Last night we finally settled down to watch the DVD of Darlene Johnson’s 2007 film Crocodile Dreaming. Johnson is a documentary filmmaker of note, whose earlier work includes Stolen Generations (2001), Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence (a 2002 short about the making of the feature film), and David Gulpilil: One Red Blood (also 2002); she went on to direct River of No Return (2008), a biography of Frances Djulibing Daingangan, one of the stars of Ten Canoes. Crocodile Dreaming is unique in this catalog in that it is her only extended “fictional” outing.
Crocodile Dreaming tells the story of two brothers with the same mother but different fathers. David Gulpilil plays Burrimmilla, whose father was also Aboriginal, but who has left his country to work as an actor in Sydney (there’s a hilarious short sequence showing Burrimmilla filming an execrable television commercial). Tom E. Lewis plays Charlie, a yellafella whose white father seems to have contributed to his status as an outcast in his community.
The heart of the narrative revolves around the theft and loss of a sacred stone that embodies the crocodile spirit of the country. In the opening “dreaming” sequence, Charlie’s sleep is disturbed by the vision or memory of him casting the stone into a billabong. This act of sacrilege, an angry response to his confusion, leads to a horrifying revenge when his daughter is attacked and killed by a crocodile that has mysteriously appeared in the billabong. During the sorry business following the death, the elders turn on Charlie accusingly, and decide that they must call Burrimmilla back to recover the lost stone and set the country to rights again.
Burrimmilla soon reappears in the Arnhem Land savannas and sets off to retrieve the sacred stone. This part of the quest is the dramatic and visual linchpin of the film. Conventional narrative structures are abandoned: day and night seem to co-exist side by side, the waterhole turns into a sheet of fire, and Charlie appears suddenly in Burrimmilla’s company after a sequence in which Burrimmilla is shown setting off alone on his long journey of discovery. There’s a beautifully haunting moment when Burrimmilla, submerged in the waterhole, sees the massive crocodile spirit float above him; the vision of her cloaca is shortly afterward doubled as the brothers scan the rocky escarpment to which the recovered stone must be returned.
These visual rhymes and disjunctions create the air of mystery and the marvelous that take the story out of the mundane and into the realm of the sacred. In casting away the stone, Charlie is metaphorically casting away his ancestral connection, and the result is havoc. In addition to the grisly death of the child in the opening sequences of the movie, an old man is discovered dying on the muddy banks of a waterhole, his severed torso another powerful metaphor for the broken code. Burrimmilla is drawn to the site of the crocodile’s attack by the sound of the old man’s boombox, which is playing Nabarlek’s “The Wanderer,” a neat device that underscores Charlie’s rootlessness.
One of the interesting things about this film is how it treats the differences between the two men. Charlie has stayed on his country, and yet is somehow not fully part of it; he is the transgressor who throws away the sacred connection for reasons–fear? grief? jealousy?–that remain unclear. Burrimmilla, on the other hand, has physically severed his ties, moving to Sydney and pursuing employment and fame in the whitefella world that he finds ridiculous if not demeaning. Yet he (like Gulpilil himself) remains connected and powerful, capable of returning home physically and spiritually and of leading his brother back to the Law. And if the film plays on Gulpilil’s autobiography, does it likewise rely on Lewis’s troubled mixed race heritage (chronicled in Ivan Sen’s documentary Yella Fella)?
Although the film is only 27 minutes long, it is packed with a variety of delights beyond those I’ve already alluded to. Not the least of these is the re-appearance of many of the Ten Canoes mob in minor roles: Richard Birrinbirrin, Philip Gudthaykudthay, and Peter Minygululu are among the elders; Peter Djigirr is the unfortunate victim of the crocodile; Jamie Gulpilil appears as Burrimmilla’s son, and Frances Djulibing is cast as the crocodile mother herself. Many of these actors appear in the Crocodile Dance sequence, which itself showcases David Gulpilil’s extraordinary talents. Painted with white cross-hatchings that simulate reptilian skin, he drops to earth as though he had not a bone in his body before slithering and lunging across the dance ground. Lewis turns in his trademark anguished performance, eyes burning and glittering with misery and fear. Kim Batterham’s cinematography deserves special accolades for creating both a vivid sense of place and an entirely believable portal into the supernatural crocodile dreaming.
Crocodile Dreaming is available from Ronin Films along with numerous other Indigenous films, including the CAAMA Collection (search the Ronin catalog using the keyword “caama” and selecting “all film details” from the dropdown menu next to the search box).