Yirrkala Film Project DVD Collection, The


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2007, Total Running Time 1040 Minutes

A limited edition DVD collection of 22 films made by Ian Dunlop over a 30 year period with the Yolngu, the Aboriginal people of northeast Arnhem Land. Yirrkala was an isolated mission station until the coming of a huge bauxite mine in the late 1960s. The impact of the mine on the Yolngu and their response is a major theme of this long-term film project. Each film stands on its own but each is also part of a rich mosaic. The relationship between people and their clans, ritual, art and land is an intertwining theme. Several major ceremonies are documented. The importance of the land is ever-present. Despite enormous disruption to their lives, the resilience of the Yolngu and their culture shines through.

Madarrpa Funeral at Gurka’wuy (1979, 88 Minutes) In 1976, Ian Dunlop was invited by Dundiwuy Wanambi, a leader of the Marrakulu clan, to Gurka’wuy on Trial Bay in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He wanted Film Australia to record the first major Marrakulu ceremony to be held at Gurka’wuy since its recent establishment as a clan settlement. While they were there, a baby boy died. The Madarrpa men, including the child’s father and Dundiwuy, asked for the funeral to be filmed. Mortuary rites of the Yolngu are extremely complex. Despite some practical modifications to traditional ceremonies as a result of life on mission stations, ritual remains extremely strong. Because the Madarrpa funeral at Gurka’wuy is for a young child, and not an adult, the ceremony is relatively short. It is, nevertheless, still complex. Every part of the ritual is rich in symbolism and has many meanings. Because the deeper meanings are secret and cannot be revealed in this film it is not easy to explain the significance of much of the ritual. However, this film is a detailed study of the funeral ceremony. It highlights the complex connections of people of different clans.

Narritjin at Djarrakpi – Parts One and Two; My Country, Djarrakpi (1981, 105 Minutes)                             

Part One In 1974, Narritjin Maymuru and his family are establishing a small settlement at Djarrakpi, an important Manggalili clan site on the northern head of Blue Mud Bay in the Northern Territory. Narritjin and his sons get sheets of bark from the stringy-bark trees, for use both as building material and as a canvas for his paintings. At Djarrakpi they live largely off the land and the sea. Oysters, fish and turtle eggs are part of their diet. Narritjin is a renowned artist and he and his family produce bark paintings and craft work to sell at Yirrkala. Through painting, Narritjin teaches his sons about their clan land and its ancestral history. This film, together with Narritjin At Djarrakpi Part Two, gives an insight into Narritjin’s family life and his role as an educator to his sons.

Part Two This film continues the life of Narritjin and his family at his clan settlement at Djarrakpi. His small community has been increased by the arrival of two married daughters and their families, and some other young relatives. Narritjin continues to paint. One of his sons makes a yidaki (didgeridoo or drone pipe) for the tourist trade. Wild honey is an important delicacy and everyone makes short work of a wild bees’ nest they find. A major sequence in the film shows the young men spearfishing along the shore of Blue Mud Bay. Towards the end of the film Narritjin relates his feelings about Djarrakpi and his hopes for the future.

My Country, Djarrakpi Paintings, together with their related songs, dances and ritual events, form an integral part of the religious life of the Yolngu people of Northeast  Arnhem Land.  Every painting or design is owned by a particular clan.  Every painting tells of events in a clan’s Ancestral Past, when the present order of the universe was laid down and each clan was given its land, language and customs. Every painting is, in a way, a map of a particular area of clan land, and a clan’s title deed to that land. In this film Narritjin talks about his land at Djarrakpi, one of the most important sacred sites of his Manggalili clan. The film is set in two contrasting contexts. At an exhibition of his paintings at the Australian National University in Canberra, Narritjin explains the meanings behind a bark painting of Djarrakpi; then on the windswept sand dunes of Djarrakpi itself, he explains the significance of some of the actual features of the landscape. Although Narritjin only reveals the “outside” or public meaning of his paintings, his statements indicate something of the different levels of significance upon which traditional Yolngu art operates.

