"THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF ETHNOGRAPHIC FILM"
FILM QUARTERLY, Spring 1983 | James Roy MacBean
© by The Regents of the University of California
Reprinted Film Quarterly | Vol by permission of the University of California
Having voiced their demands loud and clear at the 1978 Canberra Conference,
and having obtained from the Institute of Aboriginal Studies a strengthened
commitment to proceed faster in providing Aboriginal peoples access to
equipment and to filmmaking instruction, Australia's Aboriginal peoples
also intensified their efforts to enlist some of Australia's white documentary
filmmakers to work with the black communities in making films that would
express rather than merely observe Aboriginal culture. Many Aboriginal
communities initiated requests for films to be made, and many of these
requests were directed to David and Judith MacDougall in their roles as
Director and Assistant Director of the Film Unit of the Institute of Aboriginal
Already heavily involved in making a series of films requested by the
Aurukun Aboriginal community (which has been in the center of Australia's
most controversial political struggles over land rights, mining rights,
and conflicts of federal and state jurisdiction), the MacDougalls and
their staff simply couldn't handle all the requests for films coming from
various Aboriginal communities.
However, the Borroloola people were determined that they wanted to make
a film dealing with the history of their community. Leo Finlay had seen
Protected, a film on the Palm Island Aboriginal community made
collectively by two white Australian filmmakers, Alessandro Cavadini and
Caroline Strachan, in collaboration with the Palm Island community. Protected
was a very impressive film; so Leo Finlay paid a visit to Cavadini and
Strachan in Sydney and asked them for help in making a film on the Borroloola
community. Cavadini and Strachan accepted the invitation, went to Borroloola,
and spent the first two months traveling from one Aboriginal settlement
or camp to another, learning their proper "skin" or kinship relation within
the Borroloola Aboriginal society, and discussing what sort of film the
Aboriginal peoples wanted to make.
From the beginning, it was clear what the general outline of the film
was to be. The Borroloola community wanted to provide a historical background
to their insistence that their Aboriginal system of law was, in fact,
just thata system of law which regulated their interactions with one another
and with land and property. This was important, they felt, because preliminary
hearings in land rights cases during the seventies had demonstrated that
white judges tended to discount Aboriginal land claims based on Aboriginal
tradition whenever they were in conflict with land claims based on leases,
titles and contracts recognized by white law.
Even before commencing filming, Cavadini and Strachan found that the Aboriginal
sense of "law" pervaded everything the Borroloola community did. When
Cavadini and Strachan arranged evening screenings of films dealing with
land rights issues, the next morning there would be a formal meeting,
according to Aboriginal law, where the community would collectively discuss
the previous night's films, debate their strengths and weaknesses, and
explore their potential use, to them and to their film, of this or that
stylistic approach. Gradually, in this way, the community collectively
planned what it wanted to film and how it wanted to film it.
Cavadini and Strachan gradually realized that this traditional collective
decisionmaking process was itself a fundamental feature of Aboriginal
law, that "leaders" were only ceremonial figures; and that correlatively,
the formal community meeting could provide the structural base of the
film. Once this was decided, it became obvious how these formal meetings
were to be filmed. As Cavadini and Strachan explain it,
Because there isn't any television and few films had been seen,
the people were unfamiliar with the whole of Western film culture, so
their ideas came largely from Aboriginal structure. For instance, when
we got down to filming there was automatically only one position for the
camera and one position for the sound recordist because everyone has their
place in a highly structured spatial arrangement. Men sit in one position,
women in another, and each individual sits with particular relatives.
So the determinations had to do with the tribal structure into which the
film fitted as opposed to being outside it. (6)
Moreover, as Cavadini and Strachan point out, not only camera and sound
positions were engendered by Aboriginal sense of law and structure, but
also even the choice of what lens to use on the camera was engendered
During those first two months we did do a number of tests to try
out different ideas, and the choice was made to shoot the entire film
with a wideangle lens. It was the one that people responded to and liked.
With a wideangle lens you can include much more in the shot than with
a standard lens, but it's not so appropriate for closeups. If someone
wants to make a statement, others have to be present to make that statement
possibleto confirm or contradict it. Sometimes there was disagreement
between people but it's presented as a group discussion as opposed to
one individual being the authority. (7)
The title, it was decided, should be Two Laws; and the
film should begin with a shot of a formal meeting where Leo Finlay introduces
Cavadini and Strachan by saying simply "I think you know these two, Alessandro
and Caroline; they're going to help us make a film, and it's our film
so let's make a good film." The camera, with its wideangle lens, pans
right to left across the seated community at the formal meeting, men on
one side, women on another; and as the camera completes its pan we even
see the sound recordist a woman, Caroline in her designated place alongside
the Borroloola women.
