Guestroom Interview – ABC Radio

She first came to the Territory protesting against the Jabiluka mine.

Alex then travelled all over the world, making documentaries, screening films, hanging with the Bolivian President (!) and working for social justice organisations in the Netherlands, Spain and Morocco.

Coming back to Australia, Alex moved to Coober Pedy, and then the project of a lifetime drew her to Alice Springs.

That project was Ngapartji, Ngapartji, a groundbreaking theatre, arts and media production which told stories of nuclear testing at Maralinga and taught audiences to speak some Pitjantjatjara.

Ngapartji, Ngapartji has been performed all over Australia: from the Sydney Opera House to Ernabella, the community where it all began.

Alex is also a fixture on the Centralian roller derby scene – Malice Springs. She goes by the name Axel Sparks…

You can listen to Alex’s story here or you can subscribe to our podcast – search for “The Guestroom” in ITunes or Juice or head to our podcast page.

Listen direct here.

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Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji – SMH Review

TREVOR Jamieson is a Pitjantjatjara actor who finds himself straddling two worlds: that of the traditional country where he was raised and the urban white culture in which he plies his trade.

TREVOR Jamieson is a Pitjantjatjara actor who finds himself straddling two worlds: that of the traditional country where he was raised and the urban white culture in which he plies his trade. He made a name in the big smoke with Ngapartji Ngapartji, his acclaimed stage show about the experiences of indigenous peoples around the nuclear tests at Maralinga in the 1950s and early ’60s. The show is performed in two languages, side by side, and so far he has presented it only to English-speaking audiences, including a sellout season at the Sydney Festival. Now he is taking the production thousands of kilometres away to Ernabella, South Australia, for its first performance in front of a traditional Pitjantjatjara-speaking audience. He’s understandably nervous – the show includes references to and footage of deceased people, a taboo in traditional indigenous culture. Much of it involves his father, who died weeks before the Ernabella production.

We follow Trevor and crew as they travel to the remote community and feel his trepidation about the possible community response to the show as he questions his sense of identity. It’s not just that he fears a flogging from the community – a real possibility facing anyone who breaks tribal law – the inner conflict tears at him. From the opening moments of Suzy Bates’s documentary, you know you’re in for something special. Jamieson is engaging and appealing, his personal story compelling and the backdrop of the central desert magnificent.

Bates’s direction is masterful and Jamieson’s trials are beautifully captured as she weaves his story with that of the theatre production, archival footage of the Ernabella mission and memories of those who experienced the devastating ”smoke” that carried poison and sickness to their communities, victims of a tension between superpowers on the other side of the world. Never didactic but always insightful, this is rewarding television.

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Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji – Essay ABC Open


Essay by editor Vanessa Milton for ABC Open. Photo Suzy Bates/Sarah Davies

The invitation was irresistible: to move to central Australia to edit a complex and powerful documentary. I gave this doco my all, and it gave me much more in return.

Editing Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji called upon everything I’d ever learned about storytelling, challenged my assumptions, and showed me a whole new side to the country I grew up in. There are many layers to this tale, from the tragic story of the Maralinga atomic tests, to indigenous language loss, traditional law, and an epic road trip to name a few.

The documentary follows the tour of the hit theatre show Ngapartji Ngapartji to Ernabella, a remote indigenous community in South Australia. The show had sell-out seasons at all the major performing arts festivals in Australia, with standing ovations at every performance, but this was the first time it was to be performed on country, in the community where the project was developed.

The show’s lead performer, Trevor Jamieson, tells the story of his family, who were moved off their traditional lands to make way for British atomic testing in the South Australian desert in the 1950s and 60s. And performers from Ernabella tell of their own memories of the ‘sticky cloud’ that passed over their community, located directly to the north of Maralinga.

Ngapartji Ngapartji translates as “I give you something, you give me something”, a guiding principle of the Pitjantjatjara people. And the play itself exercises this spirit of exchange. Performed in equal parts English and Pitjantjatjara, the play weaves together the tragic central storyline with language lessons delivered with generosity and good humour, and a stirring choir who leap across cultural and genre divides.

Alex Kelly, who produced the play and the documentary, says, “We wanted to tour the main stage version of the play to Ernabella. That meant trucking out a full-scale set, lighting and sound rig and crew, on mostly dirt roads; and building an open-air theatre in a dry riverbed in the middle of town.”

The crew camped at an outstation 11km outside town, with someone staying behind each night to sleep on set, to guard against curious camp dogs and donkeys.

In taking the show to Ernabella, Trevor took enormous personal risks: performing in Pitjantjatara for people who spoke the language more fluently than he did, and challenging traditional law by telling the story of the atomic tests and their enduring impact on his people. Trevor also had to decide whether to risk breaking law by mentioning the name of his father, a central character in the play, who passed away only weeks before the tour.