Narritjin in Canberra (1981, 40 Minutes) In 1978 Narritjin Maymuru and his son Banapana were awarded fellowships as Visiting Artists to the Faculty of Arts at the Australian National University in Canberra. For three months they and their families worked in their campus studio. In the film, Narritjin conducts a seminar for anthropology students. He explains his technique of bark painting and discusses some of the meanings behind the paintings. At the end of their stay in Canberra, Narritjin and Banapana hold an exhibition of their Manggalili art. Some see the official opening as typical of any art gallery opening night; others may feel ambivalence towards this strange cultural mix. However, for Narritjin, the occasion is simply another opportunity to present his message to a non-Indigenous audience. Furthermore, the exhibition itself establishes him and his son as significant artists within a wider Australian context.

At the Canoe Camp (1981, 41 Minutes) Narritjin Maymuru is leader of the Manggalili clan of northeast Arnhem Land. Filmed in 1971, this documentary shows the daily life of Narritjin and his family at a camp in the bush where Narritjin and other senior men are making dug-out canoes. It is a few miles from Yirrkala Mission, where Narritjin and his family live. The area where Narritjin is working is owned by a different clan, and discussions are held between Narritjin and the traditional owners over the use of trees for canoe making. The canoes which we see Narritjin and his clan make are possibly the last dug-out canoes to have been made in Arnhem Land.

In Memory of Mawalan (1983, 92 Minutes) In 1971 Wandjuk Marika organised a Djang’kawu ceremony at Yirrkala. It was to be a memorial for his father, Mawalan, who died in 1967. Mawalan had been the highly respected head of the Rirratjingu clan, for whom the Djang’kawu are primary Creator Ancestors. The two Djang’kawu Sisters came from across the sea and travelled through northeast Arnhem Land, shaping the landscape and giving birth to the first children of the Dhuwa moiety. The Djang’kawu gave each clan its name and language, its land and sacred law. Their journey links clan to clan, and clan to land. Before he died, Mawalan erected a sacred Djuta ‘tree’ at Yirrkala’s beach camp. This represented the original Djuta tree created by the Djang’kawu at Yalangbara, where the Djang’kawu first landed and gave birth to the children of the Rirratjingu clan. Mawalan’s Djuta was beginning to rot away. Through Djang’kawu ritual, Wandjuk planned to replace it with a new one and then move the old Djuta to stand by Mawalan’s grave. Like all Yolngu ceremonies, this particular Djang’kawu ceremony was a unique event shaped to fit a particular set of circumstances. Through this ceremony the creative and procreative actions of the Djang’kawu are revealed. Great importance is given to teaching the Djang’kawu ritual to the young people. For the Yolngu of Yirrkala in 1971 the reaffirmation of their Law was more important than ever, as they had just lost their historic (and Australia’s first) land rights case.

We are the Landowner…That’s Why We’re Here (1985, 48 Minutes) One of the most positive aspects of traditional Aboriginal Australia today is the outstation or clan homeland movement. Throughout central and northern Australia, groups have left the large centralised government settlements and church mission stations to form small communities on their own land. Yirrkala, in northeast Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, used to be a church mission station and is now an Aboriginal township. Today it is one of the most active centres for the clan homeland movement, supporting over 15 small homeland settlements. Yirrkala is also on the doorstep of the massive Gove bauxite mine, which the Yolngu unsuccessfully tried to stop when they initiated the first Aboriginal land rights case in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This film starts with a general introduction to Yirrkala and the Gove bauxite mine. Then from the Yirrkala Homeland Resource Centre the film goes to Bäniyala, the homeland settlement of the Madarrpa clan, on the northern shores of Blue Mud Bay.

We Believe in It…We Know It’s True (1986, 48 Minutes) When built in the 1960s, the mining town of Nhulunbuy had an instant population of about 4000, making it one of the largest towns in the Northern Territory. With the town came a hotel—and alcohol. The face of the Gove Peninsula—with its forests, swamps, rich coastline and sacred sites—was transformed overnight. So too were the lives of the Yolngu. In 1969-1971 the Yolngu tried, unsuccessfully, to stop this invasion and exploitation of their land through the Northern Territory Supreme Court. In 1974 the Church handed control of Yirrkala to the Yolngu and in 1976 the Aboriginal Land Rights Act gave title of the Arnhem Land Reserve to its traditional clan owners. For the Yolngu of Yirrkala this came 10 years too late. This film is a study of the cultural continuity at Yirrkala in 1982, 40 years after the mission started and 12 years after the Gove bauxite mine was established.

