Melbourne International Film Festival Review: Namatjira Project (Australia, 2017) continues the story of Australia’s most prolific Aboriginal artist

Albert Namatjira remains one of Australia’s most revered artists. At the time of his death, his collection exceeded two thousand individual paintings, a perceptive catalogue of the landscapes that form the barren heart of Australia’s central regions. Yet his significance far extends his body of work.

In 1957 Albert became the first Aboriginal person to receive restricted citizenship, one-year prior he had become the first Aboriginal person to receive the Archibald prize, at the pinnacle of his success he received the Queen’s Coronation Medal and post-humus he was the face of our five-cent stamp.

Albert’s achievements alone form a narrative worth closely following, but Namatjira Project isn’t a documentary made just to frame his story in a contemporary setting. Instead, it continues his story by following Project Namatjira, an initiative that seeks to highlight the continued appropriation of indigenous culture.

The project pursues its goals through a touring theatre show that reflects the life of Albert Namatjira, while saving the collected funds in hope of one day purchasing the copyright for Albert’s work . The play itself becomes a narrative device for the documentary to introduce audiences to significant events from Albert’s life, turning moments of tragedy and triumph to the Aboriginal community, giving those closest to Albert a voice to comment on his trials.

While following the play through its tour, audiences are sided with the grandson of Albert, Kevin Namatjira, who travels with the show while creating landscape paintings of his own. Without imposing it on audiences, the connection between Kevin’s life and that of his grandfather becomes apparent. Beyond meeting the queen, a shared prowess in landscape painting and both belonging heart and soul to central Australia, they too faced policies that fail to incorporate traditional Aboriginal law and culture. This is the most important point the documentary makes, and highlights the distance we’ve come since Albert’s death in 1959.

Namatjira Project is a documentary driven by art, but only in content. It follows a formulaic approach to storytelling and sidles through the events of the Namatjiras lives with brief consideration to how it reaches the audiences. Fortunately enough, it is one of few documentaries with powerful enough content to forgo meticulous shots or scrupulous interviews, instead leaving the artistic endeavours for the subjects of the film.

They are intense and emotional subjects too. The fears of the play’s lead, Trevor, in the accuracy of his portrayal, Kevin’s request for an art centre in Alice Springs, or just for the government to return something to him, or to Lenny Namatjira’s phone call to her community from England, where she refers to the Queen as ‘the old lady’; each character we meet has a story so different from the last.

As Albert’s paintings are described as the window for suburban Australians to glimpse the Australian outback, Namatjira Project now gives those same Australians a glimpse at the legacy he left behind. 

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Namatjira Project screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, where it was reviewed. Head to the official website for more.