I’m in the midst of reading the massive Ngurra Kuju Walyja — One Country One People — Stories from the Canning Stock Route (Macmillan, 2011), a companion volume to the exhibition catalog Yiwarra Kuju from the National Museum of Australia. I won’t say much about it today, as I still have hundreds of pages to read through. But I did want to share some exciting and enticing video clips that I discovered after reading the chapter in Ngurra Kuju Walyja that describes the documentary filmmaking that took place during the course of the Canning Stock Route Project. These films were part of the exhibition, but my searches on YouTube a couple of years ago didn’t turn up too much. But now I know to find them and much more on the massive Canning Stock Route Project website. So far, I’ve only scratched the surface of riches available here, but already I’m so excited by what I’ve seen that I wanted to share them right away.
There’s a lot of variety to these films, variety that reflects the styles of the several Indigenous and non-Indigenous filmmakers who were part of the project. The first one that grabbed my imagination as I was reading is a very short interpretation of the Warnman Minyipurru (Seven Sisters) story entitled Nyiru, by a young Martu man named Curtis Taylor from Parnngurr. It tells the story of the man Nyiru who chased the sisters across Martu country until they floated up away from him into the sky. Taylor himself plays the part of Nyiru, which was a bit risky: he was unsure whether the community would approve of his decision to take on the role, but in the end the film was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm. Only a little more than a minute in length, Nyiru displays a decidedly Indigenous approach to visual storytelling, letting the country speak for itself much of the time, the narrative only sketched in, and the image of the disappointed Nyiru counterpoised by fire and moonlight.
A different sensibility and approach to storytelling can be seen in the films made by Nicole Ma, the non-Indigneous filmmaker who acted as the mentor for the young Aboriginal interns, including Taylor and Kenneth “KJ” Martin (see below), on the Project.
That Long Way I Been Travelling is a short documentary narrated largely by Patrick Olodoodi Tjungurrayi. In it Patrick tells the story of his own travels along the Stock Route as a young man. There is an extended segment filmed at Natawalu (Well 40) where a helicopter landed in a claypan in 1959. With much humor he describes his family’s fright at the windmill that came out of the sky, and how Charlie Wallabi Tjungurrayi approached the whitefellas who came out of it. The kartiya gave Patrick damper–which he threw away, fearing it would kill him. Patrick’s brother Brandy Tjungurrayi asked for water (kapi), which the pilots misunderstand as a request for coffee, “That black one drink,” as Patrick describes it. “We drank it and we didn’t know what it was so we tipped it out….I never drank coffee from that time on!”
The famous story of how a sickly young Tjungurrayi was flown out of Natawalu by the crew and taken with his mother to Balgo, where he would forever more be known as Helicopter, is told to much laughter. But PAtrick’s narration turns sombre when the film crew follows Patrick on past Kaningarra to Jikarn, where the local mob were set upon, chained, killed, and their bodies burned by kartiya. There’s no-one left now from that country, says Patrick, and the Dreaming stories are carried only by Nora Wompi’s son, who lives south in Jigalong. “Only one for this country.”
Ma’s film captures an essential view of the Canning Stock Route Project: the documentation of family, the stories they exchanged, and the collective nature of this complex multimedia project. Patrick Tjungurrayi’s story is visually anchored throughout by references to his painting Canning Stock Route Country (reproduced at the head of this post) that traces, in its white squares, both the line of wells along the route and the travels of the Tingari ancestors through the country.
Kenneth “KJ” Martin, a Kija man from Halls Creek and another film intern on the Project describes his own reactions to the painting culture of the Project in his short, Not Just Painting. He tells how, before going on the trip back through country, he thought the old people were just “killing time,” “too old to get around, play sports” when they painted. But in the course of documenting the trip, he learned how the paintings tell the artists’ stories.
Another six short films from Martin form a love letter of sorts to his home town of Halls Creek. I’ve known people who’ve travelled to Halls Creek and left as soon as they could, surprised to have found themselves somewhere beyond the end of the known world in a purgatory of dust and boredom. Martin takes quite another view; in these films he shares his view of “a day in the life” of the town where he works as a DJ at the local radio station (Town) and as the audio visual officer at the language center (Work). He spends time learning traditional bush skills from the old men (Culture), though he says that if he didn’t use a chain saw to help make a boomerang, “I’d be here all year.” In Family, Martin gets his kids off to school in the morning before spending some time fixing his truck. “If you don’t know where you’re from, you’re lost,” he says in Bush Tucker, which shows the family, including his smiling granny, cooking up a goanna they’ve tracked down.
The final segment is Barbeque; here the family rustles up dinner not in the bush but on a shopping trip to Halls Creek Meat Supply (“We offer tough tasteless, fatty meat & iffy seafood at city prices plus freight, etc, etc, etc.”) The whole of this little gem of domesticity is shot through with Martin’s self-deprecating humor, as he helps out with the difficult tasks like pushing the shopping trolley out the market door and to his truck. He demonstrates his prowess grilling sausages and steaks, but admits “I don’t know how to do salads and all that stuff, but that’s why God made women.” After dinner, dancing, and hopscotch in the backyard, the kids are sent off to bed. Life in Halls Creek looks pretty good after all.
This is just a sample of what waits in the film archives of the Canning Stock Route Project. I would write more, but I’m impatient to get back to Morika Biljabu’s tribute to her Nana, and to watch the ceremonies captured in Curtis Taylor’s Ngumpan. There’s over two dozen small gems here, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.