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gem blackwood: u-matic to youtube: indigenous community filmmaking

Gem Blackwood is a Melbourne-based media and film writer who is completing a PhD on cinema and travel at the University of Melbourne

Two Laws (1981) Two Laws (1981)
THERE WAS A SENSE OF POIGNANCY THAT PERMEATED PROCEEDINGS AT THE ‘FROM U-MATIC TO YOUTUBE’ SYMPOSIUM, A CONFERENCE CO-CONVENED BY MONASH UNIVERSITY AND THE AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR THE MOVING IMAGE (ACMI). ON THE OPENING MORNING, DR. THERESE DAVIS (MONASH UNIVERSITY) BROKE THE NEWS THAT A NUMBER OF THE SCHEDULED PARTICIPANTS FROM REMOTE BORROLOOLA COMMUNITY IN THE NORTHERN TERRITORY–KEY INVITED SPEAKERS—COULD NO LONGER MAKE THE EVENT AFTER THE SUDDEN DEATH OF A COMMUNITY ELDER.

It was touching to learn that this elder was a significant figure and actor in some of the Borroloola films that were to be screened at the event. The symposium was henceforth dedicated to the “old people” of Indigenous communities who have fought hard for the current possibilities for Aboriginal filmmaking in Australia. The entire event was recorded on film so that a future dialogue might continue between the participants and those absent.

The major focus of the symposium was to recognise the achievements and the challenges of remote community filmmaking. These are frequently low-budget films that don’t usually make it to any type of public screening. Because such films are community projects or else privately undertaken, they comprise a grey area of Australian filmmaking, neglected and virtually unknown both in public discourse and academic scholarship.

The symposium provided a choice opportunity for ACMI and co-convenor Helen Simondson to showcase some of the work they have been doing in conjunction with Aboriginal communities in Victoria through the Digital Storytelling program. In operation at ACMI since February 2004, the scheme involves teams working with community groups to enable individuals across the state to create three to four minute multimedia stories about their lives, histories and interests. Despite a tendency toward sentimentality, without question Digital Storytelling has provided an important recording tool for Indigenous Victorian communities when beforehand there was none.

While it may be a standard view that films should be shown to large audiences, there is also significant Indigenous filmmaking screened purely for the benefit of small, remote communities. The Yanyuwa Song Lines Animation Project from the Borroloola community is a case in point. Their short films—The Law that comes from the Land, the Islands and the Sea (2010), The Song of the Tiger Shark at Manankurra (2010), The Dreamings of the Saltwater Country (2010)—have been made as attempts to rescue sacred stories and songlines for the Borroloola community that would otherwise be lost with the passing of elders. As Associate Professor John Bradley (Monash University), who helped with the production of these short films, warns, “it is inconceivable what really dies” when traditional stories are lost in the generation gap. These films were screened at the symposium and at one public screening at ACMI but only with the special permission of the Borroloola community. This raised an important issue that characterises some Indigenous community filmmaking—what Professor Stephen Muecke (UNSW) referred to as the “politics of non-distribution,” which might also complicate the job of accounting for the extent of community filmmaking in Australia.

A tie-in event to the symposium was the release on DVD of the landmark film Two Laws by Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini, timed to commemorate its 30-year anniversary. Made at the beginning of the land rights struggle in Arnhem Land in the late 1970s, it provides a fascinating document of life in the Borroloola community in the midst of large-scale political upheaval. ACMI arranged a public screening of the film. Two Laws is admittedly not an Indigenous film in the sense of being made by an Indigenous director or producer from the community—at the time the Borroloola community had no filmmaking experience and required outside expertise. Yet the film was obviously created with much insight and creative contribution from the community. According to Strachan and Cavadini, who spoke at the panel session “Updating Two Laws: DVDs and Indigenous film heritage,” even the narrative of the film was collaboratively created, defined by storytelling traditions from the Borroloola community.

Tim Kanoa, Digital Storytelling, ACMI Tim Kanoa, Digital Storytelling, ACMI
Of course, 30 years on, there is also much to celebrate about Indigenous filmmaking, with successful feature films made by directors such as Ivan Sen, Rachel Perkins and Warwick Thornton. The second focus of the symposium was to celebrate the achievements of Indigenous filmmakers and foreground issues at stake in contemporary digital filmmaking. To this end, the symposium focused on the work of two Aboriginal female filmmakers, Darlene Johnston and Romaine Moreton, invited speakers at the event.

Discussions were framed around screenings of the makers’ precocious first short films, Johnston’s Two Bob Mermaid (1996) and Moreton’s The Farm (2006). Johnston, who has gone on to make a number of acclaimed short films and documentaries and is currently getting ready to shoot her first feature film, Obelia, spoke about current copyright opportunities for emerging filmmakers and of her experience working with renowned actor David Gulpilil for her film Crocodile Dreaming (2007). Moreton indicated the importance of using cinema to highlight the previously untold stories of Indigenous life in Australia; in her instance with the making of The Farm it was the green bean-pickers doing casual work around Queensland and Central New South Wales. She also spoke eloquently about Indigenous community filmmaking elsewhere in the world such as the Canadian online portal IsumaTV which is produced for Inuit communities and could serve as inspiration and a possible model for Australian communities.

There were some voices of dissent at the symposium; some felt that the proceedings required a much stronger Indigenous presence. To this end, it was urged that a second, larger conference with greater funding be held, incorporating views from Indigenous filmmakers from around the country. Overall, the symposium seemed well placed to raise awareness of the politics of contemporary Indigenous community filmmaking, as well as to focus on the sheer sensitivity of many of the issues involved in the filmmaking process and in copyright law.

Perhaps one shortcoming of the symposium was that it was difficult to assess how extensive Indigenous community filmmaking is. The case studies featured were informative, yet these were only two examples. How many remote communities are making films? How can one attempt to characterise Indigenous community filmmaking over the last three decades? A second conference could feature reports from community groups in each state and territory and perhaps aim to form a national network to encourage further production, distribution and leverage future filmmaking opportunities.


Australian Centre for the Moving Image and Monash University, From U-matic to YouTube: a symposium celebrating three decades of Australian Indigenous community filmmaking, ACMI, Melbourne, June 8-9

Gem Blackwood is a Melbourne-based media and film writer who is completing a PhD on cinema and travel at the University of Melbourne

RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 pg. 32

© Gem Blackwood; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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