Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji review James Waites

all photos by brett monaghan

Last night a small tribe of Sydneysiders gathered in one of those ever-growing number of Marrickville warehouse-assembly rooms to take in a screening of the doco Nothing Rhymes With Ngapartji. Those following this site will know it had a big and very well received premiere out in Alice Springs a month or so back, and that you will all get to see it on ABC TV later in the year. This was for those of us who would have gone to the Alice screening if we had been able.

As always the goodwill and camaraderie generated from this project flavoured the air as about 30 of us knocked back a few drinks and vegan only tucker (stipulation of the venue), then took to seats couches and swags on the floor to enjoy the movie. I will speak for myself only: I think it is a wonderful film and a remarkable achievement. Why? Because the stage production on which the film is based is very multi-layered (see my original review at australianstage.com), then there was the challenge facing the filmmakers (director Suzie Bates and her team) to capture the adventure of taking this production out to the tiny town of Ernabella – several hundred kilometres south-west of Alice Springs – just over the boarder into South Australia. Thus adding several more layers of fascinating storytelling.

Apart from the raw beauty of the footage, and the innate drama, it is the organisation of he complex material into a grippingly well-told story that most impresses. The partnership between director Suzy Bates and editor Vanessa Milton was clearly productive. This is one of those films where so much fabulous stuff would have had to be cut away, with rigorous discipline the foundation stone of any final product that made both a visual impact on viewers – and made sense.

In the stage production we have the story of the 1950s atomic bomb testing at Maralinga (SA) and how this affected whole communities of Aboriginals, killing some immediately, others dying slowly over time with radiation poisoning, and decimating communities as they were forced to flee hundreds of square kilometres of contaminated homelands. A diaspora of desperation and grief that took individuals and groups in directions mostly to the north and the west. Some ended up at the Ernabella mission to the north: so essentially the project being documented was taking the play back to many of the people who ‘own’ this story. There was an open challenge for any of us to come with a title for the film: and while it’s too late now, my suggestion – after seeing the film last night – is Ngapartji Ngapartji: Back to Country. I think that title or something like it would better focus audiences attention on the film’s central theme.

Others fleeing the ‘sticky poison clouds fled into Western Australia including the grandparents of Trevor Jamieson, star (if you will) of both the play and the film. We follow what happened to Maralinga’s dispossessed through the trials of Trevor’s grandparents, then their children (including Trevor’s father) and then his children, including Trevor’s troubled brother Jangala. The tale as it is unfolds demonstrates the damage done to Aboriginal people inter-generationally as a consequence of their dislocation from traditional homelands. But unlike other versions of this now familiar narrative, Ngapartji Ngapartji – as a work of art – embodies in itself a journey towards ‘healing’.

Pushing past the grief and tragedy into – well wait and see the film. But this is one of its strong points: the impact the show has on members of the Ernabella community. Among the revelations to those of us who witnessed the film-making are the on-screen interviews with local elders – senior women who not only experienced the bombs as children but perform on stage as part of the choir or storytellers in their own language – Pitjantjatjara. And senior law men to whom Trevor must defer on several matters for advice – but one in particular.

A mere three weeks before preparations swing into action in Ernabella with the arrival of a pantechnicon of gear and an advance team of production techies, Trevor’s father dies. Traditionally, the names of the dead are never to mentioned and viewing any images of the deceased is forbidden. Yet not only does Trevor normally talk about his father’s life in the stage production, there is also film footage of Trevor asking his father how his grandmother died. As we discover – murdered in a rage by his grandfather, her husband (the circumstances are as culturally fascinating as they are tragic. So, layered on top of the many stories already captured in the play is this a new one (among others): an immensely significant cultural debate about whether Trevor and the production team need to drop all references in the play to Trevor’s father. As tradition would hitherto require.

The film also captures the response of the Ernabella community from the time the production team arrives, through the building of the set, to  participation of locals in rehearsals, all the way through to recording the (two only) performances under starry skies.I guess what I am trying to suggest here is that structuring a film that can make sense of so many parallel narratives in the ‘less-then-an-hour’ required for television was an enormous challenge – on a par with the demands made on the crew who undertook the filming itself.

In my view, the film is very well put together, makes a lot of sense and is hugely powerful. But I have the benefit of much prior knowledge. Few one-hour documentaries attempt to take on so much. Whether unprepared viewers are able to follow the many journeys the film pursues is a question yet to be answered. That the documentary was not accepted for this year’s Sydney Film Festival raises concerns. Does the film not quite make the grade – or where the assessors looking for a ‘western format’ that could never have done the job. One only has to think of Ten Canoes

What I would like to say about is that Big hART is a creative company that specialises in deeply layered stories anyway, often built over years, and this film fits into that mold. Those of us who look at dot paintings from Central Desert and only see pretty patterns are usually well aware that, to better-informed eyes, these pictures are also ‘full of story’. Mostly story. One part of the film that sets it apart for Whitefellas from the play is a scene  where one of the senior women tells us a story in Pitjantjatjara. We can tell it is important – but what is she saying? In the film this speech is serviced with sub-titles: and what this woman has to say about the atom bomb testing and its impact over the following 60 years on her people is like listening to a survivor of the Holocaust giving evidence at the Nuremberg trials.

That the entire film is also interlaced with scenes of Ernabella’s children forever at play, tumbling rivers of innocence and natural-born joy, serve as silent visual testimony to another narrative yet to be played out in full.

 

one of my favourite photos from the trip

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