Watching and listening: didjeridu documentary

Keith Gallasch, Kalkadoon Man, Queensland Biennial Festival of Music 2003

The screening of Kalkadoon Man, a documentary commissioned by the Queensland Biennial Festival of Music about the seeking out and making of a didjeridu by composer William Barton, was a generous theatrical affair. There were speeches, performances by Barton on the instrument and by his mother, Delmae Barton, in soprano vocalise, and the handing over of the didjeridu to the museum’s director.

I spoke to director of the film, Brendan Fletcher about the experience of making the film. He described a rich and intense experience—10 days on the road outside Mt Isa with Barton. “It was pure process…just me and William, a camera and a microphone and the bubble of the journey.”

For Fletcher this was an adventure and an education. The adventure comprised traversing a unique landscape, Barton’s traditional Kalkadungu homeland, during the wet season. A sudden storm meant re-crossing 5 rivers to avoid being stranded. There are brief dramatic shots of Barton taken from the car as he wades ahead, the sky filled with rain and lightning. Some days were hot and fly-blown, making it hard to work. Mostly though it’s the pleasure of the collaboration that comes across.

Fletcher says he filmed Barton each night as they sat by the campfire, recording the stories and songs that would become the vocal strand of the film (some of it re-recorded later, but using the same words). As the 2 travelled, Barton would fill Fletcher in on family and clan history, visit key sites and recollect his own history with the didjeridu. Producer and editor Chris Newling says that the makers soon realised that there was no need to narrate the making of the didjeridu: you can witness that without words—the only exception appearing to be the explanation about filling cracks in the timber with spinifex wax from the plant’s roots.

What Barton has to tell us is a spare but intriguing account of his parents’ battle for land, their success, his father’s death, memories handed down of massacres and narrow escapes, glimpses of good, caring relations between whites and blacks, and Barton’s education as a player. The elders of his clan passed on to him his teacher’s didjeridu (though he points out that ‘teach’ is not in the Kalkadungu language—the learning player watches and listens and learns). This was rare, he says. Usually such an instrument is broken, “silenced” after its maker and player passes on.

The most powerful moment of the film is when Barton first plays the instrument he has made. The music he makes with the didjeridu is sombre and fluent. Shot in tight close-up, he appears to finish, but his eyes remain fixed on the didjeridu, his hands stay in place. It is as if he has hesitated rather than ceased playing, as if to ask the instrument is it satisfied, has it been awoken.

Kalkadoon Man, A documentary film, Queensland Biennial Festival of Music, Queensland Museum, July 18

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 23

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003