Aboriginal Rules: Yuendumu Magpies

It wouldn’t be Christmas without presents, and this holiday brought some good ones. Among the first to arrive was one I gave myself, the new documentary from the Warlpiri Media Association: Aboriginal Rules: definitely more than a gamewritten and directed by Liam Campbell. It begins and ends with short, humorous clips of Francis Jupurrula Kelly as an old-time Warlpiri warrior in the Bush Mechanics mode. Here, instead of a Dreamtime Hero who can fix a busted-up transmission, we are treated to the mythical arrival from the sky of a football: Magpie Dreaming at its finest.Now before I go any further, I have to confess up front that I’ve never been the sports-minded type at home in America, and so Aussie sport has been until this year a total mystery to me. (Let’s not talk about cricket at all, OK?) When someone said “football,” I had no idea whether they were talking about what Americans call soccer, or this strange AFL business, or maybe rugby. And believe me it didn’t help to find out that rugby is never football, but it can be Union or League. I understand the distinction between those two may be the most important of all, but don’t hold a knife to my throat and ask me to explain it or things could get messy, very quickly.

But I’m losing the point here. I just wanted to say that I’m grateful to the producers of Aboriginal Rules for including up front a brief, amusing, simple, and clear explanation of how the game is played and scored. Given that a good deal of the drama that follows in the film’s 55 minutes relies on having at least a minimal understanding of the game, these preliminaries ensure that even outsiders can follow the story.

And it’s a great story to follow. Of course, a lot of what makes this a wonderful cinematic experience is the excitement of the game on the field. There’s speed, there’s dazzle and dexterity, and let’s face it, there’s a fair amount a brutal physical contact that can leave you breathless. There’s some humor too, as in the scene where one of the Magpie grapples an opponent from behind, grabs his shirt, and keeps traveling by. The other fellow loses his shirt, inexorably. And afterwards, when I thought the Magpie was bending down to haul his adversary back to his feet, it turned out he was only retrieving the shoe that he himself had lost in the tussle.

But there’s more than that. The Yuendumu Magpies, the footy team whose members regard themselves as Warlpiri warriors, won the Premiership among Indigenous teams three years running, from 2003 to 2005, a remarkable achievement. But in 2006 the team lost the thread, and it’s fascinating to see that this story of defeat and disarray become the focus of the film: this isn’t your conventional hagiographical (or even redemptive) athletic saga by any means. But despite its willingness to chronicle hard times, it remains inspirational.

Much of the latter half of the film is devoted to the rebuilding process, to the stresses that operate on the team, and to the relationship between the team and the community of Yuendumu. The filmmakers are honest about the debilitating effects of grog on some members of the Magpies, and of the tension between autonomy and personal freedom on the one hand and community and team commitment on the other. 

It turns out, for example, that the team bus, used to transport members to games in Alice, or Papunya, or Pukatja, has been smashed. As a result, team members are driving to games, or being driven, in small groups in private cars. Sometimes the trip home for one or more cars ends up at a grog shop or a hotel, and the players don’t turn up for practices or games.

There’s footage of the arguments over replacing the bus: demands for a licensed driver and for use restricted to the football team; admission that the bus has been wrecked too often in the past; the importance of supporting the team; the importance of the team to the community. In the end, the council agrees to buy the new bus, and there’s a wonderful moment of quiet and sincere triumph when the new driver passes his license exam.

The importance of the team stepping up as role models, too, leads to a discussion of the rehabilitation program at Mt Theo, where the twin activities of hunting and football provide young sniffers and abusers with meaningful alternatives and a structured life. Footage of the young man shooting a kangaroo is followed by barefoot practice in the red dust oval.

Other problems are alluded to, but not explored: the threat of violence at the end of games is present in the prayers that the players offer, in the admonitions to a losing team to take a shower and go home, in the memorial ceremonies organized to honor past players that seem equally designed to keep the focus of the events positive and preclude rivalries escalating after the final whistle.

