Tuesday, April 8

Kanyini – understanding Aboriginal culture

Photo of Aboriginal elder Bob Randall

You threw me a line called Welfare, but
it’s not as good as what I had … the
chaos and sadness we are feeling now
is a result of our history … Open truth
will set us free, not hidden truth.

Two worlds, two cultures. Perhaps there's no place in Australia where the gap is more brutally defined than Uluru. On one side, a luxury resort enjoyed by tourists from all around the world, and unseen on the other, a squalid township for traditional owners of the great rock.

If they do get a glimpse of Mutitjulu, the tourists may ask why the indigenous owners live like that. Surely they receive rents and fees from the tourists, as well as government welfare?

Perhaps some whitefellas begin to think indigenous equals inferior, that Aboriginal people lack the capacity to look after themselves or their children.

But listen to Bob Randall (pictured top), a respected elder, as he explains how dispossession has brought so much misery to his people:

Now we’re stuck between two cultures, two worlds; we can’t go back to the old ways because the natural environment has been destroyed. Nothing is there in its natural state anymore. We can’t get into your system because many of us don’t understand it. Hardly anyone has the skills to operate in your culture; they don’t have the education and reading skills to understand your ways and culture … so much money has been spent on an education system that isn’t working … it’s a failure. We need to consider new ways of teaching to incorporate old and new … so my mob can feel pride.

Pic of Bob Randall and Melanie HoganThe best way to listen to Uncle Bob is to view the film Kanyini, and to hear him explain the meaning of the word. In the Pitjantjatjara language of central Australia, it means connectedness – to a belief system, to spirituality, to land and to family.

It's a remarkable documentary. For its 53 minutes, it hit my emotional buttons so strongly I worried whether I could write a proper assessment. But here goes.

The early part of the film is almost a monologue as Bob Randall explains kanyini and the life Aboriginal people led before the whites arrived. He's direct, but almost genial, as he describes his people's culture. At times, he gently mocks whitefellas for their belief they have a superior culture and spirituality.

Cut into his talk are spectacular central Australian desert scenes, rich in vibrant colours, along with old black-and-white footage of naked Aboriginal men hunting, naked children romping in rockpools, mothers with children. And of Aboriginal people being taken away by whitefellas and put into whitefella clothes.

We begin to understand what the original Australians lost when the whites arrived, bringing the "benefits" of European civilisation.

Then a dramatic switch. Suddenly, the camera is taking us around Mutitjulu, confronting us with images of young people staggering as they inhale deeply from cans. We see dispirited adults mooching about, kicking at the dust and mud.

They are images we've seen only in recent years. Most Aboriginal communities refused entry permits to journalists, photographers and film-makers unless they submitted to censorship which deleted such scenes.

But the producer, director and editor of Kanyini is a remarkable young woman. Melanie Hogan (pictured with Randall as they collected one of the awards the film has won) graduated from the University of NSW with a first-class honours degree in economics, and joined Macquarie Bank – the "millionaires factory" – to work in corporate finance.

Then she dropped out, yielding to her creative urge to study film-making in New York and back in Sydney. Then, as she says:

. . it was only in April 2004 I realised I didn't have one indigenous friend . . . So I set off to the desert pretty much straight away, to learn all about Indigenous Australia – in a blackfella kinda way – through communication and relationship and following the direction of the wind.

At Mutitjulu, she was invited to produce a short film, Petrol Wiya, to combat petrol sniffing. From that, she teamed up with Bob Randall for the partnership which produced Kanyina, for which Randall was presenter and co-producer.

Trust me. Viewing Kanyina is a worthwhile experience, and the film would be an excellent resource for any group wishing to discuss indigenous culture. More information can be found here, including ways to order the DVD. The link to the study notes yields useful information for teachers and discussion groups.

In Kanyini, Bob Randall, born in 1934 of a Scottish station manager and an Aboriginal housemaid, tells of an idyllic childhood living in the camp away from the homestead. He was taken away as a youngster and never saw his mother again. As he says:

I was institutionalised because I didn't wear clothes or live in a house. In that natural way of living, there was no need for me to have anything other than what I had. It was not that I lacked love. As well as my biological connection, I had five mothers and six fathers.

Short biographies of Randall and Hogan can be read on the Kanyini website by following the links to "subject" and "director" respectively. The study guide is also worth, well, studying.

I had planned another leg to this post, but I'll keep it brief for now. Schools on the Woy Woy peninsula, where I live, and elsewhere are using Kanyini as an important part of a project called Yarn Up.

Yarn Up sums up its aims: Talk the Story, through viewing Kanyini and then discussing it; then Walk the Story as local Aboriginal people guide students over their traditional country, explaining how their people lived and related to their world.

It's a great concept, and I think it's going to work. Yarn Up tells its story here.

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