The courage to address other ways of being

Dan Edwards: Reindeer in My Saami Heart; Another Country

David Gulpilil, Another Country

David Gulpilil, Another Country

On the Dox always supports long-form Australian documentaries, but as I’ve outlined in articles since 2012, they are becoming increasingly thin on the ground. Two recent Australian features that have managed to emerge show us ways of looking at the world that are quite different from the neo-liberal outlook to which our governments, broadcasters and public institutions seem so utterly beholden. We are constantly told that nothing is of value unless it can be economically quantified. Another Country and Reindeer in My Saami Heart beg to differ.

From David to us

Molly Reynold’s Another Country is refreshingly straightforward in its approach, although it is perhaps a misnomer to call it a “Molly Reynolds film.” It is, in fact, the latest instalment of an ongoing collaboration between Reynolds, her personal and artistic partner Rolf de Heer, and the legendary Australian actor David Gulpilil, a trio who have been working together since Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr) in 2006. Since then they have made Charlie’s Country (Rolf de Heer, 2013) and the experimental Still Our Country: Reflections on a Culture (Molly Reynolds, 2014). All of these explore the culture and stories of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land—Gulpilil’s home and the place he returns to when he is not being a movie star.

Another Country is built around Gulpilil’s voiceover, unequivocally constructed as first-person, direct address from the actor to non-indigenous Australia. It’s a statement of facts that is never hectoring, a call for comprehension that is never sentimental or mawkish. In simple and clear terms, Gulpilil explains with humour and grace the issues plaguing his people, in terms even non-indigenous people should understand.

He starts by explaining the origins of his hometown, Ramingining. “This town is all wrong,” he states matter-of-factly, noting that the remote settlement—400 kilometres from the next nearest township—was created by white authorities when various Indigenous groups were forcibly herded off their lands. Cut off from their traditional country, their food supply and way of life, the townspeople were left with no jobs, no prospects and no money—other than the welfare white authorities have seen fit to dole out.

Alongside Gulpilil’s voiceover plays a series of beautifully shot scenes and vignettes of life in the town. Some are literally illustrative, others elliptically counterpoint his comments. A long, surreal re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion during a monsoonal downpour, for example, illustrates how Yolngu life has been irrevocably changed by invasion as well as revealing the durability of local culture which adapts external belief systems to local conditions.

Gulpilil brings to his narration the same warmth evident in his iconic screen roles in Storm Boy (Henri Safran, 1976), Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986) and Charlie’s Country, inviting the audience to see things from his perspective, rather than provoking them to feel guilty. He argues that the beginnings of a solution to the many problems he outlines is really very straightforward. “You have to try and understand us,” he says. “Listen to our history. Listen to us. Listen to what we say. Listen to who we are.” Such simple advice, so difficult it seems for us to put into practice.

Reindeer in My Saami Heart

Reindeer in My Saami Heart

Sweden’s Stolen Generations

Reindeer in My Saami Heart also focuses on an Indigenous culture, this time in the far north of Europe. Sydney-based documentarian Janet Merewether first encountered the Saami people—traditionally nomadic reindeer herders in the Arctic Circle—through a series of black and white photographs sent by an Australian friend living in Sweden. The aging images by an unknown photographer depict Saami children placed in boarding schools by the Swedish authorities following the Second World War. Shortly after the images were taken, the wider Saami community was forced into townships, making the children in the images the last generation who knew something of their traditional nomadic way of life.

Reindeer in My Saami Heart is largely built around the voice of Inghilda Tapio, a poet and prose writer who was among the children Merewether first encountered in the old photographs. Through interviews, Tapio, who is now a youthful looking grandmother, recalls her childhood with her nomadic family, and the intense pain of separation when she was placed in a boarding school. Like other Saami children, she received a compulsory education in Swedish, which for her was a foreign tongue. Tapio eventually attended university, and became an advocate for Saami culture and language through her writing.

The film contains many passages of Tapio’s evocative poetry in both English and Saami, although some of its effect is inevitably lost in translation. Through her writings and reminiscences, we are introduced to a way of life structured around the extremities of the Arctic seasons, which oscillate between summers of riotous green and winters under thick blankets of snow. Like Indigenous Australians, the Saami traditionally worked with their land rather than imposing themselves upon it, living in large, fluid family groups that provided systems of mutual support and tight social networks.

The parallels with the clash of cultures between Indigenous and non-indigenous people that occurred in Australia, and the assimilationist policies in both places, are striking. The Swedish authorities appear to have been less extreme, with Saami school students at least reunited with their families during holidays. Nonetheless, young Saami children were subjected to compulsory placement in boarding schools for prolonged periods, Indigenous languages and practices were discouraged, and Indigenous people were forcibly removed from lands that were then put to various industrial uses, including mining and hydro-electric power generation.

Despite these parallels, little is made of them in the film itself. Merewether notes in publicity materials that Australia’s long tradition of feature documentaries on global issues—from Dennis O’Rourke’s work in New Guinea, the South Pacific and Afghanistan, to David Bradbury’s films about revolutions in Latin America, to Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson’s Highlands trilogy—is in danger of becoming extinct due to a lack of interest from contemporary broadcasters and funding bodies. In some ways, Reindeer in My Saami Heart sits in this lineage, but there is also an important difference. For filmmakers such as O’Rourke, it was always clear what their personal stake in their subject was—and by extension, why the subject should matter to other Australians. O’Rourke’s South Pacific films, for example, were about the horrendous impact of European colonialism and its ongoing legacies in the region—events in which Australia was and is deeply implicated. In contrast, Reindeer in My Saami Heart misses several opportunities to explore what Saami experiences might mean to us back here in Australia.

Merewether places herself in the documentary, explaining in voiceover how she first encountered the photographs that brought her to Sweden, but we never get a sense of why these images initially attracted her and how they perhaps relate to repressed feelings about Australia’s assimilationist history. The similarities in the Saami and Aboriginal stories also illustrate the varied ways in which Europe has imposed a certain way of life upon people across the planet, placing our own colonial history in a wider context.

Merewether is to be commended for producing a rich and engaging work that took 12 long years of periodic shooting to make. Her comments about television’s lack of interest in contemporary stand-alone documentaries, however, are substantiated by her struggle to find a local broadcaster.

Do Australians still have the desire—and the stomach—as they did in the outward looking 1970s-90s, to be confronted with documentaries that challenge our sense of our place in the world? Or are we happy with celebrity host-driven travel programs that simply skim over the surface, reducing the world’s complexity to questions of culinary difference?”

Another Country, director Molly Reynolds, writers Rolf de Heer, David Gulpilil, Molly Reynolds, producers Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr, Molly Reynolds; Vertigo Productions; 2015; Melbourne International Film Festival, 30 July–16 August 2015; Reindeer in My Saami Heart; writer, director, producer Janet Merewether; Screen Culture, Australia, 2015; http://reindeerinmysaamiheart.com

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 20

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 October 2015