Stephen Jodrell, “Tudawali” (1988)
Made as a TV movie, “Tudawali” shines a light on the Australia’s first major indigenous film star Robert Tudawali, played outstandingly by Ernie Dingo. Although the action doesn’t appear in chronological order and jumps from the present to the past and back to the present, viewers will get a sense of the alienation and bewilderment of someone like Tudawali, plucked from obscurity and made famous by a film that captures people’s imaginations, and who then spends the rest of his life caught up in a clash of cultures and their respective values, and ultimately paying the price. Tudawali struggles with the reality of poverty, lack of hope and dependence on alcohol in his Darwin community, and the allure and promise of the material wealth of Sydney where he frequently goes to make films and TV shows that provide him with the money that he splashes out on presents for his family and on drink.
Much of Tudawali’s story appears in flashback but the old cinematic trick in the past of playing a character’s demise near its start and then cutting back to it throughout the film helps to anchor what would otherwise confuse viewers. The result is that what we learn about Tudawali’s life is episodic and fragmented, starting with his lead male role in Charles Chauvel’s melodrama “Jedda” and continuing all the way to his early death at age 40 from severe burns in a fire in 1967. We hardly see anything of Tudawali’s visits to Sydney and what he actually does there, we only see his wife’s jealousy and the fights and squabbles the couple has over his trips away from home. We see the effect of tuberculosis on both Tudawali and his missus, and how TB could have hastened the actor’s early death.
Tudawali’s encounters with a racist white Australia that is at once happy to embrace him but at the same time treat him and his people in a patronising and cavalier manner are well delineated. He is fortunate to be friends with sympathetic white journalist Harry and others who care for him and his young family even though several of them speak and act in the language of colonialists. Yes, Tudawali makes many mistakes and wastes his money, and the realisation that he and other Aboriginal people are being exploited financially comes late in life. He appears unable to see that the life and wealth that beckon him in Sydney can be destructive of his health and his relationship with his family and his people. When eventually he does hop on board an Aboriginal activist movement, curious things start to happen leading to his accident in the fire that ultimately causes his death which convince Harry that there are people who want to get rid of Tudawali as his previous fame would sway white Australians to sympathise with the plight of the country’s indigenous peoples.
Ernie Dingo’s performance as the mostly happy-go-happy but also troubled Tudawali is excellent and he is backed by a solid cast. I must confess I had only ever considered Dingo as a TV personality and did not realise he was capable of great emotional range as an actor. Snippets of old film are inserted into the movie to convey something of the flavour of films and film-making from the 1950s. Jodrell and his crew must be commended for recreating 1930s – 1950s Australian society in all its insularity, insecurity and complex attitudes towards Aboriginal peoples.
If only the film had a bigger budget so it could have been a more structured biopic that extends its reach to the burgeoning civil rights movement in late 1960s Australia and the way in which Western materialism seduces Tudawali and leads him into a self-destructive path. “Tudawali” could have been a great film making Dingo an international star.