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Ian Dunlop, Pip Deveson and Dr Peter Thorley, 5 August 2011

PETER THORLEY: We might as well get started because we have quite a long program to get through. Good afternoon and welcome and to the screening of In Memory of Mawalan. I am Peter Thorley and I am a curator at the National Museum of Australia. We have with us today Ian Dunlop, who made the film, and Pip Deveson from the Australian National University’s Centre for Visual Anthropology who are co-hosting this event today. Pip worked with Ian on the film and they have been involved together on a number of projects so they have a very close working relationship. There will be a discussion after the film led by Pip and Ian, so don’t run away.

Also please be advised that the question and answer session will be recorded and used on our website. This film runs in conjunction with the exhibition Yalangbara: art of the Djang’kawu which is on show here at the National Museum in the Gallery of First Australians until 25 September. It’s been extended. So if you haven’t already seen it, make sure you do; and if you have, I am sure after seeing the film today you will want to go back and see it again. It really is a wonderful exhibition and it’s a perfect complement for this film.

Ian Dunlop is one of Australia’s foremost ethnographic film makers. He spent over 30 years making films for the Commonwealth Film Unit. In the 1960s he made the classic People of the Australian Western Desert series and an epic film Towards Baruya Manhood in Papua New Guinea. These were followed by the long-term Yirrkala Film Project in north-east Arnhem Land consisting of 22 films shot over a period of 12 years. Ian’s films have won many awards, most notably the prestigious RAI [Royal Anthropological Institute] Film Prize for Conversations with Dundiwuy Wanambi in 1996. He has built up long-term relationships with the Aboriginal communities he has worked in, and his films continue to be a valuable resource to those communities in which he has worked. Could you please welcome Ian Dunlop.

IAN DUNLOP: Thank you, Peter, for those generous remarks and thanks to the National Museum of Australia for putting on this screening of In Memory of Mawalan to support their exhibition Yalangbara. At the risk of repeating some of the information that is in the film, I want to go through some of the key events that all led up to the making of this film, so let us start at the beginning.

In the time before time two great ancestral beings, the Djang’kawu sisters, went in their canoe on a great journey. They were beautifully decorated and around their necks they hung dillybags, and in the dillybags were the symbols of the Djang’kawu Law. They landed in north-east Arnhem Land at a spot which they named Yalangbara. Here they created the first people, the children of the Djang’kawu, the children of the Rirratjingu clan. They also performed many other creative acts when they were here: they named and gave meaning to all the natural phenomena; they thrust their digging sticks into the ground from which wells came up; and the sacred Djuta trees. For untold years the Law of the Djang’kawu continued.

Now I want to make a huge leap forward to the 1930s. Early in the 1930s, a policeman in north-east Arnhem Land was speared by the Yolgnu – the Yolgnu is the name of the people of north-east Arnhem Land. Well, you don’t spear Northern Territory policemen. They decided they were going to mount a massive expedition and wipe out everybody lock, stock and barrel. The Methodist church heard of this down south and said to the government, ‘No, let us set up a mission and pacify these wild people.’ Luckily the government agreed, so in 1934 the Reverend Wilbur Chaseling landed at the spot where Yirrkala Creek flows into the sea – this was Rirratjingu land – and camped there were the great leader Mawalan and his family. Mawalan gave Chaseling permission to come back and set up a mission. Gradually people from other clans came and visited the mission and then started to stay there permanently.

But Yirrkala remained a very isolated place until just after the Second World War when things suddenly and dramatically changed. When it was discovered that everybody was walking on pure bauxite, mining companies from around the world started prospecting. Eventually a mining lease was granted to a Swiss-Australian consortium NABALCO. A huge open-cut bauxite mine was planned. It would run right to the boundary of the mission, together with a township, alumina treatment plant and an international wharf. It was to be the biggest industrial development in Australia at that time. The Yolgnu were to be thrust into the industrial age in a matter of two or three years.

