Queen of the Desert Review – That Munanga Linguist

No, not Priscilla. The real one. Starlady.

ABC2 last night screened a terrific 30min doco about Starlady - a hairdressing, youth worker phenom doing great work in desert communities.If you missed the program then go straight to iView and hope it’s still up there. Here’s the direct link.

Starlady in Areyonga. Source: ABC

Not only was it a wonderful and interesting story, it provided a few genuine gems of wisdom. Starlady demonstrates how to deliver training and youth programs that are popular and engaging to young people in remote communities; a feat that many programs, including government school education delivery, often fails to accomplish. What is particularly special about this story is that the wisdom and positive example is being set by someone who has been discriminated against and would be seen as an outcast by many. Yet Starlady has a lot to teach munanga (non-Indigenous people). Some of the same people who would undoubtedly disparage or discriminate against her would probably be the same people struggling to get beyond their own ignorance to understand how life works in the bush and how to engage with people in communities. It was great to watch this positive story unfold and see how much Starlady actually likes the people she’s working with. (Seriously and sadly – it is not at all a given that munanga working out bush actually *like* Aboriginal people). It was very moving to see her choke back tears while contrasting her city life with her remote community work:

“I was so used to being abused. I had people spitting on me, I had people throwing stuff at me. There was people trying fights everyday on public transport. And I was just being abused so much. And then I went to this place where people gave me lots of love and, you know, I could be this. I could be something special and you could do some really positive things.”

Starlady *gets* it where many government and non-government service providers in remote Australia don’t. Where too many munanga go to communities and see mess, dysfunction and apathy, Starlady correctly sees beyond:

“The young people, they’re styling! There’s a sense of style out in the desert. People take really great personal pride in their appearance out here. But they don’t always have the tools and access to the materials to be able to do that”.

But Starlady’s no academic or deep-thinker. Just a clear-seer. Speaking about remote youth:

“They know that there’s not a lot of real opportunities for them. They know that compared to the rest of Australia they’re living in poverty”.

Starlady’s approach and perspectives should be the norm for non-Indigenous people working out bush but unfortunately, people like her are rare. Dominating service providers like schools just aren’t given the space and freedom to approach education and training the same way. Caught up in NAPLAN testing, policies, curricula and being part of a massive institution makes such dynamism nigh on impossible for most government teachers in remote schools. A pity. It was also great to see in the program some of the responses from the community members in Areyonga to Starlady’s work: the boys on the catwalk showing off; the teenage girls shyly but proudly presenting their style. And the final quote from a community leader is gold:

“I’ve seen the movie Priscilla and I think Starlady is a real queen of the desert. And not Priscilla. Priscilla came here to act but Starlady is for real. And we loved her.”

Lovely. It was a great program and got a great response too, despite having a limited audience because of its 9:30 timeslot on ABC2. A number of tweets raved about the program, such as:

It was so great to see #queenOTD #queenofthedesert on @abc2 tonight. Finally some positive representations of Aboriginal communities on TV.

— Misha (@wirnpa) November 25, 2012

Make sure you catch the program! And keep doing what you do Starlady.

Original blog post.

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The Real Priscilla – Queen of the Desert review

The Real Priscilla

All press images courtesy of 360 Degree Films

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.

Utju lies in a beautiful valley

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.

Busy day at the salon

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.

Mary and Starlady

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.

Director Alex Kelly with Mary and Olivia

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.

Julia Winterflood http://jwinterflood.com/2012/11/19/the-real-priscilla/

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Queen of the Desert – selected news clippings

Front page of the Wangaratta Chronicle – Starlady’s home town paper, November 2012.


Joy FM podcast with Alex and Starlady

ABC Radio Rural interview with Alex and Starlady

ABC Radio Alice Springs story

Radio Australia interview with Alex and Starlady


Front page Alice Springs paper Centralian Advocate, November 2012


ABC Alice Springs “Ready for our close up” story

Gay Express (NZ) Interview with Starlady

SMH Review of Queen of the Desert

Starlady’s blog

AIDC Round Up on Screen Australia presentation

Inside Film Magazine interview with Alex

Julia Winterflood review of of film and Pink Carpet Premiere

That Munanga Linguist review


 MX Newspaper page 3 feature, November 2012


Queen of the Desert web extras including crew interviews

Sunrise program

‘An inspiring story about a remarkable person’
Greg Hassal, Sydney Morning Herald Review

‘Step Aside Priscilla there is a new Queen in town… We have a lot to learn from indigenous Australia’
Sunday Territorian

I sat and watched that doco tonight with a permanent smile and then in parts, I was laughing out loud with the rest of Areyonga. That was one of the most gorgeous and inspirational stories I have seen in a long while. To work amongst indigenous people and to be privilege to culture is a gift not shared with many, but it seems, you are a light amongst all people with a heart of gold.
Facebook comment

‘How beautiful to see a remote community finally portrayed as creative, healthy and vibrant. Great work @ABC2′
Twitter comment

Last night I had the heartwarming pleasure of attending the Alice premiere of Queen of the Desert, the most uplifting, entertaining and downright outrageous doco about a Central Australian community I’ve ever seen. Five starladies from me!
Julia Winterflood, Blogger



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Inside Film Magazine – Queen of the Desert interview


By Matthew Worboys

Director Alex Kelly is always on the lookout for interesting, intercultural projects. Now, with some financial help from Screen Australia, Screen Territory and ABC TV, Queen of the Desert, Kelly’s most recent project for 360 Degree Films is heading to television.

Queen of the Desert follows a youth worker named Starlady who travels to Areyonga, an indigenous community in Central Australia in the hopes of using her hairdressing skills to help the people there.

“Starlady is an amazing character, full of wit, cheekiness and integrity”, says Kelly. “I visited a community in Western Australia where she had helped Wilurrara Creative set up a salon and was struck by the power of the program and immediately saw a film in my mind – it is such a colourful, playful and visual program.”

Living in Alice Springs, Kelly understands the conception some people have of Central Australia, and hopes to show the communities in a more truthful light. “Central Australia is often misunderstood and misrepresented, and seen as dysfunctional”, explains Kelly. “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.”

Shooting over 12 days, the production crew had over 50 hours of footage to whittle down to the required 30 minute run time. Kelly is quick to compliment editor Simon Wright. “[He] has been such a solid person to work with and has really got the story, characters and the things I want to draw out.”

Queen of the Desert is one of five short form documentaries that have been funded by Screen Australia and ABC TV for their Opening Shot scheme. Other documentaries funded include Ben Eriksen’s Future Radicals, a film about the online vigilante group Anonymous, and Project Baby, a documentary about director Shalom Almond attempts at starting a family using controversial Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis IVF.

On what initially interested her about Starlady and indigenous communities represented in Queen of the Desert, Kelly says “I think that examples of people respectfully and powerfully working together are the kinds of stories that Australia needs to hear right now. We hear so many stories of division and violence, I don’t think we talk enough about what works, how and why.”

The documentaries will be shown on ABC2 in mid-2012.

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