Contemporary dance brought Aboriginal stories to the stage, Indigenous art brought the Dreaming to art galleries, and now a host of filmmakers have brought Indigenous songlines to the screen. ABC’s Spirit of Things host Rachael Kohn explores the process of creating a unique documentary series.
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Songlines on Screen is a series of eight short documentaries about songlines—the complex belief systems that map geographical and sacred sites in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.
For Tanya Denning-Orman, the channel manager of National Indigenous Television (NITV), it is the fulfilment of a long-held dream. ‘To have a series dedicated to songlines was a natural step for NITV, and it’s something that we’ve always wanted to do,’ she says.
Songlines carry a lot of sacred information, and making the series involved a lot of workshopping and discussion with the elders and custodians of knowledge.
Even with careful negotiations of what to keep and what to remove, there were still some eyebrows raised. But Denning-Orman emphasises that everything on screen was approved for general viewing. ‘We’ve had some feedback, “Oh, NITV, what are you doing?” But the point is the community knows exactly that what they are giving over on to the screen and it is for everyone.’
Hopes of making a political impact
Mark Moora, an 85-year-old Aboriginal custodian of the songline Tjawa Tjawa, features in one of the documentaries. He hopes the series will have a political impact.
Moora was born at Kiyarr in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia. He grew up in Old Balgo, and that is where he has lived and worked as an artist.
Through sharing the Dreamtime story, which is rooted in the topography of the land, Moora hopes that his people will achieve their aim of securing land rights in Western Australia.
‘We want to get to the beaut people of Australia. That’s the only way we can make people understand. In Western Australia we haven’t got land rights, but we need land rights in Western Australia.’
Preserving customary practice
For others, preserving songlines is the only way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can honour the life cycle according to customary practice. Actor and singer Ursula Yovich recently spoke publicly about how not knowing cultural protocols ‘beyond the very basic stuff’ caused her added grief at her mother’s funeral.
Bulunu Milkarri, a documentary in the songline series from north-east Arnhem Land, honours this life cycle of birth, life and death. Gaia Osborne, who worked as producer and co-writer with the director, Sylvia Nulpinditj, notes that the future of the women’s crying song used at funerals is in danger.
‘At the moment those Milkarri songs aren’t being passed on as much as the other songs sung by men,’ Osborne says. ‘Sylvia is very worried about the future of that and wants not only to learn the songs herself but to make sure that future generation of women are learning these songs.’
Documentaries made with elders’ help
Most of the people in the documentaries are elders, as they are the ones who still remember the ceremonies. In the case of Bulunu Milkarri, the filming of the ritual—involving spearing a turtle and distributing its meat as a sacred offering—was a gift by the community to the filmmakers, as Osborne explains.
‘All of the elders that were involved in it recognised how important it is to document these songlines and ceremonies to make sure that they are available to future generations, which is what is so fantastic about this Songlines on Screen initiative,’ she says.
During the filming of one of the documentaries, an elder passed away—but not before their song and story was filmed.
Goorrandalng or Brolga Dreaming comes from the Keep River National Park in the Northern Territory, where Granny Sheba Dignari’s mother taught her the song.
Granny Sheba was 95 years old when the film was made. She died earlier this year.
In the documentary she is seen singing the song that she said not only kept her country strong, but also helped her sleep at night. ‘Granny was the most wonderful woman,’ said Robyn Marais, who lives in the Pilbara, and is the producer of the film.
‘She had an incredible sense of humour and sense of fun and her favourite thing was to sing and be on country.’
Like the late Granny Sheba, Mark Moora is never happier than when he’s on country, which is why land rights are so important to him. ‘I want to go back and stand in my people’s country and live there, [away from] all the problems that Balgo is having,’ he says.
Moora says the disappearance of traditional values in the younger generation is causing a breakdown of community. For him, the aim is not just to keep culture alive—it is also to keep the younger generation alive. ‘People are changing. They are losing their culture. They have no respect for elders or ladies,’ he says.
‘That’s why we try to lead them in a good way, so they have respect for the crown law and everybody. Too many people are dying in jail. ‘Story, culture, song, dances: it’s all about Australia, it’s all about the earth.’