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The 16th London Australian Film Festival


Contact


(Australia 2009)

 

+ Q & A with Dr. Frank Bonglorno, Senior Lecturer in Australian History, King’s College, London, hosted by LIDF director Patrick Hazzard

 

In association with the London International Documentary Festival

 

Producers: Martin Butler, Bentley Dean

 

Editor Tania Nehme

 

Original Music: Antony Portos

 

Barbican - Cinema 3

 

March 24, 2010



 

 

 


 

 

THE IMPOSTERSary Couzens

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

Contact offers a fascinating look at the first ever ‘contact’ a group of remotely placed Aboriginal women and children in Woomera in Northern Australia had with white men from the Weapons Research Establishment in 1964 when the arid area they lived in, Yuwali, was cleared of indigenous people because it was designated a ‘dump site’ for the rockets the government was then testing.

In this engrossing documentary, vividly coloured vintage film clips from that first contact, and subsequent merry chase (with the help of Divine intervention) the group lead their pursuers on, necessitating two trips and the recruitment of two Aboriginal trackers to finally, round them up, are interspersed with footage of a recent reunion these relocated Aboriginals had with one another and, their land over fifty years on.  As they sat and watched the 1964 film footage of themselves on a screen, in the midst of the ancient desert homeland they so obviously love, beneath the stars with their children and grandchildren, they were full of reminiscences - often brimming with laughter about how they had looked and been, at other times, full of longing for their old way of life. Often, their musings were tinged with their own uniquely wry philosophy and wisdom of experience.

The two white men in this film, who had gone to Woomera to round up and relocate its indigenous people, were represented through film clips in the case of the late Walter MacDougall, and filmed comments from his colleague Terry Long, a retired Welfare Patrol Officer, who smiled at his remembrances of his dealings with these remarkable people, who united, seemed as though they could overcome nearly any obstacle placed in their way, through sheer resilience and determination.

The group itself, made up of females of varying ages and their children, had been struggling for some time to maintain their existence in this remote region of Northern Australia without any men, and seemingly little resources, apart from a nearby watering hole and their ability to hunt for lizards and other animals for food. In the desolate, desert region they lived in, there were no trees of any kind and few scrubs to shelter them from the elements. There were, however, dingoes – wild dogs that became faithful pets which protected them and kept them warm by sleeping close to them at night. One of the women became very sad and tearful upon seeing her beloved pet in the archival footage, as they’d all had to leave their canine companions behind when they’d been relocated.

A main source of humour for the women in the present day, about their goings on back then was the fact that they’d been naked in their earlier days and Mr. Mac Dougall, who’d originally been sent to round them up for relocation had, according to them, avidly pursued them for sex. MacDougall, on the other hand had reported back to his colleague Tom Long that the women were so ‘after him’ that he’d had to lock himself in his truck at night in order to keep them at bay, a claim which inspired roars of laughter and good natured disagreement.

To dub the moment when the first contact between these two worlds occurred as memorable would be a gross understatement. The sight of this group of dark, stick thin, indigenous people moving en masse down the side of a barren hill towards the white men’s camp in answer to their offer of the food they so needed is a historical event that could never be forgotten, even when watching it via archival film!

Contact is very well edited, so much so that one finds brief segments of thin dark feet walking along the sand, glimpses of rare cave paintings, swirling starry skies and descriptions of the peoples’ Aboriginal serpent dream time nearly as engrossing as the actual footage of the people themselves, both past and present, which the film’s trajectory intermittently and seamlessly utilises to move their story along, inserting colourful details about their culture for our enlightenment along the way. Original music, composed by Antony Portis adds textured depth to scenes of Aboriginal dreaming.

The first question that was asked of Dr. Bonglorno at the Q & A following the screening was ‘What happened to the group?’ I believe what the questioner really meant was, what happened to the group between the time they were relocated and when they revisited their homeland during the filming of Contact. One of the film’s two producers or its highly attuned editor Tania Nehme would have been in a better position to answer that question, for although Dr. Bonglorno was able to give a concise synopsis of the history of the Aboriginal people in relation to their re-settlements on the fringes of towns through the centuries, he knew nothing of the group of people the film is about. And even though he claimed that ‘from the late 1780’s, the Aboriginals seemed to regard whites as ghosts of dead ancestors’, that didn’t necessarily account for the fact that the isolated group in this film had dubbed the white men ‘devils’ and ‘monsters.’ Dr. Bonglorno could only speculate about what might have happened to the men in the group, when another audience member asked. However, one could certainly take his point that many of the men in such groups may have been ‘absorbed into the cattle industry and/or capitalist economy of Australia’ which contradicts one of the opening statements of the film about this group: ‘They lived as they did for thousands of years,’ though that certainly seemed to apply to the women and children the group’s men had left behind.

In the film, when the women are reminiscing about their past lives, they repeat over and over again that the last man left in the group, the father of one of them, had gone off, never to return, leaving them with no protection, although the very fact that these women were capable of surviving in such a rugged environment at all surely indicates that they were much tougher then, than they’d given themselves credit for.

It’s obvious from start to finish that Contact is a true labour of love and priceless life record for all concerned in the making of it, especially those whose story it is. By the end of this incredible film, when these soulful, remarkably down to earth people revisit and, muse in amazement over what was once their own particular part of the world and, way of life, which is no more, those whose eyes were riveted to the screen watching, were exactly where they wanted to be - right there, with them.

 

barbican film

The 16th London Australian Film Festival

Thursday 18 to Sunday 28 March 2010

Patron John Hillcoat

www.barbican.org.uk/film  Box Office: 0845 120 7527

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