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Sydney International Film Festival


CAAMA: from the heart

Lisa Stefanoff

Lisa Stefanoff is a PhD candidate in New York University’s Graduate Program in Culture and Media. Since 2002 she has lived in Alice Springs, researching and working in a variety of roles at CAAMA.

David Page, Green Bush David Page, Green Bush
25 years of Indigenous media production and broadcasting at CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) began with a second-hand car, some donated equipment, a typewriter, rent-free office space, and some very ambitious dreams. Out of these dreams has come CAAMA Productions, the film and television branch of the CAAMA group of companies, one of Australia’s most abundant and groundbreaking well-springs of national screen culture. Indigenous filmmakers affiliated with CAAMA are now at the forefront of Australia’s presence at prestigious film festivals around the world.

The appearance of Rachel Perkins’ first feature Radiance in 1997 and Ivan Sen’s acclaimed Beneath Clouds in 2002 (which won 2 AFI awards, including Best Cinematography for long-term CAAMA Director of Photography Allan Collins) drew media attention to Indigenous filmmaking and the emergence of a generation of Indigenous auteurs. While a dozen or so individual names have rightfully risen to prominence through this kind of exposure, many audiences remain unfamiliar with the fundamental role CAAMA has played in the development of Australian screen culture, through the creation of a distinctively Central Australian Aboriginal-controlled working base and founding commitment to the preservation and promotion of Aboriginal languages and cultures.

Recent CAAMA documentaries including Dhakiyarr vs The King (2004), Beyond Sorry (2003) and Rosalie’s Journey (2003) interrupt and revise non-Aboriginal narratives of Australian political, social and cultural history with an acumen, and a sensitive empirical humanism, that is very hard for conservative contributors to the ‘history wars’ to challenge. The confidence of CAAMA documentaries is grounded in the self-conscious ethos of the company’s long-running Nganampa Anwernekenhe television series: to foreground the film subject’s voice, in his or her original language, and allow this voice to shape the film.

The language and culture preservation and promotion project underpinning the Nganampa Anwernekenhe (‘Ours’ in the Pitjantjatjara and Arrernte languages) project is unique in Australia and all CAAMA filmmakers have gained practical experience through this series. Early episodes focused on traditional law and culture stories and many of these are no longer available for public viewing. Social issues including women’s welfare, health management and language change became central after about 5 years, followed in subsequent series by individual meditations on different Aboriginal identities. Contemporary historical accounts have come to prominence in the most recent instalments. Nganampa Anwernekenhe programs are delivered in Aboriginal languages and thus made available to specific Aboriginal audiences. They are also available to literate non-speakers through subtitles. The challenge inherent in the Nganampa Anwernekenhe ethos of balancing the subjects’ and filmmakers’ voices has produced innovative and beautiful resolutions. Subtitled Aboriginal voiceovers taken from interviews with the films subjects’ are, for example, both lyrical and arresting in their capacity to frame and reframe stories by focusing viewers’ attention on interpretive Aboriginal perspectives that can surpass the filmmakers’ knowledge.

Underpinning this ethos is CAAMA Productions’ highly trained skills base; most of the film personnel have AFTRS diplomas or degrees. This is matched by the practical experience of making tight budgets cover a lot of ground in physically, economically and politically challenging environments.

CAAMA Productions also invites some of the industry’s most sought after non-Aboriginal writers, editors, designers, composers and sound artists to collaborate on projects. Aboriginal authority is ensured by assigning Aboriginal people to key creative roles in production crews. Documentary and drama production at CAAMA also involves complex intercultural relationships between people of different Aboriginalities. With very few exceptions, Aboriginal control of story form and content remains primary, concerted and definitive. The making of films at CAAMA is a social experience in which creative collaboration and cooperation is key.

Film Australia’s decision to present CAAMA with the 2005 Stanley Hawes Award for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Documentary has proved timely; in January Dhakiyarr vs The King featured at the Sundance Film Festival alongside new Indigenous short dramas Plains Empty (director Beck Cole) and Green Bush (director Warwick Thornton). Thornton’s story of a night in the life of an Aboriginal radio broadcaster at a community station went on from Sundance to win the Best Short Film at the 2005 Berlinale Panorama. It will also screen at this year’s Message Sticks and Sydney Film Festival (see p22).

Alongside Thornton’s film, the Sydney Film Festival will be showcasing 7 other CAAMA documentaries in a special retrospective, and hosting a forum looking at CAAMA’s cultivation of black screen voices. The 1990 documentary on CAAMA and Imparja Television, Satellite Dreaming, will introduce festival audiences to the first phase of Indigenous media production and broadcasting.

Ivan Sen’s Yellow Fella (2005) has just screened in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and will have its Australian premiere at Sydney’s Message Sticks festival. The film is a road movie connecting national cinema history to the personal challenges of mixed identity. Tom E Lewis, the Aboriginal anti-hero of Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), and director Ivan Sen are equally involved in a journey to find the resting place of Tom’s white father. Tom’s mother Angelina is brought to the edge of her comfort zone as a passenger on, and an authority for, her son’s quest but the film never once pushes its subjects to reveal private anguish.

