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by Anne Fischel
Presented to the Society for Cinema Studies, April 15, 1989

TWO LAWS was made by an Australian Aboriginal community, the Borroloola Tribal Council, in collaboration with two white Australian filmmakers, Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini. Funded with loans from the Australian Film Commission, the film was shot in 1981 and released in 1982. It premiered at the Opera House in Sydney where it attracted a good deal of critical attention, in part because of its highly political subject matter, but also because of its unusual cinematic design. (1)
The film is two hours long, complex, difficult for westerners to watch, and equally difficult to talk about. I first saw it in 1985 and found it intriguing and deeply puzzling. TWO LAWS violates the expectations that viewers commonly bring to documentary texts; furthermore, the transgression of western aesthetic and narrative strategies is deliberate, reflecting a series of purposeful, self-conscious choices by the Aborigines.
However, it isn’t enough to see the film as simply, or primarily, a counterpoint to western practices. There is a remarkable process of self-definition and self-determination at work here. TWO LAWS tested my capacity to engage a film without assimilating it to my own intellectual formation. The confrontation with difference that the film requires leaves me in a position of some insecurity as a viewer and critic, a position, or instability of position, that seems entirely appropriate. But if the film challenges my cultural and aesthetic contexts it also requires the construction of at least a tentative from of reference. For the purposes of this exploratory study, I’ve drawn on Walter Ong’s discussion of the distinctions between oral cultures and cultures based on writing, (2) and on Frantz Fanon’s analysis of the changes in Algerian society during the rebellion against the French colonial government.(3) I also want to consider briefly the relationship of this film to the documentary tradition and its impact on some of the central problematics of documentary.
Aboriginal culture is based on oral traditions of communication and remembrance. Oral cultures place a high value on tradition and its dissemination through oral performative elements: formal enactments of historical incidents, discussions between community members, and direct address. For the most part the mode of filming is not observational, nor is there any pretense that the events depicted in the film would have taken place had the camera not been present. I suggest that TWO LAWS can be viewed as a complex and multifaceted performance, in which Aboriginal traditions and the exigencies of contemporary life are juxtaposed and self-consciously integrated.
Historically, the relationship of Australian Aborigines to filmmaking is a difficult one. As early as 1898 government-supported expeditions carried film cameras into the field to document Aboriginal customs and ceremonies. Since 1961 government agencies have supported film documentation of Aboriginal life. The Aborigines have strong taboos against filming rituals and ceremonies (although these have been the subjects deemed most desirable by filmmakers) and against showing images of persons who have died. As a result of Aboriginal pressure, many of the early documentaries have been placed in archives to which general access is barred.(4) Since the 1960s, however, Aboriginal peoples have become increasingly vigorous in initiating film projects within their communities. The films challenge conventional ethnographic and documentary assumptions by focusing not just on traditional ways of life, but on the changes brought about by forced contact with settler society.
Frantz Fanon’s analysis of change in colonial Algeria is particularly useful in thinking the complex interaction of modern western technologies with traditional forms of life. In A Dying Colonialism Fanon looks at changes in Algerian social structure and at shifting responses to western technology during the period of armed resistance to colonial rule. During the colonial period western medicine and radios were shunned by the Algerian population, even though intensive campaigns were conducted to popularize them. The changes mandated by colonization were experienced as violent intrusions into the social fabric of Algerian life. Popular refusal to take advantage of even colonialism’s most progressive features must be understood as a form of cultural and political resistance.
During the period of armed struggle Algerian attitudes changed dramatically. The radio became a prized possession, and listening a form of participation in the revolutionary movement and in the formation of a national identity around the military struggle. Algerians were able to disarm the cultural valence of the radio and transform it into an instrument of national resistance. Furthermore, the “traditions” threatened by the radio: patterns of family sociability and standards of humor and propriety were modified to accommodate this reworked sense of cultural and politcal identity. (5)
I want to draw two parallels between the Algerian experience as described by Fanon and that of the Australian Aborigines. Film is an imported technological and semiotic apparatus, and the interplay between that complex ideological system and the cultural agendas of the Borroloola is central to the working of TWO LAWS. Just as Algerians were able to integrate modern technology and traditional values in the name of national resistance, so do Aboriginal uses of film produce complex forms of cultural empowerment. Fanon’s discussion also requires us to think very carefully the nature and function of what is called tradition. In Algeria and in Australian Aboriginal societies, some traditions have been adapted or abandoned in order to cope with the demands of the present. Yet these very changes are carried out in the name of tradition, that is, of something that is bound up with cultural identity. In the case of Borroloola, the film TWO LAWS produces a collective version of experience that is at once “traditional” in the sense that it honors the terms in which Aboriginal life and value have been constituted, and at the same time viable in a changed and demanding present.
