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Indigenous Australian police
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Film FestivalOur Law

Discover the only Indigenous-run police station in Australia at Sydney Film Festival

Documentary ‘Our Law’ offers hope for change in the policing of black lives

Nick Dent
Written by
Nick Dent

This article names a person who has died.

Ian Ward, known as Mr Ward, was an elder from Warburton, WA. A conservation worker, an interpreter for local police, and a teacher of children of the Gibson Desert, he also travelled to China with a delegation representing the Ngaanyatjarra lands.

In January 2008, the 46-year-old was charged with a drink driving offence, put in the back of a van and driven for four hours by the G4S prison transfer service. Air conditioning in the rear of the van was faulty. Given no way to communicate with the officers driving the vehicle up front, he collapsed in temperatures so severe that he suffered burns to his stomach from the metal floor, and died shortly after arrival. 

This notorious incident, one of the 432 deaths in police custody of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people since 1991, is one of the reasons why trust in the police in the Gibson Desert region has been in short supply. It’s also why the existence of an Indigenous-run police station in the remote community of Warakurna, 330km west of Uluru, is a welcome development. 

“The community has been directly affected by a death in custody – a senior member of the community,” says filmmaker Cornel Ozies, whose half-hour documentary ‘Our Law’, profiling the Warakurna Police Station, screens in the Sydney Film Festival this month. “Right now with the drama unfolding in America and the spotlight turning to Indigenous issues in Australia a lot of people are looking at the problems, but nobody’s putting up solutions. And this documentary presents a solution.”

"A lot of people are looking at the problems but nobody’s putting up solutions. And this documentary presents a solution”

In ‘Our Law’ we meet Brevet Sergeant Wendy Kelly and Brevet Senior Sergeant Revis Ryder as they go about their business at the only police station in Australia run by Indigenous officers. Each is doing their best to reach out to the 200 local inhabitants: Ryder by coaching a footy team and Kelly by studying the local language.       

“When you are interacting with community, English is not their first language, it’s their second or third,” says Ozies. “So when someone who doesn’t speak fluent English has interactions with a police officer there’s a communication breakdown, things will escalate and could lead to arrest. Wendy and Revis are learning the language of the land so they have something to diffuse situations... [It] builds a foundation of trust and respect.”

Central to the film is the figure of Kelly, a Noongar woman who is an officer of 20 years’ standing and a recipient of the Australian Police Medal, the service’s highest award. A former street kid, alcoholic and a survivor of domestic violence, Kelly turned her life around to become a community liaison officer and eventually entered the academy. “Nothing was off-limits [with Wendy],” says Ozies. “She told the dark history of her life, and it was the kindness of the police officer on the night when she was bleeding out on the floor that turned her life around.”

Sydney-based Ozies is an Indigenous man from the Kimberley Region who graduated from the AFTRS and has worked on movies including Thor: Ragnarok and The Sapphires. He says that respect and deep listening can bring about change. “Things could go in the right direction if we explore what’s happening in Warakurna and take the key things that are making it a success. The documentary could inform and influence some policy changes, I think.” 

‘Our Law’ is one of ten films screening in the Documentary Australia Foundation Awards section of the Sydney Film Festival and competing for the $10,000 cash prize. All ten films can be accessed online as a bundle for $99 or for $14 each for the duration of the festival, June 10-21. Audiences can also watch ‘Our Law’ on NITV on Karla Grant Presents on Monday, June 22 at 8.30pm. 

Find out about the full program of the Sydney Film Festival 2020.

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