It is not often that a book, especially a work of non-fiction, moves and excites me enough to make me want to send its author fan mail. While reading Jennifer Deger’s Shimmering Screens: making media in an Aboriginal community (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), I had to resist the urge to do so at the conclusion of each chapter; only the rush to discover what insights and delights awaited me in the next installment kept my fingers from the keyboard. Deger, who is a research fellow in anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, has written a brilliant book that offers an analysis of the ways in which one man, Bangana Wunungmurra, took up the challenge of making video from the community of Gapuwiyak in Arnhem Land in order to reinvigorate Yolngu rom (Law) and to pursue a personal redemption. It is a study of the impact of Western technology in (and not necessarily on) a remote community, a memoir of how fieldwork changes the anthropologist, and a meditation on the ways in which Yolngu and balanda can interpenetrate each other’s worlds. If anthropology in recent years has questioned the possibility of continuing to write conventional ethnography along the lines of Lloyd Warner’s classic study of the Yolngu, A Black Civilization (Harper and Bros., 1937), then Deger’s Shimmering Screens achieves a new model for ethnography in the 21st century. For while Deger’s thesis may not be startling to students of Yolngu culture, the manner in which she constructs her argument in support of it is original and highly affecting.
[T]he genius of the Yolngu imagination lies in its ability to recognize the Ancestral in new contexts and to envisage a place within a modernity that does not imply a break with the past. The Yolngu imaginary allows for mimetic forms of adaptation–a play of sameness and difference–without necessarily invoking a sense of contradiction or loss. To see and make connections with the practices and priorities of the generations that have gone before, while taking up the possibilities of the modern and the technological–this is Yolngu contemporaneity: the shimmering screen of the television set is a site for revelation and ritual participation (p. 210).
In undertaking her fieldwork, Deger hoped to examine how modern technology was being employed by indigenous Australians, especially under the auspices of the Broadcasting in Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS). She eventually settled in Gapuwiyak, a Yolngu community that self-consciously was attempting to maintain itself as a “traditional” community. Rock ‘n’ roll and disco were discouraged (even Yothu Yindi); painting of ancestral designs on bark for sale in the balanda marketplace (as done in Yirrkala) was deemed a violation of the Law. Although the community had received a grant of technology from BRACS, they had taken scant advantage of it. Most people preferred to use the old loudspeaker public address system for “community broadcasts” rather than to explore the possibilities of radio. At first, Deger began her work in the community by helping some of the younger men and women to operate and maintain the equipment for the purpose of participating in the Top End Aboriginal Bush Broadcasting Association (TEABBA). Once radio broadcasting was underway with Deger’s assistance, there was still little interest in film, and none at all in what Deger thought of as “Culture,” that is, the traditional song, dance, and ritual of Arnhem Land. In this seemingly unlikely setting for video production, Deger encountered Bangana, and the two began work on the film whose making is the focus of this book.
Bangana, like Deger, was in his early thirties at the time. Deger’s first descriptions of him are thoroughly engaging: she notes, for example that he refused to answer to hisbalanda name, Alan, dismissing it as “just another Balanda four-letter word” (p. 19). She shows us a warm, quick-witted man who accepted her as his adopted sister in ways that no-one in the community had done before, and who had broad experience in the variety of roles a Yolngu man can play in the balanda administrative apparatus. He was a man at ease in both cultures.
But there was a sad side to Bangana’s story among the Yolngu. Prior to Deger’s arrival at Gapuwiyak, in the course of an enraged, drunken feud with his brothers, Bangana had deliberately destroyed a sacred clan dilly bag. This sacrilege earned him several months exile in Darwin, and even after his negotiated return to the community, his place among the Yolngu was uneasy. Bangana saw Deger’s interest in both culture and technology as a means by which he could once more find a place within Gapuwiyak society, a chance to rehabilitate himself in the context of the Law. The video that they made together offered a chance to redeem himself. Deger writes of its significance:
In 1997, with the assistance of an indigenous television production company from central Australia, Bangana and I completed a major video project entitled Gularri: That Brings Unity. The video tells the story of Gularri, the sacred fresh waters that flow through the waterholes, rivers, and seas of Yirritja clan countries across northeast Arnhem Land. Infused with Ancestral potency, replete with layers of story and significances, Gularri, and the sacred sites associated with it, is an important source of Yolngu identity. For Yolngu of the Yirritja moiety, these waters are a foundational source: not only do they and the rangga come from Gularri: they are Gularri. Gularri does not simply represent them, it is them (p. 138).