There is yet another context I wish to cite here, and that is the tradition of documentary filmmaking that TWO LAWS intersects, and that is so productively transgresses. The film responds directly to two of the most pressing dilemmas of the documentary project as it has been constituted in western practice. The first dilemma has to do with the ambiguous status of the documentary image. On the one hand we understand the documentary as a construction and are skeptical of its claims to knowledge and truth. At the same time it is impossible to ignore the special relationship between the documentary image and the world. Documentaries derive their importance and validity from persons, objects, and events that have an existence outside of and apart from the image. Yet the statements made by the framing and sequencing of images are not just reflections of the things of the world. Rather, they articulate particular versions of experience and identity, and particular terms in which social and historical relationships can be understood. Thus, the documentary project is at once inherently realist and inherently ideological, a contradiction that is rarely acknowledged within the film texts.
A second major problem confronting the documentary project is that the films are not generally authored by the communities they depict, but by outsiders. Furthermore, the distance between insider and outsider is not neutral, but is weighted and reinforced by differences in privilege and status. The roles seer and seen, knower and known are not reversible, but are apportioned along the lines of class, culture, race and gender.
The documentary project thus embodies the dilemmas of representation, both in its claim to unproblematically reflect real conditions, and as a set of defining statements about persons whose power of public self-definition has been curtailed and suppressed. Representation requires an other who is seen, known, imaged. Representation performs two tasks simultaneously: in its claim to transparency it eliminated the distance between image and object. At the same time it confers a distance between the one whose privilege it is to see and the one whose fate it is to be seen.
Perhaps the most significant development in contemporary documentary filmmaking is the insistence on the part of those who have been represented that they will create the terms and structures by which their lives will be viewed and understood. The fact that women, people of color, and excluded or formerly colonized groups are demanding the opportunity to articulate cultural identities and histories through the medium of film must surely command our attention, concern, and respect. Part of the contention of this paper is that such projects are also shifting the ground of the documentary project and its relationship to representation. TWO LAWS is not just recording, documenting experience, but constructing a narrative of experience, in and through a signifying system that is already culturally and politically inscribed. The necessity to formulate one’s own version of history requires a struggle with the very codes and terms in which experience and history are articulated, and the construction of new codes, new visual and epistemological structures. (6) It is my contention that TWO LAWS is engaged in just this sort of project.
TWO LAWS deals with the conflict between two social and legal systems, one Aboriginal and collective, the other official and white, mandated and enforced by the state. The film has four sections, In the first, “Police Times”, the Borroloola act out an incident that occurred in 1933 when the police imposed governmental law on the Aboriginal territories. For the fifty years previous to the incident white settlers had set up cattle stations on Aboriginal land and the Aborigines had retaliated by killing the livestock. (7) In 1933 a bullock was killed and a police constable named Stott accused members of the Borroloola community. In the context of the prolonged struggle between the Aborigines and settlers, the death of a bullock was interpreted as a form of armed resistance, and the police quickly retaliated. Stott arrested twenty-five people, chained them together and led them on a 200-kilometer forced march. On the march several of the people were severely beaten, and a woman, Dolly, died.
