Two Laws: an unquiet realm of the Aboriginal struggle
|TWO LAWS - a feature made by the Borroloola Aboriginal
Community of the Northern Territory - is a film so substantial in achievement
that it makes breathless praise undignified.
Long, complex, pleasurable and innovative, TWO LAWS is practically unclassifiable within the conventional slots which are so much taken for granted in European cinema.
Even as a "documentary" - since the film is clearly not a wham-bam action drama - it manages to unsettle rather than confirm our expectations, to the point of questioning the very basis of that genre as it is commonly understood by white cultures.
As a film about the history, laws and life of a particular community, it cuts across our distinctions between story-telling, reportage, drama, fiction and fact, and it re-organises these activities according to a different logic.
There are as many ways of describing TWO LAWS as there are contexts from which to view it, since it is a film which can work differently for a number of possible audiences.
For the Borroloola people themselves, the film is an act of recording, preserving and reflecting upon their history, and the process of making it seen as part of their present struggle to articulate and gain recognition for Aboriginal law and vision.
It is also a discussion-film made by a traditional community to be considered by the different black cultures of rural and urban Australia, while for white audiences it can be anything from a richly informative political film to a two-hour experience of visual culture shock.
The Australian Film Institute season at the Sydney Opera House puts TWO LAWS in an art-house framework and, in this context, three issues emerge clearly. In the most immediate way, TWO LAWS is a superb and engrossing essay on "land rights" - but one which refuses the conventional isolation of this issue as a single worthy cause and which presents it instead as an integral part of the life and experience of a whole society.
For this reason, combined with a luxuriously slow pacing and a sense of visual drama which makes it a sensual delight to watch, the film escapes from the irksome, civil rights cocktail effect which bedevils so much radical independent cinema.
After more than a decade of cultural activism, single-issue films which are easily listed according to ingredients (women, gays, ecology, the bomb...) often end up addressing only an audience which has made a lifestyle of commitment to a cause.
Contrary to filmmakers' intentions the result can be (in theatrical contexts at least) an effect of moral blackmail on the audience which makes the concerned citizen feel pleasurably naughty at nicking off to Hoyts instead.
This is all the more unfortunate since the belief that documentary films are dull, and causes even duller, is presumably what such filmmakers are trying to contest.
If TWO LAWS cannot be ticked off the white liberal check-list quite so easily is is in part because it insists that "land rights" must be understood from an Aboriginal point of view, and also because it transforms cinema to represent that view on screen.
Secondly, the film raises questions about the politics of ethnographic film making, an area of cinema which most people in fact watch quite often on television.
It avoids, of course, the so-called neutral approach in which a white anthropologist runs around collecting samples of exotic culture and adds a voice-over narration to tell the audience what it all really means.
TWO LAWS is not only narrated by the Borroloola people themselves, but narrated according to their own sense of what it is to tell a story - with repetitions, precise naming of the speakers and collective participation in the process through confirmation of, or disagreement with what speakers have to say.
At the same time, the film avoids the methods of the "direct cinema" favoured by many documentarists today, which aims to capture rather than interpret the reality of other cultures, but which, by underplaying the presence of the camera, often leaves the viewer in the position of invisible voyeur peeking at alien doings.
TWO LAWS is a formally self-conscious film in which the participants discuss their own role in the film process, actors introduce themselves and describe the parts they are to play, and in which the sound recordist (when necessary) is present in the image on screen.
And the presence of the camera is incontrovertible, since the entire film is shot with a wide-angle lens - the sort that gives a fishbowl effect at the side of the frame and which conventional wisdom might describe as "distorting" the human figure. It is in this sense that the third issue raised by the current season of TWO LAWS is that of film language itself, the question, commonly marginalised in Australia as an "arty" preoccupation, of the politics of representation. As a means of contesting the imposition of white laws of land ownership, social organisation and values, and of history-telling, TWO LAWS also contests the laws of white cinema - our cherished, but arbitrary, conventions about focus, editing, perspective and pace.
According to these conventions, good focus is sharp, hard-edged and clear; a proper perspective is the illusions one inherited from Renaissance painting; and a decent editing job whips us back and forth between individual characters at a pace which is fast for entertainment, slightly slower for serious art.
TWO LAWS creates a softly rounded world in which the borders between people, objects and landscape are more fluidly defined, and in which "reality" seems to stream in from the edge of the image, rather than being displayed for us in flat little snippets on screen. It is also a radically slow film - one which asks that the white viewer experience a different sense of the meaning of time and, thus, of narrative and history.
It is divided into four sections, each of which could be screened independently but which forms with the others a complex interpretation of the interlocking relations of past and present.
The first part, POLICE TIMES, is a discussion and re-enactment of an incident in 1933, when Constable Gordon Stott took more than 30 people from the various Aboriginal lands and - for a case of a slaughtered bullock - chained and beat them on a two-month journey to Borroloola.
WELFARE TIMES deals with the 1950's and the policies of assimilation and re-location, using reminiscence, re-enactment and song to treat a period of more subtle but none the less disastrous assaults on the fabric of Aboriginal society.
Part three, STRUGGLE FOR OUR LAND, picks up from the first two the theme of the difficulty of explaining Aboriginal laws to whites and broaches the intricate question of land ownership.
It moves away from the story telling style of the first half of the film and combines documentary footage of a particular conflict over a sacred site with an extraordinary, stylised presentation of the difference between Aboriginal ceremonial song about land and the mapping procedures of the white legal system.
LIVING WITH TWO LAWS gives the film an open-ended conclusion, with a series of presentations of Aboriginal life today, and a discussion with Aboriginal women opposing the view that they held a subservient position in traditional society.
Although the film moves from the 1930s to the present, it in no way presents a chronology, a progression, or a history of a break between the old times and the new.
Instead, it is clear from the film's opening that the telling of the stories of the past is part of the struggle of the present. At the same time, the account of the traumas of the past makes it clear what it is at stake when the people in the film talk about the importance of learning to talk back to white law makers and to make their own voice heard in their own way.
TWO LAWS was made with the technical assistance of Sydney filmmakers Alessandro Cavadini and Carolyn Strachan, who were approached for help by the Borroloola community and spent several months living with the people.
According to Strachan and Cavadini, the people were mostly unfamiliar with cinema before making TWO LAWS, because at Borroloola there is no television and very few films. Various ethnographic films were screened, the technology presented (including several different lenses) and long discussions held about the precise effect which was wanted. Apparently, the people preferred the wide-angle lens because it is capable of showing large groups of figures in relation to each other - and because they objected to close-ups as dissections of the human body. This approach could have run the risk of producing an effect of charming amateurishness to be patronised by non-Aboriginal audiences.
Instead, it has produced the "return to zero" - rethinking cinema from the bottom up - which was, paradoxically, one of the catchcries of radical European cinema in the rich turmoil of the late 1960s. It would be ludicrous - and impossible - to co-opt TWO LAWS into the terms of white debates about politics and the avant garde.
Nevertheless, in the often stultified atmosphere of film making in Australia not the least of the achievements of TWO LAWS is to remind white film makers and audiences that a different cinema can be possible and desirable.
|--Meaghan Morris, The Financial Review, April 30, 1982|
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