I recently ordered a few films on Indigenous subjects from Ronin Films, and the first one out of the box was Darlene Johnson’s documentary River of No Return (Bower Bird Films, 2008), a profile of Yolngu actress Frances (Djulibing) Daingangan. Daingangan is probably best known to the world at large for her portrayal of Nowalingu, the abducted wife in Rolf deHeer’s Ten Canoes. (She subsequently appeared in another film by Johnson, Crocodile Dreaming (2007), again with her uncle David Gulpilil and with Tom E. Lewis.)
As a child I always wanted to become an actress just like Marilyn Monroe but I was told that it was ridiculous for a Yolngu girl to have such dreams, such fantasies.
But difficulty and discouragement seem never to have deterred Daingangan from pursuing her dreams and finding her place in the world. The story of her life as told in River of No Return is never a simple, straightforward one; but the theme that drives both film and life forward is Daingangan’s inspirational persistence and ability to move forward and to seize control wherever she may.
As a girl, Daingangan was promised in marriage to Peter Djigirr (right, who co-directed Ten Canoes with deHeer and played the Stranger in the film). In an eerie parallel, or perhaps just a case of art imitating life, Daingangan was abducted by another man before the marriage to Djigirr could take place. She lived with him until widowed, raising three girls, and then returned to her mother’s country of Nangalala. By the time she returns, all the proper husbands she might have settled down with are married, including Djigirr. But circumstances don’t deter her from finding fulfillment. In one of the many heartwarming moments in the film, we see Daingangan and Djigirr out fishing together, comfortable old friends with a strong connection.
A less happy liaison is with an outsider to the Ramingining community who professes his love for Daingangan, but demonstrates more jealousy than love, locking her up and abusing her to the point of breaking her jaw. But Daingangan shows her grit and determination and takes out a restraining order against the man, the first woman in the community to do so.
Although Monroe may have been her idol, there’s a touch of Lana Turner in Daingangan’s biography as well: she was working at a takeaway shop in Ramingining when deHeer came in for a cool drink early in the making of Ten Canoes. From there, apparently, it was only a short step to stardom and to the red carpet in Cannes where deHeer’s film won the Camera d’or and we get to see Daingangan decked out at last in her diamonds.
The return to Ramingining posed another challenge for the actress, though. Having stepped out of the ordinary, she found herself set apart. People assumed that she was rich; she was humbugged for money all the time and the simple home she had inherited from her mother repeatedly broken into.
But the lure of acting permeates Ramingining, and not only in the DVD’s that Daingangan watches with her family. Marilyn Monroe’s vamping is mirrored in the success of the Chooky Dancers. Their Bollywood antics inspire the community, including her grandson Bradley, seen in several uproarious clips shaking his bum in a slinky sheath dress in emulation of the Chookies’ interpretations of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
And so Daingangan enlists the help of a CDEP official to learn about acting courses for Aboriginal people. He locates a course in Brisbane and gives her an application. Once more, Daingangan is stymied by the unfamiliar language of the application. Undeterred, she patiently waits until she can find time in the busy schedule of Suzanah, the Council CEO, for assistance in interpreting the demands for proof of her Aboriginality, writing an essay, and securing letters of recommendation. She needs financial assistance from Abstudy as well. But once more Daingangan perseveres in her pursuit of the dream. She is seen on her mobile phone seeking support from deHeer and with Philip Noyce, who had directed her uncle Gulpilil in Rabbit-Proof Fence and who gently and humorously warns her “I don’t want you humbugging me for a part.”
At the same time, however, Daingangan begins to understand what this dream will cost her. The protracted separation from her community that studying in Brisbane will mean is played out in an affecting sequence of interactions with another of her uncles, the artist (and another star of Ten Canoes) Philip Gudthaykudthay. Now nearly eighty years old, Gudthaykudthay is the last of the oldest generation, the last real sorcerer, the man who must take her grandchildren through initiation. We see the two out hunting crocodile and buffalo, and his lack of success drives home to Daingangan his advancing years and failing eyesight. His refusal to pass on his powers of sorcery to a younger generation that does not respect them also gives her pause. If Gudthaykudthay is unable or unwilling, will it be up to her to make sure that the stories are passed on?
And it is here that the paradox of Daingangan’s ambition is most fully displayed. She wants to become an actor in order to bring the stories of her people to a broader world, to insure in a new way the transmission of this important cultural information. But what if that step weakens the passing of culture within her own family?
The dilemma is resolved when the Brisbane acting program turns her down. The sad irony is that, despite it being an Aboriginal acting program, they are not really interested in actors and singers and dancers who bring the traditions of Arnhem Land with them. Instead the program wants an audition piece from a film or a play in English: they are training Aboriginal actors for the mainstream. Daingangan accepts the news philosophically and re-orients her sights towards family and community, towards Bradley impending initiation into a world of ceremony that involves a different kind of dancing than Bollywood performance demands.
And yet, in film’s final moments we see Daingangan once more walking along the dusty roads near Ramingining, the lighted screen of her cell phone a beacon in the descending gloom of dusk. As the screen fades to black and the credits begin to roll, we hear her speaking once more to Philip Noyce. “It’s Frances,” she says, laughing. “Remember how you told me not to humbug you?” She laughs again. “Well, I’m humbugging you now.”