In “Police Times” the older men and women who participated in the march direct the younger people as they reenact the arrests and beatings, and the death of dolly. Each scene takes place on the site where the original incidents had occurred, and roads are traversed and rivers forded just as they were fifty years earlier. However, the encounters between the Borroloola and the constable are highly stylized. During the beatings the constable brandishes a stick and ceremoniously lowers it onto the shoulders and backs of his victims. No attempt is made to make the violence convincing. Carolyn Strachan has said that takes were filmed in which the beatings were treated much more graphically, but when the Borroloola saw them, they found them offensive, and rejected them. (8)
Between the enacted scenes, members of the community address the camera directly, introducing themselves and the parts they play, discussing the chronology of events, and explaining the significance of each action. In other scenes members of the community pool their memories of events. Memory is not simply a personal, but a collective possession that must be negotiated by all the participants. Although the murder of Dolly occurred 50 years before, the process by which it is inscribed in collective memory is contemporary and ongoing. Speaking to the camera the Borroloola make this process explicit. During a discussion in which Dolly’s sister recounts at length the beatings she received, another woman turns to the camera and explains, “She is telling us about that time, because we didn’t know about it. She is teaching us.”
The second section, “Welfare Times”, recounts a shift in methods of social control. Welfare stations were established in the area. As one of the narrators explains, the welfare workers “wanted us to be like white people”. The welfare branch relocated the Borroloola to a reserve at Robinson River, about 100 kilometers east of Borroloola common. There is some evidence that the purpose of the move was to supply Aboriginal labor to the white cattle plantations in the area. In the film an encounter between the welfare worker and the community is acted out. The welfare worker inspects the Borroloola women and children, and gives rations to those who are suitably clean. We also see the Borroloola directing the white actor who plays the part of the welfare worker in this scene. The scene is interspersed, as in the first section, with discussions in which the people remember what it was like to leave their land and how intimidated they felt by whites. One of the members of the community says, We always looked down, we never asked questions, we never looked the boss in the face, we were too frightened”. He adds, “We didn’t understand this white fella way, but now we understand more, and because we are fighting for our land, we will look up and ask questions”. The people are learning how to deal strategically with white society. They are learning how to fight effectively for their way of life.
The third section, “Struggle for Our Land”, acts out a court case in which four language groups from two closely allied areas claimed land that had been taken by the state and leased to cattle plantations and mining companies. The case was only partially successful and, as a member of the community explains, only “the rubbish part” of the land was returned. He urges the people to “talk strategy” and bargain with the government to get their traditional lands back. In a subsection entitled “We Bargain with Only a Little Bit” the Borroloola explain how they are currently negotiating for one of their most important ritual lands, Bing Bong. In return they have promised to give the mining companies a corridor through which resources and materials can be transported to and from the urban centers.
Section Four, “Living with Two Laws”, is built around scenes of contemporary work, ceremonies, and living conditions. This section bears the greatest similarity to traditional ethnographic and documentary treatments of non-western cultures. However, because it is preceded by images of political struggle, it is recontextualized. The portrayal of a daily life that might otherwise appear foreign or exotic to western audiences occurs within a narrative of political and cultural empowerment. From this perspective the cultural forms displayed in this more conventional section are clearly marked as the choices of a proud, sophisticated, and self-aware people.
With the exception of the fourth section the subject matter for TWO LAWS was selected by the Borroloola, and members of the community directed each sequence and supervised the editing. By the time Strachan and Cavadini arrived in the Northern Territories the Borroloola had already developed the structure and themes of the film. Decisions about the actual stories to be told and scenes to be filmed were made over the course of several months as the filmmakers met the over 300 members of the community and discussed the film with them.
The film is formally extraordinary. Questions of composition and presentation were discussed collectively and agreed upon by the entire group. In the early period before the filming began, Strachan and Cavadini had documentary films brought in to be screened and discussed by the community. The aesthetic choices that so strongly mark the film to western eyes were made during these discussions. The Borroloola rejected the use of close-ups, and selected an extreme wide angle lens. They wanted to see for themselves the land on which people lived and the social relationships between them. They insisted that close-ups made some persons important at the expense of others. The wide angle lens allowed them to incorporate the maximum context into each frame and provide a human community for every speech and action. Thus, in shot after shot a speaker is supported by other people who sit or stand in close proximity, often linking arms or touching shoulders, associating themselves with her speech.
