A few weeks ago while reading Jill Stubington’s Singing the Land: the power of performance in Aboriginal life (Currency House, 2007), I set about exploring the catalog of Aboriginal Studies Press, which publishes many of the recordings and films that Stubington discusses in her examination of music and performance in Aboriginal culture. While there, I discovered that the Press offers for sale on DVD Roger Sandall’s film of a 1967 Warlpiri ritual, edited by Kim McKenzie, and released in 1977 as A Walbiri Fire Ceremony: Ngatjakula People Making History. Narrated by Nicolas Peterson, the film is a masterpiece of drama, only 21 minutes in length and equal parts mystery and spectacle. Peterson described the events of the film in his article “Bulawandi: a Central Australian ceremony for the resolution of conflict,” which was published in Ronald Berndt’s critical anthology, Australian Aboriginal Anthropology: modern studies in the social anthropology of the Australian Aborigines (University of Western Australia Press, 1970).

I had first read of this film in Eric Michaels’ essay “For a Cultural Future: Francis Jupurrula Makes TV at Yuendumu” (1987, reprinted in Bad Aboriginal Art: tradition, media, and technological horizons, University of Minnesota Press, 1994). Michaels regarded the Sandall-Peterson collaboration as a kind of video ur-text for later Warlpiri experiments in filmmaking. When the nascent Warlpiri Media Association began experimenting with Indigenous television production in the mid-1980s, the old men in the community wrote to Peterson and requested that he send them a copy of the film. 

Michaels reports that performance of the Fire Ceremony appeared to have died out completely at Yuendumu in the fifteen years between 1967 and his arrival in the community in the early 1980s. 

Remarkably, the ceremony lapsed shortly after this film was made. When I arrived in Yuendumu in 1983, the fire ceremony seemed little more than a memory. Various reasons were offered: one of the owners had died, and a prohibition applied to its performance; it had been traded with another community; and the church had suppressed its performance. These are not competing explanations, but may have in combination discouraged Warlukurlangku. The interdictions by the church (and the state, in some versions) was difficult to substantiate, though it was widely believed. Some of the more dramatic forms of punishment employed in the ceremony contradict Western manners, if not morals. There seemed to be some recognition among the Warlpiri that the fire ceremony was essentially incompatible with the expectations of settlement life and the impotent fantasies of dependency and development they were required to promote. The fire ceremony was an explicit expression of Warlpiri autonomy, and for nearly a generation it was obscured (Michaels, p. 116).

In his commentary to the film Peterson explains that the ceremony involves the traditional division in Warlpiri culture between kirda, or owners, and kurdungurlu, or managers of a ritual. In this particular case, the ceremony is a means for the managers to seek a form of retribution against the owners, whom the managers believe have been lax in controlling the behavior of some of the women in the community, sisters of the owners. By inflicting ritual punishment, a balance or harmony is thought to be restored, although at the film’s conclusion, Peterson suggests that this action is part of a larger cycle. In this case, the owners finish up aggrieved at the harshness of the punishment meted out in the course of the ceremony, and there is a suggestion that the balance will be redressed in a future enactment.

Much of the short film is devoted to glimpses of the final two days and nights of the ceremony. After extensive preparations including the erecting of a seven-meter-tall painted pole, singing of ancestral stories by the men, and dancing by the women, the owners are led into a tight circle around the pole. The managers brandish large boomerangs above their heads. And then, one by one, the owners, heavily encrusted with body paint of ochres and down, and with tall ceremonial headdresses topped with emu feathers, dance towards a fire.

Each man in turn places the ends of two sheaves of dry grass into the fire, and then beats his head and shoulders with the flaming brands. His relatives gather around with leafy bundles that they use to brush and beat off the sparks and embers that shower upon the owner. After each man has subjected himself to the individual punishment, the managers seize towering columns of bundled leaves–they look to be even taller than the main ceremonial pole–and ignite them in the fire. Soon there is a scene of terrifying pandemonium as literal pillars of fire wave about, collapsing onto one another and sending a firestorm swirling through the night. 

For all its brevity, drama, and excitement–Michaels claims that “this ceremony satisfies the most extreme European appetite for savage theater” (ibid.)–the film is extraordinarily rich in information, details that reward repeated viewing. There is the soundtrack of verses that provide a primer in Warlpiri song structure if you listen carefully. There are glorious varieties of painted body designs, not just the spectacular, complex costuming that can be seen in the title shot above, but also those adorning the torsos of the managers as they sing during the days leading up to the fiery complex. There is the fascinating mix of clothing styles, from the women’s simple cotton dresses to loincloths and flash cowboy outfits for the men. An old man glistening with fat and ochre smokes a handrolled cigarette while he chants. Corrugated iron sheds in the distance contrast with bough-laden shade shelters on the ceremonial ground. It is a fantastic glimpse into the blended culture of Yuendumu, not far, as Peterson notes, from the spectacle Spencer and Gillen witnessed in 1901, and not far from our own vantage point in the 21st century.