Fearing the consequences of this uninvited invasion of their land, the Yolgnu took NABALCO and the Commonwealth to court in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory. This was the first land rights case in Australian history. The court sat over 1970 and 1971, and in 1971 Mr Justice Blackburn handed down his decision that the Yolngu did not own the land. After the loss of their land rights case, the Rirratjingu realised it was more important than ever to reassert the Law of the Djang’kawu. The great leader of the Rirratjingu, Mawalan, had died before this in 1967. Wandjuk, Mawalan’s eldest son, planned a ceremony both as a celebration of his father and as a re-affirmation of the Law of the Djang’kawu.

I started what was to be a long-term film project at Yirrkala in the 1970s. In my second year, 1971, Wandjuk asked me to film a ceremony – the film we are going to see today. The film reflects many of the themes seen in the Yalangbara exhibition, and I do urge you all to see the exhibition. The inspiration for this exhibition came from Dr B Marika AO, one of Mawalan’s daughters. In her introduction to the beautiful book which supports the exhibition, Dr B Marika AO writes:

In a way Yalangbara is like the film about my father In Memory of Mawalan. In showing people this is our land, these are our ancestors and they are important for Aboriginal people, not just our family.

Thank you. [applause]

[Film In Memory of Mawalan shown]

PIP DEVESON: I will just introduce myself: my name is Pip Deveson and I am very pleased to be here with Ian, my long-time colleague and dear friend. I am also very pleased that the screening of this film, in conjunction with the Yalangbara exhibition, is the first in our new Centre for Visual Anthropology Friday forum series at the ANU – that’s a little plug for that. It seems wonderfully appropriate to me, highlighting as it does such a wonderfully visual culture. It brought to mind for me something that a clan elder Joe Gumbula, a Yolngu elder, likes to say about Yolngu culture. He describes it as being about ‘the beauty of all creation, the nature of all things’, which I think we see very much in this film. It is so rich in visual imagery. The songs, dances and objects in this ceremony, as well as the imagery of the paintings in the exhibition, are a wonderful experience. I really encourage you all, after seeing the film, to go back and have another look at the exhibition.

As Ian says, I have worked with him on the films. You probably didn’t recognise the name there (in the credits) because I was a Philippa Kirk way back then – 30 years ago – when I first started working with you, Ian. We have worked together over many years. I had a big gap to have three kids. I was away from the project for 10 years and then rejoined Ian to work on the last 11 films that came out of the project here in Canberra at the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies.

Since that time I have had a couple of small grants to write about the project. This has involved going through a lot of the supplementary material that was produced as part of the project – a lot of documentation by Yolngu and anthropologists, and also Ian’s diaries of his field trips, which I found quite amusing in places. This has given me a real insight into the way the whole project unfolded.

To begin with, before I open it up to questions, I wanted to highlight some of the things that I think are most significant about the project and this film in particular. The very first thing that Ian filmed in 1970, the year before this, was a village council meeting at Yirrkala that had been called to discuss the film project. The chairman of the council, Roy Marika, one of Mawalan’s brothers, told the other elders gathered there:

This is our chance to record our history for our children and our grandchildren. Before we die we should make a true picture, our own Yolngu picture, that will teach our children our dances and law and everything, our singing, our own Yolngu culture.

As we see here a year later, Roy in this film says:

We have erected this Djuta to replace the old one, this new one will stand strong for our children to see. This is our Law and we are keeping it strong.

I feel that in some senses this film – and the fact that the Yolngu asked Ian to make this film of their ceremony – stands like the Djuta tree – as something that will stand strong for future generations to see.

In 1971 also, as Ian said in his brief introduction, one of the things that was really preoccupying the Yolngu was the loss of their land rights case – and this I think is the other key reason the Yolngu chose to be involved with Ian’s filming. To go back to that quote from Dr B Marika AO in the catalogue for the exhibition: ‘Yalangbara, the exhibition, is like the film about my father In Memory of Mawalan in showing people that this is our land, these are our ancestors.’

