Angelique’s Isle (Directors Michelle Derosier and Marie‐Hélène Cousineau). Photo courtesy Thunderstone Pictures

Indigenous storytelling: Deconstructing the archetype

Indigenous archetypes have different rules to our non-Indigenous counterparts and so in any interpretation of our films it is important to see what sort of lens is being created by Indigenous cinema. As a programmer for imagineNATIVE and Winda Film Festival, I am immersed in Indigenous films made by Indigenous directors and writers. In the last three years I have watched around 400 to 500 Indigenous films made by Indigenous filmmakers, each year observing the vast spectrum across genres and have witnessed a real growth of a strong industry of shorts, features and documentaries. The more I watch these films, the more I see a subtle difference and sometimes not so subtle difference in the portrayal of the central characters as universal archetypes.

Watching the wave of Indigenous cinema emerge stronger, I am at the same time saddened by the fact that I still sometimes get scripts from non‑Indigenous writers where the Indigenous character is nondescript. Many Indigenous characters have been written as “Aboriginal Male, around mid‑20s” or “Older Aboriginal Woman”, with no name or background to them. It is as if their backstory is still not important to the character that they will present on screen. Several stereotypes arise. They include: The Noble Savage, the lone Indigenous character that appears out of nowhere (often in the desert) who helps to save the white character from sure death; The struggling Contemporary Indigenous Person, sometimes male, sometimes female, who has an addictive personality and lives on the fringes of society to be rescued by the coloniser; The Aboriginal Woman who is raped, plundered or pillaged and is nothing more than a warm prop, shown as a powerless figure with little to say and occupying a secondary role to the non-Indigenous male who owns her; and The Sharman, who is even more mystical and distanced than the Noble Savage, declining to speak, and often shown pointing or looking knowingly to confer judgement and bestow power on the non-Indigenous Hero.

These four stereotypes have been the characters I grew up with on screen, represented alongside the negative images of our people in news and current affairs. I look at these characters and try to challenge them each time I read a script or see a film that portrays our characters as subservient to the social structure of the colonised world, within which our people have been negatively stereotyped and found lacking. As Indigenous peoples we have a long history of oral and visual storytelling. Our stories are told through various methods; be it through song, through painting, through dance, these stories are passed on to the next generations in various methods, often seen as non‑linear in style. And when you put all the components together, it is like all the elements of filmmaking are now at your disposal to tell stories, making the Indigenous wave of cinema a poignant and obvious progression for our storytellers.

After lecturing and writing to the elements of the four stereotypes, I started to realise how shallow they were compared to Carl Jung’s twelve archetypes linking most characters in today’s society. Until recently, we have not dug deep enough into the surface of these Indigenous characters that in the past have rarely been conceived as rich enough to sustain a story. It is obvious that our lens is different. As Indigenous filmmakers began to write their characters as more fully formed, people started to see the richness of character when someone from that community is given the opportunity to create a voice that people haven’t seen before on screen.

When I wrote about the Five Act structure of Indigenous storytelling (“The Five Beats of Indigenous Storytelling”, Lumina, no. 11, 2012) I realised that there are some fundamental differences in how we perceive the world and share it with others. Often our world is a view that pushes to decolonise the worlds that we live in. Although we are often portrayed as living on the fringe of contemporary society, we are walking in two aligned worlds, the white society and the Indigenous society. This framework is often seen from an outside perspective as poverty stricken, dysfunctional and focused on material conditions, while the Indigenous lens provides a sense of community in the midst of this framework that is strong and resilient, looking to the strength of our Aunties, our Uncles and our Elders. When the lens is turned slightly, you can see the world of power in the people not the objects that they surround themselves with. Their connection to country and place contains a strength of purpose and being that is based on the core value of survival. If our worlds are perceived differently, then what would the characters that live within those worlds look like?

This started me on a new journey of watching Indigenous films from around the world to see how Jung’s twelve archetypes might be applied. And if so, what would those archetypes look like? A lot of our great Indigenous writers have an instinct to write the characters differently. But the question I keep asking myself is: What would those Indigenous archetypes in an Indigenous cinema and other fictional writings by Indigenous creatives look like? Looking further into the archetypes, I tried to see where the characteristics shift: what are their core desires, their weaknesses? And, are they even titled by the same words?