One Man’s Response (1986, 54 Minutes) This film records the reaction of one clan leader, Narritjin Maymuru, to the coming of the Gove bauxite mine. In mid-1971 Narritjin held a mortuary ceremony at Yirrkala in memory of several relatives. He opened this ceremony to visitors from the mining town, charging them a small entrance fee. Narritjin had two objectives in mind. Firstly, he wanted to raise money so that he could move with his family away from Yirrkala and the mine and set up a small settlement on his own clan land some 150 kilometres to the south. Secondly, Narritjin wanted to promote better understanding of Yolngu culture and the relationship between the Yolngu and their land. The first part of One Man’s Response focuses on a concert given by Yirrkala school children for the mining community at Nhulunbuy. This contrasts dramatically with the second, and major part of the film, which covers the ceremony organised by Narritjin. The school concert and the mortuary ceremony highlight the differences between western style performance (for an audience), and Yolngu ceremonial performance. But the theme of communication, or rather non-communication, is central to both events. In a final sequence, Narritjin reflects on the problems resulting from opening the ceremony to non-Indigenous people.

Pain for This Land (1995, 43 Minutes) In 1970 Ian Dunlop began a long-term film project with the Yolngu of Yirrkala for Film Australia. Pain for This Land is a general introduction to the Yirrkala Film Project. The film begins in 1970 with a village council meeting. Chairman Roy Dadaynga Marika explains how he envisages the film project—it should be a history covering three elements, the Yolngu, the Mission, and "that which is going to worry us in the future": the mine. Then different clan elders describe their clan beliefs and discuss the coming of the mine—and alcohol—and their fears for the future. The impact of the mine on the lives of the Aboriginal population is shown in both 1970 and in 1971 after the Yolngu had lost their Land Rights case and their case to try to stop the coming of the Walkabout Hotel. The Yolngu try to come to terms with the mine as it encroaches more and more upon their land; well-intentioned but misguided attempts to employ Yolngu fail. The individual struggle of Roy Dadaynga Marika for his people is highlighted. Most of the clan elders and many of the young people who appear in this film are now dead, but their words have proved to be prophetic.

This is My Thinking (1995, 52 Minutes) Daymbalipu Mununggurr was one of the most respected and influential leaders of the Yirrkala Aboriginal community. This film deals with his concerns during the tumultuous years when the Nabalco bauxite mine first came to the Gove Peninsula. In particular the film shows the quiet but strong way he communicated with the people who came to the area as a result of the mining project. The film is made up of four discrete sequences shot in 1971 and 1974. In the first, Daymbalipu confronts some tourists who come to his beach without permission. In the second sequence, through a long interview, Daymbalipu voices his concerns for the future. The third segment shows him as the Aboriginal representative at a Liaison Committee meeting held between representatives of the mission, the mine, the police and welfare. In the final sequence he accompanies a group on a tour of one of the early mine regeneration sites. There has been no consultation with the Aboriginal community about the project; they don’t want introduced species to be planted—the land should be restored to the way it was.

Conversations with Dundiwuy Wanambi (1995, 50 Minutes) This is a personal film about Dundiwuy Wanambi over the years that Ian Dunlop knew and worked with him. It is made up mainly of interviews filmed with Dundiwuy at Yirrkala and at his Marrakulu clan centre at Gurka'wuy between 1970 and 1982. This film reveals something of the struggles, and the thoughts, of one man in the face of the huge changes brought about by the coming of the Nabalco bauxite mine and the mining town of Nhulunbuy to the Gove Peninsula. In the early years Dundiwuy is one of the heavy drinkers. In an interview in the pub he explains why he drinks. Then through a dream he realises he must start looking after his family and his clan. He establishes his Marrakulu clan homeland centre at Gurka'wuy some 150 kilometres south of Yirrkala on the beautiful Trial Bay, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He will hold a great ceremony here. Years pass and Dundiwuy returns to Yirrkala. His clan is small and he does not receive the necessary support from his sons. But Dundiwuy struggles on and through the postscript we learn that he has now become a prize-winning and much sought after artist.

