What was it like doing video work at CAAMA in the late 1980s when you first started?
When I took up the position as Trainee Sound Recordist, it was the CAAMA TV Unit. Basically then we was just travelling ‘round out bush, seeing all the country out there, for about 2 or 3 years. Plus we used to do a lot of CSAs [community service announcements] around town, for Power and Water, and Social Security, and Telecom. We was pretty busy back in them days.
For them 3 training years, all I was doing was my job: sound. I only just had a little 3-channel FP32 mixer, a steel boom pole, and a 416 microphone. I never had radio mikes or nothing like that. It was good to learn like that. You had to do your job the best that you could, with the gear that you had. That’s where I really learned how to use the 416. I used it for about 5 years, before we even got radio mikes. I used to run leads, long leads, and do a lot of long lens stuff, walking towards camera, and booming. It helped me to understand. Boom swinging is a completely different job from sound recording. As I got older I started getting further into doing sound. [Film director] Warwick [Thornton] gave me my first opportunity to work on a drama, in Sydney, after he came out of the film school—Payback (1996).
CAAMA was a good training ground. They taught you all the stuff the hard way. You’d work out in 50 degree heat out in the desert, summertime. Sometimes that might mean old people go and get kangaroo. It’ll be 12 o’clock and they’ll be cooking it up, hottest part of the day, and you’re working round a big fire, and you’re documenting people, cooking tucker up. You’re working round a fire, and it’s twice as hot! When you’re working for the AFC or SBS and doing dramas and stuff like that, it’s just like a breeze. It’s not really physically hard, or mentally draining. Probably for the director it is, but not for the crew.
Did becoming a documentary sound recordist change how you listen to the world?
As a sound recordist, you’re always in the shadow of a cameraman. As a location sound recordist, you go out and collect the material, record a lot of interviews and footage and stuff like that. You get a lot of great things. Camera people, they can only see what’s in their viewfinder. Sound recordists are their eyes and ears. We’re the ones standing up over the person that we’re interviewing. When they’re filming and walking along and they’ve got their eye in the viewfinder, we’re behind them, or we’re watching their backs while we’re doing our job. It’s a team effort.
What’re the differences between making a Nganampa Anwernekenhe documentary and making any other kind?
Nganampas are probably the roots and foundation of Australia. There’s no other show in Australia that compares to Nganampa. Even the way that you go out and work. Like if people pass away, or if sorry business is on, they won’t let you go out. Or at a certain time of the year, it’s ceremonial time. So you’ve got restrictions too. And things can just happen. You might be halfway through a shoot doing a Nganampa story and someone might pass away, so people got to get up and go to sorry camp and go and see this family member or something, go and finish up. Those things happen. It’s nothing new.
But if you have people from Sydney come up here to work with us in CAAMA, you’ve got to teach them all the protocols, ‘cause they’re actually like little kids…You spend, 3 or 4 months teaching people about the culture: “What’s happening?…How come that old fella’s goin’ away?…What’s he back in the car for? We haven’t finished the story!”…You’ve got to turn around and explain it to them: “Oh no, someone’s passed away, and that’s the way it is. People have to go and see their families”. So the program is put on the back-burner. Probably we’ll have to come back into town and sit down for another few weeks before we can actually go back out. Or it might be 2 months, so you move on to another story.
Nganampa teaches you how to read people’s body language. Nganampa showed me, without telling me, just from me observing and being who I am, learning from Central Australia, and watching people all the time. Learning how people act and move you can sort of know what they’re thinking, or what they’re going to do: “He doesn’t want to start work today…He wants to do it tomorrow.”
When you do a documentary with English speaking people, you can understand what people are saying. But with Nganampa, it’s done in a lot of different dialects. You start learning how to read people’s expressions. I grew up in Alice Springs [and] I had to learn English. Even though my mother spoke Language, and my grandparents, I never really did. I didn’t really worry about that. I was too worried about learning about Space Invaders and riding BMX bikes, and mixing with town people.
I used to go out bush and see my family and all that. I knew about languages, and Language. I could understand little bit of my mother’s language, Alyawarr, and little bit Anmatyerr, and little bit of Arrernte. I never really heard Warlpiri language until I really went out there working and started listening to it. We grew up with all this richness with culture around and unfortunately never really learned language right through. Most old people around here, they spoke about 5 or 6 languages. That was pretty common. But we grew up in town, and went to high school and primary school and people were teaching us Indonesian language. I didn’t really want to learn that so I left school at the age of 16, didn’t get much education.