As a part of the first shift, I saw that the four motivations that drive the formation of character – ego‑fulfillment, freedom, socialness and order – are viewed a little differently within an Indigenous framework. In Michelle Derosier’s Angelique’s Isle (2018), Darlene Naponse’s Falls Around Her (2018) and Amanda Kernell’s Sami Blood (2016) the shift was very obvious. The key characters in these films start off rejecting their Indigenous teachings by being assimilated into colonised worlds. Their characters are egocentric and appear disengaged with their community or seem to want to be “normal” and are therefore removed from other Indigenous contexts.

Angelique’s Isle (Directors Michelle Derosier and Marie‐Hélène Cousineau). Photo courtesy Thunderstone Pictures
Angelique’s Isle (Directors Michelle Derosier and Marie-Hélène Cousineau). Photo courtesy Thunderstone Pictures
Angelique’s Isle (Directors Michelle Derosier and Marie‐Hélène Cousineau). Photo courtesy Thunderstone Pictures
Angelique’s Isle (Directors Michelle Derosier and Marie-Hélène Cousineau). Photo courtesy Thunderstone Pictures

In watching Derosier’s film, there is a poignant moment when Angelique (played by Julia Jones) leaves the cabin and her dead husband and creates a hut close to mother earth. It is because Angelique begins listening to her mother’s teachings and mother earth that she begins to receive signs like the footprint of an animal in the snow and engages in these lessons to find her resilience and strength. She is finally rescued, after a year on the island. But when the wealthy miner, who didn’t expect her to survive, offers money as compensation for her husband’s death she is no longer interested in the material privileges of mainstream society. She is shown standing on the coastline looking out to the land beyond to tell her mother she is coming home. Back on country, her mother stands up as if hearing her daughter and grasps her hand to her heart.

Negotiating this in-between space, Angelique’s connection to her Indigenous spirit is back in full force. Her resilience and survival is rewarded by being able to spiritually connect with her mother and reorientate herself to see the world with a grounded strength. Similarly, in talking to Darlene Naponse about her film Falls Around Her, it became apparent that she had crafted the character’s journey as an act of decolonisation so that when her character Mary Birchbark (played by Tantoo Cardinal) leaves and returns home again she has to re-balance her world. At first she doesn’t trust herself in this space in which she feels disjointed and removed from her community, and she seeks to find her inner Warrior again.

In Amanda Kernell’s film Sami Blood an older woman Christina (played by May Doris Rimpi) returns to her homelands to farewell her sister. We meet her fully colonised and pretending she is not Sámi. Flashbacks to scenes of her youth, when she was known as Ella‑Marja (played by Lene Cecilia Sparrok) highlight her former freedom and role in society, before being sent away to a boarding school where she learns how the outside world views her culture as inferior and begins the process of assimilation. When Christina finally goes off into the mountains and releases her hair from its bun she begins to shed the colonial world that has been the cause of her unhappiness and begins to walk her own path again.

Scene from Sami Blood, 2016 (Dir. Amanda Kernell). Photo: Sophia Ohlsson Courtesy Nordisk Film
Scene from Sami Blood, 2016 (Dir. Amanda Kernell). Photo: Sophia Ohlsson Courtesy Nordisk Film
Scene from Sami Blood, 2016 (Dir. Amanda Kernell). Photo: Sophia Ohlsson Courtesy Nordisk Film
Scene from Sami Blood, 2016 (Dir. Amanda Kernell). Photo: Sophia Ohlsson Courtesy Nordisk Film

Channelling survival, freedom, resilience and lore, I began to look at the wheel of archetypes with an Indigenous lens. It became obvious that community or “socialness” is central to all Indigenous characters that are portrayed on screen. The other factor is that ego‑fulfillment can be seen as a colonial construct. If you are writing contemporary versions of our communities you have to balance the two wheels and worlds, like most of us do in our day-to-day lives. Therefore, in writing for an Indigenous character in a contemporary setting, they have to be seen to be walking the line between the two worlds and two frameworks for archetypes. Highlighting this shift the wheel of ego, freedom, society and order is driven by survival and connection to country. Here, the ego/ownership component shifts the balance for communities that at their core support values of custodianship, as caretakers and protectors of Mother Earth, a key protagonist who sustains and makes us thrive. Lore helps to balance the equilibrium and at its core defines a system that creates ways to work together rather than in silos.

