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Jedda's Leap - the making of Aboriginal film stars

Director Charles Chauvel was in a Fifth Avenue Manhattan restaurant when a journalist from Time magazine suggested his next film be about the Aboriginal people of Australia. Chauvel and his wife were interested in this idea but found it difficult to get backing. Considered something of a box office risk, Chauvel had to raise the funds himself.

Chauvel cast the story with local, non-professional actors and the lead roles went to Rosalie Ngarla Kunoth Monks and Robert Tudawali.

Rosalie Kunoth Monks remembered the experience vividly:

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Anyway, when was it? 1954 – ’53 I think, Mr and Mrs Chauvel came to St Mary’s, and they must have talked to Sister Eileen, and Sister Eileen lined up some of her girls. And we were looked at from this angle and that angle, and in the end there was two of us who were chosen to go up to Coolibah Station for testing…

And I was just at that tomboy age where we used to look up to the older girls and wish one day we’d have nails like that, and glossy shiny hair like that, and be able to wear heels in our shoes. So there was these two sophisticated teenagers and myself, who was the clumsy oaf. I really was clumsy, and to make it worse my thumb went into my mouth perpetually. And in the end Mr Chauvel picked me – I don’t know why…

Yes, well, I hadn’t picked up all the sophistication of the European teenagers – I was still very traditional, and I also spoke the language; the other girls didn’t – and because I knew how to behave in my tribal setting. Young modest girls were taught how to behave, you know, in our tradition, but I wasn’t taught how to behave in the white tradition at this stage, so I reverted back to my traditional ways where you didn’t look at men, especially in the eye.

You put your head down; you don’t – unless it’s your promised husband – you don’t go round looking at men; that’s wrong. And I think Mr Chauvel picked all that up, unfortunately at that stage for me, because I didn’t want to be there. And of course, there was black men there. There was Arthur Dingle, who was the father of little ‘Jedda’ and of course, Bob Tudawali. And Bob Tudawali to me was a frightening blackfella, ‘cause he looked so sophisticated and, you know, I think he was aware of what he was about to do – do a film. I wasn’t aware.

[Northern Territory Archives Service NTRS 226 , TS 501 and NTRS 219, TP 638, Rosalie Kunoth Monks]

Rosalie Kunoth Monks at the Darwin premier of Jedda

Bob Tudawali signing autographs at the Darwin premier of Jedda, Star Picture Theatre

‘Color, Excitement at Premiere Hundred flock to see Jedda’, Northern Territory News, 6 January, 1955

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