Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Shimmering Screens: Making Media in an Aboriginal Community

by Jennifer Deger
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2006
267 pp. Paper, $22.50
ISBN-10: 0-8166-4922-7.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg


Mululuarrgalarrnga, Yuduryuryudur, Yirrgirinydjingur, Gamadalalanguriya . . . these are the song names of the source of the sacred waters of the Gularri river that snakes through northeast Arnhem Land and empties into the Arufua Sea. With these "inside" words, the film Gularri begins. Onomatopoeic, reserved for sacred rituals, and used here in the profane public context of the mass media, for a television documentary, their naming sets both the tone and the problematic nature for all that follows. Thus Gularri begins with Charlie Ngalambirra, a dhalkara (ritual specialist) intoning the names of the Yirritja moiety clans and the ancestral places they are connected to and through along the river. The synaesthetic effect is enhanced by the subsequent blurring of the images of dancers performing the secret Yirrita Yolngu ngarra revelatory rites, partly recognizable but blurred by the effect of shimmering water — the central metaphor and key Yolngu symbol explored in Shimmering Screens: Making Media in an Aboriginal Community. Indeed, as the late Bangana Wunungmurra, the Aboriginal consultant for the film, declaimed: "When they hear that they know we are not mucking around." Little wonder then that after the unexpected death of a woman featured in the video, the program was no longer allowed to be shown and that Bangana’s subsequent sudden death was widely perceived as the consequence of a sorcerer’s revenge.

Shimmering Screens is at the leading edge of a disciplinary paradigm shift in which anthropologists are taking into account the role of media in daily life and how individuals and communities use media to make sense of their lives. Drawing as would be expected on Benjamin, and more so on Heidegger’s lesser known work on technology and imagery, Deger conveys a deeply sensitive understanding of the power of images and transmission of sacred Yolngu knowledge. Above all, Shimmering Screens is a reflective account of a collaborative film project. Throughout, Jennifer Deger is concerned with relating what it means to be Yolngu and ultimately what the imagery of shimmering waters conveys and conceals. It is in great part an account of the production of a documentary film in which she and her key informant Bangana Wunungmurra sought to strengthen local culture and knowledge through the mass media. The explicit aim was to convey a sense of indigenous sacra while sufficiently protecting its secrecy and carefully negotiating and respecting different clans’ ownership of particular places along the river, the ownership of ancestral knowledge relating to these sites and thus their relationships to each other. It reveals a great deal about the importance of the restrictions placed on the circulation of knowledge and yet how Bangana was able to successfully convey the sense of the sacred and the power of ancestral heritage — or in the short life of the film and in his death — the very opposite. In this, Shimmering Screens raises as many ripples to explore in the future as its presentation would otherwise suggest.

is a classic example of what the ethnographic study of media has to offer in terms of understanding the complex bi-directional production and reception of indigenous media but more importantly perhaps for critically assessing the future analytic value of the self-reflexive phenomenological turn. The lasting contribution of this work may well turn out to be that it could provide a watershed mark for assessing the evolution of interpretive anthropology as it has developed since the mid 1980’s. Above and beyond its fascinating ethnographic insights into Yolngu aesthetics, particularly relating to water, it provides an excellent example for social scientists at large to critically assess the now medium term results of the post-modernist interpretive turn in anthropology. The question that occurs to me to ask is whether the subjective self-reflective aspect of the interpretive quest in anthropology has gone too far. In this Shimmering Screens ultimately raises unintended and unsettling questions about the future of the discipline itself.

While it is a fascinating case study which deftly engages and advances the study of ethnographic media what has been left out about modernity, popular culture and connection to new media forms is intriguing despite the obvious caveat that there is only so much territory an ethnographer can cover. Nevertheless, the intensity of the role of popular culture and the mass media, which Deger refers to here and there in passing, signals a critical blind spot. Future researchers might thus be well advised to take note of a trail worth exploring in the Australian outback, no doubt less romantic, but no less revealing.

This is an important issue as the central premise of the study is about understanding the influence of modern media on Aboriginal society particularly television, music, radio and video, yet we learn exceedingly little about such popular culture. This observation is not intended to diminish the fundamental ethnographic contribution of the work in terms of what it does reveal about Yolngu aesthetics but to call attention to studies such as Buried Country by Clinton Walker (2000) such that future ethnographers might return to such communities and revisit the larger cultural context from which Shimmering Screens emerged so as to arrive at a more complex understanding of the large media environment. Such ethnographies will have to document the drug use, the drinking and the violence, the depression and the innumerable premature deaths, the dark side - but all this alongside the potencies of the pleasures the youth take in lives half-lived. That is the other side of the story that urgently needs to be told in order to better understand this video and Bangana’s life and sudden death believed by many to be an act of sorcery.

To return to the wider significance of this study to social science, the critical reader might in the end be left wondering whether it is time for anthropology to re-evaluate not the phenomenological turn, nor the interest in imagination and the role of media in daily life, but the value of such transparent and constant self-reflexivity. How much stronger could such a study be if the self-reflection was implicit rather than explicit? Should not the process of introspection simply inform a richer analysis of Yolngu aesthetics in and of itself —— or has this particular tributary of interpretive media anthropology become as much a confessional form of understanding the self as the other?

Ultimately perhaps the strongest aspect of the work lies in its elucidation of the shimmering revelatory aesthetics relating to water and generalized as a metaphor for ancestral knowledge in the arts of Arnhem land. Indeed, for those interested in the ways in which different cultures relate to water specifically and to nature and each other more generally, this will prove a fascinating study. This will be especially the case for the Leonardo community as it will stimulate us to reflect back upon Leonardo’s project "Le Pouvoir de la Genie" in 2000 which combined the arts and science in order to better understand rivers and water in Africa. In this era of climate change and global warming, we might do well then to look to the future value of indigenous knowledge relating to water but now in the context of an emerging humanitarian and economic crisis already well underway in the drier areas of Australia.



Updated 1st March 2008

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2008 ISAST