When I started talking with my fellow filmmakers and programmers internationally, I started to see that there is an intrinsic thinking to this Indigenous lens determined by the way we look at the character and know that character, supported by our communities. But again, that archetype requires definition. With this in mind, I started on the journey to define our Indigenous archetypes and to identify what these mottos, goals, weaknesses and strengths are. In order to take them out of the common stereotypes placed upon them I had to look deeper and come up with the elements that are universal and create the archetypes that effectively define the spectrum of Indigenous characters I have seen on screen in the last twenty years. On doing this, I then started to place these Indigenous characters in relation to the twelve most common archetypes defined by Jung, seeing distinct differences between the two wheels that I was creating, further demonstrating the limited way that our films are viewed, based on the very different motivations of these archetypal characters.

For example, the archetype for a Hero: Wants to prove his/her worth through courageous acts with expert mastery in a way that improves the world. Fears failure, weakness, and vulnerability. We see that his/her motivation is often to booster the ego and to gain worth through their actions. While strong in skills and brut force, the weaknesses are often seen as combative and not for a greater good defined by communal thought. Taking an Indigenous perspective on the Hero, I considered the Warrior in the films I have seen and what these roles look like, considering not just the combative side of the Warrior but also his/her core understanding, and came up with the following description: the Hero is a provider for community and protects and creates direction, offering insights into what the world needs. Fears not being able to adapt, people not surviving because of something he does.

The fear of the Warrior is a communal thought and it made me see that the subtle difference in the two characters who often get grouped together in the same archetype is actually a conundrum created by not being able to see through an Indigenous lens, also in response to the larger stereotype of the Noble Savage. Although I am in no way an expert in these psychological archetypes, it was the common characteristics of watching Indigenous filmmakers trying to conform to studio‑based storytelling techniques that made me realise that their own experiences made them write these characters instinctively differently, either through act/beat structures, or a lens that is challenged by this strong sense of the community, and how Indigenous communities draw on their collective strength to motivate their engagement with the world.

For many cinemagoers that are looking to enhance their experiences outside of the studio‑based film model, looking to find images that better represent, intrigue and engage them, it is precisely these niche markets and the craving for diversity on screen that has opened up around the world that satisfies this growing demand to experience the work of independent filmmakers, among them Indigenous voices riding the wave of popularity. When talking about the diversity of the cinema landscape, the conversation has been guided by the principle of “nothing about us, without us”, a mantra often used across the arts to increase diversity. The argument is that without Indigenous people as the key creative agents, the usual stereotypes come into play.

When working through these theories of the differing archetypes, the more Indigenous filmmakers get to be the key creatives, the more distinctive patterns and stronger role models emerge. The next phase is how to recognise those archetypes and commonalities in the archetypes. For example, the Warrior’s traits are the same as The Chief in other cultures and instead of a Ruler archetype, Mother Earth (Motherland) is created into an archetype. Again, when watching Angelique’s Isle by Derosier it was clear by the end of the film that Mother Earth as a character had removed the object of desire to put it out of harm’s way. Derosier had made it very clear that Mother Earth was a character of her film.

Scene from Falls Around Her, 2018 (Dir. Darlene Naponse). Courtesy Film Farm and Baswewe Films
Scene from Falls Around Her, 2018 (Dir. Darlene Naponse). Courtesy Film Farm and Baswewe Films
Scene from Falls Around Her, 2018 (Dir. Darlene Naponse). Courtesy Film Farm and Baswewe Films
Scene from Falls Around Her, 2018 (dir. Darlene Naponse). Courtesy Film Farm and Baswewe Films

In Falls Around Her, Naponse features moments of Mother Earth virtually speaking to the main character. There is a moment when Mary is shown walking through the Birch trees and three shots of Land give the sounds of Mother Earth: in one view of the canopy of the woods, you hear the wind calling to her; in another of snow falling from leaves, you hear the earth speak to her; in a shot of the iced water, you hear ice crack and the water speak to her; and in a wide‑angle shot of Mary on country, you hear the distance call of a bird. When she then lifts her head, Mary is smiling, alive and sure about herself in the world. After talking to Naponse about her film, it was clear she wanted to make sure we as the audience felt and heard the conversation with Mother Earth. Her intention was clear when she shot Falls Around Her to place the archetype clearly as one of the voices that Mary hears.

