The Black Russian: a storyteller for change

Dr Glen Stasiuk, a white male with a grey beard, in his office with shelves of books and dvds in the background

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Dr Glen Stasiuk has written, directed and produced some of the most powerful depictions of Western Australia’s First Nations history ever created.

Yet when asked if he makes films for Aboriginal people, he says no, “they already know their story”.

“My films are powerful enough, but you have to allow people to come to them,” Stasiuk, who is Academic Chair of Murdoch University’s industry-renowned screen production studies, explained.

And they do.

His most recent film, Survivors of Wadjemup, premiered in June during Reconciliation Week and is already gaining traction on the festival circuit.

It’s a follow-up to his award-winning 2014 feature, Black Prison White Playground, which detailed the gross harm to Aboriginal men at the Rottnest Island prison between 1838 and 1932.

The new film tells the stories of four prisoner-descendants, and takes them to the island to revisit the pain and suffering of their ancestors and to pay their respects to those that didn’t survive.

It’s a moving, highly emotive look at the far-reaching consequences of the heinous actions that occurred on WA’s shores and only ended less than 100 years ago.

As a filmmaker, Stasiuk sees himself as a messenger, a conduit between the hidden, and often tragic, recent history of WA’s Noongar people, and the present day.

It’s not surprising, since he grew up surrounded by storytellers.

As a maternal descendent of the Minang-Wadjari Noongar people of the state’s South West, Stasiuk has spent countless hours around the campfire with family.

“I believe the campfire is still really important, but new media is just as important,” he said.

The campfire is the projector or screen, and I am the message stick, boorn wangkiny." - Dr Glen Stasiuk

“The campfire is the projector or screen, and I am the message stick, boorn wangkiny.”

Stasiuk is simply continuing the custom: “I’m no different, I’m just a storyteller,” he said.

“I have always been able to talk and yarn and express myself really well, and the camera is just an extent of that.”

He speaks fondly of his uncle, famed Noongar poet Graham Dixon, and sees similarities between them.

Often hard-hitting, Dixon’s award-winning verses detail his life as one of the stolen generation, alcoholism, and prison, and they provide genuine insight into the trauma caused by unjust historic laws.

Graham Dixon was brave to speak out and express himself creatively.

Likewise, is his nephew.

It wasn’t a conventional path to filmmaking for Stasiuk who, upon finishing high school, did a business degree because he “wanted to make money”.

But those studies didn’t hit the mark, and after graduating he found his way to Murdoch’s Kulbardi Aboriginal Centre where he started in Aboriginal student engagement and worked his way up to managing the centre for ten years.

Kulbardi provided the link to culture that Stasiuk had been yearning for.

“I thought I had more to offer my community by helping people fulfill their goals, I felt my calling was to be there to help people,” he said.

Despite growing up with his Noongar family, language wasn’t spoken at home and it was only as a teenager that he became interested in learning it.

“In my nana’s day they were arrested if they spoke language,” he recalled.

Although his father’s ancestry could not have been more different, there were similarities in expression.

Stasiuk’s paternal grandparents immigrated from post-war Russia; his grandfather Ukrainian, his grandmother Russian.

Again, speaking the mother tongue was frowned upon, but this time because they were seeking to assimilate, to become ‘Australian’.

Stasiuk connected to his Noongar culture, but his diverse ancestry and upbringing helped to shape him as a person, and fuelled his desire to be a storyteller.

While working at Kulbardi, Stasiuk completed a Bachelor of Arts at Murdoch and in 2002 graduated with First Class Honours in Media Studies, delivering the Valedictory Address at that year’s graduation.

From the very start, Stasiuk’s filmmaking tackled tough subjects. If he was going to make films, they were going to make a difference.

His honours film project, The Forgotten, told the story of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women who served, fought and died in all of the wars and peacekeeping missions that the Australian armed forces had been involved in during the 20th century.

The film won Best Documentary Production at the 2003 WA Screen Awards and Stasiuk toured it across the United States.

From there he has produced a steady stream of films that challenge modern recollections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and bring to light the legacy of Australian society’s failure to protect its First Nations peoples.

“I’m also recording this for my mob, it’s a memory scape and message stick,” Stasiuk said.

As one of Australia’s premiere Aboriginal filmmakers, he has set a benchmark in how, and why, such stories need to be told.

His films draw the spotlight, but Stasiuk stays out of it, preferring to focus on telling important stories and helping the next generation of storytellers to do the same.

“My legacy is to be a good father, my three children are my best production yet,” he said.

“If people can look at my films and hopefully give them to their children, if we can make life better for our kids, that is what I hope I have achieved.”

Glen Poster (1)

As part of the Murdoch University Communications Team's efforts for Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC Week in 2022, we used our creative talents to help tell our university's First Nations stories. The above illustration is by Media and Communications Officer Stephanie Dawson, it depicts Dr Glen Stasiuk with posters from some of his powerful, Noongar films.

Posted on:

6 Jul 2022

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