Cinetracts Q&A: Karrabing Film Collective

Chris Stults, Associate Curator, Film/Video

Oct 12, 2020

An aboriginal man leans out of the passenger side of a white SUV to make a "hang ten" hand gesture as he drives through an Australian forest. Another white SUV is driving behind him.

The Karrabing Film Collective is a media group consisting of more than 30 intergenerational Aboriginal filmmakers from Australia’s Northern Territory. Their Cinetracts ’20 short, now on view here, documents and expands upon the group’s memorable and eventful bushwhacking sessions to clear a road to a distant, remote beach. Layers of current and historical events and ancestors circle around. This conversation took place virtually and features answers by Karrabing members Elizabeth Povinelli, Rex Edmunds, Cecilia Lewis, and Natasha Lewis. 

Elizabeth, of all the artists I contacted about participating in the Cinetracts project, you were the only one who was familiar with the original Cinétracts from 1968. What was your history with those films? And what was the Collective’s response to the commission and the prompts? 

Elizabeth Povinelli: That’s a good question. I don’t remember when or in what context I ran into the original Cinétracts project. I came of age in book libraries, before online searching. My mother would leave me and my five siblings in the library as a form of day care. I would find a book and then sort of surf its surrounds. It’s really messed up how I learn things. So, maybe 10 or so years ago when I was teaching Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), I became interested in the difference between radical left cinematography in the US and France. I wasn’t being very systematic, but I think this is where I first saw the work. I wasn’t aware of the all the rules around the project. I’m not even sure I knew Chris Marker was involved. So don’t give me too much credit as a cinephile.

Everyone in Karrabing loved the commission. The oldest members of the Collective watched their parents and grandparents struggle to keep the ancestral present in place in the midst of new forms of colonial trickery, hucksterism, and plain old bad faith. Their parents came up with specific tactics to counter the assimilatory forces of settler colonialism and then assimilation’s supposed reversal with the advent of the politics of recognition—which the Karrabing consider just a different mode of assimilation. And their parent’s parents found ways of survive the genocidal forces of early settlement. The question of what forms of governance Karrabing face and what forms of refusal and affirmation they are devising are at the front and center of the Collective’s film and life work. So, it’s little wonder then that we loved the commission if we could do it our way.

I remember that, almost immediately after our first conversation about Cinetracts in the summer of 2019, Rex Edmunds suggested making a film about mining. Obviously, COVID has altered the initial ideas of almost everyone contributing to this project but I’m curious to hear, what were some of the issues that interested everyone in that topic? 

Rex Edmunds: Mining is a big problem on Indigenous lands. Perragut (white settlers) use royalties to sweeten-up people. “If you let us mine here you can get this much money or that much money.” They know that people are so poor… you could say that government keeps us poor so when they dangle a little money in front of us, we snap at it. But all the money, the royalties, comes in one go. So even if you get $1000, $5000, $10,000, $80,000, the money disappears that quick, because it only comes to certain people, and those people have that many members of their family who need help, you know. But the big mines, they’re laughing. They skim off most of the money, invest it, get richer. Indigenous people stay poorer. Meanwhile they promise you that no harm will be done to your land. But even if they did somehow clean up all the poisons and mountain-sized holes, the land has already been changed. Animals long gone can’t smell how to get back. The water changed, everything. Look at what McArthur River Mine did to all the freshwater around Borroloola. People drinking poison now.

But in one way mining is not the problem. The problem is how to get Indigenous people, like us mob, to be able to say no. Like, why do we say yes? One reason, everyone is really poor. But another reason is that perragut separate people from their country, ancestors, and Dreamings. When people have never even seen their land, they might lose any real feeling for it. So, when the money is put in front of them, they bite it. And not just mining, but cattle stations, tourists, anything perragut can make money off of. They say, “Ah, give us a Section 19 (long term lease under the Land Rights Act) and we’ll develop your country, put in fencing, run some cattle, drop water bores, and build some houses. Then we’ll leave these things for you when the lease runs out.” But by that time the old people are dead. The young people have never been allowed to go there, so they don’t really have any feeling for country. The ancestors are angry because they are living in the land that’s been rubbished. The cattle, or tourists, or mines have smashed and reshaped everything. 

