Crocodile Dundee and Me: Bessie Coleman

‘Crocodile Dundee and Me’ - reflections of Kakadu Traditional Owners on the 30 year anniversary of the film’s release.

Bessie Coleman’s story as told by Mikaela Jade

A smash box-office hit, ‘Crocodile Dundee’ became a worldwide sensation, but as I find out from Bessie Coleman (senior traditional owner Jawoyn, Bolmo, Matjba and Wurrkbarbar peoples), the film is so much more for her family and other Bininj/Mungguy people.

Here’s how it has permeated Jawoyn culture as a part of their modern dreaming.

“My heart fills with pride when I think of that balanda (white man) and his lady on my Country, at Gunlom. It’s the first time a big film star came and worked with my people, proper way. It was really good for the board to approve that movie. It was our voice,” says Bessie.

Bessie Coleman

She is a born storyteller and while we sit in a cafe in Pine Creek, it’s impossible not be drawn into her world as she recalls the time when Paul Hogan and his crew arrived in Kakadu to film She has a big smile and an infectious laugh when she remembers ‘how good that balanda man was at spearing barramundi’ - even though barramundi were never caught traditionally at Gunlom.

“Gunlom is a special place, and through the movie the world got to see our special places and it brought people to Kakadu. Kakadu got famous from that movie,” she says. Bessie says that she would encourage all film-makers to come back on Country after they make their films. “We get great pride from our Country being in movies. We want to share that with the producers and movie stars when it is all finished,” she said.

Before balanda came to Kakadu, Gunlom was a sacred site where only the old people could visit. It is now one of the most popular visitor areas in Kakadu, and Bessie couldn’t be happier. She enjoys people visiting her Country, and sharing her culture.

“When I first saw the movie, I felt good about it and I still love that movie. I can see my Country, and other Bininj Country in that movie. I spent a lot of time living all over Kakadu, and it’s all in that movie. That’s not Mick Dundee’s Country - that’s my Country, and Jonathan Nadji’s, and Jeffrey Lee’s,” says Bessie, laughing at fact versus fiction.

Gunlom falls | Kakadu

Bessie spent her life working in Kakadu before it was a national park, and is now a member of the Kakadu National Park Joint Park Management Board. “I used to go hunting for buffalo with my partner and family, I have been a cultural advisor to the mine, and a seasonal ranger at Gunlom. I have had my whole life looking after this place,” she reflects.

While Bessie loves watching ‘Crocodile Dundee’ for the landscapes, she points the ways in which Paul Hogan and his crew were culturally mindful of her people. “Those bushfoods were all harvested with our family members, and were foods from the Gunlom area.”  Hogan was also instructed on the correct way to spear fish, and use a bull roarer. “He’s very good,” she says with surprise in her voice.

We talk about what the film means to her family. “My grannies (grandkids) always ask me to watch ‘Crocodile Dundee’ with them. They asked me to buy it for them. Not just the first one, but all of them!”

I wonder why a movie created four generations ago still resonates with Jawoyn. Bessie tells me it’s because her brother and other family are in the film. Having passed away many years ago, the film gives Bessie, her children, and their children’s children a way to connect with her brother and other relatives. “It reminds me that I had a big brother, and for the kids, they get so much happiness from pointing out their big uncle at the Corroboree.”

Bessie’s only regret is that so few film stars and producers return to Kakadu after filming. “We would love to see them again,” she says, “Or at least receive a copy of the film!”

Thirty years have gone by since a larrikin Australian ‘had a go’ making a film. Bessie says that in another 30 years Jawoyn will still watch Crocodile Dundee, and remember the time a man fell in love with a lady on the beach at Gunlom.

Although times change, and Bininj/Mungguy people change too, Kakadu remains the same and Gunlom is still as perfect as when the film was made. Kakadu National Park’s World Heritage status means we can all keep falling in love with Kakadu.