In an era of biometrics, the smell of one’s sweat sits already among the panoply of bordering technologies that manage the territorial containment of populations. The third production of Karrabing Film Collective—Wutharr: Saltwater Dreams—explores how the film’s Indigenous protagonists experience the containments of missionary-Christian moral codes as well as settler-colonial rule-of-law, and how these layer and displace ancestral territorial arrangements secured in sweat and through generational obligation. The most surreal and near-psychedelic of Karrabing’s productions to date, Wutharr is also the film that tackles most directly the transformation of spirit that underlies any colonial project.
At the time of their first film—When the Dogs Walked—Karrabing were making do with life in tents having been displaced from a peri-urban community to their bush homelands by the upheavals of the 2007 Northern Territory “Intervention”. That film tracked the crisis in housing for Aboriginal people and the call to order of the end of the multicultural project in Australia, articulated later on by former Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s claim that Australian tax-payers cannot afford the “lifestyle choice” of its Aboriginal citizens.
As Karrabing member Elizabeth A. Povinelli has written, the group’s film-making unfolds a genre of “Improvisational Realism,” in which not only is documentary and fictional film produced as a composite image, but the images and image-making themselves are leveraged to manifest new arrangements in the reality of the film-makers. Improvisational realism is an aesthetic that carries over from the Karrabing’s everyday strategies of living in settler liberalism, where a large gap opens between the resources available and what needs to get done with them; and where almost no space exists between the overlapping realities that constitute everyday life.
The current screening and Q&A occurs during Jerusalem Show VIII, and the 3rd Qalandiya International, which features an installation and conference programme on Wutharr. Three of the four members who applied for passports have been able to obtain them in time make the arduous journey from Belyuen to Jerusalem and so the distribution of the film has in turn arrived as a distribution of people. In the frame of “Improvisational Realism,” the extraordinary bureaucratic and pragmatic hurdles these passports and this travel entails is considered a part of the art and analytics produced by the film-making.
(*)Answers provided by Karrabing Film Collective members Gavin Bianamu, Sheree Bianamu, Natasha Lewis, and Elizabeth A. Povinelli
Vivian Ziherl: Jerusalem Show VIII Before and After Origins proposes an ‘arts of connection’—learning from the Palestinian experience in which a chief technology of dispossession has been the long-term division and estrangement of populations. How is Karrabing filmmaking an art of connection, and how did that come about?
Karrabing Film Collective: Karrabing filmmaking began in the wake of a viscous state intervention in indigenous governance—the governance of Indigenous people in the north. In the 1970s the Australian state "recognized" the rights of indigenous people to their lands but operationalized this right by dividing people based on reductive anthropological theories of “clan” and “totem.” In practice, state-based land recognition pitted indigenous groups against each other, and set up the settler courts as purportedly neutral arbiters. But by the 2000s a longstanding conservative federal government backed by large mining interests slowly tried to overturn land-rights legislation by "starving" people off their land—denying financial and social support for rural and remote Indigenous communities, forcing them into low wage jobs or more typically not caring about what happens to them after they leave their lands. This tactic assumes that, once removed from country, “land” increasingly becomes an abstraction rather than an embodied relation. And the need for a means of life increases. As an abstraction the seductions of capital and capitalisation of land becomes more seductive.
Karrabing filmmaking refuses both forms of state disconnection—the disconnection of families and the disconnection of families and generations from their memories and lands. Karrabing does not refer to a single family’s land or totem but to a condition of the saltwater tides. Karrabing is the saltwater that connects across family lands and is the condition of their existence. And Karrabing filmmaking provides the practices of memory that continual re-embody people and place.
VZ: Today Karrabing crossed from Jerusalem to Ramallah to spend time with the Subversive Film collective because they cannot join the public event with Al Ma’mal Foundation. What did you learn meeting with Subversive Film, looking at their research into Palestinian Militant Film, and from the border-crossings that had to happen for this to take place?
KFC: The footage was stunning—both the surrealist P.L.O. propagandist stuff and the documentary footage of people's arrival in Jordanian camps in 1967. We remembered stories of grandparents and great grandparents being interned in the 1930s and removed again during World War II, and some sneaking out and walking hundred of kilometres across the bush to get back to their homelands. Some of us were really interested to see that women and young kids were training to fight with guns. And that people imagined they could—and partially did—get their lands back by arms. There were acts of violent resistance in early settler colonialism but the demographics were different, and indigenous people were largely massacred.
In terms of crossing the check-points, some of us thought about the differences and similarities in the way that rural and remote indigenous communities are locked up. Part of the lock-up and removal has to do with where indigenous people in the north were interned in the 1930s—away from white cities—and how poverty keeps them locked there (cars, petrol, registration all cost money). Part of this is the way the state currently policies Aboriginal communities as well. Police have the right to enter communities and houses at will under the flimsiest of pretexts. They can set up check-points to search for alcohol, and under this excuse arrest people for quality of life infractions, outstanding warrants, unregistered cars etc. As fines pile up and income drops, these slow quasi-violent acts account for the vastly unequal number of indigenous men and women in Australian prisons. We saw the walled enclosure, the constant harassment of Palestinians, the blockage of movement as similar in form if not content.
VZ: The 1970s style militant image/cause was about being prepared to die, in order to continue existing but militancy for you guys, and increasingly Palestinians - is about being prepared to live…. in order to continue existing?
KFC: Yes, but we must reimagine what it is to be militant outside of one of the dominant images and causes of 1970s style militancy, namely armed insurrection; a being prepared to die for the cause. In the condition of the state debilitation of Indigenous existence militancy is the refusal cease to exist.
VZ: Our colleague and co-conspirator Rachel O’Reilly once pointed out that in some ways Karrabing’s filmmaking is about the effort of getting better scripts for its protagonists. What part of the Australian settler-colonial script does Wutharr work on in particular, and how do images do the job?
KFC: Wutharr is our favourite film so far even if it is probably the most challenging for non Indigenous people. Wutharr begins and insists throughout that indigenous families are not homogenous cultural machines but are composed of complex points of views. The film begins with a simple question—what caused a boat motor to break down on a trip to Karrabing's remote country. Was it faulty wiring? Jealous ancestors? Or a test of Christian faith?
In a series of flashbacks each of these points of view is recounted. But in the end we see that, in fact, all three points of view exist in the same frame—that all three are now facts on the ground, that they coexist in the same place and time, and that they find if not a unity then an ongoing interconnected relationship.
Crucial scenes—the scenes we think hinge the argument without explicating it—are one at the beginning of the film where three people argue whether the ancestors (Trevor), Jesus (Linda) or wiring (Rex) caused the motor to break down and a long scene near the end when Linda confronts the ancestors seeking help with the boat.
But throughout the film the image of entryways are crucial as characters go into one entryway and come out in another place and time. And as in all Karrabing films, the everyday nature of Indigenous struggles to maintain a contemporary relation to each other and their land is constantly punctuated by the state. Throughout Wutharr, the argument about what broke the motor is driven by the fact that the police are looking to enforce an enormous fine on the owners of the boat for setting off an emergency flare without having expensive safely equipment or permits.