Another thing perragut do is say, “Wait, wait, we’ll help you.” Or, “Don’t do anything because you can just sit and wait for royalties.” And, help never comes, time drags out and nothing happens and then everyone is dead and other people are just sitting around waiting for royalties.

And, another thing, it’s not just Indigenous against perragut. Perragut have tricked us into fighting against each other. So, maybe a tourist operator or pet meat business says to someone, “Hey, can you let us shoot cattle and pigs on this land, or run tourists on that land, we’ll give you some money.” But that place they are talking about doesn’t belong to that person. Or maybe it’s part of an ancestor story that came from another area and stretched here to this place and then stretched back over there to another place. But that person says, “Sure, it’s just my land. I forget about other people.” Or they say “Those people are trapped at Belyuen, they’ll never come back here. They were rounded up and forced to live far away and they can’t get back, so they’ll never know.” Then fights break out between Indigenous people and perragut sit back like referees when, really, he started the fight and is the main one making all the money from the fighting. Meanwhile, those pigs, cattle, tourists and all the money are long gone. We’re left killing each other.  

So, we Karrabing try to get each other and our young people to know their own country and how it is connected to other families in Karrabing so we don’t get separated. And we don’t wait for anybody. We do it ourselves. Then everyone knows, “Wow, so-and-so from Karrabing made the road or so-and-so from Karrabing went to Europe, China, US, all over Australia for their films because they keeping stories strong. And young people, and old people too really, start caring, you know, because they go there and say, “Oh, this is my country, wow.” “Oh, and this is the place where the stories of the films really are, like right here.” And they think “Hey, I am somebody. Here’s my land, and my stories, and my Dreamings.” Like Cecilia said in the little films we made for Art Gallery, NSW. 

What we all want to do—what we did when we built the road and what we do when we make our films—is to show what we need to do now to try to block this way that berragut separate us from each other and country. So, mining could be the film we made. But then again, maybe it is more important to show how we have to keep making our own future with our ancestors without waiting.

"The question of what forms of governance Karrabing face and what forms of refusal and affirmation they are devising are at the front and center of the Collective’s film and life work. So, it’s little wonder then that we loved the commission if we could do it our way."
Elizabeth Povinelli of Karrabing Film Collective

Your short succinctly lays bare how COVID operates as an extension of settler colonialism in how the Aboriginal is exponentially more jeopardized than the descendants of the colonizers. And it shows the continuity of how these times are like all times for the community. While many filmmakers for this project focused on a single day (as directed by the prompt), Karrabing—along with Rosine Mbakam—place the present moment within a historicized context. Can you talk about your approach to time in this film? 

Cecilia Lewis: For us, our ancestors are always with us. They’re not in the past. They’re not in some other time. They’re not outside us. When we go to our country, we see our durlg (Dreamings); in the film you see two of our durlg out in the tide. We know their language, their story, how they connect to other places. And they are right there. They are not in another time or place. They keep going there and that story keeps going there, and other stories keep around them and connected to them. And we keep going. Before our ancestors struggled with perragut killing them, taking them from their lands, locking them up on missions or settlements. Land struggles too. Our Dreamings sit in climate change, mining, poisons, fishermen coming and thinking they can chuck anchor or can fish anywhere. If we don’t respect them, then they cover themselves up and hide fish, crab, kangaroo, like that.

To be honest, our film was shot over two trips, so two days really. That first trip was me, Rex, Beth, my son Kelvin and my sisters’ sons Kieran and Gavin and my grandson Allan Johnson. 

Different people have different ideas about what happened during that first trip, like in our film Wutharr, about when one of our boats, Silver Bullet, broke down and Rex, Beth, Trevor Bianamu and Dennis Lane were stuck on a beach right next to Bamaluk. In Wutharr, different people had different ideas about why the boat engine broke down. Some people said, well we didn’t care for engine parts. Some said, the Lord Jesus was testing us. Some said, ancestors punishing us for never having come before, like we had new sweat. Some people said all three. 

