UC Journalism Series: Footprints on our Land – A life story of Agnes Shea

26th Oct 2016

*As part of an educational partnership with University of Canberra, CIFF will publish a selection of works by UC Journalism students focussing on this year’s festival. Special thanks to Bronwyn Watson from UC.”

Footprints on our Land: A life story of Agnes Shea

By Lucy Bladen


When Ngunnawal elder Agnes Shea was being filmed for a documentary about her life, she could not grasp why.

‘Aunty Agnes’ – who is perhaps most well-known for her ‘Welcome to Country’ – could not understand why anyone would be interested in a woman who is a leader in the reconciliation movement and a tireless advocate for Indigenous rights.

She did not realise people would be fascinated by her story.

Her granddaughter, Selina Walker said her grandmother didn’t understand it at all in the beginning of the filming.

“She had no idea what it was about, she was kind of going with the flow and doing what she was told,” Walker said.

“When they would ask her questions she would be like why are they asking me that, why do they need to know that, why are they asking (former Chief Minister) Jon Stanhope, do they think I am lying?

“The only way I could describe it to her was this is your life in a video format.”  

Late last year, Shea was approached to make a film about her life called Footprints on our Land which will feature on the opening night of the Canberra International Film Festival.

Footprints on our Land examines Shea’s difficult childhood where she grew up on reserves in Yass to her role today as a Ngunnawal elder.

The film brought tears to Shea’s eyes when she watched it.

“She is so humble that she never saw herself in that sort of a light,” Walker said.

Walker said this film was very important and she was “proud and honoured” to have a film about her grandmother.

“Words can’t really describe how important it is, our elders and our ancestor’s lives are not documented so to have an elder, my grandmother being the one to have a digital documentary of her life is huge,” she said.

“Storytelling is great but you can’t get a visual so to be able to listen and see her on screen, it’s amazing and it is going to have such a great impact on people’s lives.”

Walker who has a significant role in the film describes Shea as her “hero.”

“She’s just such a wonderful person who is never bitter and never angry, she’s just an idol for anybody, black or white it doesn’t matter,” she said.

Shea’s advocacy work in the Ngunnawal region is particularly important Walker believes and she plans to continue the work of her grandmother.

“It is very important particularly here in the ACT where our Aboriginal culture is so disjointed because it is the political state so it is kind of really hard to practise Aboriginal culture,” she said.

“(I plan to) keep advocating for those key services that we need here in the ACT to keep our mob together but also mentally, physically and spiritually well.

“It is very important that Aboriginal culture has a strong stance here in the ACT and that we continue to fight for equal rights and recognition and that’s what I’ll be continuing to do.”

The idea to make Footprints on our Land came from executive producer Rauny Worm, director of the Tuggeranong Arts Centre.

“I think it is a really important role of the arts to help preserve a culture and a heritage and this struck me as a really important part of Canberra’s Indigenous heritage,” Worm said.

“It’s not always easy for a white organisation like we are to engage meaningfully into the Indigenous arts sphere.”

Worm described Shea as her favourite Ngunnawal elder and that is part of the reason she wanted to pursue her story.

“I have come across her in a lot of Welcome to Country’s and events in previous jobs going back a few years and I guess I always wondered what her story was and her age is so significant, I mean there aren’t many Indigenous people of her age around,” she said.

Worm approached filmmaker Pat Fiske to direct the film after working with her on a previous project.

Upon being approached, Fiske showed interest in the film, however she felt that an Indigenous person should be involved in the filmmaking process.

“First of all, (I said) I would be a consultant for a filmmaker who could do it in Canberra – like an Aboriginal filmmaker would be best,” Fiske said.

“They found a couple but for cultural reasons they couldn’t work with Aunty Agnes and so they came back to me.

“I said ok I will do it if you can find me someone I can mentor because then I would feel better about making a film about an Aboriginal person.”

Fiske of Bower Bird Films said she and Shea hit it off from the first meeting.

“It’s not hard to fall in love with her, she’s just very down to earth and she has no airs about her,” she said.

“I wanted to convey what kind of person she was and what she had gone through and that she has no bitterness which I find hard to believe.”

CIFF director, Alice Taylor, said it was important to play a film like this on the opening night.

“When we found out there was a documentary being made about one of the local highly regarded senior elders of the Ngunnawal people it was important that we put this film upfront to acknowledge the importance of local Ngunnawal people’s stories,” she said.

“As part of a general acknowledgement of country in the sense that we’re committed to telling stories whose voices and perspectives are really important and one of those is Indigenous Australian’s, specifically from Canberra.”


Footprints on our Land will be shown at 6pm on Thursday October 27 at the Canberra International Film Festival. Book here.