Earlier video production in Arnhem Land often attempted to capture ritual or other elements of tradition culture before they “disappeared.” The pre-eminent example of this is Ian Dunlop’s Yirrkala Film Project, a series of twenty-two films commissioned in the wake of the 1971 High Court decision that opened the way for bauxite mining on Rirratjingu and Gumatj land on the Gove Peninsula. Filmed over the course of more than a decade, the Project documents enormous cultural change in and around Yirrkala, and preserves a stunning visual record of important ceremonial activity, including the funeral of the great leader Mawalan.
In contrast, Gularri‘s vision was to re-create, to re-present, to re-invoke ritual (ngarra) in a new way through the use of the multi-sensual medium of video. The visuals focus on the waters of Gularri as they flow through the various clan lands from the source at Bungirrinydji in the Mitchell Plateau to Bulumiri at the northern end of the Wessel Islands. Often there is nothing in the frame but the shimmering surface of the water. The human star of the film is the dhalkara, Charlie Ngalambirra, the ritual leader who calls out the names of the country. His presence in the film provides the appropriate spiritual sanction and authority, re-inforced when he is joined on screen at various points along the way by representatives of the clans who are responsible for the section of the country being filmed. Ngalambirra’s singing, the music of his clapsticks, and the sound of the water itself provide the soundtrack and enrich the film’s sensual delivery.
Part of the genius of Bangana’s direction of the film lies in his choice of visual shots and, remarkably, his ability to be non-specific in his instructions to the production crew from CAAMA. What emerges is a picture of the country in which sacred sites may be glimpsed, or may even be off-camera, but which are nonetheless present to the knowledgeable viewer. In creating these fleeting images of country and in close-ups of waters that conceal the rangga of the clans, Bangana invokes the essential interplay of inside and outside meanings that characterizes Yolngu ritual. By integrating the span of the Gularri waters into the length of the cinematic experience, he emphasizes the unity of the clans and hence of Yolngu identity. If preserving the essence of the Yolngu is the ethos of Gapuwiyak, Bangana attempts with his film to employ the technology of western culture to revitalize the efficacy of ritual in the face of the malaise of the mundane and the distractions of that introduced culture. In video’s inherent capacity for rebroadcast or re-viewing, he also captures something of the essential, repeatable, nature of ritual. Deger’s splendid recreation of the night of its premiere on the local television station leaves no doubt of his success. The normal hubbub of the community came to a near complete halt:
The open-air basketball courts with their off-kilter hoops and fading court markings lay abandoned. There was no sign of family groups walking between camps, shining torches, and brandishing sticks for the cheeky dogs; no sign of the toddlers, their siblings, and cousins who play within shouting distance of the card games, nor their parents gambling under the streetlights. No headlights or sound of diesel motors, no ghetto-blasted reggae or Christian gospel tapes broke the night’s subtle solemnity. Everyone, it seemed, had tuned in (p. 182).
What makes this book a revelation in its own right is Deger’s method of revealing what the significance of the Gularri video was to her, to Bangana, and to the people of Gapuwiyak and beyond. Her analysis owes much to Heidegger’s writings on technology in modern society; to Eric Michaels’ important studies of Warlpiri uses of media in the 1980s; to Faye Ginsburg’s work in the decades following Michaels; to earlier analyses of Yolngu culture and ritual such as Ian Keen’s Knowledge and Secrecy in an Aboriginal Religion: Yolngu of North-East Arnhem Land (Oxford University Press, 1994) and Howard Morphy’s Ancestral Connections: art and an Aboriginal system of knowledge(University of Chicago Press, 1991). But it owes its success even more to the new strain in anthropological work that turns the ethnographer’s eye away from a focus on the structural analysis of society toward the insights that are gained from the direct and interpersonal experience of individuals, including the ethnographer herself.
Franca Tamisari, another anthropologist who has worked extensively with the Yolngu, draws a useful distinction between the two kinds of knowledge expressed by the French words savoir and connaissance. The former refers to knowledge gained through description, the latter to knowledge gained through experience. Thus one may know (savoir) the geographical coordinates of Paris or Gapuwiyak in a way that that is different from the way one knows the character of the city or the country (connaissance). (Franca Tamisari, “‘Personal Acquaintance’: essential individuality and the possibilities of encounters,” in Moving Anthropology: critical indigenous studies (Charles Darwin University Press, 2006), pp. 17-36.)
The initial chapters of Shimmering Screens are concerned with matters of connaissance, as Deger tells how she came to engage in the project of making media in an Aboriginal community, narrates her deepening relationship with Bangana and his family, and attempts to support the making of a video with the young man. A central chapter tells of Bangana’s funeral after his sudden death from a heart attack at the age of thirty-seven, not long after the completion of the film. This chapter functions like the Yolngu concept of likan (literally “elbow”), that which mediates or connects; metaphorically likan expresses “the pivotal significance of the Ancestral connection that link things. places, people” (p. 247). Returning for his funeral, Deger discovers that an important shift in how some members of the community use images–especially of Bangana–has occurred as the result of their work together. In the book’s final chapters, Deger turns her attention to the video itself, and to the extended process of reflection on her experiences in Gapuwiyak and the surrounding country. These meditations enabled her to recognize at last what Bangana was attempting to achieve and to extract the savoir that one expects from a scholarly monograph.
