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Rosalie Kunoth-Monks OAM

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks was the first Aboriginal female movie star, alongside being an advocate for her community.

Honour Roll

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, proud Arrernte Anmatjere woman, was born at the small settlement of Utopia, 250 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs.

Her life changed dramatically in 1953 when movie director Charles Chauvel discovered her after an extensive search and hired her to play the female lead in his film Jedda. The film, which only featured three professional actors, was shot on location in Central Australia. It was the first Australian feature film to have Aboriginal people play lead roles. Most scenes were filmed on the Coolibah station in the Northern Territory, but some were shot at geographical locations such as the Ormiston Gorge.

The film centres around the adoption of a young Aboriginal baby into a white family on a cattle station and the dilemmas this creates. The child, Jedda, is forbidden to have any contact with the Aboriginal people where she lives. One day an Aboriginal man starts working at the station and he ends up kidnapping the adolescent Jedda. She is frightened as she enters the unfamiliar physical and psychological world of her ancestors.

The landscape is used to great effect in this part of the film, particularly as it is the first Australian feature film produced in colour. Rosalie's beauty and strong performance are a vital factor in the appeal of the film. Jedda premiered in Darwin on 3 January 1955, attended by the Aboriginal stars and Australian press. On 5 May it premiered in Sydney at the Lyceum Theatre with a strong publicity campaign. It was praised for its visual grandeur and for the sincerity of its script. Jedda was actually the first Australian film to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

Rosalie became very well known outside her community but still managed to complete her education in Alice Springs and Adelaide. She then became the first Aboriginal Anglican nun when she entered the Community of the Holy Name. When she left after a decade she became a liaison officer with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and married confectioner William Monks.

In 1977, Rosalie returned to Alice Springs and became an activist. She stood unsuccessfully for the Northern Territory parliament as a candidate for the Country Liberal Party before working for the Aboriginal Legal Aid Service. She became a member of ATSIC and a member of the governing body of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. In 1993, the family moved back to her birthplace, Utopia, looking for a better quality of life.

With the Stolen Generation becoming a prominent issue, Rosalie reflected, "While Aboriginal people continue to be undermined and their land and language degraded, it's difficult to say that there has been any progress over the past 40 years".