Dundiwuy’s House Opening (1995, 35 Minutes) For several months in 1971 Dundiwuy Wanambi and his wife, Gunapa, were living in a temporary shade at Yirrkala. They were awaiting the ritual cleansing and opening of their house. They had had to leave their house after the death of Gunapa's father, who had been living with them when he died. Now Dundiwuy has asked for his house to be ritually opened so he can move back into it. This film is a record of the first part of the opening ceremony. It involves part of the story of the two Wawilak Sister ancestral beings. The Wawilak Sisters camped near the well of the great Thunder Snake. The well became polluted. The Thunder Snake rose up in fury and swallowed the sisters. Its thrashing body smashed down their stringybark shade and all the trees nearby. Senior men sing of the Wawilak Sisters, as women and younger men are painted with Wawilak designs. Then in procession they all move to Dundiwuy's house and garden. In a scene of extraordinary intensity, men re-enact the writhing fury of the Thunder Snake as they smash down and destroy all the fruit trees in the garden. The film ends with men and women entering the house to begin its ritual cleansing.

Purification Ceremony - Caledon Bay 1971; From a Long Time Ago – Hollow Log Painting (1996, 35 Minutes) 

Purification Ceremony - Caledon Bay 1971 The Djapu clan has always had strong links with Caledon Bay, some 70 kilometres south of Yirrkala. In 1971 they gathered here to plan the building of a major homeland centre.A purification ceremony is held for a woman who has been injured at Yirrkala. After preliminary singing, the injured woman sits in a depression in the sand. This represents her clan's sacred well. The singing relates to the ancestral spirit beings associated with her country. This is a short film record, with fine singing by old Djapu clan leaders.

From A Long Time Ago - Hollow Log Painting Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Macassan traders visited the north coast of Australia. They came to collect and process trepang, or sea cucumber, which they traded mainly to China. The Yolngu accepted the presence of these outsiders and in turn traded with them for metal tools, pipes and tobacco. The Macassan story became part of Yolngu mythology. The sailing away of the Macassan boats at the end of the trepang season has now become a symbol for the departing spirit after death. In 1974, Mungurrawuy Yunupingu and other clan leaders painted a traditional hollow log coffin at Yirrkala. The log represents a Macassan boat, a boat for the spirits of the dead. In this film, Mungurrawuy sings over the log as the painting is completed. His songs are subtly multi-layered in their meanings. They refer to the making of a great Macassan boat, to the painting of the log with fine pictures, and maybe to the picture-making of this by the film unit. Daymbalipu Mununggurr is watching over the painting of his mother's clan log and explains the meanings. Through these paintings and songs, the importance to the Yolngu of the visits by Macassan trepangers to northeast Arnhem Land is revealed.

Marrakulu Funeral – Yirrkala 1974 (1996, 53 Minutes) This film is a record of the funeral ceremony for a Marrakulu clan leader at Yirrkala in 1974. Through Marrakulu, Rirratjingu and Djapu clan songs and dances the body of the leader is taken on both a spiritual journey to his clan lands and a physical journey from the hospital at the mining town of Nhulunbuy to Yirrkala. Here the coffin lies in state,  before being taken in a grand ritual procession to its final burial at the cemetery at Yirrkala.

Singing in the Rain – Yirrkala in 1974 (1996, 53 Minutes) 1974 was a troubled time for the Yirrkala community. The Gove bauxite mine, on its doorstep, had been operating for four years. The effects of alcohol, from the newly built mining town of Nhulunbuy, were causing grave concern to the Yirrkala leaders. There was, we are told, a breakdown in social values among young people. This film shows the Yolngu's attempts to come to terms with, and solve, these problems. Despite the gathering storm clouds, Yolngu culture was still vibrant. 1974 was also the time of transition from policies of assimilation to those of self-determination. The Uniting Church had just handed over control of Yirrkala to the Yolngu. Most importantly it was now that the movement by clans back to their own lands really took off. Through a series of disparate sequences this film captures something of the mood at Yirrkala at this time. A young Galarrwuy Yunupingu (later to became Chairman of the Northern Land Council and an Australian of the Year) talks of his hopes for the future; clan leaders discuss their worries about alcohol abuse in the community. We also see the very early days of the clan homeland movement. It is the wet season and some of these remote clan settlements receive supplies by air drop. Daymbalipu Mununggurr takes the film unit to his Djapu clan settlement of Garrthalala on Caledon Bay.