A similar thing happened when we began making that road the first time. We were going to be careful, you know, go step-by-step. But the next minute we’re in the biggest fire, and Rex has punctured the radiator of our Karrabing truck. We didn’t know how far we had gotten. When Beth, Kieran and Gavin pulled up in Beth’s truck, we all made a fire break. Still, I thought, “This is it, we’re going back to ancestors right here right now.” OK, well, we reckon, the ancestors might have spun Rex’s head, you know. He thinks, maybe they are like, now that we got you here, we’re not letting you go back. Or maybe the ancestors decided to punish us because, well you never visited us for that many hundreds of years so we going to punish you first, make you suffer, since you did the wrong thing too, not coming before.” Rex has been around the coast a lot of times, and Beth too, with all our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. But none of us ever been inside the bush as far as we went, and the rest of us were there for the first time. 

Next morning, when Beth, Kieran, Kelvin, and Allan went back with her truck to Darwin to get a radiator, they got booby-trapped on the long mining road. Stuck for hours and hours. When we all got back home, I thought, “I give up on this road. Too many jealous ancestors.”

So, ancestors make time go slow or fast; they open country or make it hard for you. And perragut too, like Rex says, but also perragut say, don’t listen to your old people, don’t listen to your ancestors. We’re your boss now. So, you have to listen to what we say. You can’t go to your country except on weekends; or, they dock your pay, fire you, or take away the little bit of welfare payments they give you if you think about your country first. That work time is also always running through our lives. But our parents and their parents struggled to keep and pass on the knowledge in the world they were struggling to survive in. We’re doing the same. Our Dreamings are doing the same. Our lands are doing the same. You can’t put some in the past and some in present and some in future. All of these are always with us. Always going to be with our children and grandchildren, with what they are going to be struggling with, what road they are going to have to build.

We will be the ancestors for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, like our grandparents and their parents are our ancestors, all the way back and all the way into the future.

In talking about this short as you’ve been making and conceiving it, I’ve heard a lot about this epic day of bushwhacking that the film documents. I love the metaphoric way that the video shows everyone hacking towards the future, accompanied by the elders, but I’m also curious about the actual details of the work. What is the trail that you’re all blazing and how was the experience of the day for everyone? I love how the various speeds that the video plays out in convey a sense of both action and reflection in the midst of the labors. As I write this, much of the West coast of the US is ablaze and, not too long ago, much of Australia was too. So the final comments about “we care for the country now so that the country cares for us in the future,” followed by the shot of the promised land that you’ve all been working for, hits as especially necessary right now. A utopia that we need to realize rather than fantasize about. The celebrations in the credit sequence of your film are clearly hard earned and the vision of joy is so valuable at the moment. As so many of our lives are circumscribed right now, I’d love to hear if you all have been able to make much use of the beach. 

Natasha Lewis: Cecilia talked about some of what happened. But a bit of backstory. Rex has dreamt of making a road to Mabaluk, Bamayak, and Gavin’s next-door country, Banagaiya, for years and years and years, since he was a young man and helped set up a camp at Nganthiwudi just southwest and around the corner from Mabaluk. Mabaluk and Bamayak are on the south side of the Daly River mouth, Anson Bay. To get there you either have to drive seven hours across some rough old miner roads that wash out in the rainy season, and then boat up and around Nganthiwudi and Mabaluk, or drive to Bulgul, about three hours from Belyuen, and then boat across the Anson Bay. But you have to have trucks and boats to do that. And petrol. And with our used trucks and boats, everything is always falling to pieces. That’s never stopped us, though. We’ve done lots of trips by boats to Mabaluk, but sometimes we get stuck in the middle sea or on the other side of Anson Bay. A couple of times we had just enough fuel to make it within 50 yards of shore. Lots of people at Bulgul. But when you get to our country, there is nobody but ancestors there. The closest place is Wadeye, or Nadirri is anyone there, by coast; or Dily inland. So we’re talking, what, 50 kilometers away easy, more than that. Plus, sometimes everyone wants to come, young people, so our boats are way overcrowded and we have to dodge police. Older people can’t make it because the tides make huge rough waves across the hour or two across. 

