Australian Biography

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks - full interview transcript

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You were late starting at school, at nine years old, did it take long to catch up?

I think it's taken me all my life to catch up, so, yes.

What happened at school? How did you do with your lessons?

I think just getting the rudimentary things of reading, writing and arithmetic in place would have taken about three or four years. That's one thing in ... In Aboriginal culture, we really don't have the numeracy and of course we don't have the written language, so that was a brand new concept that we had to grasp. However we did grasp it and all our lives, including my brothers and myself, it's an ongoing thing. But then learning in general is ongoing. It's just that it did make you feel a bit awkward when, say you were in grade four, and your peer group, age group, were maybe up in first-year, second-year high. However, we managed.

So when you went to school, you went to school in the state school, with white children as well, how did the white children and the Aboriginal children relate to each other in those days?

Absolutely no worries at all, simply because the children were locals from Alice Springs and they'd grown up side-by-side with the Aboriginal children.

And was there anything that happened while you were at school that was particularly memorable for you?

No. Not really no.

Were the teachers good? Did you have good teaching?

I believe they were. I formed some attachment to a Mrs. Barrett. She was grade four-grade five teacher. There was young Mrs. Stilla, who came into our midst and we all thought she was gorgeous. Miss Lucas I remember. And of course Willa Stilla, one of the teachers there, and a Mr. Duffy. So we remembered them all so they do form a memory, I guess, for the rest of your life.

You'd been used to running fairly free. Did you find coming in and just having to sit still and do what you were told hard?

I suppose we did, you know, but I can't ... I can't kind of quite recall whether it was all that difficult. I guess during corroboree time we had to sit still too, so not really. Not that it left a. you know, bad impression on me.

Was it very regimented?

School?

Mmm.

Oh, I think it was the same as what it is today. Perhaps little children now have a bit more freedom in talking in class. We didn't. But not much different because I'd done religious instructions and gone in and talken about Aboriginal people and that, and Aboriginal culture, in schools. Not much difference, Robin.

Did you have religious instructions in those days?

Yes, indeed we did.

And what did you think of all of that? Was that the first time you'd come across the Christian religion?

Yes.

What ... how ... what impact did it make on you?

Very good impact, which has lasted a lifetime. The fact that, you know, there was God, and there was somebody responsible for us, yeah, it made a difference because our life, I think in the Aboriginal life it's spiritual. You've always got mythological beings that were responsible. So the concept of God, being God the father, and Jesus being the son, and our Lady, Virgin Mary, it ... it wasn't far-reached at all, so it was easily, easily adopted.

It didn't seem very different to you from what you'd already thought?

No.

Right.

It still doesn't. [INTERRUPTION]

Was there anything at school that made you stand out from the others? Nothing happened?

Nothing.

What about when the film crew came to the school?

They came to the hostel, and ...

Right. Let me ask you that question again. That's the answer I'm after. When you were at school, did anything happen to make your life a little bit different from everybody else's?

Oh, right. Yes. Not in ... not in the school sense, but Charles and Elsie Chauvel came. Can't even remember when it was, 1953, and picked me to play the lead in the ... in their feature-length film.

How did ... [INTERRUPTION]

While you were at school, was there anything that happened that was particularly memorable that affected you?

Yes, there was. A film-making couple, Charles and Elsie Chauvel, Australians, they chose me to play the lead opposite another Aboriginal person in a film, a feature-length film.

What was the film called?

Jedda.

And you had the title role?

Yes, I did.

Now how did that happen?

Well, I don't quite know, but it happened. They picked two girls from St. Mary's: Cecilie Huddleston and myself, and they also had another girl, Harriet, I think her name was, Harriet Perry from New South Wales. And they got us all together, put us in front of cameras, made us speak to the cameras. That was the first time we'd ever had anything ... us two St. Mary's girls anyway, had anything to do with things like that. And slowly the other girls went home and I was the sole person, Aboriginal-teenager person, left there. And I wasn't given a script or anything. I was just told to stay on and also to go off fattening foods, and that's how I got my lead in Jedda.

What do your think they were looking for? Did you ever find out later what it was about you that they liked?

I've got a feeling it was that I was the closest to a full-blood Aboriginal person in my mannerisms and in the way I behaved. That probably got me the role because I had to play opposite a full-blood Aboriginal person. And they were looking for a uniquely Aboriginal ... [INTERRUPTION]

What do you think it was about you that made them chose you over the others?

I think it was my Aboriginality, that I was closer to the traditional Aboriginal in my mannerism, in the way that I used custody of my eyes, not to kind of look point blank at people like I can now. And the fact that I didn't have well-groomed nails, or well-groomed hair or anything like that. I looked closer to the traditional Aboriginal person.

