'Ningla - A’Na': Restored documentary keeps the spirit of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy alive

September 19, 2022
1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy
The original Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972. Photo: Noel Hazard

Ningla - A'Na
Directed by Alessandro Cavadini
1972. 75 minutes,
Distributed by Smart Street Films
Released on September 30

When Australian Prime Minister Billy McMahon announced on January 26, 1972, that his government would never grant land rights to Aboriginal people, young activists from the Redfern Black Power Group drove from Sydney to Canberra to set up an “Aboriginal Embassy” on the lawns of Parliament House.

The idea to make the protest an embassy was, in the words of Gumbaynggirr activist and historian Gary Foley, intentionally symbolic of Aboriginal people being made “aliens in our own land”.

Due to a legal loophole that allowed camping on the lawns of Parliament House, McMahon could not forcibly remove the embassy — much to his frustration.

The small group of protesters at the embassy were soon joined by hundreds of supporters, who marched to Parliament House chanting “Land rights now”.

The embassy became a site of ongoing protest with the central demands: complete rights to the Northern Territory and the installation of a primarily Aboriginal state parliament; ownership and mining rights of all other Aboriginal reserve lands; the preservation of all sacred sites; and ownership of areas in major cities, with compensation for lands that were not able to be returned.

Filmmaker Alessandro Cavadini captured first-hand footage of the embassy and interviews with Aboriginal activists involved in the movement. Ningla - A'Na, meaning “we are hungry for our land” in the Pitjantjatjara language, was the result. The film documents powerful speeches from activists and inspiring images of resistance, in the face of police brutality.

Fifty years on from the establishment of the first Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Ningla - A'Na has been restored in high definition after a successful crowdfunding campaign and is due for release around the country on September 30.

The embassy helped galvanise the land rights movement around Australia. The film shows the Black Moratorium march, where about 6000 people marched in Sydney on July 14, 1972, demanding Aboriginal land rights.

McMahon’s government changed the law on July 20 to make camping on the parliamentary lawns illegal. Hours later, police brutally attacked the embassy, removing the tents and arresting people.

Ningla - A'Na shows scores of police inflicting violence on activists as they tried to re-erect and defend the embassy, on July 23.

In response, more than 2000 people, including workers and students, marched to Parliament on July 30 — the largest land rights demonstration in Canberra’s history.

Ningla - A'Na documents the early days of community organisations, such as the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) and Aboriginal Medical Service (AMS), set up by activists involved in the tent embassy.

The ALS — which still exists today — was established in Sydney to provide free legal advice and representation for Aboriginal people facing abuse, harassment and indiscriminate arrests at the hands of police.

Foley, who was part of the original encampment, reflected: “The thing that politicised all of us was the issue that is still around today: police intimidation; police harassment; deaths in custody; and Aboriginal incarceration rates.”

There have been 513 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991, as of June. No one has been convicted for any of the deaths.

Aboriginal Australians are the most incarcerated people in the world. They make up nearly one-third of the prison population, despite constituting 2% of the Australia’s population. 

Ningla - A'Na reminds us how, in many ways, little has changed in terms of governments’ responses to legitimate protests for Aboriginal rights.

Following a Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney on June 6, 2020, footage emerged showing police surrounding protesters, forcing them into Central Station and capsicum spraying them — echoing the scenes of police brutality in Ningla - A' Na.

Widespread media coverage of the embassy brought national and international attention and solidarity to the struggle for Aboriginal rights.

“That [the embassy] has endured for decades as a potent symbol rejecting the hypocrisy, deceit and duplicity by successive Australian governments is a testament to the refusal of large numbers of Aboriginal people to concede defeat in a 200-year struggle for justice,” Foley wrote in The Conversation.

The central demands of the embassy have not been met. Aboriginal people across Australia continue to fight for land rights, self-determination, reparations and against environmentally and culturally destructive extractive projects, such as Woodside’s Scarborough gas project on the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia and Santos’ gas wells in Narrabri, New South Wales.

“The light on the horizon is in seeing a new generation of young Aboriginal activists emerging,” Foley said. “Many of these young activists are the grandchildren of activists from the Tent Embassy era.”

The newly restored film will be released nationally on September 30, with screenings in capital cities. The screenings will be accompanied by Q&A sessions in Sydney, with Senator Lidia Thorpe, author Tony Birch and Foley in Melbourne and South Australian attorney-general Kyam Maher in Adelaide.  

Ningla - A'Na remains an important historic account of a critical period of Australian activism. It is a significant time to revisit the film, amid renewed calls from Aboriginal activists for treaty and a path to self-determination.

[Watch the trailer for Ningla - A'Na here.]

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