The film overall is divided into four parts, arranged chronologically
(although with some overlaps) into sections called "Police Times," "Welfare
Times," "Struggle for Our Land," and "Living with Two Laws." "Police Times"
deals with the situation in the thirties, a period still vividly remembered
by a few older members of the Borroloola community but largely unknown
by most younger community members, who only learned of these times and
events in the process of making the film.
Although "Police Times" focuses on one particular event that happened
in 1933, especially as this event is recalledand reenacted by people who
participated in it, there is a sense in which the present community's
effort to grasp an understanding of their past is far more important than
a reconstituting of the past. As Cavadini and Strachan explain it,
"The way Aboriginal people approach history is very different
from the way we see history as located firmly in the past. People talk
about history in the present tense, use the first person, employ dialogue,
reenact events. In everyday life people tell stories that happened yesterday
or happened one hundred years ago."
The task of retelling the pastspecifically, the events of 1933, as characteristic
of those timesis carried out in a complex, sophisticated combination of
oral history (storytelling) and reenactment plus analytical commentary
on both the telling and the actingout of history. Moreover, the reenactment
includes its own selfreflexive component of analysis, for the reenactment
is presented in a way that emphasizes the group process of playacting.
Aboriginal community members sit in rows on the ground as the camera pans
or tracks to pause as each one introduces himself by saying "my name is
X, and I'm playing the part of Dolly . . . or Doris . . and so on. Furthermore,
although they filmed enough reenactment footage to comprise a 90minute
drama film, the Borroloola community decided not to go that route, preferring,
for political reasons, to emphasize the overall context of events rather
than the events themselves. Finally, the 1933 eventsa forced march of
Aboriginal peoples who were rounded up by one Constable Stott, who beat
them into a forced confession of killing and eating a bullock (steer)
owned by a white rancherwere judged too brutal in their depiction of violence
to be used in the finished film. So it was decided instead to emphasize
the actingout strategy, to film stylized and symbolic expressions of the
violence enacted upon Aboriginal peoples. Thus, there are scenes where
the white actor "playing" Constable Stott symbolically lowers his stick
slowly across the back of an Aboriginal man instead of bashing him with
it, or slowly applies his stick first to one side of an Aboriginal woman
then to the other to indicate the brutal beating which resulted in her
death. And, in another scene, an old Aboriginal man describes how he was
beaten across the back, first one way then another; then he grabs a stick
and proceeds to demonstrate how he was beaten by bashing a tree first
this way then another. "Finally," he says, "I was forced to confess. 'Yep,'
I told him, 'I ate that bullock, ate the whole thing!'"
The Aboriginal peoples' sense of humor is evident in many moments of Two
Laws, as they laugh in retrospect about what they had to endure in the
past and as they revel in the chance now to recall and act out what they
have experienced. This is most evident in the second part, "Welfare Times,"
where a group of Aboriginal women discuss with a white woman how the latter
should play her part as a welfare administrator. Rehearsing a scene where
the Aboriginal women have to present themselves for inspection, they coach
the white woman on the lines the welfare administrator should speak. Running
through the scene, the welfare woman speaks her lines in an impressively
convincing way; and the Aboriginal women remark, "Yes, that's just the
way they would talk to us; and we would just stand there and look down
at our feet, not daring to speak a word."
But immediately after this remark there is a cut to another take of this
same scene, with the Aboriginal women presenting themselves for inspection
and the white woman saying "Good morning, have you all washed today? If
you're nice and clean and if your children are nice and clean then you'll
get a pretty dress for being good girls. And you'll get clothes for the
children too. But if you're not clean or if your hair is untidy then you'll
not get anything until you've fixed yourself up properly." And here, in
this take, the Aboriginal women are shown laughing at the whole scene,
dramatizing, in effect, both what used to happen to them and the distance
they have come in asserting themselves.
The welfare system, as they see it, was blatantly assimilationist. By
way of introducing "Welfare Times," one Aboriginal woman reads a passage
from the Government's submission to the Land Claims Court, which reads
as follows: "The year 1953 was the beginning of the Welfare Ordinance.