One of the remarkable things about the Yirrkala Film Project is this agency of Yolngu in having grasped the potential of film and having their own ideas about how they could make use of it. The fact that Ian was open to this all those years ago makes this project very different from some of the ‘stamp collecting mentality’ kind of films that had been going on before that time, where filming of ceremonies had been very much ‘let’s get a record of every kind of ceremony’ kind of approach, without perhaps understanding the way in which every ceremony is a unique event and the meaning of the ceremonies for the people holding them at any particular time.

I have a little story, if you will bear with me one minute more, to illustrate this sort of mentality. The reason some of the film that you have just seen was in black and white was that in 1971 Ian decided to use some black and white stock to maximise his budget. But he had come prepared to film ceremonies with colour stock that had been pretty much reserved just for that purpose. The filming of this ceremony was also partly financed by the then Institute of Aboriginal Studies, and it continued despite the Institute’s sudden and mistaken decision that a Djang’kawu ceremony had already been filmed. That was The Djungguwan at Yirrkala that was filmed by Roger Sandall. They thought this was going to be a repeat performance – Djungguwan and Djang’kawu sounded similar. Fortunately Ian continued to cover the ceremony as fully as possible, despite numerous telegrams telling him that he must stop. I quote from Ian’s diary – this is his recording of one of these telegrams:

Institute of Aboriginal Studies cancel shooting of Djunguwul rituals stop please return stock allotted to this project stop.

Ian continues: ‘So we will have to decide whether we received this telegram or not.’

IAN DUNLOP: I didn’t receive it!

PIP DEVESON: That is all from me. I will hand over to any questions that we might have from the audience.

QUESTION (from Melinda): Thanks to you both and thanks for sharing that very beautiful and mesmerising film with us and, Pip, that gives us a lovely context for the film. While I was watching it, I was thinking this is 40 years since you shot that footage, Ian. I wonder if you might tell us a little bit about what goes on in your thinking now when you sit here 40 years on and look at that footage.

IAN DUNLOP: One of the main things that struck me seeing this film was the beautiful shooting of Dean Semler, the cameraman. I must acknowledge the huge debt of gratitude that I owe to the rest of the unit: in particular Dean Semler, camera, and Bob Hays, sound, who did an absolutely amazing job.

PIP DEVESON: Can I just mention Dean Semler went on to win an Oscar for Dances with Wolves. But you can see the brilliant handheld camera work – just amazing with all this action going on around him. How he did it, I don’t know.

IAN DUNLOP: To be perfectly honest, in seeing this film today I saw many more things in it, more richness, than I had perhaps ever seen before. It’s a long time since I have seen the film – probably some 20 years. Of course, when you are shooting the film, you only have a fairly vague idea of what’s going on. It is only afterwards when Wandjuk documented it with me that I got the richness of all the symbolism. When it’s going on, you just hope that what you are focusing on is the most important stuff. If you see something else happening, you gently grab Dean Semler’s shoulders and move him around to pick up something else. You are working to a certain extent in the dark. You don’t have someone whispering to you in your ear exactly what is going on.

PIP DEVESON: Although Ian did a lot of whispering in Dean’s ear, I believe, telling him ‘There’s something happening,’ and guiding him.

IAN DUNLOP: Also I am delighted to think that Yolngu culture is still as rich now as it was then, particularly at the clan homeland centres. This film was shot before the clan homeland movement, where different clans from Yirrkala moved back to their own clan land, starting in about 1974, to form important sites at beautiful spots on their clan land. Most Australians don’t know anything about this clan homeland movement, but it’s one of the most positive and exciting aspects of Aboriginal life today, I think. These are really viable small centres. The government is doing its best to close them down – you know, the intervention – but they are really positive centres where the Yolngu rule their own life. Bark painting is prolific. They get food partly traditionally from hunting, food gathering and fishing and partly from the mission store – it’s no longer a mission – from the store. Their ritual life is as rich as it ever was. This is an incredibly important project, but I am straying off the subject a bit.

