Woman Perkins, Rachel

Director, Producer and Writer

Written by Tenille Hands, National Film and Sound Archive

Rachel Perkins, a woman of the Arrernte and Kalkadoon nations, is at the forefront of the Australian filmmaking industry. Her continuing body of work as a screenwriter, producer, director, board member and festival director embodies her passion and skill in bringing Australian Indigenous stories to the screen.

Born in Canberra in 1970, Rachel Perkins was the daughter of Indigenous activists Eileen and Charlie Perkins. At the age of 18, she moved to Alice Springs and entered into a traineeship at the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). She began to learn firsthand not only the technical and multitasking aspects of filming, editing, directing and producing but the collaborative nature of storytelling amongst the central Australian communities. Laying the foundation for her career, CAAMA co-founder and director Freda Glynn instilled in Perkins the need to empower others and 'be the instrument for our people to speak through' (CAAMA, 2011). Working extensively on the Nganampa Anwernekenhe, a long running series which showcased Indigenous languages and cultures, Perkins increasingly felt 'a degree of responsibility towards the people who you're portraying and your respect for that and to empower them in the process' (CAAMA, 2011).

With this responsibility firmly in mind Perkins left CAAMA at 21 to become the youngest female Executive Producer at SBS Television, generating programming for the Aboriginal Film Unit. Perkins continued to utilise the audio-visual medium as a positive form of representation, producing series such as the three part documentary Blood Brothers (1993) and From Spirit to Spirit, the first international television series created solely by Indigenous peoples from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Norway.

In 1993, frustrated by the passive portrayals of Indigenous culture she encountered in textbooks and on television written by non-Indigenous people, Perkins forged forward to found the production company Blackfella Films. Focused on self-representation, Blackfella Films committed resources to culturally significant stories, told by and with Indigenous media practitioners.

Not wanting to be restricted to documentary filmmaking Perkins wished to expand into drama production, and applied to the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in Sydney. Winning the first Indigenous Program Scholarship in 1995, Perkins dedicated herself to the mechanics of budgeting, financing and drama production in order to gain access to bigger budgets and bigger audiences. Shortly afterwards and in collaboration with the Australian Film Commission (AFC) Perkins produced the first Indigenous drama initiative From Sand to Celluloid making short films such as Payback (1996) with Warwick Thornton.

After a consecutive stint at the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) as the Executive Producer of the Indigenous Programs Unit, Perkins again enabled Indigenous creatives the opportunity to have their stories brought to the screen and for the Australian viewer to re-educate themselves on traditional presentations of the female perspectives and Indigenous culture.

Perkins left the ABC to direct her first feature film. Casting three strong women, Rachel Maza, Trisha Morton-Thomas and Deborah Mailman into a script that dealt with rarely tackled issues such as the stolen generation, racism, rape and adoption, Perkins had created a film with a cultural agenda. Radiance (1998) went on to win numerous awards at festivals and within critic circles around the country, not to mention launching the career of the then relatively unknown Mailman.

Continuing in her collaborative approach to sharing Indigenous perspectives Perkins went on to direct One Night, the Moon (2001) with Paul Kelly. The musical was inspired by the story of Indigenous tracker Alexander Riley and examined the impact of racism, respect and social justice. The film won Perkins over ten film awards for Cinematography, Direction, Script, Music and Editing and screened to great reception at Sundance in 2002.

Though her work on boards of government agencies such as the AFC, NSW Film and Television Office (now ScreenNSW) and AFTRS, Perkins continued to be the advocate for progressing the agenda of Indigenous media employment and training. With Blackfella Films, she created The Black Book , an Indigenous media and arts directory which includes over 2,600 listings of Indigenous individuals and organisations in order to provide further opportunities for professional development in the arts, media and cultural industries.

Perkins' production company Blackfella Films founded the Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival, with Perkins becoming its Director/Curator, mentoring and creating another spotlight on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander film and television.

Perkins' commitment to challenging long established attitudes and historical representation of Indigenous perspectives came to fruition with the documentary series First Australians (2008). Produced over six years, it presented a history of contemporary Australia never before seen. Engaging with the production on all levels, Perkins researched and portrayed the Indigenous Australian perspective of European settlement though individual stories and accounts gained through extensive community consultation. With differing multi-platform content made for television, documentary and the web, Perkins work was a forerunner in the collaborative processes required to protect Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) rights

Whether it be as the director of the feature Bran Nue Dae (2010), co-creator of television series Redfern Now (2012), through implementing national training strategies or as the co-founder of the first free to air National Indigenous Television (NITV) Rachel Perkins continues in her commitment and passion for creating screen content that challenges traditional historical accounts. As an established female Indigenous filmmaker she is continually creating new dialogues and educating the audience and the industry into evolution through storytelling, self-expression and empowerment.

Additional sources: Rachel Perkins Biography, http://www.blackfellafilms.com.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=47&Itemid=58 [accessed 20 November 2012].

Archival Resources

National Film and Sound Archive

  • Blood Brothers, Blood Sisters : Rachel Perkins, Filmmaker: Oral History Interview, 2004, 679166; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • Women Working in Television Project. Interview with Rachel Perkins, c. 2005, 738929; National Film and Sound Archive. Details

Published Resources

Online Resources

See also

Digital Resources

Rachel Perkins discusses Indigenous filmmaking in Australia
Audio Visual
National Film and Sound Archive