Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 8, No. 2, 1994
Critical Multiculturalism
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Narrative and intervention in Aboriginal filmmaking and policy

Stephen Muecke

Response to Marcia Langton, 'Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television...' An Essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people and things. Sydney, AFC, 1993, pb 93pp. $14.95

This essay will be something in the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard's response to Pauline Kael's critical reaction to one of his films: 'Don't tell me what's wrong with my movie, give me ideas for my next one'. So my commentary on Marcia Langton's book will be 'iterative', as she says her approach is; it will add materials as much as possible in the spirit of her work.

Speaking from my own position, I want to analyse some of the ways non-Aboriginal people respond to Aboriginal films and filmmaking practices, how they feel they can get involved, and what sorts of stories they tell about that. On the way I will attempt to say in what way the theory of representation might no longer have quite the critical cutting edge it once had. Langton's book makes a few departures in this direction which I want to bring into focus and amplify.

It was with some excitement that I greeted the arrival of this work, announcing itself as a critical anti-colonial response to the imperial apparatus which has apparently produced 6,000-odd films about Aboriginal people. I knew Marcia and of her reputation as an Aboriginal activist, researcher and Chair of the Council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Torres Strait and Islander Studies. The work started with the Australian Film Commission (AFC) commissioning her to write a report with a view to 'establishing policies and guidelines for the funding of future Aboriginal film projects'. It is clear that the establishment of such guidelines is no simple matter; with the dust barely settling over the controversy about the Koori-directed (but not produced or crewed) film Jindalee Lady. Some had pitched aesthetic values (ie: is this film any good?) against so-called "positive values" which the film sought to promote (i.e., no drunks, but such things as mobile phones and satin sheets as representations of achieved Aboriginality).

Langton's response is to call for careful and considered research into problems of representation and Aboriginality. She builds on the work of Eric Michaels, Julia Kristeva, Mudrooroo, Michele Wallace and others, not so much 'beginning extended debate' (7) but continuing it. Her strong and innovative speaking position is from the interstices of policy and theory, and her own Aboriginality cannot be discounted at all in this algebra. Her flexibility actually opens up a liberal space for discussion among filmmakers, bureaucrats and academics. At last, with this text, I began to see the collapse of a long-felt antagonistic opposition between Aboriginal essentialism and non-Aboriginal Theory.

Langton's book is most valuable for its clear-sighted response to the necessity for the analysis of intercultural exchange, and the shifting subjectivities and definitions of Aboriginality that are involved in the colonisation process. The "representations" of Aboriginality that emerge from cultural artefacts are necessarily engaged with problems of interpretation. As Said says:

...we can read ourselves against another people's pattern, but since it is not ours...we emerge as its effects, its errata, its counternarratives. Whenever we try to narrate ourselves, we appear as dislocations in their discourse. (Said 140; cited in Ferguson 11)

Non-Aboriginal Australians narrate themselves in relation to the Aboriginal Other in a number of ways. Aboriginal otherness is becoming increasingly central to debates about cultural identity in a country redefining its nationality with the Mabo/republicanism agenda. In fact, this centralisation may imply a merging of that familiar opposition self/other, for how can one be sure just what part of oneself is indubitably "self" and what part is definitely from another cultural place? For many Australians, Aboriginality is not another place, it is more or less home, through connections with the mythologies or realities of landscape, through popular cultural icons of Aboriginality, through an extended sense of Aboriginal history (before 1788), through celebrations of Aboriginal achievements, and through picking at a slowly healing moral wound.

Nevertheless, we have a whole series of narratives (as verbal mechanisms) we use to engage with or intervene in relations conceived of as self-other. The other is often the object of a narrative desire (how we want to become, how we want to be seen). The coupling of 'narrative' and 'intervention' in the title of this paper suggests penetration of one body into another. Intervention means 'to occur, fall or come between points in time or between events' and also (and this is its more political activist sense) 'to come between in order to stop, settle of modify'. In this paper I want to stress the inbetweenness of narrative interventions, and even suggest that interventions speed things up more than slow them down.