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge of the documentary was to weave together so many complex layers.

Director Suzy Bates and I spent countless hours in self-imposed ‘lock-up’ in our besser block edit suite, logging and analysing, cutting and shifting; using pen, paper, sticky tape, computers and index cards to nut out the structure. Oh, and there was quite a bit of chocolate involved too!

It was a challenge to the very end, figuring out how to convey complex information with a lightness of touch demanded by the duration we were working to, and a strong desire on both our parts not to overstate or over-explain. To use the power of juxtaposition, and small glimpses that hint at a greater whole, and let the audience connect the dots.

In the play, writer-director Scott Rankin elicits intense emotion by deftly transporting the audience to a different time, place and point of view. Trevor Jamieson has an uncanny ability ‘turn on a dime’, conjuring characters, and dramatically shifting the tone of performance, all with impeccable grace and wit. We had to try to achieve this same richness and dexterity. But instead of using the tools of stagecraft, we were working with the tools of the documentary maker.

We had observational footage from rehearsals and the unfolding stage build; archival newsreels; multi-cam footage of the play; and interviews with Ernabella locals, performers, crew…and Trevor, looking increasingly worried as opening night drew closer.

The challenge was to wrestle so many parts into a coherent whole. And, like the play, we needed the documentary to be much, much more than the sum of its parts.

When you earn a living as an editor, you get used to having words and phrases stick in your head – drummed into you by repetition, and often revisiting you out of the blue years afterwards. From this documentary, one of the lines of the play still rings out to me:

Under every red-brick suburban yellow-stained saggy bed

Your Prime Minister, Menzies is running scared

Needs a frightening friend

Says, “Please, test a cold war toy or two

There’s nothing out there in Spinifex Country

Just flora and fauna, at the world’s end.”

I grew up in the ‘burbs, drowning in a sea of red-brick. But after being deeply absorbed in the documentary for months, visiting Ernabella twice, living in Alice Springs, and spending any spare minute I could soaking up the surrounding landscape, the strangeness of red-brick really struck me. For me, this was the most palpable image of the parallel worlds we inhabit in Australia. An ancient culture coexisting with 1950s suburban monoculture and cold war paranoia, like the contrasting layers in our geology.

The play was created for a mostly non-indigenous audience, but grew out of a long-term project working with indigenous communities across central Australia. Similarly, our documentary had to walk in both worlds. We consulted with our commissioning editor in ABC in Sydney, and the elders in Ernabella, and tested our cuts on people who had an intimate understanding of Aboriginal culture, and on friends and family who knew little. We had to consider these very different audiences, each with vastly different backgrounds, and different expectations of the film.

I think we got there in the end.

Nothing Rhymes With Ngapartji screens on ABC-1 on Sunday 3rd July at 3pm, and ABC-2 on Sunday 10th July at 8:50pm. Or catch it at


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Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji – The Age review


by Scott Ellis

Pitjantjatjara actor Trevor Jamieson has taken his hit stage show, Ngapartji Ngapartji, around the country winning acclaim, awards and the respect of everyone who has seen him perform.

Pitjantjatjara actor Trevor Jamieson has taken his hit stage show, Ngapartji Ngapartji, around the country winning acclaim, awards and the respect of everyone who has seen him perform.

It’s a highly personal account of his family and, by extension, the Aboriginal people, but he’s never shown it to those at the centre of it all. Until now. Heading back into the bush near the remote Aboriginal community of Ernabella in South Australia, he decides to stage the work for his family and community elders.

He hopes they’ll be proud of him, that they’ll be happy their stories are being told to wider audiences, but there’s a major problem. Some of the memories incorporated into Ngapartji Ngapartji are of his father and grandparents, how they lived through the Maralinga bomb tests and what happened to them after. But Jamieson’s father is dead and, in his culture, to talk about him and show images of his face is strictly forbidden. To perform his play he must either rework everything or risk offending his elders. It’s a difficult choice and highlights the struggle of Jamieson and his people as they move forward. How much of their traditional ways should they cling to and how much should they abandon? And more importantly, will Jamieson ”cop a flogging” from the community if he decides to break the law?

A fascinating documentary, this shows the difficulty of bringing a high-tech production to a remote area, the clash of an ancient culture in the 21st century, the turmoil faced by those trying to straddle both worlds and more. The archival footage alone is incredible, reminding us just how recently the people of Jamieson’s homeland were quite happily living on land they had called home for generations before it was literally blown away

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Saving Histories – Jakarta Post Interview

Alex Kelly: JP/J.B. Djwan
Trisha Sertori, Contributor, Jakarta Post

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.

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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, 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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