The distressing history of Perth’s playground island of Rottnest will be illustrated in a new documentary being made by a Murdoch University researcher.
Glen Stasiuk from the University’s Kulbardi Aboriginal Centre has been awarded a $100,000 Australian Research Council grant to examine the penal history of the island, which was an Aboriginal prison from 1838 to 1931, and how it has since been transformed into a top tourist destination.
Around 3700 Aboriginal men and boys from all over Western Australia were sent to the island for mostly minor offences in this period, experiencing appalling conditions and treatment. As many as 370 died during their incarceration, succumbing to disease, degradation and the hangman’s noose. This makes Rottnest the site of the largest number deaths in custody in Australia.
The 50 minute film, which is due to be ready for broadcast next year, will bring this history vividly to life via a series of interviews with Nyungar scholars and leaders. It will also feature sequences which illustrate the Nyungar’s cosmology, or dreaming stories, associated with the island’s separation from the mainland around 7000 years ago.
Glen said the island’s disturbing past was not evident to the thousands of people who visited Rottnest every week and he hoped his film, entitled Wadjemup: Black Prison – White Playground, would open peoples’ eyes and lead to debate.
“Among the themes we’ll be exploring are healing, remembrance and reconciliation and as a Nyungar myself, this will be a very personal film for me,” said Glen, who is the award-winning director of several films which explore aspects of Aboriginal history.
“Ultimately we’d like to see some sort of lasting and significant memorial to what happened to Aboriginal prisoners on Rottnest being developed,” he said.
“It would be good if it were to become a place of reconciliation and remembrance for Indigenous and non Indigenous peoples, people from the stolen generations or perhaps even people linked to deaths in custody.”
The film will also feature a 2m x 3m replica of the tiny cell that up to seven Aboriginal inmates were locked away in. This was designed and built by artist and set designer Tania Ferrier who has just completed an exhibition about Rottnest’s prison history entitled The Quod Project.
“These cells had no sanitation and so inmates would often get sick and disease would spread quickly,” added Glen.
“Up to 70 or so died over one winter on the island. They had very little protein in their diets unless they hunted for quokkas or snakes on the island and they were often treated appallingly by prison staff.
“Many inmates never got over their experience on Rottnest even though most had only committed minor crimes.”
Professor Craig McGarty, Murdoch University’s Director of the Social Research Institute, said: “I congratulate Glen for his vision in putting this project together, but I would also acknowledge the wonderful investment by the Australian Research Council as part of its program to develop Indigenous research capacity. Most of all though, I can’t wait to see the film!”
Professor Rhonda Marriott, Murdoch University’s Director of the Kulbardi Aboriginal Centre, also congratulated Glen and said: “We are proud of this significant initiative as it is one that corrects our history and therefore is to be valued.”
Research around the documentary will also count towards Glen’s PhD.