To digress: In Luke's Party (Tim Burns and Ros Sultan, 1991) for instance, the camera is initially seen as an enabling intervention in the narrative the main character is trying to tell about her own history, about family and everyday problems. But, as different interventions or interruptions from other discourses and institutions multiply - other stories intersect in the proscenium of the fixed camera (visitors to Luke's party, a man wanting to cut the electricity, a man serving a court summons for the custody of her children); the narrative hastens to its end, a narrative which turns out to be about the impossibility of finding the time and the means to tell the story. The film "deconstructs" as someone decamps from the party with the camera, still running as the thief is running, leaving the soundtrack behind recording the anguish of the filmmaker.

To continue: if you change the narrative you change the form of the desire, you redirect libidinal impulse. While I'm not trying to suggest that narratives are about pure affect - I want to borrow here from Deleuze and Guattari, in particular their Thousand Plateaus book, to suggest that desires are programmed through machinic assemblages, bodies which are not just carnal, but bodies which can also be conceptual.

Of course, it goes without saying, I read these philosophers in order to depart from them, to fly off at a tangent. It isn't a question of applying their philosophies to a given situation, that is the last thing they would want: as if they were a (European) foundation which we (in "postcolonial" Australia) might want to build on. And yet they provide some openings. They talk of becomings rather than identities. There is no race, they say, to be considered independently of a system of dominations (and inbetweenness): 'bastard and half-cast are the true names of race', they say, somewhat provocatively. "Identity", that term which is used so much in cultural politics, is not, according to them, given in advance by birth, descent, or something which is embedded in the indivisible self. The self is already a multiplicity of identities which are in the process of becoming. And becomings are quite real: becoming animal, becoming imperceptible, becoming Aboriginal even.

...becoming animal does not consist in playing animal or imitating an animal, it is clear that the human being does not "really" become an animal any more than the animal "really" becomes something else. Becoming produces nothing other than itself. We fall into a false alternative if we say that you either imitate or you are. What is real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not the supposedly fixed term through which that becoming passes. (Deleuze and Guattari 238)

The impossibility then, of representation, of "picturing oneself", or picturing an abstraction like Aboriginality, even if this representation lies in between characters being transformed by a narrative. There are always only multiplicities and they are always "in between". And it may be true that it is along the vectors of narrative that identities are carried, histories of individuals or mobs which come up against the blocks of histories of the culture, of society and the State. Aboriginality is a concept which is, as often as not, produced as a pretext or launching pad for peculiarly whitefella obsessions - romantic love of difference, the exotic, the mobilisation of knowledge, liberationist politics, guilt trips - these are the narratives or figures of speech I am talking about here. In defining Aboriginality, Langton already makes an advance on the "available discourses" model which I once devised drawing on the work of Stuart Hall and Michel Foucault. I said that discourses on Aboriginal people tended to fall into roughly three categories, the Anthropological, the Romantic and the Racist (Muecke ch. 1). This could be seen as too static a model. She proposes a theory of Aboriginality as intersubjectivity; identities that are constantly renegotiated according to a triple schema: One: Aboriginal people negotiating with each other in the context of Aboriginal cultures; Two: the stereotyping and mythologising of Aboriginal people by unknowledgable whites; Three: A dialogue situation in which both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people participate in a mutual construction of identities.

Three Stories

One: Inverted patronage

I was teaching video to the students at College, and you know, I showed them how to use the cameras in a non-interventionist way, and then just sent them off, and they shot material that was like, Wow! Fantastic. I mean they weren't influenced by any dominant Whitefella ways of making video?

I call this a narrative of inverted patronage because it withdraws patronage according to a policy of self-determination. The expressive identities of the students then exceed any possible institutional boundary, these identities are formed only outside the school, their Aboriginal knowledge and experience is valued above any European knowledges, even if this knowledge might be simply instrumental - how to use a camera. Aboriginal students coming across such teachers are forced onto their own essential selves, and are not given the opportunity to think through the relations between their own ideas for video-making and the generally available (non-Aboriginal) techniques. This narrative is romantic and in some ways the narrative of those who are terrified to attempt engagement, who will only too readily offer praise for any form of Aboriginal self-expression. Langton, in her book, quotes from Eric Michaels "Bad Aboriginal Art" about the absence of aesthetic evaluation or intervention. More often, though, since we know that Aboriginal painters, like all artists, listen to the comments of their agents and clients about colour, form, etc, there is influence and exchange, so what we have here is an account which only says that one is not intervening. But even this is an intervention. As Langton says: 'Representational and aesthetic statements of Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal people transform the Aboriginal reality' (40, my emphasis). It's not much use for Whitefellas to pretend they are not there: they should analyse their comings and goings around Aboriginal communities.