Were you surprised that they'd chosen you?

I don't think I was in a position to be surprised because I really did not have the comprehension of what it meant to be on celluloid, to be on film, because I didn't think that's ... well, if I did think at all, it certainly wasn't along the lines that I was going to be on screen. I truly did not have that comprehension.

Had you seen a film before that time?

I think I had. I'm not quite sure but I'm quite, somewhere at the back of my mind I'm sure Sister Eileen took us to see Joan of Arc, an old film, at the open-air theatre in Alice Springs. That might have been my only one.

What did you think was happening on the screen? What did you believe a film was?

Well I do ... I think that if I really look back and be quite truthful with myself, I was in a state of confusion, a state of trauma, and I really didn't want to ask questions about what I was doing there, or what they were going to do with me. I was quite literally petrified that I wasn't going to see my family, or my country again, because I was in a class of white people. Certainly there were other Aboriginal people there, but the other Aboriginal people did not have a relationship with me, because they did not belong to my tribal group, therefore, when I think about it, it still brings up a funny feeling of anxiety.

So you really didn't want to be chosen because it meant going away?

Not only going away, it was ... it was a state of being flung into a situation where you didn't have any control whatsoever about yourself, or about when you could go and hunt for the next goanna or ... or when you could go and get wild passionfruit and bury it into the ground. Because the trees up the top end, they're quite different to me and therefore I couldn't eat any of the traditional foods either. So it was ... if you could imagine, it was being lifted from somewhere familiar into the completely unknown, and then being told to do this and do that. It doesn't matter how nicely I was told, I still objected to the fact that I found myself in that situation when I had no power to say, 'I don't want to do this', which I didn't.

Did anybody ever explain to you properly what was actually happening to you, or did they just tell you, bit by bit, what was going on?

It was out of sequence. They just told me what I had to do for that particular day. It wasn't even for that particular week. And whenever, say, whenever I had to be in close proximity to the leading man, Bob Tudawali, I didn't like that because in my small mind it felt like they were trying to force Bob to have a relationship of some kind with me. Of course on screen he had to. But in my small way of thinking, it seemed, you know, it was wrong.

You really didn't understand what acting was?

I did not. I really didn't.

So where did you go to do the filming?

Well, first of all they flew us on a light plane. That was another new experience I hadn't flown before.

Did you enjoy that?

No, I was very sick. I was air sick. They flew us to a station west of Katherine, which is near the top end there - Coolibah Station, and that's where all the film crew were, and that's where they did a lot of the homestead shots, especially with Sarah McMahon and little Jedda. And that of course was all new to me and probably quite new to a lot of the other Aboriginal cast. And that's where we kind of tried to have some kind of relationship with the crew because we were going to be on the road together for almost a year. So that's where we started off there.

And where else did you film?

Throughout the Territory actually. From Coolibah I think we went to Katherine. Did the river scenes there, where we were on a raft. Then we went up to Darwin. That was the first place where I'd seen such an expanse of water, which was the sea.

You'd never seen the sea before?

No, I hadn't been away from central Australia at all.

What sort of impact did that make on you?

Well it looked like the horizon. Like the sky line and the ground line had all come together and all of a sudden the ground line was gone and the sky was lying on the ground. That was ... that was my true impression because of the beautiful blue sea: saw the land and then all of a sudden the land disappeared and it just became blue, and that was water. But in my ... as you could imagine, I hadn't seen that much water, so when somebody asked me what it looked like, my response was 'It looks like the sky lying on the ground', which is beautiful. [Laughs]

So were you excited by these new experiences, or were you too frightened to take them in probably?

No, I think the predominant thing in my mind was that I was sickly homesick. Sickly. So if you could imagine maybe being overseas and not knowing whether you are going to ever come back. That feeling of desolation and loneliness, all the time. That's what ... that's how I was. But nobody would believe me I was like that, but I was.

Who did you spend your time with?

Little Billy Ferrar, the one who played little half-caste Joe. We were fairly close when we were on the station, and he was a lot younger than myself. But he knew all the bush tuckers and all that up in that area, so he taught me all that. Mary Griffiths, who was the Aboriginal cook, a kind of minder of us younger ones. She was the other one. [INTERRUPTION]

So who did you spend your time with?

Billy Ferrar and Mary Griffith. Really there was no one else until we got further down south, and then a lot of the time I spent with Sue Chauvel, Mr. and Mrs. Chauvel's daughter.

Now where did you actually stay? Whose house did you stay in?

