Australian filmmaker Alex Kelly is a desert dweller.
Choosing to live in the arid red center town of Alice Springs, she has grown to recognize that here is a country very different to the white fella coast of Australia: Here still there is a people, not yet swamped by colonialism, a people with a 40,000-year-old history to tell. But without government protection that maintains their languages, their histories may, like the desert mountain ranges, erode into dust and be blown forever away.
Alex was in Ubud, Bali, recently where her film that deals with indigenous languages, Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji, was screened during the Global Social Change Film Festival and Institute, Bali, 2011.
Until recently schools in Australia’s Northern Territory taught bilingually, as many children speak only their native Aboriginal languages.
A recent decision to scrap bilingual education and teach only in English, has, says Kelly, cut off at the source many indigenous children’s access to education and their history. Ironically in Australia’s coastal states, many immigrant children are taught in their native languages, such as Vietnamese, Sudanese, Iraqi and Iranian.
To remind the rest of Australia that Aboriginal languages are precious and vital to history, Alex took on the five-year project, Ngapartji Ngapartji with social change foundation, Big hART, taking a live show of Aboriginal singers, dancers and front man, acclaimed Pitjantatjara Indigenous actor, Trevor Jamieson, across the nation to bring to “white fella” some recognition of indigenous languages.
“Every show was sold out and every show received a standing ovation. Twenty-nine thousand people across Australia saw the live show. One of the great mechanisms in the productions was in the theater we were teaching people how to sing ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’, in Pitjantatjara. The audience’s realized they could not even do that, so little was the understanding of indigenous language in Australia. The other thing they took away with them was knowledge of Maralinga [the 1955-1963 nuclear testing in central Australia that is believed to have killed many Indigenous Australians through radiation sickness],” says Alex.
The goal of the project that included 72 short films, radio and video productions, six music albums and the theater show itself, was to push the Australian government to formulate policy on the protection and maintenance of indigenous languages.
Staggeringly a policy of this type had, as late as the 21st century in a developed nation that prides itself on human rights, freedom of speech and diversity, never been considered; this failure is evidence of just how forgotten are the nation’s first peoples to many white Australians.
“Australia is counted as the country with the greatest language loss in the world. Australia has people with 40,000 years of history embedded in their languages, history of weather patterns, its flora and fauna,” says Alex shaking her head at this tragic waste.
Through the stage performances of Ngapartji Ngapartji at Sydney’s Opera House, its premiere at the Melbourne International Arts Festival and performances at Sydney and Perth’s art festivals, policy on indigenous languages finally was framed.
“Until then there was no policy, no strategy on protecting indigenous languages. In 2005 the government did a survey on indigenous languages, but if nothing is done within the next 50 years these languages will be lost. Yes there is now a policy, but there is no action, it needs weight and funding behind it. The intervention [that discriminates against Indigenous Australian through quarantine of welfare benefits] is rolled out costing millions of dollars while the Northern Territory Government ends bilingual education,” says Alex of the ongoing discriminatory policies of Australian governments toward the nation’s first peoples.
She stresses language is not a side issue in cultures, but is the very soul and spirit of culture.
“I firmly believe language is not just a nice element on the side, but if you bring language right into the center of Aboriginal policy you would see huge changes — if all schools across Australia had in their curriculum indigenous languages, imagine the country in 30 years,” says Alex pointing to Australia’s near neighbor, New Zealand that has taught Maori language in its schools for decades; this has allowed for deeper understanding, pride and respect for that culture across the island nation.
Audiences that took part in Ngapartji Ngapartji learned about the depth of indigenous culture and language, says Alex.
“People came away realizing that indigenous languages are complete, elegant, poetic, people said they had believed indigenous languages were of just one tense,” says Alex.
In the film Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji, Alex shows that Big hART did not take the easy road and knock up a bush stage, but rather transported Opera House quality sound, lighting, stage and more to the tiny indigenous community.
“The lead actor, Trevor, has a foot in two worlds, he grew up in the West so he was really nervous as he only speaks some Pitjantatjara and here he was performing to an audience of Pitjantatjara speakers. And that community also rarely speaks of Maralinga, so the film is the journey, the conflict and the radiation deaths from Maralinga,” says Alex, highlighting the fact that the lead actor, a Pitjantatjara man is yet another victim of language loss and the inescapable loss also of his own history.