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Ever since white men first gazed on the continent of Australia the secrets of its native people, their desires, rituals and emotions have been hidden – overlaid by the principles of the European world.
Whatever attempts have been made to penetrate the world of the Aboriginal people have foundered largely through failure to see the world through their eyes.
But now Australian artists have mounted the first project that aims to look clearly at the world of Aboriginal people, at their versions of what is beautiful, true or full of meanings – at the art of another people, an art that seems secret because it is written only in their minds.
In an attempt to break the bonds imposed by “western” styles of vision, two Australian film-makers have recorded a film together with the Borroloola people, an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory’s Gulf country.
The result of this collaborative work, a new film titled TWO LAWS – KANYMARDA YUWA, is a sustained vision from the perspective of the members of the Aboriginal community themselves – its shape and content decided by the Borroloola people, to serve as both factual record and emotional history.
The cinema here steps into a new role as the form of popular memory – a role still occupied by the narrative tradition of the Aboriginal communities.
The key figures who made possible the story of TWO LAWS are Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini independent film-makers who had been working on their own films of the Aboriginal people for the past 10 years before being approached by the Borroloola community with a radical proposal.
What the people of Borroloola wanted was for a film record to be made that would show their own fragile lives and customs, their history, the traumatic invasion of their land by white settlers and their recent attempts to win land rights.
Such a film would be made by the people of Borroloola, a traditional Aboriginal tribe for whom the notions of image, reproduction, and visual pleasure were likely to be sharply at variance with those of an average European in Australia reared on a diet of movies and TV.
The Europeans were gradually introduced to Aboriginal rules of behavior, coming into contact with the 300 members of the community, scattered over hundreds of kilometers and living in small, separate camps.
They traveled from place to place, staying days in each camp and being assigned “skins” – the term given to a person’s social group, in a system of six cycles of kinship – so they would know their formal relationship to all the other members of the community.
As the film-makers were taught hunting and learned the intricate details, the structure and the form of the community they were to record, they in turn showed the Borroloola people films, and the project for TWO LAWS was shaped by the Aborigines at the formal meetings held each morning, according to their own law.
The film immediately stands apart from other films made with related intent, whether anthropological or archival, romantic or exotic. TWO LAWS does not have a white narrator, few of the people act as if they were behaving “naturally”, unaware of the camera, and even while the film was being made, the taut formal rules of position that structure all Aboriginal society were maintained.
The Aboriginal community also decided that TWO LAWS should be made without use of the staple of western film dramas – the tight, private, personal image par excellence – the close-up shot. The entire film is shot with a “wide angle” lens, allowing the film-makers to include entire groups of people in their frame.
In its four sections – itself a reflection of the four language groups living within the Borroloola tribal system, a system now held to include the film itself – TWO LAWS makes up a web of interconnecting narratives, linking present and past.
In the first part of the films, Police Times, this approach is clear as the Borroloola people re-enact their experiences at the hands of white law.
“We had a law around us – they tried to give us a new law, they wanted us to be like white people,” a member of the tribe says.
For the white participants, it became clear the history of violence brought by the settlers was still a live, present memory, central to the lack of certainty felt by the Aboriginal people when they attempted to make sense of the white world surrounding them.
“We fight for our land because it means something to us, we have dreamings, and everyone is an owner of their father’s land, a helper on their mother’s land, helping to manage ceremonies,” the people say.
The film is partly meant as a route to understanding of the past of the Borroloola, so they may form a picture of how to act within the terms of the white law that has been given to them, and in this way come back into the tradition of their own history.
Produced as a labor of love between the people and the film’s white creators, it invites its western viewers to consider a new way of looking at film, of seeing the role of art in terms purely of the community, the fabric of legend through which the people live.
If TWO LAWS is a crucial development for Aboriginal history and a presentation of beliefs which give meaning to a people, it matters most because it proves what can be achieved with such love between the subjects of the two codes of law.
The Australian, May 6, 1982
--Nicholas Rothwell
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