As if this were not a remarkable enough record of Warlpiri culture, there is a companion piece of sorts that enriches our understanding of the context of the ceremony in the Screen Australia film Jardiwarnpa–Warlpiri Fire Ceremony, a 1993 collaboration by Ned Lander, Rachel Perkins, and Marcia Langton. The Sandall-Peterson film presents am overview, thematically and visually, of the ceremony, and allows its audience to grasp the essentials quickly. The later film, originally part of the SBS series Blood Brothers, provides equally dramatic footage of the ceremony’s climax, but its expanded length of one hour offers the opportunity to explore more facets of the ritual.

First of all, Jardiwarnpa tells the story behind the ceremony, starting with the serpent Yarrapiri, whose country at Winparrku southwest of Haasts Bluff forms the backdrop for the film’s glorious opening sequences. The transgressions of the serpent and the emu and their relation to ancestral fires of the Jukurrpa are threaded through the film’s narration (by Kev Carmody) and in the subtitled translations of the songs. (A full treatment of the Yarrapiri story, including numerous photographs of the country, beautiful colored plates of the men’s body decorations, and many other details of ceremony can be found in Charles Mountford’s astonishing small monograph Winbaraku and the Myth of Jarapiri, Rigby, 1968.)

Another feature of this film, one that warms the heart tremendously, is the starring role played by Darby Jampijinpa Ross, who was nearly 90 years old when he led the filmmakers and his countrymen on this journey. It is not clear whether the activities filmed here are the first revival of the fire ceremony since 1967, but it is clear that some of the participants are being instructed in the sequences for the first time. Midway through the action, some young boys are handed boomerangs to use as clapsticks, a gesture that enables their participation in the ritual for the first time. Throughout, the managers exhort their fellows to perform better, to dance more vigorously, to sing with fervor. And when it is time for old Jampijinpa Ross to dance his way to the fire and shower himself with sparks, there is wild appreciation for his prowess. 

Although the ceremonial pole at the center of the dancing ground isn’t as impressively tall as the 1967 version, there is a great richness of regalia to be seen here. Women dance with painted coolamons. Iconic representations of snake and emu dangle from hairstring suspended at the end of branches planted diagonally in the ground. As they spin in the desert breezes, they dazzle; men and women approach to touch them affectionately and reverentially. 

There is a wonderful, enlightening moment when one of the managers pronounces a verse of the song kumunjayi, as it contains a word that sounds like the name of a recently deceased person. There’s a bit of discussion, and the manager tells everyone to move on to another verse: this sort of on-the-fly process contrasts so starkly with our western notion of exact, invariable performance that it offers an opportunity to step back and meditate about the essence of ritual. There are huge paintings organized out of the Warlukurlangu art centre. And in the recording of women’s dancing, Jardiwarnpa is especially rich and satisfying. (In fact, Rachel Perkins included brief clips of women’s dancing from Jardiwarnpa in the title credits of First Australians.) At the end of the film, the owners present gifts of blankets to the managers in one of the most mundane and yet fascinating sequences of the entire film. There is once again in the record of this ceremony an anthropological richness of detail presented; there is also a storehouse of sacred lore for the yapa themselves. 

Taken together, these two films offer a brilliant story about change and survival. They reveal modes of Warlpiri thought, and display their traditional worldview in operation in the modern world. (In addition to blankets, money changes hands at the end of the ceremony as the owners pay the managers with $20 bills.) We are all fortunate to have these performances captured for ourselves and those who come after us.

While I’m thinking about warlu (fire) and blankets and performance, I’ll include a totally unrelated spot that I stumbled on last week, of the Warumpi Band playing “Waru,” the lead song from their first album, Big Name, No Blankets on the Blackfella/Whitefella tour with Midnight Oil back in the 80’s. Despite its Centralian title, the song is sung entirely in Burrarrawanga’s native Yolngu dialect except for the chorus cry of “waru.” Perhaps that’s not a bad introduction for this pan-Australian musical group. The quality of the clip doesn’t get top marks, but if you’ve never seen these performances, perhaps this will entice you to pick up the 20th anniversary edition of Diesel and Dust, which includes the complete tour video. It’s cracking good. 

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