Whilst in Sydney?

Well all around, wherever you were travelling.

Well we were mostly in tents and I'd be with Mary, Mary Griffith, the Aboriginal cook, and, well she was the chaperone I guess.

Did she look after you well even though she wasn't from your tribe, from your background?

But she was a part-Aboriginal person therefore she didn't have any traditional - outward traditional thing, so it was the full-blood Aboriginal people that I was not relating well too because I didn't ... you know, we both were aware that we had a culture. Therefore I couldn't go up to a strange person and say, you know, 'I'm so and so', because that person happened to be a man. But with little Jedda's parents I did get on with because they had a family unit. That was May and Arthur Dingall. They had little Margaret and the little boy, little baby boy.

So you did have some people that you could go and get a little bit of comfort from when you were getting homesick?

Yes, if I wanted to cry or I wanted to complain about Mrs. Chauvel it was always Mary Griffith that I went to.

And why did you want to complain about Mrs. Chauvel?

Well Mrs. Chauvel, God bless her soul, was the taskmaster. And she had to get it done, but, to my small understanding, I couldn't take that. I used to think she was the bully-lady. But she had a job to do and she did it to the best of her ability. [INTERRUPTION]

How did you get on with Mrs. Chauvel?

Well, she was the force behind activating me, so we didn't get on really that well, and being a mother-figure too, she criticised the way I walked, the way I sucked my thumb.

Had you always sucked your thumb?

No. Only during that time because of the insecurity. So I'd have, you know, my thumb in my mouth and this one around my nose, and she'd say, 'Nobody's going to pay to see somebody with a thumb in their ... whip that out'. But of course it was, you know, I didn't even do it consciously. It was just a comfort zone, I guess. And this was almost at sixteen years of age so she must have been horrified. But Mrs. Chauvel, I think in her heart of hearts, you know, she knew she was responsible for me and she knew she was also responsible, co-responsible, for the outcome of that film. So she really ... you know, she had the whip out, not only for me, but for all of us. But I ... of course we had a personality conflict there. And there was some memorable occasions where I'd say, 'No. I want to go home', and then they'd have to wait half an hour while I finished my sobbing and tantrum and then get me back on. Or they'd have to do a different shot. So they'd leave me alone for ten minutes. But going through your teens, being away, not understanding, making excuses for myself, but it's true, must've worn her patience thin.

What did she do on the film? How did she work with her husband, or how did they divide up the roles?

I think they were as one. They would always consult each other before the scene, during the scene and after the shots. Always. So she was, in every way, a partner with her husband.

And did he boss you around?

No. Mr. Chauvel was beautiful. So Mr. Chauvel would come in and smooth the ruffled feathers on both sides: his wife's and mine. His leading lady. [Laughs] No he was ... he was a darling. I have very fond memories of Mr. Chauvel. If Mrs. Chauvel hadn't wanted to transform me into something she wanted, maybe we would have got on a lot better.

Apart from sucking your thumb, did you get into trouble for anything else from her?

Yes, oh, just about everything. Just about everything. If I put scratches on my legs, you know, running through bushes and that, being too exuberant, she's say, 'Now look, we've got to put make-up on that to cover that scratch up'. Things like that, which I guess responsible leading ladies would take on themselves: to look their best, to behave accordingly. I didn't because I had no comprehension of my part in that film.

How did you get on with the film crew food? Did you enjoy that?

Yes, I enjoyed it, and I wanted the steam puddings and things that were turned up in the tent, but I wasn't allowed to have them because Mrs. Chauvel said that the public wasn't going to pay to see a fat blob on the screen. Well I didn't care what a fat blob was, or I didn't understand it, because I'd come from a background where if we had some padding on us during the good times it was good for the lean times. So that didn't wash water with me at all.

So she kept you away from the food. Were you hungry?

I craved a lot of the sweet things, like normal kids I guess. But Mrs. Griffith, Mary, used to every now and then call me in and I'd have the scraps, you know, that was left over from the sweets. I got caught once. She and I got caught.

She was the Aboriginal cook, Mary.

She was threatened that if she gave me any more things, I think, they'd send her back and replace her.

How did you get on with Robert Tudawali?

I didn't really get on with Robert Tudawali. Of course he was a commanding type of person, but I didn't have any time with him, you know, after the filming. Not after the filming, after the shooting for the day. So I didn't really get to know him. I didn't get to know his wife either, properly.

What happened after the shooting for the day? What did you do?

Well you'd go back. I'd probably have a little bit of school work, learning my [lines] ... you know, three hours and things like that, but nothing really exciting. You just feel into the groove of, you know, either you were on before the cameras or you weren't. You'd be playing with paddy melons, playing around or something, with whoever you could find.

