Sunday, 20 March 2016

AUSTRALIA: "First Film Made of Arnhem Land Natives"

"Table manners may seem crude but it is not very long ago that the people of Britain were eating with their hands."

 This film, "Primitive Peoples Part 1" by G. B. [Gaumont British] Instructional Ltd is careful not to condescend (1). Actor Peter Finch, already famous in Australia for his radio work, assisted with shooting as well as narrating (2).

The people shown are said to be of the "Miwai", though their territory as described is that of the Yolngu and one or two of the sub-groups named are recognisably in the Yolngu list in Wikipedia (3). The press article from the Melbourne Argus (23 August 1947) names the tribe as "Wongurris" and says they were paid with around a ton of food supplies (4).

The film crew's guide and liaison officer was Edward "Ted" Evans of the Native Affairs Branch in Darwin - he terms the tribe Wangurri in his 1990 memoir of Arnhem Land. Evans had become familiar with the area and its people at the end of World war 2, when the Royal Australian Air Force Base on Gove Peninsula was decommissioned and for some reason he and writer Bill Harney were left there for five months after they had finished stocktaking. "To me the whole 1946 Gove Peninsula experience was a revelation of the richness of the Aboriginal world, of the fascinating variety of wildlife on our doorstep and particularly of the depth of understanding and mutual respect that existed between Bill Harney and the Aboriginal people." (5)

So far I have not found Parts 2 and 3 of the film - according to Evans, the only copy in Australia was held by the Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies.

Evans concludes, "In 1972, I acquired for the first time copies of the Gaumont British film made in 1947.1 took it out to Yirrkala, but as twenty-five years had elapsed and therefore some of those appearing had since died, I showed it first only to the elders to get their reaction before running it before the general community. Their reaction was one of wistful sorrow, followed by a request that I not show it publicly - not because of any taboo content of which there is none. but because'of the sadness they felt personally on observing the living activities of persons now dead. Of course, I complied with their request.

"I retired in 1976 almost thirty years after my first arrival at Melville Bay with Bill Harney. In that time I developed a strong feeling for Arnhem Land and a high regard for its people. particularly those of Yirrkala. This esteem still continues and I value the contacts I am able to make occasionally thereby maintaining a nostalgic link with a crowded, but fading past. I look back on my involvement with some pride and I trust that my humble efforts may have helped the people to face and cope with the dramatic, complex and fast-moving changes that were brought upon them over that span of years. Rarely in the history of mankind has a people, within the span of one generation, been required to make adjustments to their lifestyle which have impacted upon almost every vital element of their traditional world."

(1) - The film is dated 1950 but the press coverage (see 4 below) is from 1947

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