Hard Time Now…For the Children (1996, 54 Minutes) Narritjin Maymuru, leader of the Manggalili clan, was one of the people Ian Dunlop worked with most closely during his long term film project at Yirrkala. This is a personal and sad film about Narritjin—artist, thinker, and passionate interpreter of the world through his Yolngu beliefs. Narritjin is sitting on the verandah of his house at Yirrkala quietly painting. It is early 1974. He talks about the troubles with the mine and alcohol amongst many young men. The film then moves to 1976. Narritjin and his family are again staying at Yirrkala, following the death of his youngest son. Ian Dunlop shows Narritjin the film he shot at Djarrakpi two years earlier. For Narritjin it embodies some of the spiritual power of Djarrakpi itself. Before it can be screened Narritjin must sing over it. The next day the graves of his eldest son and daughter are cemented over. Narritjin validates both the film and the cementing of the graves by joining them, through ritual song, to the spiritual forces of his own far away land at Djarrakpi. Over the following years the stresses of life at Yirrkala took a terrible toll on Narritjin's family. Many of his children died in their thirties or early forties. In 1981 Narritjin died of a heart attack. More truly he died of a broken heart.

Dhapi Ceremony at Yirrkala - 1972 (1996, 91 Minutes) This is an archival record film of a circumcision ceremony at Yirrkala in 1972. On many occasions over the three weeks prior to the main ceremony the boys to be circumcised are sung over and beautifully painted with clan designs. As the final day approaches the paintings become ever more elaborate. No translation or documentation is included in this archival record.

Baniyala - 1974 (1996, 58 Minutes) An archival record film of life at the small Madarrpa clan settlement of Bäniyala on Blue Mud Bay, some 200 kilometres south of Yirrkala. The film is in two parts. The first part covers everyday events at Bäniyala. The settlement's first corrugated iron house is built. A water resources team discuss their problem of trying to find a site for a fresh water bore with clan head Wakuthi Marawili and his son Miniyawany. We see the little school, a plane arrives, women get water from a leech-infested lagoon, a group fishes at a nearby river. In the second part, Wakuthi Marawili takes the Bäniyala men, and the film unit, on a ceremonial walk to important sites around Bäniyala, including a great Yingapungapu (an oval-shaped "sand pit") ceremonial ground. He then delivers, in Yolngu, a lecture about the significance of what we have seen and about his clan history. No documentation or translation is included in this archival record, but the first part is self explanatory with much of the dialogue in English.

A Film Australia National Interest Program produced in association with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. © 2011 National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.


Producer/Director: Ian Dunlop

Writers: Ian Dunlop, Phillipa Deveson

Featured People: Dundiwuy Wanambi, Narritjin Maymuru, Nungayukka, Yama Mununggirritj, Wandjuk Marika, Roy Marika, Roy Dadaynga Marika, Bakamana Yunupingu, Laklak Burarrwanga, Daymbalipu Munungurr, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Keith Hendry, Gatjil Djerrkura, Wakuthi Marawili

Cinematographers: Dean Semler, Ian Dunlop, Gary Kildea, Bruce Hillyard

Year: 2007

Total Running Time: 1040 Minutes

Classification: Exempt from classification

Region: 0

Curriculum Links: Indigenous Studies; Studies of Religion; Legal Studies - Contesting laws: Heritage, culture and land; SOSE/HSIE; Australian History - of particular relevance for NSW History Stage 5, Topic 6 'Changing Rights and Freedoms' Section A: Aboriginal Peoples - Change over Time; NSW History Stage 4 'Aboriginal and Indigenous Peoples, Colonisation and Contact History: What has been the nature and impact of colonisation on Aboriginal, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples?'; English; Performing & Visual Arts. Teachers’ notes and background material are included on DVD.

Purchasers of the boxed set also receive Ceremony – The Djungguwan of Northeast Arnhem Land a two-DVD set that explores the role of ceremony in Indigenous Australia through a detailed look at one of the most important ceremonies of the Yolngu people - the Djungguwan. Disc 2 is an edited version (199 mins) of Djungguwan at Gurka'wuy, which was filmed in 1976 as part of The Yirrkala Film Project.


SKU 200790100
Brand Film Australia

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