The Kimberley is a vast and rugged region – 420,000km2 of unique landforms and species of wildlife, swathes of wilderness defined by rugged ranges, spectacular gorges, savannah, waterfalls, cave systems and a largely isolated coastline.
It is among the world’s most ecologically diverse areas and home to the highest percentage of Aboriginal people living on country in Australia – all of which is threatened by the relentless expansion of mining, pastoralism and irrigated agriculture.
The Aboriginal custodians of this ancient land live on 200 communities and belong to 34 different language groups. Their survival is as tenuous as the pristine Kimberley coastline.
They have lived there for millennia, and the Kimberley is home to hundreds of thousands of rock art paintings and drawings. But pressure from industry is exposing the limits of Indigenous land rights, one of the key issues raised in the documentary film Undermined – Tales from the Kimberley, which is screening at the Byron Bay Film festival.
Undermined, made by award-winning director Nicholas Wrathall (Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia) has something of The Bentley Effect about it: the success of People Power standing up to fracking in the Northern Rivers was paralleled by community resistance to the construction of an LNG plant at James Price Point.
It lovingly explores the country and the coast: the geology and colours are stunning, awe-inspiring; the landscape and history have a value that makes exploitation a short-term, destructive proposition.
But the barbarians are at the gate: Gina Rinehart and Kerry Stokes own huge cattle stations and people born on country now have to ask permission to camp there.
The film raises the question: what are the true costs of development in the vast and unspoiled Kimberley?
The politicians have branded the region “the future economic powerhouse of Australia”, but as one of the elders here asks: who benefits from this development, and where is the social justice?
Another example of the fragility of the Indigenous peoples’ grip on their country and culture presents itself in the life of one individual in the feature documentary Teach a Man to Fish.
Fair-skinned Aboriginal man Grant Leigh Saunders found himself in middle age still struggling with his identity.
Having left his home country around Taree two decades earlier, he feels disconnected from his culture. A successful filmmaker in the white-fella world, with a Norwegian wife and two children, he has a hankering to reconnect, and when an opportunity to quit everything and go fishing with his father, he grabs it.
His dad and uncles and grandfather all made their living by fishing and Saunders had never quite forgiven his father for excluding him from the family business.
This is an autobiographical film, in which Saunders’ fishing trip with his dad, Ray, follows an emotional journey: the salvaging of their relationship, a reconnection with culture, and an education in the history of a family’s triumph over trauma.
Two other festival films examine Aboriginal culture and life in Australia.
Muruba revolves around Marilyn Wallace and Christina Howley, who monitor water in the rainforest area of Queensland. Kuku Nyungkal woman Marilyn’s analysis is based upon her cultural and spiritual connection with the land and the indigenous approach to water; environmental and aquatic scientist Christina Howley reveals the scientific approach. Muruba explores how these two methods could come together for the greater good.
Last Drinks at Frida’s was produced by Byron Bay’s Lois Randall and is Bjorn Stewart’s debut as a director.
It’s 1944, Kings Cross; the Allies are winning the war and a troubled Indigenous soldier has returned to his home country, but with no real home to go to. He drifts into a speakeasy, where he meets singer Tilly De Frida and a friendship develops based on them both realising they are still searching to find somewhere to belong.
Frida’s speakeasy is a safe haven for society’s fringe-dwellers. It’s warm, it’s comforting and it has jazz – but is it “home”?
Stewart said his aim for the audience was to “convey the sense of bittersweet love – moments of ‘what if?’ This may be an Indigenous story but it is a story we can universally connect through”.
To Vanuatu, and another nightclub, for Life is Sweet, with a girl band that will remind viewers of The Sapphires.
Sonia and her friends are performers at Club Tequila, and when the MC gives them a chance to dissect her marriage to Max, they take over the nightclub to tell the story – and examine the role of women in a patriarchal society.
Max thinks he’s free to do as he wants but the women have a different view. Director Peter Walker’s idea was to be true to Pacific Island life but the story has universal appeal, approaching its themes of love, relationships and family with irony and a delicate human psychology – and plenty of great songs.
Strong Culture director Jarryd O’Keefe also wanted to make a film as a way to give back to the village and community that housed him during a short stay in Vanuatu.
In Strong Culture, a warrior chief in a small village prepares for a traditional war dance ceremony that honours the ancestral culture of his people.
“The making of this film and the reception it has received after completion has been the most rewarding experience of my career,” O’Keefe says. “Seeing how moved everyone close to this production was with the final product was extremely emotional for me and fuels my desire to share this amazing culture with the world.”