Singing the Milky Way: a journey into the Dreaming is a film just recently completed and released on DVD by David Betz, curator of Songlines Aboriginal Art in San Francisco (and Amsterdam). The film is many things: a basic introduction to Aboriginal art and to the Dreaming, a biographical essay on Paddy Japaljarri Sims, an attempt to capture Warlpiri culture in the 21st century, a eulogy for knowledge that is on the verge of being lost, and a means of capturing at least a glimpse of that knowledge before it goes. It succeeds marvelously well on all accounts, no mean achievement at all. It is a film that is accessible to those who know nothing about the Dreaming; those who are already familiar with the art and the stories will come away enriched. My chief complaint is that it was released too close to December 25 to make it a timely Christmas present for friends.
The film had its genesis in 2001, when Betz returned to Yuendumu to renew his friendship with Paddy Japaljarri Sims. Structurally, it is anchored in the creation of a large painting by Sims that depicts a series of interconnected stories relating to the sites of Yanjilpiri and Ngnaripulong, and the Dreaming track that lies between them. Yanjilpiri (meaning “stars”) is a place northwest of Yuendumu where it is said that Dreamtime ancestors fell out of the sky to the earth. The large boulders that dominate the landscape at Yanjilpiri are these ancestors, who performed the first initiation ceremonies for young men at this site. Some of the stars that fell at Yanjilpiri were gathered up and placed on an enormous ceremonial pole which represents munga, the night. Men carried the pole west towards Ethel Creek before turning east and south. At Ngnaripulong a large sandhill stretches today that is both the pole and the night sky full of the stars of the Milky Way. There the men lifted the pole above their heads to place the stars back in the sky and to bring on the longer days and shorter nights of summer. Paddy Sims laments (and boasts) that he is the last man alive who knows the whole song cycle relating to Yanjilpiri,munga, and yiwarra (the Milky Way). Given that the old man is approaching 90 years of age, Betz urgently wanted to record what he could of this tradition.
The film illustrates the yanjilpiri narrative in a number of very effective and sometimes surprising ways. There are scenes of Paddy Sims at work on the painting at the Warlukurlangu Art Centre with the assistance of his sister, Sheila Napaljarri, and old friend Paddy Japaljarri Stewart. There is footage of trips out to Yanjilpiri and Ngnaripulong that allows us to see the country. Clever cinematic visualization techniques make connections between the elements of the painting and the elements of the landscape. Best of all, there is much singing and some wonderful dancing (by the women of Yuendumu) that tie together painting, landscape, and ritual.
The earliest parts of the film are given over to a rudimentary introduction to the concepts of the Dreaming and to the importance of country to the Warlpiri. This gives even the most uninitiated viewer the information necessary to appreciate what follows. We see the painting at the Art Centre, and then the stars coming out at night over Yanjilpiri, and the old men calling out to them: Jungurrayi, the first star to appear at night, followed by Japaljarri. Paddy sits in front of a fire singing, and the women begin to move along with his song, seated, at first, but later standing, swaying, and lifting outstretched arms in front of them. Later on we see Paddy Stewart approaching the sandhill at Ngnaripulong; like the women dancing at Yanjilpiri, he is animated, despite his age, by the connection to the land and the sky. But it isn’t until the final moments of the film that connections among all of these scenes shine forth and we participate in a fuller revelation.
The involvement of the women of Yuendumu in the project came as something of a surprise to Betz. He went to Australia to work with Paddy Sims, but as all the artists sat painting on the verandah of the Art Centre, he came to know the women as well. They proposed a trip out to country, like that of the Japaljarri’s to Yanjilpiri, to the red ochre mine at Karrku (which names both the site and the ochre found there). This expedition comes as an interlude in the middle of the film, but adds its own layers to the larger narrative.
On arriving at Karrku, the party of women sit down to cook up their sausages and kangaroo tails. While the food is still on the fire they begin singing the Dreaming story of the Jakamarra man who planted the ochre deposit nearby. According to the tale the ochre grew into a mountain. Two sisters arrived there and used a rope made of the snake-vinenyalyipi to pull down the mountain and bring the ochre within their reach. They spent the night with Jakamarra, who taught them the ritual use of the ochre. The next morning, the two sisters set off into the desert. These stories are sung and danced by the Yuendumu women, and one of the most delightful (and surprising) moments in the film occurs when Peggy Napurrula Poulson and Jorna Napurrula Nelson, portraying the two Dreamtime sisters, collapse onto the ground, miming the sisters expiring of thirst in the desert. Their performance is broadly comedic, and evokes a chorus of laughter from everyone present.
Nyalyipi is a frequent motif in the paintings of many Warlpiri women, including Judy Napangardi Watson, who leads the party up the steep and long slope of Karrku to the ochre mine. The sight of this tiny woman crawling into the cave and ferociously wielding her crowbar is alone worth the price of admission. Even better, though, is the sheer sensual delight the women evince when they finally locate a vein of the ochre, and immediately begin to briskly cover their arms with the sacred stuff. From Karrku, the film takes us back to Yuendumu to watch the women painting up with ochre and teaching a line of young girls, similarly painted, to dance.
There are many other delights tucked away in the course of the film. Interviews with Paddy Stewart and Jack Jakamarra Ross give the old men the chance to tell the stories of the janganpa (possum) and pamapardu (flying ant) dreamings as they paint. Again the men belie their age as they vigorously seize their canes to demonstrate how one of the Possum Women whacked the other with her nulla nulla. Later on, Francis Jupurrula Kelly (director of the original Bush Mechanics film) shows up to help tell the story of the visit to Paris to create a ground painting at the Pompidou Center for the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition in 1989. A capsule history of painting at Yuendumu provides not just context for current activities but also a wonderful look at the Yuendumu Doors.
The Warlpiri at Yuendumu have had the good fortune to be involved in a number of outstanding film projects over the years (or is it we who have been the fortunate recipients of this cultural bonanza?) There is Bush Mechanics, of course. Philip Haas’s 1989 film The Giant Woman and the Lightning Man offers an extended look at the creation of a ground painting and includes many of the same men who appear in Betz’s movie. (Its second half focuses on bark painting in Arnhem Land and features John Mawurndjul and James Iyuna.) Warlukurlangu and the Warlpiri Media Assoication produced Jardiwarnpa: a Warlpiri fire ceremony in 1993 as part of the Blackout series on ABC-TV. This hour-long feature tells the story of the Dreamtime snake Yarripiri at Winparrku and the efforts of Darby Jampijinpa Ross to organize a performance of the ritual associated with it.
Singing the Milky Way is a worthy addition to the filmed literature of the Warlpiri. It is available from David Betz at Songlines in a code-free, all-regions DVD for US$29.95. Betz has put up a “Director’s Commentary” on his webste that features well over 100 stills from the movie and provides a superb narrative complement to the video itself. (If you have a large enough computer screen and a built-in DVD drive, paging through the web commentary as you watch the movie–the second time–enriches the whole experience: much better than the average, annoying commentaries on feature film releases.) But don’t let the website substitute for the experience of the film itself. Use the contact information on the Songlines website to order the DVD for yourself. And maybe for some friends as well.