I went out, got this job at CAAMA and it just sort of opened me. We traveled around a lot out bush and seen all these languages. Basically Nganampa showed me the culture and how people live. When I was younger, I travelled out bush and saw family living out in the sticks and all that stuff—that’s natural—but Nganampa really showed me, opened my eyes. I wasn’t standing up looking in. I was a part of the program being made. I treat Nganampa as a show that you can learn from making. There’s not many shows like that around in the world today, a show that lives and breathes culture.
CAAMA is like a tool for Aboriginal people to use, and to promote the Aboriginal people in Central Australia, or Australia-wide. CAAMA was set up to really promote language and culture. That was its thing: to get the radio license and Imparja Television license to document and to preserve our language and culture and to broadcast it.
You’ve recently made two of your own Nganampas. The first one, Karli Jalangu, you co-directed with cinematographer and director Allan Collins [Dhakiyarr vs the King], and the second one, Crook Hat and Camphoo, you directed solo.
Yeah. Karli Jalangu is in Warlpiri language and in Anmatyerr. It means “Boomerang Today.” Basically it was 4 old fellas—Teddy Jangala Egan, Johnny Possum Japaltjarri, Albie Morris Janpitjimpa and old Frankie Moreton—making a ‘Number 7’ boomerang. We’ve done some stuff before about boomerangs but it was generally a man just telling a story. We decided to go and document the making of one. It took about 4 days for us to actually see the finished product. It was my first time as a director too. I’m always used to sitting down and watching either the cameraman or the director getting stressed out, watching them fiddle about. “We should be over here, we should be over there”, or “We’re crossing the line here!”. I finally jumped into their boots got to know how they feel. The pressure’s on.
I just like to document stuff I’m interested in—the culture of Aboriginal people, and making things—to preserve, to show younger generations coming up. I’m interested in what the old people have to offer young people, and what they can offer to Australia, a white audience. Or a world audience. Karli went around and screened a few places overseas.
How did you and Allan strike a balance as co-directors?
Allan was more into the television side of things, like the light, the shooting, the look about it. Allan is very passionate about what he films and how it should look. Timing. The flow. He was more the person that knew about all the laws in physics and the plan of the structure of the shots. I talked to the old fellas every night and would say, “Well, old fellas, tomorrow, you 2 old fellas, you 2 sit back here, and then these two old fellas will come, will walk...”. Those 2 old fellas they were the right people—father and son in the skin kinship—they were the ones that had to do that.
Were the old men familiar with being the subjects of a film? Did they know how to play their roles for you?
Those 4 particular guys, they’ve been acting, working with film crews for maybe 5 or 6 years. But I wanted to film them being themselves. I didn’t want them to act. When they work with feature films and things like that they get catered, they get spoiled. They get dressed up, they get make-up on. I just wanted them to be themselves, be back in the bush.
I sat down with them old fellas every night. Just myself with them and had a little yarn with them. We’d mention a few old people’s names, and they’d know them old people. And I’d tell them who I am. I try and get a connection with those old people when I mention a couple of names from my neck of the woods, or where I’m from. Everybody sort of knows everybody through either working, or marriage, or through Dreaming stories. People are all connected really.
When you give your skin name, then they put you in society, in Aboriginal society. Like, tjapaltjarri, like old Johnny Possum. He’s my uncle, so they respected me that way too. When you start talking, when you know the law system and they know that you know it, they get comfortable with you. They can talk to you properly as family: “Young fella...we don’t wanna show that one. That’s bit tickly, you know?”. “Oh yeah, I understand, no worries”.
Nganampa was my training ground. I’ve learned a lot from doing that show. Still my favourite show. I like going out bush, camping under stars and sleeping in the swag and listening. Sharing cultural things and knowledges and sitting down with old people, talking about things that happened back in the past. Or the Dreaming stories. It’s something that you can’t buy off a shelf.
And it has taken you around the world.
Karli Jalangu got invited to Canada, over in Vancouver for the ImageNation film festival. That blew me away. Gee, wouldn’t mind bein’ a director now! Get these trips overseas, and see the world! Those guys over there, people like [Jicarilla Apache actor] Alan Tafoya, they’re pretty down to earth. They’re just like us, trying to kick a goal, and get somewhere in life.
RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 15
© Lisa Stefanoff; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org