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Study explores cinema and the community


Steve Spinks
1 November 2012
The Bowraville Theatre will provide a poignant backdrop as the Travelling Film Festival makes it to the tiny Mid North Coast hamlet this weekend (Friday November 2 to Sunday November 4).

While audiences go on a cinematic journey around the world, showcasing films from Australia, Hong Kong, China, USA, Canada, Poland, Germany, UK, France, Denmark, Czech Republic and Sweden, some will remember that the Bowraville Theatre was once a symbol of division within the town.

Dr Lisa Milner, an associate lecturer in Southern Cross University’s School of Arts and Social Sciences, has just released a paper titled ‘Cinema and Community: a rural Australian case study’ which explores the rich history of the theatre. It has been published in the New Community Quarterly.

“The Bowraville Theatre was opened in 1940 and operated as a racially segregated business,” Dr Milner said.

“Aborigines had to buy their tickets separately, enter the theatre by a separate side entrance, occupy inferior wooden seats below an interior wooden partition, but to do so after the program had begun and leave before the end.”

In 1965 the Student Action for Aborigines Survey and Demonstration Bus Tour, or as it became known the Freedom Ride, visited the town. Those on the bus were aware that Bowraville had a reputation as a divided town and that the theatre was the most striking example of racial segregation.

The Freedom Riders, along with members of the local Gumbaynngirr people, tried to enter the theatre in the same way the whites did. They failed with the theatre owner shutting the doors in the faces of the protesters, which included Charles Perkins.

Later in 1965 the theatre closed and went through various incarnations as a haberdashery and a storage area.

It wasn’t until 2000, 35 years later, that a committee came together to re-establish the theatre as a centrepiece for Bowraville. However, due to the theatre’s history it was sought as a priority to understand how the community differences that had been perpetuated by the early segregation practices could be overcome.

“There are people who will never set foot in the theatre, the historical wounds that the re-use of the building opens are too painful for some,” Dr Milner said.

“As part of the reopening, a closed smoking ceremony was conducted by the Gumbaynngirr elders to cleanse the building. This emotional formality was a significant step towards reconciliation. Things are starting to change. We filled the theatre when we screened an internationally-acclaimed Australian feature film highlighting an indigenous community, Ten Canoes.”

In 2005 and 2011, the new Freedom Ride stopped in town, 40 years after the original tour, and the participants’ night was spent at the theatre, being entertained with live performances. Indeed, the theatre now hosts various community events, rather than just movies.

“Originally, the theatre was a privately-owned, physically segregated, business that just screened films. Now the building is a public space and a place where contemporary and dynamic social values are manifest. With the building now being used for different needs, we are breaking down restrictions between traditional spheres, actively renegotiating the boundaries between entertainment and education, producer and consumer, cast and audience and black and white,” Dr Milner said.

“The new uses of the theatre have begun to engender new forms of community identity that not only tolerates but celebrates diversity.”

Photo: Dr Lisa Milner.