Two: "Modern Primitives"

There is a new trope of representation, an "interventionist" one, that one could perhaps call positive, and it has three or four elements in its make-up. In Crocodile Dundee Whites and Aborigines are framed in the same scene. This in itself is rare enough in Australian cinema, where the tendency has been more often to place the Aborigines as object of the camera, as, say, ethnographically real. Having put them on the same cinematic plane, we can enjoy a scene where the David Gulpilil character, dressed for ceremony, tells the Linda Kozlowski character that she can't take a photo of him.

'Why not?' she says, assuming that the camera will steal the other's soul.

The laconic answer comes back: 'You've got the lens cap on.'

This trope has the features of: (A) Blacks and Whites in the same scene, (B) Display of romantic primitivist assumptions on the part of the White who is then made a fool of because (C) The Aborigine shows mastery of the bicultural situation and "normal" technological mastery.

The same trope was picked up by MoJo advertising agency for a television ad for Telecom, but the debunking of the primitivist myth ('I will send a message across the land') results in a perhaps questionable endorsement by the Aboriginal figure (Tommy Lewis) for the technological trappings of modernity - the mobile phone. This raises the spectre of assimilation, spectre because, while this is a dead policy idea, one is no longer quite sure if it is alive as critique. With the notion of the modern primitive (or the meeting of the ex-primitive and the postmodern [MacCannell]), the notion of the camera stealing the soul comes back with a chilling seriousness. In relation to the tourist industry, some Aboriginal groups will have to decide just how much they are prepared to put on performances of themselves as primitives. In these scenarios authenticity becomes sacrificed, simulated or irrelevant. Samuel Weber has reworked Walter Benjamin's famous thesis on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction in relation to the cinema:

What is peculiar to the eye of the camera is that it is always ready, always prepared, to take in, to take up everything without even looking or giving anything back. The recording apparatus, whether visual or auditory, takes up everything but never returns the glance. Instead what it does is arrest and reproduce again and again a prolific series of images which go here and there in a mass of movements...

Three: The Garnering of Guilt

Helen Garner's review of the film Deadly uses what one might call the 'mutual liberation ploy' (35). The intervention of whites is to embrace historical guilt, they will always be fugitives from Ultimate Justice until the Right Thing is finally done. I'm not sure the world works like that; her attitude begs the question - what are we supposed to do while waiting for the summons to arrive?

Ninety-nine minutes of cursing and shooting and zooming around in four-wheel-drives, and what have we learnt about the bleeding sore of black deaths in custody? Only that this particular case was a revenge killing. A white cop was psychotically jealous of his mixed-race (sic) wife's affair with an Aboriginal (sic). It's OK everyone. As you were. It was only a personal thing. The rest of us are off the hook again. No need to look more deeply at the shadow in our own hearts.

Corrections: the Caz Lederman character was not supposed to be Aboriginal. And there is no such thing as "mixed race" in contemporary Aboriginal self-definition. Garner gets deeper into offense-land by describing Lydia Miller and John Moore as actors with 'potential', and in her fulsome praise of Black Harvest (the other movie under review) she asks for 'the power of Greek tragedy....Like all truly great works, Black Harvest makes us laugh as well as weep'. The catharsis of Greek tragedy is a way of temporarily getting "off the hook" of the guilt trip, but this staging of Oedipal dramas still ignores the question of how to represent black deaths in custody. Oedipal dramas make it a family problem - whose child is whose across a racial divide, and the scandal of miscegenation. The forced removal of children intensifies the Oedipal drama - Big Daddy has done his best to remove the threat to his life by sending the young men off to gaol. But in Deadly they all come back and crowd around at the end for the ritual slaughter, which will enable families to reform in slightly (radically?) different ways (Caz Lederman with her estranged Aboriginal daughter, the white cop-hero with the Aboriginal leading lady [Lydia Miller]). Dean MacCannell (24) might well comment here:

We embrace oedipal guilt in a kind of 'plea bargain' to a lesser offence, because it involves symbolic murder [the killing of the police sergeant in the case of Deadly], not an actual genocide. But it is actual genocide which is operative in the formation of guilt.

