Stories of reconciliation fuel the anthology film We Are Still Here. This collaborative work unites ten Indigenous filmmakers from Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. The exercise offers a cathartic illustration of the healing process. The filmmakers, moreover, mine stories of the trauma, pain, and violence of colonialism. We Are Still Here is part of an initiative by the Australian government make strives for reconciliation. The fragmentary nature of the structure admittedly leaves something to be desired, but what’s lost in dramatic muscle is gained significance. We Are Still Here is a powerful step forward for Indigenous narrative sovereignty.
Directors Beck Cole, Dena Curtis, Tracey Rigney, Danielle MacLean, Tim Worrall, Renae Maihi, Miki Magasiva, Mario Gaoa, Richard Curtis, and Chantelle Burgoyne weave between past and present as eight stories mark the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s (unwelcome) arrival on Australia. In “Lured,” striking animation evokes the pre-contact days as a mother and her child fish in peace until the ships arrive. The live action thread “Te Puuru” sees the daughter of a Tūhoe chief lead her tribe to defy colonial rule. She breaks from her mother and joins the men in performing their ancestors’ war dance.
Tales of Violence and Tragedy
In “Woke,” an Indigenous man has a violent encounter with a settler. This thread is a haunted western as the hotheaded cowboy forces the other man to trek the outback at gunpoint. An inevitable crack of violence collides with powerful symbolism to evoke the sins that can’t be erased. As stories in We Are Still Here approach the present, the ghosts of one tale dissolves into another.
The ever-present threat of violence ripples through the stories. In the comedy “The Uniform,” a Samoan soldier finds himself in an alternate reality in the trenches of Gallipoli. In “Grog Shop,” an Indigenous man tries to buy a bottle of wine at the liquor store. Despite being of age and making a successful purchase, the cop outside the store won’t let him enjoy the drink he hopes will cool him off after a hard day’s work. This thread repeats variations on the same scene. The Groundhog Day style illustrates the inescapable hell of systemic racism, as one man can’t break free from other’s prejudice. A tale of Indigenous futurism, meanwhile, sees a girl race against time to save her ailing mother in “Blankets,” while a contemporary story sees another young woman avenge the violence brought against her mother through art in “Rebel Art.”
Anthology Film Woes
As these stories unfold, though, We Are Still Here doesn’t find its own rhythm. The film breaks from the tradition of anthology films like Paris, je t’aime, which essentially play as playlists of short films. Instead, We Are Still Here moves between the narratives with no particular logic, which doesn’t really coagulate beyond the interplay between past and present to evoke the way things stay the same. The constant cutting back and forth between stories undercuts the impact of each individual story. Standouts like “Woke” and “Grog Shop” have to make room for the film’s more forgettable sequences, while the shortcomings of production value in others, such as the dystopian “Blankets,” are accentuated by the finesse of stories that do more with modest means. We Are Still Here simply becomes burdened by the pitfalls of anthology films in general. Some stories work better than others.
Moreover, the emphasis on violence and trauma weighs heavily. An uplifting storyline might have afforded the anthology some necessary release, hope, and optimism. The history is, admittedly, bleak, but the narrative choices don’t paint a history of Indigenous people beyond being tormented and murdered. The sum of many parts inevitably yields a richer calculation than any parts sold individually, however, so the power of We Are Still Here comes from the collective. The titular “we” is important here because these eight tales are just an octet among many in a larger narrative of resilience. Perhaps the existence of the film at all is the virtue, as is the signal of more stories to come.
We Are Still Here screens as a part of TIFF 2022, which runs from September 8 to 18.