Melanie Hogan’s recent documentary, Kanyini (Reverb Films, 2006) is not so much Bob Randall’s story as it is Bob Randall’s story of the breaking of the ties that cemented his people’s culture. Randall achieved national fame in the 1970s when his song, “My Brown Skin Baby (They Took Him Away)” became a country hit and the inspiration for an ABC documentary. Randall is a Yankunytjatjara man, now in his 70s, who was himself taken away from his mother and raised on a mission on Croker Island. His working career spans stints as carpenter and stockman, educator (at Adelaide Community College, ANU, and the Universities of Canberra and Wollongong) and director of the Northern Australia Legal Aid Service. He’s an inductee of the NT Music Hall of Fame and the author of an autobiography (Songman).
Kanyini (literally to keep, or to have, figuratively a sense of connectedness) take the form of an extended monologue by Randall. His voice as captured in the film is even, reasonable, humorous, patient. You can tell there is sadness and anger flowing beneath this calm exterior, but those emotions never dominate. Randall wants to inform his audience, and he wants them to listen to what he has to say, and so he modulates his delivery. He is a steely, smiling survivor, and he is an educator who knows he has something important to say, something that although you may think you’ve heard it all before, he knows that you have never quite understood the message. Or as another folk song from forty years ago and half a world away put it, “You know all the words and you’ve sung all the notes, but you never quite learned the song you sang.”
Hogan’s visual language in the film attempts to create the same unthreatening and familiar tone. While first watching the film, I couldn’t decide how effective a strategy this was. Randall’s gentle voice is easy to listen to; he is a good storyteller, and an accomplished rhetorician who can captivate. The visuals, however, tend toward the cliched, and risked losing me, and in the process losing the whole first half of the film.
Randall lives today at Mutitjulu Community next to Uluru, and the film makes ample use of the iconic Rock, the spinifex plains, the spectacular sunsets. The trouble is, we’ve seen it all before in countless documentaries and advertisements. Worse are long, slow shots of Randall staring past the camera’s eye into the countryside and the hackneyed fades and dissolves. At one point early in the film, Randall pushes himself up from a sitting position on the ground and walks away towards Uluru and damn it if he doesn’t literally vanish into thin air after twenty paces! Too trite, I thought, but perhaps if you’re from an Adelaide suburb or Scotland or San Francisco, you haven’t seen all this a hundred times before, and the lyrical beauty of it all can be seductive.
There is liberal use of archival footage from decades gone by that is similarly handled in the most conventional ways. Much of this old black-and-white camerawork takes smiling, enthusiastic, carefree children as its subject, watching them run across those unchanging spinifex plains, jumping across scattered boulders, grinning and mugging for the camera. Meant to capture the insouciant spirit of Randall’s own youth in the APY lands, these scenes again flirt with banality. There’s even a moment when the moving-picture postcard views of Uluru are inset with a sepia colored oval within which the dusky, unclothed natives gambol along a path.
Gradually, though, Randall’s narrative took over, and I began to listen to his words, to anticipate his on-screen appearances, and to pay less mind to the pictures of the desert plains. For Randall has a very particular argument to develop around the theme of kanyini, and that argument involves four orienting compass points: tjukurpa (law), ngura(country); walytja (family); and kurunpa (spirit).
Randall introduces these four principles as the essential elements of the Aboriginal experience prior to contact with Europeans, and demonstrates how each of them in turn was diminished, broken, and taken away.
Tjukurpa was the first to go. It was not so much that Indigenous people lost their law as the white people who came in brought their own law and imposed that alien set of principles on the anangu, the people of Randall’s country. White law rode over tjukurpa like white men’s horses and cattle rode over the land, and in any contest between the two prevailed. And so the first thread was cut, the first connection severed, kanyini first broken.
The second cut was the connection to ngura as people were moved off their homelands, away from the places that defined their identity. Shifted away, they were made strangers in a strange land, doubly dispossessed, interlopers in someone else’s country. But at the very least, these mass relocations meant that they still kept the company of their own people, still had family surrounding them.
But walytja, that sense of family and kin, was the next bond to be broken as children like Randall himself were taken away (Randall’s father was an immigrant Scot). Generations were stolen, and Randall is perhaps saddest and at his most moving as he tells of the sense of abandonment he felt as a child in a mission a thousand miles and more from his mother, and as he imagines her own bewilderment as grief.
And finally, living in that mission dormitory, Randall was taught about Christianity, taught the new creed that was to replace his sense of kurunpa, the spirituality that was the last surviving link to the old way of life. And it is at this point in the film that his anger comes closest to the surface as he tells how he absorbed the lessons of the missionaries and came to understand the hypocrisy, the disconnect between the teachings of the Bible and the actions of the white men who professed them.
It is after Randall has finally laid out his argument, detailed the four principles that informed his anangu way and expounded on their systematic destruction, that Hogan strips away the romantic vision of Uluru to show us, bluntly and brazenly, the other face of Uluru, the black face concealed by the tin of petrol. A white tin-can mask, one side of its diameter squeezed to a point to accommodate its being place over the nose and mouth while retaining the best possible seal and ensuring the most effective delivery of the intoxicating fumes, carried casually along the streets of Mutitjulu. This is the moment to which all of Hogan’s landscapes and all of Randall’s histories have been leading, and it is devastatingly effective.
Kanyini is caring and responsibility based on tjukurpa, ngura, walytja, and kurunpa. Its opposite is kawalinanyi, to lose sight of an obligation. Loss of those four compass points has left Randall’s community adrift, and he will not rest at that point. The film Kanyini is his attempt to reach out beyond Mutitjulu, to bring a message about devastation to a broader audience. I don’t think he and Hogan are doling out blame: they are articulating a sense of history and making visible its results.
Kanyini is in some ways a subterfuge, a “lovin’ spoonful” of honey to make the medicine go down smoothly; you won’t know what’s hit you until it’s all over and done. My initial skepticism about the film’s romanticizing tendencies was in the end completely blown away by the time I finished watching it. The DVD (Australian format, but playable on any computer or on a region-free DVD player) can be had for $34.95 from the Kanyini website. There’s also a book Nyuntu Ninti (What You Should Know), based on the film at $29.95. There’s plenty more information available there, including a forum for feedback and commentary by the film’s viewers, a study guide for teachers who may wish to use the film in the classroom, and links to the YouTube video of an SBS interview with Randall and Hogan that gives you a preview of the film. (The trailer is also up on YouTube.) Have a look for yourself, and buy a few copies for your friends.