Did the filming take you to the city?

Yes, it took us to Sydney.

And what did you think of Sydney?

Oh, I didn't think very much at all, about it. It just gave me a terrible start to see there are so many buildings because as you can see, this is where I come from. Certainly there had been ... there had been buildings in Alice Springs, but not ... not in the mass that there was in Sydney. So I guess I was in, how can you say, in a state of limbo for ages prior to knowing the route from the Chauvel's place to the studio. Then I realised, you know, that's the route you take. Sometimes they'd fool me by going a different way. But, excepting for maybe, you know, when Sue Chauvel took me down to the beach, or a weekend ...

Who was Sue Chauvel?

Sue was Mr. and Mrs. Chauvel's daughter, only daughter.

And she would take you down to the beach?

Mmm.

And what was that like?

That was very nice because at that stage there were oysters, and we used to take salt and pepper shakers and would crack these oysters open and eat them on the beach. It was nice. And the other thing, of course, was that we'd go to church on Sundays and we'd also went to the youth fellowship at the church there. I can't even remember which church it was.

And you liked that?

Yeah, because it was continuity of my life at St. Mary's, where a large part of your life was in church or in the chapel.

What were you filming in Sydney?

They did all the indoor shots, you know, in the studio. I can't even remember how long I stayed there really. Must of been about four or five months.

Were you part of the partying life and the after ... after-shoot get-togethers that are often part of filming?

No. I didn't know any of that.

Why not?

Well I was a teenage child. In those days I think you had to be eighteen or twenty-one prior to doing your own thing. But I wasn't aware of the other things anyway, so it didn't make any difference. My life was more as a child of the Chauvel's household.

And did they look after you well in that sense?

Yes, indeed. Yep.

So you were fairly well protected by them?

Very much so. I felt I was in cotton-wool. Yes.

You felt restricted? You felt a little bit like as if you were in a prison?

I was only restricted in that sense, that I'd had freedom to walk, to climb trees, to hunt, maybe to go and watch a game of football - things like that, which I'd done in Alice Springs. Our lives at St. Mary's consisted mostly of finding supplement Aboriginal food to go with our European food. So all that was a complete change.

So when the filming was over, what was your main feeling?

I'm going home, which was the case.

When you were staying with the Chauvels and they were taking care of you, what was that like? How did they go about it?

Well it was a family unit. It was a very close family unit. I now understand it because it's exactly the same type of unit that I have with my daughter and my husband, here and now. And somewhere along the line Mr. and Mrs. Chauvel and their daughter, Sue, had to make room for me in that close family unit. So I was always the outsider. Mrs. Chauvel would remark on the way I chewed my bones. Say it was a roast lamb on Sunday. Well the best part of the roast lamb is actually being able to chew the bone, but I don't think that they did that themselves. So it was out of the ordinary that this little savage, brown girl was chewing on the bones at the table. So I'd ask her if I could have the bones afterwards and sit out the front and chew on that bone because the nicest part of the meat is next to the bone. No big hassles. The fact sometimes I rolled on the front part of their lawn, playing, just being boisterous, that was a bit out, because young girls were brought up to behave in a certain way in the 1950s, whereas that wasn't the way I was brought up. If I felt like swinging off a branch of a tree, we were free to do so, along with my competitive brothers. And I had to keep up with them anyway. So all those little things, which are different ... and probably Mrs. Chauvel had the idea that because I was an Aboriginal person that I was different. I was different to a certain degree, but I was able also to take orders, or to behave in the way she wanted me too. All these little things didn't make for a smooth interaction with the rest of the family. But towards the end there I did get very fond of Sue Chauvel. She was about twenty-four then and we had a relationship that was like an older sister to a younger sister. So we did get close, but then she had her work during the week and I had my work. So we didn't really have that much time, excepting in the evenings and at the weekends. And looking back on it, I admire Sue, at twenty-four years of age, for putting aside a weekend as frequently as she could to fit me in. So it wasn't ... it wasn't really a big trauma. The fact that I had to live in a house was no different from maybe living in a congregate dormitory with the rest of the girls at St. Mary's, or indeed, being at home with mum and dad.

During the whole period of the filming, did you ever try to get away?

Yes, when we realised - not when we, when I realised we were just out of Alice Springs here at Henbury, I thought I could make a break and run for it. So I did. I took off when I wasn't needed in front of the camera. But unfortunately the country was all sand-hill and they could track me fairly easily. But I did run away again.

[end of tape]

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