QUESTION: Given also it is 40 years ago, I am wondering if you might reflect – this is a methodological question – on how the film might be made differently today, given the Yolngu and the take-up in technologies. Do you think it would be made differently today or do you think it would be the same sort of a film?

IAN DUNLOP: No, if it was made by Yolngu. I didn’t quite catch what you said, but I think you acknowledged that they were now doing their own filming up at Yirrkala and I have seen quite a few of them. Some of them are in a way a bit similar to my style of very straightforward record making; some are much more imaginative, which I found quite amazing when I first looked at it – more mystical in a way. There is a mixture going on at the media centre in Yirrkala now, following on my very formal recording and letting their imagination go more.

PIP DEVESON: There is also a reuse of some of the material in new films, with a mixing of the old film with new stuff that people are shooting themselves in a very creative way.

IAN DUNLOP: I could never make such a film today because in those happy days Film Australia was fully financed by the government and now everything has to be pre-sold to television. You would have a television producer looking over your thing, and no shot can be more than a few seconds long because people won’t take it or at least you people have taken it.

PIP DEVESON: There was a wonderful thing called the National Interest Program that funded a lot of this kind of work, although Ian’s work was pretty unique at Film Australia.

I have another little quote from Roy Marika at that same council meeting at the very beginning of the Yirrkala Film Project where he wraps up the meeting by saying:

Thanks to you people. It’s very good indeed. And one day I am going to write a letter to the Commonwealth Film Unit so they will send a copy of the tape here so you can hear your voice …(the other elders voices at the meeting)… and what you have been discussing and making law. It’s law now. It’s a good thing for us to remind everyone of all your voices, so I am going to put your voice in the council house for your children’s children when they have grown up.

The film has never ended up in the council house but they have ended up at the arts centre at Yirrkala, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka. There is a very vibrant media unit there now. It’s wonderful to see people making their own films out of that unit but also, incredibly, still watching these films all the time. It’s amazing. They have a sort of iMovie set up and a little theatrette. Kids come in after school and go through on the computer selecting what they want to watch. I am just amazed when I am there to see the old Yirrkala films still playing and kids sitting there enjoying them immensely. It’s really nice to think that that is part of the inspiration of some of the new stuff that’s being made as well.

QUESTION: I am just wondering if that beautiful poetry of the songs has been written down and published in a book that we could read again?

IAN DUNLOP: I am not sure. There have been many anthropologists and linguists who have worked at Yirrkala and who I am sure will have written down many of these songs. Whether these particular ones have been or not, I don’t know.

QUESTION: I just want to make a comment. Thank you so much, Ian, it’s been a wonderful occasion. You can see the power of the oral tradition and I thought it was fascinating to see how the children were learning the dance and were there all the time – some of them were engaged; some of them weren’t. That was very powerful and I can see how important that is.

I also want to say from my own perspective that I hadn’t seen the film before, and I really regret that I hadn’t, because it is so tremendous. To see a lot of those famous bark painters not only in person – I have seen them in photographs – but also to see the leadership that they were showing and their knowledge of their culture. I thought the structure of what we are learning about, the arrival of the people was really fascinating as well. It’s just such a brilliant film, so thank you so much.

PIP DEVESON: Thank you. It’s true and, again, I can’t recommend enough that people go to the exhibition again, because you will see a lot of those artists represented there.

QUESTION: Mine was a bit more of a reflection, something that I have learned just from watching the film. It seemed it was really important – through the poetry of the film there would be a bit of a poem of the Djang’kawu arriving or travelling, and then there was the reinforcement of all the clan names. So it seemed like everybody was really huddled up close together reinforcing who they were, who they are related to and how they are connected. So it was a constant – they are telling themselves their own stories and reinforcing it that way was very powerful coming through that film. Do you have any comments on that aspect?

