Copyright: whose story?

Catherine Gough-Brady

There is a lot about Yuendumu that is secret business, despite its being the most studied place in Australia. How the town looks is secret—there are no pictures of it on the web. Keeping the appearance of the town under wraps is about changing the media’s portrayal of Aboriginal Australians from shantytown victims to a self-determined people.

Warlpiri Media have convinced the urban world that you need their imprimatur before photographing inside Yuendumu. The non-Aboriginal manager Rita Cattoni was born to the role of gatekeeper. Warlpiri Media’s bargaining power is that you need a permit to be there; a visa to visit Aboriginal Australia. For example, one cameraperson was asked to ‘please explain’ an article she wrote on her personal website about her time in Yuendumu. The accuracy of her account was never in question, but her portrayal of the town was exactly of the type that Warlpiri Media are attempting to censor in the public’s image of the place. The offending article was removed and filming continued.

If there is one thing documentary makers and journalists don’t like, it is censorship. Organisations like Warlpiri Media have enormous control. What is amazing is that conflicts between these organisations and the media are fairly minimal. At the heart of any conflict between information gathers (documentary makers) and those who possess the information (subjects or their collective) is control over the material. In the end, a lot of the tension between the subject and filmmaker comes down to 2 things: money and the question of whose story it is—the subject’s or the filmmaker’s?

It is also interesting to flip the coin (the 2 dollar coin with the Warlpiri man on its head side) and say that Warlpiri Media’s power is not, horror of horrors, well-intentioned censorship but an extension of copyright and permission. The 2 are very much intertwined. Let us leave the complex question of censorship open for further debate and move on to the issue of who owns the story.

Many thousands of kilometres away in France the intelligentsia are musing over this very issue. The patient and charming Georges Lopez from the documentary Etre Et Avoir (To Be and To Have, 2003) is suing the film’s makers for 250,000 Euros. “I’ve spent days in cinemas answering questions from the audience, in interviews, travelling abroad, and all they do is thank me nicely”, said Lopez on the BBC website. What he wants is money. His lawyers claim the filmmakers breached copyright and counterfeit laws. Did Mr Lopez give permission? Who owns the image of the teacher and his lessons, and the profits derived from their reproduction?

The issue would not have arisen if Etre had not done so well in the cinemas and made Lopez into a star. But it did. Increasingly, documentary cinema release is inspiring respectable box office returns and generating profit. The probable result of the suit will be an increase in the number of documentary subjects demanding rights to a share of the net income and requiring remuneration for touring with the film. Neither are new ideas to the industry, nor can they be seen as harmful to the filming of documentary. Nor will they pose any drastic dilemma as to who owns the story: profits are shared, creative control remains with the filmmaker or the investors.

Not so thinks the Belgian journalist and filmmaker Hugues Le Paige. He wrote about Mr Lopez’s suit in Dox (March 2004): “To make a documentary is to actually build up a rapport [between the subject and the filmmaker] that excludes any mercantile dealings by its very essence.” This statement is highly romantic. Despite DV technology, documentaries are still expensive to make and distribute. Money is always a part of the story.

One of the claims made in the debate generated by the lawsuit is that paying the subject will make a difference to the truthfulness of the story. It will change the meta-filmic relationship from filmmaker/subject to employer/employee. The subject will feel the need to perform, a need ‘to have’ the money rather than just ‘to be.’ This theory rests on the idea that financial transactions will somehow hide rather than expose the true character of the subject, and further, a fear that documentary makers may bribe their subjects.

The trouble is that in Anglo (and Franco) culture, dealing with Intellectual Property is so foreign to us that we need large contracts and expensive lawyers to nut it out. In contrast, in Warlpiri culture the legality is clear. Ownership of possessions like houses and cars is fluid. But ownership of stories is proscribed. Every retelling requires permission from the people who own that knowledge, and all knowledge is owned.

For instance, when recording the story of the 1928 Coniston Massacre it was necessary to find the people who owned the stories of the landscape in which it happened, as well as those who experienced it. Once access had been granted by Warlpiri Media the storytellers were paid and permission was given for use. On the censorship side, an eyewitness account of a tracker whose family still lives in the community had to be dropped in exchange for continued access to the rest of the story. In this case, sorry business was not resolved and was unlikely to be so. The tracker’s story was not for sale.

If Central Australia is any measure of the effect that money has on truth then it can be said that truthfulness is not lost when you pay the subject. The censorship in the Coniston story had nothing to do with money; it hinged on community cohesiveness and personalities. In Yuendumu the fees are very reasonable; the mercantile dealing is very simple. In 1990s jargon, stories are commodities and Warlpiri culture has recognised this and ‘unionised’ to set wages and conditions. The story remains the property of the teller, but permission is given to use it.

Maybe it is another case of the ‘Empire Writes Back.’ Aboriginal media organisations such as Warlpiri should be invited to European documentary conferences to discuss their model with the French.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 18

© Catherine Gough-Brady; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2004