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The Dreamers of Arnhem Land

by Christopher Walker
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2005
Video/DVD, 50 mins., col.
Sales: Video-DVD, $390; rental/video, $75
Distributor’s Website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
Jakarta Institute of the Arts

The Dreamers of Arnhem Land is a documentary account of a sustainable development project. It begins with imaginary film of Aboriginal life before the European arrival and what seems like a parody of the cultural encounter with Europeans, of the encroachment of white settlement, the subsequent dispossession of ancestral lands, and the descent into poverty, both economic and cultural. After depicting the deprivations of modern life for such communities, it proceeds to tell the story of how two Aboriginal elders returned to their land to begin anew. The remainder documents their apparently successful attempt to reconnect the future to the past through bringing the next generation back to their ancestral homes.

The strongest and main part of the documentary relates how Stuart and Valerie Ankin set about working with European technical advisors to provide a better future for the North Coast Aboriginals. Their idea is for their descendents to be able to live healthy and productive lives in which they harvest and market traditional natural products in a sustainable fashion. It is an interesting example of how two elders have resolved to ameliorate the multiple problems facing Aborigines in Australia, namely unemployment, poverty, chronic illness, and alcohol abuse and drug addiction. It all came about as the natural culmination of such people’s return to their homes after the Australian government changed its land policies and recognized their rights to their traditional estates in the late 1970’s.

The film will prove useful for educators looking for an example of how highly motivated indigenous peoples can team up with scientists and other advisors to creatively use native knowledge to produce new products in a sustainable and profitable fashion for the market. The dual purpose of this project is to provide meaningful employment in which Aboriginal people return to live on their lands as their ancestors did, to varying degrees, but to do so in order to earn a living and live more healthy lives. In this, the Ankins, the Australian government and the universities and business community, are working together to provide hope and an alternative future to the bleak life of the settlements into which these populations were forcibly settled when their lands were appropriated for ranching and farming in the 1950’s.

It is an interesting film in that one gets a sense of the powerful connection these Aboriginal peoples have to their land and to their ancestors. Indeed, the film succeeds in conveying this connection. However, it is not a particularly compelling documentary. Nevertheless, what makes The Dreamers of Arnhem Land important is the fact that it shows that there is significant potential for sustainable development and cultural survival if isolated local communities work with universities, entrepreneurs and the state to synergistically combine "blackfella’s" and "whiteman’s" knowledge. From the women collecting female long necked turtles to harvest their offspring for the pet market to the men planting harvesting indigenous fruit trees to produce a health tonic, from men harvesting crocodile eggs for crocodile farmers to women harvesting and preparing natural medicines for local use and potential future markets, there is hope in the land.

The movie ends with a particularly compelling scene of a musical event. After the mc’s quintessentially modern invocation "let’s rock ‘n roll", the youngsters begin to dance to electronically enhanced indigenous music. What is so striking is how they do so, if at first tentatively, in the same way as their ancestors have, right there - for tens of thousands of years. Though these children grew up in town watching television and listening instead to rock and country, and surely hip hop and rap, they are finding their way home again here through their very bodies and through sound itself. Through the re-embodiment of the past, of their ancestral knowledge and experience, that they are developing a profound sense of local pride. In this, the proud young rangers of Arnhem Land, and these children, will finally escape the downward spiral of poverty and cultural degradation.

Perhaps the strongest form of critique of this film would be to compare it to deeply nuanced and theorized ethnographic studies of Aboriginal communities that engage the "Blackfella/Whitefella" debate such as Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art (2002) by Fred Myers. There, towards the end of the book, Myers describes peoples’ reactions to the show Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius in 2000 and the larger Australian culture wars and white anxieties, and most pertinent for this film, the culmination of the show in a modern Aboriginal rock performance. Why are such studies so pertinent to this film? Because this is as all as much about Blackfellas, as Whitefellas working with Blackfellas.

The lyrics for the celebrated anthem "Blackfella/Whitefella" by the Warumpi Band are as follows:

"Blackfella, whitefella.
It doesn’t matter what your color
As long as you’re a true fella
As long as you’re a real fella"

And the refrain is: "Are you the one who’s gonna stand up and be counted?" Here lies the larger significance of the success of this sustainable development project. Its success lies in the common cause for a cultural future, new partnerships based on mutual respect and co-operation. It is very much an experiment in inter-cultural production, as is Western desert Aboriginal acrylic painting.

Lastly, if one compares the enormous economic and cultural success of Aboriginal high art to the less lucrative harvesting of long necked turtles and such, it is clear that the changes in lifestyle and labor associated with working rather than representing the land, are driving the kind of economic and social changes that are so desperately needed in Australia. Perhaps music and art, and ecotourism, could provide avenues for an even deeper cultural and economic convergence which could increase the capital available for research and development of natural resources in Arnhem Land and thus the sustainability of this important project.




Updated 1st November 2006

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