Its aim was to direct and encourage the reestablishment of the Aborigenes,
that they would eventually be assimilated as an integral part of the Australian
community." To which, the Aboriginal woman adds, looking directly into
the camera, "Which means that they wanted us to be like white people."
While assimilation was certainly the Australian government's longterm
plan for the Aboriginal population (paralleling the US government position
on Native Americans), at least as important was the shortterm ur 42 gency
of getting the Aboriginal peoples out of the way of the white mining interests
that wanted access to the country's vast mineral deposits. In Two Laws,
the Borroloola Aboriginal community recountsand reenactshow they were
suddenly told that their welfare station and the entire Aboriginal community
would have to move to Robinson River, several hours away by truck. There
was no consultation involved; they were just told to pack their things,
and a government truck was provided to carry them and their possessions.
Only later did they find out that large mining interests had obtained
a lease on huge tracts of land around Borroloola and had insisted on the
Aboriginal community's removal to make way for the vast Mt. Isa Mines
The notion of two different legal concepts of land tenure (one black,
one white) is best brought out by the third part of the film, "Struggle
for Our Land." Interestingly, there is one sequence in this section which
is filmed utilizing what might be called an observational approach. It
involves a conversation between a white Australian laborer (a recent immigrant
from Yugoslavia) and an Aboriginal man who is protesting that the white
laborer, by razing hundreds of trees along a dirt roadway, has both diminished
the Aboriginal food supply (they eat the fruit of this particular tree)
and, more importantly, desecrated a sacred site which had been entrusted,
ceremonially, to his particular custodianship, or djunkai.
The conversation is filmed in synch sound and long takes, and since both
men are speaking English, there is no need for subtitling of dialogue.
The white laborer questions the black man's ability to prove his "ownership"
of the land. "Do you have a title to the land?" he asks. The Aboriginal
man responds that when the white men came they just took the land and
didn't bother with titles. The white laborer then retorts that land wasn't
always just taken, that sometimes blacks actually sold land to the whites.
"Can you prove," he asks, "that your father, or his father, didn't sell
that land to the whites?"
Pausing for a moment, the white laborer then continues, "And if that land
was sold to the whites, then what would happen now if the government or
the land claims court decided to give that land back to the blacks?
Who would pay back the money to the whites that they had originally paid
the blacks for that land?" The Aboriginal man reflects on these questions
for several minutes, then shakes his head stoically, observing that "You're
still just thinking in white peoples' terms about all this."
The point is well taken, although it would be nice if the Aboriginal terms
of communal land tenureas opposed to private property had been spelled
out more explicitly. Apparently this is exactly what happens when the
finished film is shown to audiences of other Aboriginal communities throughout
Australia: they actually leap to their feet at this moment in the film
and start discussing loudly exactly what they would have said to that
white laborer. And even within the film we see the way the filmmaking
process offers material for further work and reflection, as we later see
several Aboriginal women activists listening, with ear phones, to the
sound tape of that particular conversationwhich stirs them to compose
a letter offering their response to the white laborer. In short, even
the observational sequence is clearly and firmly placed in the overall
context of a process initiated and carried through by the Aboriginal community
themselvesa process that involves them in making a film in the first place
because they are above all involved in a political struggle to retainor
to regaintheir traditional land.
Keeping the political context in mind, the Aboriginal community is able
to incorporate into Two Laws some footage of traditional rituals and ceremonial
dances, but in such a way that does not allow this material to fall into
the trap of the exoticwhere the Aboriginal is depicted as the mysterious
other. Instead, by delaying any treatment of ritual until the fourth and
final part of Two Laws, and by including footage of rituals involving
some of the men, and, especially, some of the women we have come to know
somewhat through the first three parts of the film, the Aboriginal community
is able to provide the audience with a sense of the interrelatedness of
all these activities and of their articulation within the overall context
of their ongoing lives and struggles.
All in all, the film Two Laws is a breakthrough of major significance
in ethnographic film. It may not provide the kind of drama and action
we are used to in the cinema, even in the "observational cinema"; but
it provides much more important things. Above all, Two Laws provides the
ethnographic "subjects"in this case, the Australian Aboriginal community
of Borroloolathe opportunity to express what they want to express about
their lives and their culture and their struggles, and to express all
this in filmic terms of their own choosing. In doing so, they may have
made that "disappearing world" a bit more visible and audible again, to
the benefit of all of us.