Last night I attended the Alice Springs premiere of Queen of the Desert at Olive Pink Botanic Gardens. It’s a half-hour doco directed by Alex Kelly and produced by Josephine Wright about Starlady Nungarai, a renowned and well loved ‘translady’ whose weapons of choice in the ubiquitous and wearisome battle to break down barriers between Aboriginal kids and community workers are hair dye, curling wands, straightening irons and makeup.
After many years of social work and hairdressing in remote communities, Starlady sets up a hair salon in Utju (Areyonga), a Pitjantjatjara community of about 300, a couple hundred ks west of Alice. She is accepted immediately by young and old, women and men alike. Starlady gets the girls on board as enthusiastic trainee hairdressers while the boys can barely keep away; in her superhero image they all get lightning bolts shaved into their bleached hair.
Never before has a Central Australian community seen a youth worker so colourful and unconventional, and through her truly unique personality and the transformative power of a makeover, Starlady makes a palpably positive impact on the young people’s lives. Resplendent in her infamous giant pink platforms, silver sequined shorts and pink tulle boa, she said after the screening, ‘Utju you’re my family and I love you.’ It was evident throughout the film and from the enormous turnout of Utju community members Starlady’s words were heartfelt and true.
Her fascinating story was exceptional doco fodder, the editing, lively pace and short format pitch perfect, and the juxtaposition of kaleidoscopic costumes with deep desert reds and cerulean skies, dazzling. But the most remarkable element is amidst unrelenting damning news reports of Central Australian Aboriginal communities, Queen of the Desert is the exact opposite. In February Alex Kelly told Matthew Worboys of if.com.au, “Central Australia is often misunderstood and misrepresented, and seen as dysfunctional. The idea that there is a vibrant, creative youth culture in remote Australia is not something that would occur to most people and I wanted to showcase that.” She did so in spectacular fashion.
The red carpet was replaced with a hot pink one at last night’s premiere. Clad in glitzy op shop finery the film crew and Utju girls sashayed down it arm in arm and struck poses for the hoards of cameras. I’ve never seen an Alice crowd so sparkling, proud and triumphant. Everyone laughed heartily throughout the film, there were screams of delight from the Utju kids whenever one of them did something cheeky, and sighs of bliss whenever an overwhelmingly beautiful desert vista filled the outdoor screen.
Queen of the Desert is precisely what Central Australia needs more of; an expertly executed positive, pro-active story of an extraordinary character engaging wholeheartedly with young people, being accepted as family, and making a genuine, lasting difference, all the while doing it with a wink and a smile. We could all learn a lot from Starlady Nungari, and Alex Kelly and the entire crew should be congratulated for their astonishing achievement which is undoubtedly destined for film festival success.
I implore you to tune in to ABC2 on Sunday November 25 at 9.30pm for its television premiere. Never before has Central Australia looked so fabulous, and never before has a story been told about this complex, confronting and magnificent part of the country that is so incredibly uplifting.
Five starladies from me.