Six essential things to watch for NAIDOC Week 2021

We're spoilt for choice with all the great Indigenous-created content on TV, but these titles across Netflix, NITV, SBS, ABC and Stan are essential.

The theme of NAIDOC Week 2021 (4 – 11 July) is ‘Heal Country!’ – calling for stronger measures to recognise, protect, and maintain all aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage. Celebrations are held across Australia each July, and invite participation from Australians of all walks of life.

Watching First Nations made and themed television content is one easy and meaningful way to participate. Here’s a very personal list of six things to watch, as well as some other suggestions at the end. Join the conversation on social media by using the hashtags #NAIDOC2021 and #HealCountry.

1. Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra (ABC TV, Tuesday 6 July, 8:30pm, then iView)

This new documentary directed by Nell Minchin and Wayne Blair is an absolute must-see if you didn’t catch its recent cinema run. Celebrating 30 years of Bangarra Dance Theatre, the groundbreaking Indigenous dance company, the film tells the story of the three Aboriginal brothers — Stephen, David and Russell Page — who turned the newly born dance group into a First Nations cultural powerhouse.

Reviewing the film when it premiered at the 2020 Brisbane International Film Festival, Sarah Ward said: ‘Blair and Minchin smartly recognise that Bangarra’s story and importance is something that needs to be experienced rather than merely discussed. That’s true not only in its historical overview and personal tribute, but in the vivid, moving and engaging doco’s healthy smattering of performance clips — all of which should have viewers who haven’t experienced Bangarra’s work in-person clamouring to buy tickets.’

2. My Name is Gulpilil (ABC TV, Sunday 11 July, 8:30pm, then iView)

Another essential TV premiere, this documentary directed by Molly Reynolds and co-produced by David Gulpilil, also comes fresh from cinemas. In his final film, the iconic Australian actor faces his extraordinary, dizzying past and, stares down death and his own mortal future. Co-produced by Gulpilil’s frequent collaborators, Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, this is a portrait of a man who changed Australian screen representation forever.

Read: Film Review: My Name is Gulpilil captures the legacy of a star

3. History Bites Back (NITV and SBS Viceland, Sunday 11 July, 8:30pm and then SBS on Demand)

This new one-hour comedy history special is the Aboriginal answer to Horrible Histories. Filmmaker and actor Trisha Morton-Thomas (Destiny Does Alice, Occupation: Native) teams up again with comedy director/writer, Craig Anderson (Black Comedy, Occupation: Native), and talent including Steven Oliver and Elaine Crombie, to bite back at negative social media comments about Aboriginal history.

With a light touch, but palpable anger, they steer the conversation onto the historical context of the misfortunes of Aboriginal Australians in areas such as social security, citizenship and equal wages, as well as nuclear bombs and civil actions. It’s a pretty good primer to watch for your own education or with your tween+ kids.

4. The Sapphires (Netflix)

The feelgood musical film that broke out big in 2012 is worth a revisit. Based on a true story, it’s set in 1968 and follows four young, talented Australian Aboriginal girls who learn about love, friendship and war when their all-girl group ‘The Sapphires’ entertains the US troops in Vietnam. Starring Deborah Mailman, Chris O’Dowd, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens, this was a film that kick-started and powered up some important careers. Directed by Wayne Blair, shot by Warwick Thornton, and adapted from the stageplay by Tony Briggs, it’s the perfect film for an upbeat NAIDOC night.

5. Mad Bastards (Netflix)

Brendan Fletcher’s debut feature screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and it’s moving, emotionally satisfying film about contemporary Aboriginal masculinity and fatherhood. (It was recently announced that Fletcher is making Firebite, an Indigenous Vampire series with Warwick Thornton for AMC.) Mad Bastards stars Dean Daley-Jones as a tough man out of jail seeking to reconnect with his son. The film features a killer track from the Pigram Brothers (one of my personal fave soundtrack albums) who also produce the film with David Jowsey.

6. Cleverman (Stan, from 8 July)

This critically acclaimed Indigenous sci-fi drama first premiered on ABC in 2016 but it’s coming to Stan during NAIDOC week. Directed by Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell (The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson) the series is set in the future where it reimagines several stories of the Aboriginal Dreamtime in a modern superheroic context, touching on themes of racism, asylum seeking and border protection. The great cast includes Hunter Page-Lochard, Rob Collins, Deb Mailman, Frances O’Connor and Ryan Corr. 

Looking for more NAIDOC Week viewing?

Here’s a list of Indigenous films and shows that will be available on streaming services during NAIDOC week 2021:

ABC

  • Total Control 
  • Black Comedy
  • The Australian Dream
  • My Name is Gulpilil 
  • In My Blood It Runs 
  • Mabo 

SBS & NITV

  • Jedda
  • Toomelah 
  • Robbie Hood
  • Samson & Delilah 
  • Who Do You Think Your Are? Uncle Jack Charles 
  • Little J and Big Cuz

Netflix

  • Beneath Clouds
  • In My Blood it Runs
  • Goldstone
  • Yolngu Boy
  • Our Law
  • Stan
  • Mystery Road
  • Redfern Now
  • The Final Quarter
  • Sweet Country

Visit NAIDOC Week for more ideas and information.       

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram