|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: July 10, 1995
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
What kind of emotions did you get called upon to show in the film and did you understand why you were doing this, why you were being asked to act this particular ways?
No. I think most of the emotions there were fear anyway, so it was natural. It was natural that I show fear because of the situation that I found myself in. So I think ... I think they were fairly slow and lenient with me in making sure ... Mrs. Chauvel would take me aside and she'd say, 'Now I want you to be angry here'. One ... one particular scene that I do remember is the piano scene where she said to me, 'You're really angry. Like this look'. And she'd always show me the scene that I had to act out. So that was our little dress-rehearsal prior to going in front of the camera. Then she'd make me rehearse again in front of the camera, in front of the crew. So she was patient in that way. Ripping my hair out in front of the piano there, that was all natural because that was the way I was feeling anyway. So that was a great scene. I think we only did two shots to really capture it. The longer she went with the scene, say, repeating it, the worse I became: the more I didn't want to do it. I'd already given what she wanted and I didn't want to do it. And there was no way in the world that they were going to make me do it. So there was always this confrontation of Mrs. Chauvel and I. And then Mr. Chauvel would come across and he'd put his arm around me and then look ... [INTERRUPTION]
Mrs. Chauvel was always the one who directed you, not Mr. Chauvel?
Almost always. I can't remember a time when Mrs. Chauvel wasn't there prior to my scenes. Mr. Chauvel would be the one that would come in and kind of calm the ruffled feathers. Mrs. Chauvel was the one who got out of me what she wanted on that particular scene. So she probably knew that she was driving me, and Mr. Chauvel would come in and calm me down. And sometimes, of course, even Mrs. Chauvel's great patience would wear out, so he'd ... there were times when Mrs. Chauvel was in tears and I'd feel, 'Goodie, I've got her crying', that kind of feeling, like every mischievous child. I mean I ... even when we were at home, if dad said, 'Don't do this', my brothers and I would plan how we were going to slowing torture him to see it our way. So I came from that background, where I wasn't going to let the adult human being stand over me. I was going to put in a jolly good fight and I always did I'm proud to say. But it was naughty. But I wasn't to know that.
So your ... your feelings during all of this time was a mixture of resentment and anger. Did you ever plot escape?
Yes. I did. And when I was on familiar grounds, at Hanbury, that is just ... I think it's about 150 ks from Alice Springs, south, I knew approximately where we were. So one ... one day, when I wasn't in front of the cameras, I decided I was going to make a break for it. And I did. That was straight after the scene where they made me ride a horse with Joe and then there's suppose to be that little romantic interlude where I turn back into his arms. And I thought, 'Oh, they're trying to make me go with that man'. This is ... I took everything literally. So I thought, no, I'm going to run away before they do anything else awful. And I did. I escaped, and then I could hear them coming just almost at sundown. They'd tracked me, and Bill Harney and all those fellows, they came and found me in amongst the spinifex and dragged me back howling and crying and kicking and screaming. But, they always had a way of, you know, handing out the little bribes like, 'You can have a lolly or a columbine or something', and 'It won't be long before you are home'. So that scene ... well, I lost that plot. I couldn't run away.
So they handled it all really with rewards and punishments. Nobody ever sat down and tried to really explain to you what was going on?
No. No. It was always a little bit of bribery. Always at the end of the line the carrot was that I would go home as soon as we finish all this. So that was the goal, to finish the thing, and then I would be able to go home.
Why do you think nobody every sat down and really listened to what your problems were and explained to you what was actually happening? I mean, it seems you had actually very little idea of actually what was happening and what was going on, and if someone had explained it to you, you might have been more co-operative.
Yeah, could have been, but, you know, like even from home, where I came from, what dad said went. Dad will say, 'I want you in the shearing sheds tomorrow to toss the wool', or something, 'from the floor, the shearing shed floor'. We did it. Sister Eileen at St. Mary's said, 'I want you to go and scrub the bathroom floor on Saturday'. That was your job for that day. Sister Eileen said, 'I want you all up when the bell goes at seven tomorrow'. We all got up at seven. In those days, young people like myself, we didn't have a say. Like say, for instance, my daughter has a say. She can say to me, or she said to me when she was about fourteen or fifteen, 'Mum I'm not going to do it'. So you said, 'Okay then, you don't have to do it, I'll do it', whereas in the days when I was growing up you did as you were told. So I guess this concept and this psychology went into, you know, the making of me to be an actress and so I just did as I was told, most of the time. Eventually.
You had a sense, though, with Mrs, Chauvel, that you were judged all the time and found a bit wanting?
Always. Always lacking. But then probably in that I felt ... [INTERRUPTION]
So during this time that you were filming, Mrs. Chauvel, really ... you felt she was judging you and finding you wanting?
I think so, and somewhere at the back of my mind I got to the stage where I believed I was wanting because I wasn't more like a white girl - able to take directions at a moment's, you know, notice, or the least bit of ... bit of direction. So that of course made me dig my heels in a bit harder and say, 'I'll make you work for what you want out of me'. So that, that challenge was always there to try and get on top of poor Mrs. Chauvel.
But at the end of the day, for that, do you think that it was ... did this experience have a negative effect on your own self-esteem in the fact that you were taken into that situation and made to feel that perhaps you weren't doing as well as you should have?
Probably at the time it did, but then when I got back to Alice Springs and everybody kind of said, 'Wow, gee, you know, you're this, and you're that'." And ...
A film star!
And I said, 'Hey. These are my peer groups. What are they saying to me?' you know. And then after a while I thought, oh, no. You know, I'm Rose Kunoth. Why are they treating me differently?" So, they're ... you know, it was a funny period after - after and during that time.
I noticed on the film credits that you weren't called Rosalie Kunoth, you were called Ngarla. Why was that?
Well Mrs. Chauvel took me aside, right at the beginning, and she said, 'What's you're skin totem?" And I said, "I'm Apengarte'. I knew what she was talking about. 'Apunaga'. 'Nah, that won't do. What else, what else do they call you? You got an Aboriginal name?' And I said, 'No. Well I'm Apunaga'. She said, 'What's your mother's totem, skin totem?' I said, 'Ngarla'. She fell in love with that. That actually ... That's where we fell off from each other right from the beginning. She said that I had to be Ngarla. And every part of my body screamed and said, 'I am not a Ngarla. I am a Apunaga woman', because I'd been brought up knowing who I am, and for a white person to change my skin was more than I could take. So really, I'm just coming to terms with myself. That's probably where I kind of looked at Mrs. Chauvel and thought, you're not going to change me or change my skin'.
Why didn't they want you to be called Rosalie?
White person's name. I had to be an Aboriginal. Because it was for overseas consumption and God knows what else. Couldn't be Rosalie, that's too English, too, you know, Anglicised. So I had to have an Aboriginal name.
Did you see the film when it was finished?
No, I didn't see it until the premiere in Darwin. That was the first I saw of it and I was horrified.
Did that happen immediately after you'd finished shooting?
No, I'd gone back to school, I'd gone back to St. Mary's, and then one day Sister Eileen came to me and she said, 'You're going up to Darwin, better get you ready'. And I said, 'What for?' because I was scared of going anywhere after the film experience. She said, 'No, you're just going up for a night or two and you are coming back and you're staying with Father and Mrs. Haley', the Anglican priest and his wife. And I did ask her, you know, whether she was sure that I was coming straight back and she assured me that was the case and that I would be staying with church people. So that's why I went up.
You felt safe with church people?
Oh, yeah. Mmm.
And did you have to get dressed up for the premiere?
Yes, I had a white, oh, mid-ankle frock of, you know, net, and nice shining material underneath and straps. I remember having fresh flowers on one of the straps. Yeah, it was nice.
And did you like that part of it? Did that make you feel a bit more like a star?
Well because I had ... had a look at children's books, like Cinderella and all that, I kind of felt like one of them, so, yeah, it was nice.
Did you have to make a speech?
Yes. I can't remember who gave it to me, but somebody gave me a little paper saying, 'I hope you all enjoy the film as much as I did making it'. [Laughs] So that's what I said. If it had been left to me I would have said, 'I hated making this bloody film. I hope you enjoy it more than I did', you know. But that wasn't the case, you had a written little thing to say. But that's when I became aware that we'd done something that wasn't ordinary because people wanted to touch you and I got a fright. [Laughs]
Was it, did that frighten you or did it excite you?
No it frightened me. I thought, why did they want to touch me for? You've got to be gay, you know. The shame way, what Aboriginal people do. But you don't really touch strangers and that.
Did your parents come with you to the preview?
No, I went up on my own and Tudawali and Mrs. Tudawali were both up there. So we all ... but the thing that I realise now, later on, was that I think Bob went downstairs, where the Aboriginal people sat, and they took me upstairs to where the officials were. So there was a difference there, but I wasn't aware of it on the night.
So they actually had a segregated ... segregated cinema?
Yeah, they did in Darwin.
Did they have that in Alice Springs too?
I can't remember because we didn't frequent Alice Springs' cinema that often. When we did go it was supervised. St. Mary's children would go in to a film that was approved by those that were looking after us on behalf, say of our parents. So I wasn't aware of that. But certainly looking back on Darwin, it must have been segregated in that Bob disappeared somewhere else, Bob and Peggy, and I was upstairs, I think with the owner of the cinema and of course Father - not Father so much, Mrs. Haley, the Anglican minister's wife.
So why were you made an honorary white on the night?
I think because I didn't come from that country there, probably. Bob probably chose to sit with his people, which was probably his stance in saying, 'I'm an Aboriginal person. I will sit with my family', whereas I ... I wasn't there. I mean if it happened in Alice Springs I would have said, 'No, I'm sitting with my mum', and gone down, you know, wherever the family is sitting.
So what did you think of the film?
Well looking back on it as an adult, I think it was a very brave thing for Mr. and Mrs. Chauvel to do. I appreciate the Aboriginal context within that film and I also appreciate the story line itself, where a white woman tries to take to herself an Aboriginal child and tries to make that child a carbon copy of herself and it doesn't succeed. Because in my life time I've seen so many children taken into care by policies, by the government, that's been there in place, especially in the fifties and the sixties and so forth, and that failing and miserable adult trying to come back and trying to find their roots. So the story line wasn't too far-fetched at all from real-life drama, especially in the Northern Territory.
What did you think of it at the time?
At the time I was horrified to think Bob Tudawali could touch me. That was the thing, you know. Me! Not allowed to touch me. I belong to somebody. Not allowed to touch me. So that was the overwhelming thing, especially when he grabbed me by the ankle. I remembered him saying,'You know what they suppose to be trying to get me to do to you', and I said, 'No', you know, like every teenage kid. And then when I saw it on screen I was horrified because it had sexual context in it. I was horrified and so was my mother.
When did your mother see it?
In Alice Springs ... [INTERRUPTION]
What did your mother think of the film?
Mum was horrified because in my life, back here, I was actually promised. My promised husband was here, at Utopia, and to think another man could grab me by the ankle, because that's quite intimate to grab ... a man to grab you by the ankle, they knew, even if there was a cutaway, they thought, that's wrong. They shouldn't be doing that. So mum was horrified. I was horrified. Mum and I had long discussions of it and it not ... not having eventuated into sexual activity.
Was she worried about that?
Yes, she was. Mmm. So, she believed me of course.
And what about your father?
Oh, Dad was more European. You know, he was quite excited that his beautiful daughter was on screen and he believed that that was just. You know, dad had a different concept of ... of ... of my experience or foraying into that film.
And when it was all over, what were you left with? What do you think you got out of the whole experience that was positive?
The positive aspect I guess was the geographical awareness. That there was, and is, other places besides Alice Springs and the north-east area where I come from. I knew there was a Darwin. I knew there was a bitumen road that came all the way down to Alice Springs. I knew there was a city called Adelaide because I've waited for a plane there. And then I knew there was Sydney. And around that, I knew there was water, although I hadn't see the east or the west. When I looked at the map of Australia I had a fair idea. So my geographical awareness of ... of that little map that is Australia became very real in my mind then, so it helped me. That was the most positive thing I found I got out of it.
But what about your confidence? Did you feel special? Did you feel that you had something very particular to offer because you'd been selected for that? Or had the experience of doing it undermined that for you?
I think that it had undermined it. Anyway, if I did have a swelled head or anything, that I was any different from my brothers and sisters, it was soon squashed. There was none of that. We're all equals and there's no finer example of that than the Aboriginal culture to point that out to you. You and your brothers and your cousins, and your mothers and fathers are all equal. And I think that was the great stabilising thing in my case, that I came back and went on with life as it was prior to any traumatic or out of the ordinary experience because life itself was larger than that.
Now, you'd had a year out of school, did you go back to school then?
Yeah for another year. But Sue Chauvel had kept up the school work. She did, we always... Actually I gained a little bit more comprehension in that one-to-one relationship with Sue. So it was good. That was good. And I was probably a little bit more, how can I say ...
Advanced along the road.
Advanced, than ... than my peer group of that day.
So at what stage did you leave school? At what level did you?
Eighth year, which was not bad for starting at, how old was I? Nearly ten, in 1956 wasn't it, yeah.
So what happened after you left school?
I worked around Alice Springs for a little while and then I always felt that I wanted to be involved in the church in some way.
You weren't tempted to go on with an acting career?
No way. Siree! No, I kind of ... I wanted to work probably for my people, but at that stage because I was involved in the church, it didn't matter that it was only for the Aboriginal people, it was for people in general. So that's what I did. I left Alice in '57.
What happened to Bob Tudawali? Did he stay in acting?
Apparently he did, yeah.
Did you keep in contact with him at all?
No. No. Well you couldn't. I didn't really have a relationship with Bob or the top-end people. Once the filming was over that was it. Every now and then he would come down to Alice Springs. [INTERRUPTION]
When you came back to Alice Springs after you'd finished the filming and you were a film star, was this ... did this make you very popular with the boys around the place?
Oh, I think there were remarks, you know, from boys, and men, and that was quite new. Because I'd been one of the crowd with the St. Mary's girls and then coming back and people pointing you out and, you know, just making ... making remarks. I felt ... I felt threatened by it, yeah.
How did you cope with it?
Oh, in the crowd because the St. Mary girls, we were a large crowd, so you were in the crowd and didn't ... didn't stray out of that. But I guess when you went out to work, when you first went out, you know, into the community, that's when I felt it a bit more.
What kind ...
Felt the pressure.
What kind of job did you get when you went out into the community?
Well there was the ... it was called the Residency. It was where all the VIPs came and stayed in Alice Springs. So I did kind of, you know, waiting and cleaning and all that round there. I don't know whether I was kind of some form of tourist attraction or what, but that was my first job. And I lived at St. John's Hostel, which was in Alice Springs, which was right next to the church there.
Do you remember how much you were paid?
No. I haven't the faintest. I still don't worry about pays.
Did you make much money from making the film?
Well to tell you the truth I really don't know. Whatever money was made I gave it to dad. I remember signing it over for a new truck that we wanted to buy because dad did the shearing and carting the wool into Alice Springs to the railway.
So he got a new truck out of Jedda?
Yes, which is nice.
And when you were working around town, did you start mixing in with young people? Did boys start to play any sort of a life, role, in your life, boys and men?
Oh, I suppose when I was about eighteen I did have boyfriends, yeah.
What was the situation in relation to the man you'd been promised to back with the tribe?
Well he was still here. He didn't die until I come back this time actually. I can't say his name, but his brother's there and I help his brother a lot. His brother's married to my first cousin.
So why didn't you marry him when you'd been promised to him?
I think because there had been a conversation along the lines that grandfathers and dad, that's my maternal grandparents, that we didn't have to go through the ceremonies, or, indeed, through the whole ritual that we were born too. It's only as adults that we've come back and taken our place where ... where we left off.
So if you had been going along the path that had been laid out for you by your tribal requirements, you would have come back as an adolescent and been given to this man?
But you were spared that.
