconnect with both their blood family and their broader community.”
That ‘kid who had been taken away’ that Ned is talking about turned out to be one of my own family members, part of my own extended familial kinship ties.
When you look closely in the here and now, the significance of the Stolen Generations and the way the government continues to deliberately divide and conquer through tactics embedded in poor government policies, those deliberate intention which have now become part of the whole public debate place Us Mob and No Fixed Address way ahead of their time because in those days it wasn’t public knowledge or part of the dialogue but that is exactly what their story was all about.
It is disappointing to realise that much has not changed and we are still fighting for the same equality that the wrong side of the road highlighted all those years ago.
It will be interesting when I follow up the journey and stories of the people who are still with us today and find out just how much their lives have been affected by the impacts of lateral violence and racism and to see if they feel things have changed from their initial intended message back in the 1980’s.