Steven McGregor’s 5 Seasons is an observational documentary focused on Numburindi man Moses Numumurdirdi and his living relationship to the cycle of 5 weather seasons affecting his country in South East Arnhem Land every year. Moses’ extended family use modern technologies to hold onto their traditional way of life. Exquisitely shot by Allan Collins and Warwick Thornton, 5 Seasons moves effortlessly between environmental detail and human responsibilities.

Karli Jalangu (Boomerang Today) (2004) is a short documentary by long-term CAAMA sound recordist and first-time director David Tranter. Karli Jalangu exemplifies the Nganampa Anwernekenhe mandate of preserving specialist, rare or unique traditional Aboriginal knowledge in language. Four senior Warlpiri/Anmatyerr men teach how to make a "Number 7" or "Killer" boomerang. We watch the men select the right wood, then shape and paint it, all the while listening to the intimate dialogue of master craftsmen working together. This film has brought David Tranter to the attention of Canadian Indigenous film festival programmers, resulting in invitations to the ImageNation festival in Vancouver and Terres En Vue in Montreal.

Beck Cole’s Wirriya Small Boy (2004) is an observational documentary that presents an ordinary day in the life of 8 year old Ricco Japaljarri Martin, as he moves between his home in a town camp on the outskirts of Alice Springs, Aboriginal school, the town pool and the library. Shot over 2 months on a mini-DV camera, Wirriya features a voiceover by Ricco and occasional exchanges with the filmmaker. Cole was granted rare access by the local organisation directly responsible for the welfare of the town camps.

Warwick Thornton’s Rosalie’s Journey (2003) presents Rosalie (Ngale) Kunoth-Monks speaking for the first time, in her Arrernte language, about her life in central Australia as a young woman and the profound cultural challenges she faced when selected by Charles Chauvel to play the lead role in Jedda, opposite saltwater country man Robert Tudawali. Recreating scenes that match remaining archival footage from St Mary’s girls home in Alice Springs, Thornton and editor Dena Curtis have woven a moving portrait that brings forth memories and stories that have simmered quietly beneath the surface of the acclaimed and controversial icon of Australian cinema for over half a century.

Mistake Creek (2001) was made as part of Film Australia’s ‘Everyday Brave’ initiative of Indigenous stories by Indigenous filmmakers. The interest of director/cinematographer Allan Collins in personal stories about unrecognised achievements drew him to the stoic marriage of Mistake Creek cattle station managers Steven and Jo-Anne Craig, and the tensions between town and bush worlds. Beautifully shot in widescreen on Digital Betacam, this film reframes romantic visions of the outback and re-places Aboriginal people in national narratives of struggle in cattle country.

One of CAAMA Radio’s (8-KIN FM) longest running weekly programs is Green Bush, a show that connects Aboriginal prisoners in Alice Springs’ Gaol with their families through song requests and messages. Recalling the actual circumstances of 8-KIN FM’s first independent decade of broadcasting, and the current situation of many BRACS (Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme) operations in small Aboriginal communities, writer/director Warwick Thornton and designer Daran Fulham created the set of Green Bush inside Alice Springs’ Little Sisters town camp, where CAAMA used to live.

Like other Indigenous drama productions in Australia, and throughout the world, CAAMA’s ‘fiction’ storytelling–first seen in Danielle Maclean’s My Colour Your Kind (1997), then in Steven McGregor’s Cold Turkey (2003) and now Green Bush–employs distinctive realist codes, where appearances by non-professional actors and location shooting operate as signs of cultural authenticity. The style recalls Rossellini, Cassavetes, the Dogma ‘95 directors and Jean Rouch. While CAAMA’s emerging drama strand draws on the film school training of its writers, directors and cinematographers, it also has foundations in the grass-roots script-writing, story-boarding, directing of actors, and editing of educational films and community service television spots produced in Alice Springs since the late 1980s.

In the relentless whirl of activity filling the 3 permanently-staffed downtown Alice Springs offices of CAAMA Productions there is no question where the heart of Australian Indigenous filmmaking action is beating hard. A slate of over 15 short and long documentaries, short dramas, a television drama series and music video clips, and monthly schedules that can include bush work, training, meetings or post-production work in the cities down south, and overseas festivals and markets keep Executive Producer Jacqui North, Production Manager Rachel Clements and Production Co-ordinator Trisha Morton-Thomas and their network of Indigenous freelancers working at rates enviable to many in the industry.

The survey of CAAMA works at the Sydney Film Festival will illustrate continuity and transformations in the depiction of Aboriginalities as a spectrum of dynamic social, cultural and historical identities. As a critical incubator of Aboriginal screen production ethics and distinctive styles of narrative and character presence, CAAMA will continue to influence the look, sound, feel and politics of Australian film and television for years to come. The retrospective will also illustrate the radical potential of Central Australian production to transform the landscape of contemporary Australian film.


A Tribute to CAAMA, 52nd Sydney Film Festival, State Theatre and Dendy Opera Quays, June 12-16

Lisa Stefanoff is a PhD candidate in New York University’s Graduate Program in Culture and Media. Since 2002 she has lived in Alice Springs, researching and working in a variety of roles at CAAMA.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 19

© Lisa Stefanoff; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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