I don't know whether it's spared, but they made dispensation, that we had been to school and that we belonged to the larger, wider community of central Australia.
Did you go through any of the other rituals of adolescence, the initiations and so on?
No. Certainly my brothers didn't. They came back as adults and chose to go that way.
So with a tribal marriage not the path happening for you, what did you in your mind think was going to happen in relation to your future and marriage and men?
I hadn't thought of marriage because I'd given my life to God.
At that age, while you were still in Alice Springs?
Yes, at that age. Yeah. There was a gentleman, who wanted to marry me when I was about eighteen, and that was one of the reasons I had to remove myself from Alice Springs. And this was done consciously because I was tempted to get married and I thought, no. I'm not prepared for that kind of, you know, close relationship with anyone.
Who was it? What kind of a person?
His name was Keith, Keith Clarke. He was a white person and he was a bit older than myself, and he had other children and he had been married to a part-Aboriginal woman prior to them separating and getting divorced.
And he wanted to marry you?
And what were your thoughts about all of that at the time?
At the time I thought I just wasn't ready for a commitment to another human being, because I wasn't ready. Unlike young people of today, to us marriage was a very serious thing. That that was making a home for your off-springs, your children and that. So I certainly wasn't ready.
Did you come very close to it though?
Yeah I came very close to getting married so I went to ...
I think I was almost on the verge of kind of naming the day of getting married or having that commitment. So I went and talked to my priest and I said, 'Father I'm not ready. Where can I go?' I didn't even say goodbye to the gentleman concerned. Father put me on the plane and I went down to stayed with Father and Mrs. Bott in Adelaide. And from there I went to Father and Mrs. Renfrew, and then I wanted to test my vocation to the religious order. So it was quite straightforward after that.
When you were living with these families of priests, of Anglican priests, what did you, did you live with them as family or what was your relationship with them?
I lived with the Botts as members of God's family, almost like a ... like a ... like a religious order, I guess. When I left and lived with Father and Mrs. Renfrew I took care of their children in a paid position, with always the idea of continuing and pursuing what I felt was my vocation in life.
Which was to do God's Will in a religious context, which I'm still doing today.
And after you'd been with them in Adelaide, what was your next step towards this?
My next step was I got to know some of the sisters, religious nuns, of the Community of the Holy Name, which is an Anglican order in Australia. After having got to know a few of the sisters there, I wanted to go another step further, and that is to test your religious vocation within the community.
And so what did you do?
Made arrangements to go to the community house in Cheltenham, in Victoria, and become a postulant, which is the first six months of ... of recruitment into Holy Orders. So I did that and then I did my three years in the novitiate, and then in 1964 I took my final vows into the religious order.
Now what were those vows.
Poverty, chastity and obedience, of course.
And during the time you were there, were there any other Aboriginal people in the order?
There was a Torres Strait Islander girl there.
Did you feel any particular connection with her or was she like all the other sisters?
Well by that time you'd become aware and you'd lived such life as being one in God's creation. So I was not really aware, nor would I have made special concessions because there was an Aboriginal person there. I had become a member of a religious group of people, therefore, they were all my brothers and sisters.
Could you describe what your everyday life was like while you were in the order?
Mmm. Everyday life was made of ... it was nine prayer hours. In that you also had Mass, a lot of physical hard work, a lot of theology and also a lot of extracurricular things, like if you were ... if you wanted to become involved in childcare, which I was, you did training for those maybe with the social welfare department of Victoria.
What kind of physical hard word did you do?
Keeping the whole convent clean and all that. Doing your chores in the chapel. Stoking the big bonfire with the coals and things to keep our hot water going. Always, always supplemented with a lot of hours of prayers, was physical hard work.
What do you think it was, looking back now, at how you felt at the time, that drew you so strongly into this vocation?
I guess it's my spiritual background. I guess it's my spiritual being. And the fact that I always felt at home in looking at what I believe is God's creation, which is the natural things in life like the trees, the birds, all that beauty. Man made things sometimes, especially the materialistic side of human beings, to this day horrifies me. I don't believe that's our true being.
[end of tape]