I don’t wish to give the impression that Deger indulges in memoir and self-examination: the anthropologist as subject of her own ethnography is most definitely not the focus of this book. But she recounts her personal experience as a means of delving into concepts that are critical to the reader’s apprehension of how Bangana succeeds in his bold venture of synthesizing Yolngu ritual and balanda technology. For example, in her Introduction (p. xxxi), Deger reproduces a photograph of herself with Bangana seated, quite fittingly, in what looks to be a slow-moving stream. She describes the photograph as a “family album” shot, one that documents her presence in Gapuwiyak and her especially congenial, warm relationship with Bangana.
But the photograph carries much more than this obvious meaning: it was taken by Deger’s mother on a visit to Gapuwiyak. Thus it reflects not simply Deger’s familial relationship with Bangana as his adopted sister but, almost invisibly, their shared relationship to her balanda family from Sydney. In revealing this fact, she made me suddenly realize how often I take the photographer for granted, how infrequently I step back to consider the relationship between the eye of the camera and the subject: when I look at a photograph, I rarely stop to think who took it, and what the relationship between photographer and subject might be.
Deger’s point is much more serious, however, for she uses this shot to establish how the mixture of the sensual (the image perceived by the eye) and the cognitive (the knowledge that her mother was the photographer) produces new meaning in the experience of looking at the picture. In later chapters, Deger discusses the grief she lived through when her mother and Bangana both died, within a year of one another. Thus the layers of meaning carried by that photograph, of emotional connections made and lost, become deeper and more resonant.
Similarly, at an earlier point in time during her fieldwork, Bangana had visited her parents in Sydney where he introduced himself to Deger’s father by saying “Hi, Dad, I’m your black son from Arnhem Land.” Her father died while she was still working on Gularri with Bangana. Returning to Gapuwiyak afterwards, she showed Bangana a memorial photograph that had been distributed to family members at the funeral. Looking at it, he spoke “Bapa” (father), and she spontaneously gave him the photograph as a memento, surprised at her sudden willingness to part with it. During the weeks that she spent in Gapuwiyak for Bangana’s own funeral, she discovered the photograph of her father carefully stored among his most precious belongings.
Through these explorations of the power of images, Deger in turn succeeded in engaging my own sympathies. I went back and looked at the photograph of her and Bangana in the stream with an altered recognition after learning more details of the story. And as I did, I suddenly gained a new appreciation for the concept of successive revelation that I had read about in so many ethnographic studies of the Yolngu: an understanding of how deeper, hidden, inside meanings become revealed through personal experience and repeated exposure. And because my sympathies had become engaged, my memories of personal loss and grief activated by the story, I became aware of my own part in this unfolding story. I felt like the eye behind the camera, watching this story unfold, recording impressions, processing them, and creating meaning for myself. In my empathy, I was “same but different,” as Yolngu say, with respect to this story. I had begun my reading of this book as an attempt to gain savoir and suddenly found myself immersed inconnaissance. And thus I came to understand how the Gapuwiyak community might be moved by Bangana’s filmed Gularri, and what makes it such an important work of culture, and not merely a record of culture.
It is in this ability to reproduce sensation, understanding, and experience through the medium of her story and analysis in Shimmering Screens that I believe that Deger has achieved something quite remarkable. As my understanding and appreciation deepened through the book’s final chapters, I felt a bit of the rush of enlightenment cascading over me. Quotations from Keen or Morphy (cited above) suddenly took on new resonance. As she discussed the shots of moving water filling the camera’s frame my mind kept tugging me toward the bookcase, and when I finally took down the catalog from Dreaming Their Way and looked again at the image of Galuma Maymuru’s painting Yirritja Dhuwa Gapu II, I saw with new clarity how the representations of the moieties’ waters mingled and separated, noted the curving bands of one and the straight lines of the other, understood how they are (again) same but different. Shimmering Screens was truly a revelation.
The video of Gularri was replayed frequently in Gapuwiyak and broadcast on Imparja television for several months after its completion and until the death of a Madarrpa woman who appeared in it. Now, a decade later, Deger hopes to return to work with the production team from CAAMA to create a DVD of the film, which will include some additional, more recent footage. I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the chance to see it. In the meantime, at least I can read the book again. For despite the length of these remarks, I find that I have hardly done justice to all that it contains.