The Borroloola also objected to camera positions that seemed to them unmotivated. In TWO LAWS, the position of the cinematographer and sound recordist are dictated by their relationships to the community. Strachan and Cavadini were initiated into the kinship structure of the group and positioned within the law that defined community obligations and responsibilities. The location of the camera was also determined by this positioning. During the filming the cinematographer Cavadini sat “in his place” with the men, while the sound recordist Strachan sat with the women in the place assigned to her. As a result, changes of focal length and camera position are rare, and continuity cutting, which requires such shifts, is obviated as a strategy. Scenes develop in single, wide-angle shots. When there is a gap in the action or discussion, it is marked by a moment of black.
The extremely short focal lengths allow us to see the space around people and the social and natural context in which they function. At the same time they allow the camera to remain close to its subjects. Intimacy in western film aesthetics is often achieved through exclusion, or what is framed out, but in TWO LAWS, intimacy and inclusion are formally equivalent. In western film aesthetics significance is not distributed equally over the entire frame, but is weighted by visual markers. TWO LAWS does not make use of such formal distinctions. It was often difficult for me, as a western observer, to tell who was speaking, since the speaker was not necessarily located in the center or foreground of the frame. If western compositional aesthetics construct particular social hierarchies, the aesthetic strategies of TWO LAWS inscribe a very different set of social relationships.
In societies without writing history is held only in memory or in stories that can be retold ot others. Knowledge is formalized in verbal language and transmitted through oral performances. In such cultures speech is not just descriptive or representational; it is an enactment, a doing that makes the past present. By the same token listening is a significant form of participation. Telling a story inscribes it in the consciousness of its listeners, who make it their own, thus taking responsibility for preserving and transmitting the history of the group. (8)
Oral society is concerned with remembering tradition and with traditional ways of remembering. But oral traditions are highly flexible; as Walter Ong notes, the narratives of oral societies are continually revised in order to meet the needs of contemporary life. Some events will be remembered, others will drop out, still others will be remembered differently in the light of the present. What is important to this process then, is not an accurate and comprehensive account of the past, but a collective process of interpretation in which culture is continually recreated and reaffirmed.
TWO LAWS deals with the changes in Borroloola life and consciousness as a result of colonization by European culture. At first the people are intimidated by institutional violence. Their fear and confusion are transformed through performance into a process of education that prepares them to deal strategically with their oppressors, fight effectively for their rights, and reconstruct “traditional” values and ways of life on their own terms. In the film enactments of historical events, group discussions, and direct narratives are not clearly separated, but are part of a single structure. The Borroloola are self-consciously and purposefully mastering a foreign signifying medium and making it their own, and this process of authorship is made correspondent with and equivalent to the process of cultural empowerment by which the Borroloola become once again the authors and narrators of their own lives.
TWO LAWS is concerned with history, but it is not in any sense an archival document. Its memories are not just inherited, they are actively produced. In this process, aesthetic conventions and codes have necessarily been reworked and the capacity of the film medium has been expanded. TWO LAWS is a powerful reminder that film is not a closed and perfected system of meanings, but a discourse to be engaged, contested, and changed.


I am grateful to Carolyn Strachan for taking the time to discuss TWO LAWS with me and for sharing useful background materials. I am also grateful to Ian Angus of the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts, who helped me think through the role of oral performance and tradition in this film.
1 TWO LAWS is produced and directed by Alessandro Cavadini, Carolyn Strachan and the Borroloola Tribal Council.
2 Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, London: Metheun and Co., 1982
3 Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism Trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1965
4 Ian Dunlop, “Ethnographic Filmmaking in Australia: The First Seventy Years (1898-1968), Studies in Visual Communication, (9:1, Winter 1983)
5 Fanon, “This is the Voice of Algeria”, A Dying Colonialism, 69-97
6 For an important and useful discussion of the issue see: Kobena Mercer, “Diaspora Culture and the Dialogic Imagination”, in Critical Perspectives on Black Independent Cinema, Mbye B. Cham and Clair Andrade-Watkins, eds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Celebration of Black Cinema and the MIT Press, 1988
7 John Avery, “Two Laws”, Cinema Papers, August 1982
8 Carolyn Strachan, personal interview, March 19, 1989

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