As the players themselves admit, they once were warriors, now they play football. The rivalry seems to be particularly intense against their Warlpiri “brothers” from Lajamanu, and some sports weekends have been marred with paybacks. It becomes clear that Yuendumu (at least) has built footy into their definition of culture, and that culture arises from a set of connections to community (people) and land. In this way, it is not hard to understand what some of the veteran players mean when they talk about football as a way in which you can sense “you’re owning something; you’re owning that jukurrpa.” Or as someone else has it, “Football is like a ceremony.”

Football in Yuendumu demonstrates how the Walrpiri can find that consonance between ancient traditions and modern institutions. It is one of the ways in which the Dreaming is kept alive: by renewing it and incorporating contemporary manifestations into the idea. 

And so it turns out that Jupurrula Kelly is not just making a joke when he appears at the film’s conclusion, in the company of a young boy, both clad in hairstring pubic skirts. They carry spears across the red stone country, and a large bag, which turns out to contain Magpie guernseys (sponsored by Warlukurlangku Artists).

These scenes with Kelly are in fact extracts from a short film called Japu Japu that is included among the bonus features on the DVD: it chronicles how a football once came hurtling down out of the sky, and the long trek that Jupurrula took to return in to the land whence it came–which turns out to be (of course) the MCG. He brings back from thatsacred ground the guernseys with which he will paint the countryside and teach the new Dreaming to his countrymen.

The other extras on the DVD contain traditional contests like spear-throwing from the Sports weekend along with some classic Jupurrula comedy. The “Training Tips” not only show how to build a weight training regime using billycans full of sand or two tires and an axle as dumbbells, but also more advanced techniques like constructing a sauna using an electric kettle and the ventilation system of an otherwise broken-down utility vehicle, or building a jacuzzi out of an inflatable swimming pool and a vacuum cleaner. (You’ll have to buy the video yourself to find out exactly how it’s done.)

You can get some previews from YouTube, though, if you check out the excerpts posted by AboriginalRules

The Warlpiri Media Association is offering a Christmas 2008 special for purchasers of the video: a special deal on the soundtrack album. Like most soundtrack albums, it contains lots of music that’s only hinted at, heard in the background, or minimally developed in the film itself. Mostly the work of Big Bear (Thomas Jupurrurla Saylor), it’s a great mix of country, hip-hop, reggae, rock tunes, and some surprises, like the Latin jazz stylings of “Warlukurlangku.” My favorite track, though, is “1234,” which start from the piano beats that are used to such great effect to build an air of relentless suspense during the film’s highlights from the matches themselves. Here on the soundtrack they are the base for some outrageous high-speed rapping.

And if all that’s not enough Warlpiri culture for you, check out the DVDs on offer that feature the Battle of the Bands performances from the Yuendumu Sports Weekend in 2003 and 2004. The production values aren’t great, and sometimes the performances aren’t as tight as they could be. That’s especially true of the 2003 weekend performances, which comprise the rock ‘n’ roll show; the 2004 country music battle is more polished all around. It’s also a bit less exciting and a lot less predictable. The rock concert features a lot of audience participation–dancing on the stage and some persistent vamping with a blond wig. However, when the bands are cooking and the saxes are wailing, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll but I like it. The concert ends with a couple of songs from the Papunya School Band: these kids can’t be fifteen years old, shivering in the cold August night air of the desert, but maybe they’ll be back for concerts in the future. 

Let’s hope the Warlpiri Media Association will continue recording them for a long time to come. The record of the richness of contemporary culture that WMA offers here is unparalleled.

And, for the record, the final credits note that “Two kangaroos were killed and eaten in the making of this film.”

The Yuendumu Magpies, led by Steven Japanangka Brown, circa 2000. From the collection Centre Bounce: Football from Australia’s Heart by Jesse Marlow. The photographs were exhibited in Melbourne by Alcaston Gallery and published as a book by Hardie Grant in 2003.
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