So how is one supposed to represent the unrepresentable, the Holocaust? According to Henry Reynolds, interviewed in Black Man's Houses (Steve Thomas 1991), it is not a question of guilt, simply one of honouring the verbal treaties of the past.

Commentary and Repetition

In After the Last Sky, Edward Said stresses that a culture or state struggling to survive is put in the position of having representatives who have to constantly repeat, in the face of ignorance, the basic historical narratives of cultural identity and survival. This is what we tend to see in the Nganampa Anwerhekenhe television series from CAAMA. But another feature of this filmmaking is the tendency for both the presenter and the narrator to want to complete the media circuit by placing themselves in the position of the viewer. I have emphasised those parts of this narrative excerpt from the episode Wedgetail Eagle Dreaming:



'Harold also talks about how travellers who come to Alice had to enter through Honeymoon Gap and only when escorted by our elders ... Each person travelling through here had to follow the footprints exactly, each footprint on top of another ... You can see the way our living conditions have changed. European ways have killed our respect for each others law. We would like you to contact us at CAAMA or ring us by telephoning 525 727 and let us know what you think about Nganampa Anwerhekenhe and what you would like to see on our show ... we should be proud to show our culture to other Aboriginal people and overseas people. After seeing our show people can say "Great they've still got strong language and culture." That's the purpose of Nganampa Anwerhekenhe.'




'many visitors used to go to that place

and the old men used to sit in the shade

telling traditional stories

Here we're doing exactly the same, myself with other members of the Undoolya tribe (cut to two other old men)

We've come to tell and pass stories on to others.

Here I am at the entrance to Anthurrekele.

Anthurrekele is the original name of this gap,

The Europeans now call it Emily Gap.

So here I am at the top of this creek telling stories

This creek that runs into Arrepele Ikelhe downstream.

I'm sitting here telling Dreamtime Stories of the country for everyone to know and learn, so they'll say "Oh! here's wheelchair telling stories downstream at Anthurrekele" (Emily gap)'.


This is just one Aboriginal filmmaking technique which one could speculate about. The speaker puts him or herself in the place of the viewer as if to say: the grandiose idea of mass media, or diffusion into the potentiality of an infinite number of receivers with the usual alienation effects, is a crazy myth. Media always operate in connection to a community; Aboriginal media-making practices make television and other media actually work in relation to specific audiences.

It seems, after reading Marcia Langton's book and looking at some movies, that representations matter less than protocols (how to "politely" intervene). There are narratives, of course, fixing characters in relations of becoming which produce identities. These are not seen as fixed representations (positive or negative), but rather intersubjective and mobile ones - between one body and another (a black body, a white body; a body of thought and a body of actions). Bodies are what they are capable of doing, not what they are essentially. The films that are to be made in the future are not, therefore, to be made by human "beings", but by human bodies which are becoming different through the various prosthetic devices which are attached to them (camera to the eye, playing to the camera, bodies moving in a landscape or scene). Narratives, in this context, are still crucial vectors for carrying the transformations of desire, and as interventions they are crucial in that they necessarily articulate theory and practice, and can speed things up or slow them down. So in the making of movies we have to consider not just the narrative in the production, the story-line, but the narratives about production (what "we" think we are doing).

As Deleuze and Guattari, "philosophical directors", might say in their ironic imperative mood: Don't make films about Aborigines. Make Aboriginal films which are not films in the usual sense. Make films which are not Aboriginal in the usual sense.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1987.

Ferguson, Russell. "Introduction: Invisible Center". Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. Eds. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha and Cornel West. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art and Cambridge, Mass: the MIT Press, 1990. 9-14.

Garner, Helen. "Dead Loss". The Independent Monthly. Sept. 1992: 35.

Jindalee Lady. Dir. Brian Syron, prod. Brian Kearney. Donobri International Communications 1990. Not released theatrically.

MacCannell, Dean. Empty Meeting Grounds. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Muecke, Stephen. Textual Spaces: Aboriginality and Cultural Studies. Kensington, Sydney: U NSW P, 1992.

Said, Edward. After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

Weber, Samuel. Mari Kultna Memorial Lecture. U of Sydney, May 1992.

Wedgetail Eagle Dreaming. CAAMA 1991 Arrente/English. Presented by Rosalie Riley. Narrated by Harold (Ross) Ellis.

New: 4 March, 1996 | Now: 26 March, 2015