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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.