Danielle MacLean proudly carries the flag for Indigenous storytelling
Considering Danielle MacLean’s original ambition was to be a stills photographer, her 23-year career as a writer, producer and director is quite remarkable.
Currently MacLean is juggling numerous projects including preparing a short film for the anthology feature Cook 2020: Our Right of Reply, writing an episode of the second series of Bunya Productions’ Mystery Road and signing on to direct at least one episode of the third season of Ned Lander Media’s Little J and Big Cuz.
In addition, she is developing a raft of projects including drama series Rough Justice with frequent collaborator Steven McGregor, children’s animated series Yellow Water Billabong and kids series The Barrumbi Kids with Ambience Entertainment.
“I have found my voice and I have a strong team of people around me,” she tells IF. She credits Screen Australia’s Indigenous department, originally headed by Wal Saunders, followed by Sally Riley and now Penny Smallacombe, with supporting and championing countless Indigenous storytellers like her.
On the Cook 2020 project co-commissioned by Screen Australia and the New Zealand Film Commission she is collaborating with slap poet Melanie Mununggurr-Williams, animator Huni Bolliger and producer Anna Grieve, who is partnered with MacLean and McGregor in Darwin-based Tamarind Tree Pictures.
The storyline is still being crafted and will touch on the themes of survival and Colonialism. MacLean intends to film the short in live action in August, which Bolliger will then animate in her computer. Danielle and Huni first teamed up for Blown Away, the 2014 ABC documentary which coincided with the 40th anniversary of Cyclone Tracy.
She is writing episode five of Mystery Road 2, her first chance to work with head writer Blake Ayshford, whom she describes as “fantastic and really supportive.” Co-written by McGregor, Kodie Bedford and Timothy Lee, the ABC series will shoot in Broome, directed by Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair.
On Rough Justice she and McGregor are working with Brindle Films’ Trisha Morton-Thomas. She likens the plot to “Deadwood in the Gulf Country” as it deals with the collision between the laws of the Indigenous people and white settlers.
Yellow Water Billabong, which MacLean and Grieve are developing with Tasmanian-based Blue Rocket Productions, is set in Kakadu National Park wetlands and follows a brother and sister who have a special affinity with animals and plants.
Based on the novels by Leonie Norrington and set in Arnhem Land, The Barrumbi Kids follows children who move between Aboriginal and white cultures.
Screen Australia’s Indigenous unit gave Danielle her first opportunity to write as well as direct the short drama My Colour Your Kind, an insight into the alienation experienced by an albino Aboriginal teenager in a convent boarding school in Alice Springs, in 1997.
She started out as a production assistant in the mid-1990s at Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association Productions under the guidance of renowned Indigenous director Erica Glynn.
At CAAMA Productions she progressed to writing and directing documentaries. Among her contemporaries there were McGregor, David Jowsey, Warwick Thornton, sound recordist/director David Tranter and her cousin Beck Cole.
(L-R) Sound recordist David Tranter, cameraman Tim Alewood, interviewee Robbie Mills and Danielle MacLean during the filming of ‘Blown Away’.
In 2004 she wrote and directed the drama Queen of Hearts, winning the AFI Award for best non-feature screenplay. Three years later she won an AWGIE for her script in the Nine Network/Disney children’s series Double Trouble.
Tamarind Tree’s first production was Croker Island Exodus, the 2012 account of the 95 Aboriginal children in government care and their three cottage mothers who escaped the threat of Japanese invasion during WW2 by travelling from an island in the Top End to Sydney.
In 2017 she wrote, produced and directed Carry the Flag, a half-hour documentary about the legacy of the Torres Strait island flag’s designer Bernard Namok Senior.
Her other writing credits include Blackfella Films’ Redfern Now, Princess Pictures’ 8MMM Aboriginal Radio and Magpie Pictures’ Grace Beside Me. Her best work may well be ahead.