Last year, Cecilia got sick and tired of Rex and Beth going on and on about how they were going to make the road. And Beth said, “True, now that Karrabing money has bought a truck and chainsaws, and has saved enough to buy new seaworthy boat, we need to make this road or stop talking.” We already set up a bush camp on the north side of Anson Bay at Bulgul, so now it was Mabaluk and Bamayak’s turn. So Rex said, “Let’s just do it.” We drove down the Stuart Highway through Daly River onto the road to Wadeye, off toward Wudigapil, turned off toward and then crossed Liddy Creek, and chainsawed through the old mining road because the monsoon had knocked down trees everywhere. They camped the night at Elerri Creek. In the morning they got up, cooked fish from night fishing, and headed back up the mining road. Rex picked a spot that he thought would keep us on the high ridge. He, Beth, and Gavin had seen it during helicopter work Karrabing did with the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority. They had old GPS but it didn’t seem to be working, so Beth said, “Hey I got compass on my iPhone”. Off we went. Rex and Beth figured it was about 15-20 kilometers through the scrub to the beach.

A man's boot-covered feet seen walking across a wooded area with a graphic overlaid with white text on black bars: "Mebela listen what wulmen and wulgamen been say la we," translated below the text in English: "We abide by what our old people told us."

From Karrabing Film Collective's Cinetracts '20 short

They went slow for a while, making a careful straight line. Tall dry grass was everywhere so they were burning like our parents taught us. Had lunch. Then, well, most of us think the ancestors started messing around with Rex; they knew how much he wanted to make it to the beach. After lunch he just started going for it. Running over merrapan (pandanus trees), driving through thick grass so you can’t see below the truck bonnet. Next thing, dusk is coming up, Rex has stopped. Beth comes up with her truck behind. Her finger is ripped open. “How did you do that?” “I don’t know.” “Why’d you stop.” “Busted radiator. Busted back fuel tank.” Did the ancestors set a booby trap—use a merrapan to rip holes in the Karrabing truck? Or was Rex smelling the saltwater (wutharr) over the winds? Whatever, they were surrounded by fire, because someone changed the direction of the winds. They made a fire break. Sung out to ancestors. After the fire died down around us, they spent the night with Beth pulling Karrabing truck while Gavin, Kelvin, and Kieran—but mainly Gavin—hacked away at the underbrush, which was still on fire.

In the morning time, Beth, Kelvin, Kieran, and Allan packed up and headed back to Darwin to get a radiator. Cecilia said what happened to them. Beth ended up having to get many antibiotics, like something really just pushed its way into her hand. A red streak was racing up her arm by the time they hit Darwin. She joked on the phone to other Karrabing that she had gangrene. That little story was taken as true and raced around Karrabing phone lines, getting more worse the more it traveled. Karrabing said, “Wow, no way. We’re not going to that country. The ancestors are just too rough.” Anyway Kieran, Junior, and Beth came back with the radiator. Rex and Gavin did a bush mechanic job getting it into the Karrabing truck. And they all went back to Belyuen. 

Beth was curious about the GPS and, sure enough, it had been running and we were that close to the beach without knowing it. Rex was thrilled. So me and my partner Peter agreed that ancestors always punish people first and then open the road. So, they got time off from work and Beth, Rex, Kieran, Allan, me and Peter all went back down. Sure enough, open road. We took a bottle of vodka for the ancestors. When we hit Bamayak we had a shot and poured the rest into the beach for the ancestors. We found a poacher’s hut and other evidence that people had been stealing from our country. The next weekend, Beth had to go back to the US for a month, but me and my partner and Cecilia, and my sister Katrina and grandkids and Rex, all went down. Our littlest members, four year-old Akaydia and toddler Shekina, saw the Dreamings they had been names of for the first time. Akaydia was so excited that I found one little spot on a pile of beach rocks where there was reception. Akaydia called Beth at the airport to tell her she’d seen her Dreaming. 

Since then. we’ve used the road a dozen times, hunting, camping, fishing. We’ve gotten most of Karrabing there. We take a truck or two by road and our new boat. Our goal is to set up a heritage site and art residency at Mabaluk and Bamayak run by Art Sea Rangers if we can get the funding. But we’re setting up a bush camp in the meantime. We’re not waiting for anyone.

Images courtesy of the filmmakers

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