IAN DUNLOP: Only that I am very glad you got the message. Yolngu life and Aboriginal life is all about connections. Everybody is connected in kinship to everybody else and to all of nature in fact, so constantly in everything they do these connections come out. Sometimes at different levels you get the open story, which is what Wandjuk gave me for the film, but then you get deeper and deeper levels of meaning and deeper and deeper connections until you get to the very bottom.

QUESTION: That was an amazing movie. I loved it. There was one question I wanted to ask you. I have recently read a book called Why Warriors lie down and die, which gave a very pessimistic view of the people of Arnhem Land and their culture saying that, because there is a whole generation of Aboriginal men who have died because of alcoholism, they are tending to lose their culture. Specifically with those beautiful young men who were the dancers, how many of those are still alive and still cultural leaders at the moment?

IAN DUNLOP: A lot of them are not alive any more. Alcohol has had a devastating effect on the people at Yirrkala. At the clan homelands there is no alcohol – at least not in any of the ones I have ever been to, which is why they are such beautiful places. But many of the young men who you saw in the film are now the Rirratjingu leaders at Yirrkala. While most of them have, I must confess, gone through pretty rough periods, they are now emerging as important leaders and important painters. So we can just hope that enough of them have the strength to continue. But in some clan homelands, the ritual life is extremely strong so the young men will be getting great strength. Maybe you could talk a bit more about that.

PIP DEVESON: I wanted to say that there certainly was a massive disruption, and it continues, with terrible problems brought about by alcohol and other pressures of life which have been terribly damaging for Yolngu culture and young people in particular. But in a way this is part of the reason that these films are so important. Recently Wukun, a man who is about my age, came to Canberra. He is one of the people who is working with the Mulka media centre project I was talking about and is now trying to make films of his own. He came to Canberra and interviewed Ian – turned the tables on him so to speak.

At the end of their session Ian asked him, ‘How do you see my films now? Are you happy with the way they were done and so on?’ And Wukun talked, it seemed to me really from the heart, saying to Ian that the films have been so important to him because he was not around for a lot of the time when he was a young man learning from his father when he should have been. So now he’s able to watch these films and he feels he’s learning a lot from them. It’s a wonderful thing that he said that.

Certainly there has been a huge loss of knowledge. I think the women to a large extent have filled the gap and you see that a little bit in this film where there is a huge involvement of women in this ceremony. Women around that time were starting to paint stories that traditionally had been painted by men, so they took up a lot of the work. It is certainly true that there has been a huge disruption in the passing on of that culture.

QUESTION: Having read that book, I had the impression that a lot more of the culture had been lost than you people are saying now, which makes me feel a lot better about the situation.

PIP DEVESON: I think it varies a lot from place to place and from family to family probably.

QUESTION: Thanks for the film. It was amazing. I am just asking a question because I am a school teacher and because you said the films were watched by people at Yirrkala. What kind of material is available for teachers to use in schools? That is just amazing. If I could show students things like that, I think it would give them a really different perspective on Indigenous Australia. People often don’t get to go to these places and see it for themselves. And also how can I find out more about that clan homelands project? Thank you.

IAN DUNLOP: There are 22 films in the Yirrkala Film Project so if you or your students went through those they would learn a lot about different aspects of life in north-east Arnhem Land. As far as support material is concerned, Pip is writing

PIP DEVESON: Perhaps I should just say that the 22 films can be obtained from Screen Australia, as it’s now–called. I have worked on a few different websites which might be of use too – some of them particularly educational websites. There is one that has grown out of another film of a ceremony. The film is Djungguwan at Gurka’wuy but there’s a website on the Djungguwan too []. I can give you the name of it so you can find it. There is another website called Living Knowledge [] which has a lot of educational material on that. You could also go to the Mulka project []. There are videos on YouTube of things that are coming out of the Mulka project now, which I am sure your students would enjoy. I can give you some of those names later, if you like.

PETER THORLEY: Thank you everyone for coming. It’s been a long program, so thank you for your patience. Could you all please thank Pip and Ian. [applause]

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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