The other archetype that is quite differently viewed, in comparison to the twelve common archetypes of Jung, is the archetype called Everyman, viewed through an Indigenous lens as Everyman and Everywoman, with the same motivations, but differing traits, allowing for the diversity and strength of both men and women seen as standing on equal footing, but with distinct differences in the core values that make up their archetype in our culture. In Indigenous cultures, Women’s Business and Men’s Business is more specifically acknowledged.

In films like Eduardo Novikov’s Toyon Kyyl (The Lord Eagle) (2018) and Óscar Catacora’s Winaypacha (Eternity) (2017) or Ivan Sen’s Beneath the Clouds (2002), we see this two‑hander of Everyman and Everywoman portrayed according to their character traits and impact on the community. The women clearly have a role to play that defines them as the gatherer, not just in day‑to‑day food gathering, but also as a gatherer of information. What I found interesting is the unassuming link for women to Mother Earth across the ages, whether in a contemporary setting like Sen’s Beneath the Clouds, a culture that is disappearing like Catacora’s Winaypacha, or a culture that is imposed like Novikov’s Toyon Kyyl, in which the women of all ages look to the landscape for signs and receive messages for their journey.

Lena (Danielle Hall) and Vaughan (Damien Pitt) Beneath the Clouds, 2002 (Dir. Ivan Sen) Photo: Mark Rogers. Courtesy Ivan Sen and Screen Australia
Lena (Danielle Hall) and Vaughan (Damien Pitt) Beneath the Clouds, 2002 (Dir. Ivan Sen) Photo: Mark Rogers. Courtesy Ivan Sen and Screen Australia
Lena (Danielle Hall) and Vaughan (Damien Pitt) Beneath the Clouds, 2002 (Dir. Ivan Sen) Photo: Mark Rogers. Courtesy Ivan Sen and Screen Australia
Lena (Danielle Hall) and Vaughan (Damien Pitt) Beneath the Clouds, 2002 (Dir. Ivan Sen) Photo: Mark Rogers. Courtesy Ivan Sen and Screen Australia

Over the last few years I have been spending time trying to vocalise and visualise Indigenous archetypes, also writing and working with non-Indigenous writers and filmmakers to give feedback on Indigenous characters, identifying nuances in our character traits that are still frequently ascribed with the wrong motivations. In identifying these archetypes, embracing their strengths, weaknesses, mottos and core values, I have gained a much stronger appreciation of Indigenous voices in the cinema landscape, and the creation of a knowledge base from which we can now critically look at the works that have been produced over the last 30–40 years in Indigenous cinema to create the space for our niche to grow and prosper, replacing false constructs with a space of richer interrogation and value that expands the genres of cinema.

For instance, in taking on board Magic Realism, Horror and the Thriller, a new genre has emerged that we have started to call Chiller in the Indigenous landscape, using legends from our creation stories fused with contemporary horror styles. I will be excited to see where this genre evolves over the next few years, with works like the Arctic Chill being made across the Indigenous Arctic Circle region, and Cleverman in Australia on the small screen. Indigenous cinema is opening up the diversity of stories on offer as a growing arm of the film industry. Hopefully this will also teach audiences and the film industry how to engage with and respect our different lens, if only to realise what they are missing out on.

Pauline Clague is Associate Professor, Manager of Cultural Resilience Hub, Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education & Research at the UTS. A Yaegl woman from North Coast NSW she has worked as a storyteller and producer in film and TV for 25 years. She is founder and Artistic Director of Winda Film Festival in Sydney, a programmer for imagineNATIVE media + arts festival in Toronto and co‑creator of NativeSlam, a 72‑hour Indigenous film challenge held at Maoriland Film Festival in Otaki.

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