The ‘great epics’ or Dreaming stories which Australian Aborigines are so famous for are read not from a text but from the landscape. A Dreaming story is told by pointing out and walking tracks of land. Indigenous Australians can therefore be said to live in a giant storybook, and from my own personal experience of ‘reading country’ it is one of the most wondrous ways to travel a land.
At first sight one may not think there is a correlation between the Aboriginal Dreaming and Movieworld and Dreamworld – two multimedia theme parks that have been built on our traditional land. If anything, the theme parks are actually the antithesis of the Dreaming.
But Land has a strange way of creating personalities. David Mowanjahlai, an Aboriginal lawman of the Kimberleys, refers to the term gi when speaking of place. He says the land has a gi, or personality that either likes you or disturbs you. Our land, one might say, has a predilection for the theatrical. For not only does it have an abundance of theme parks – the locals are also entertaining.
The cluster of clans in this south-eastern corner of Queensland have a penchant for pantomime, theatrical representation and storytelling. Lestor Bostock, the father of indigenous film, comes from this part of the country, and there is an overabundance of media buffs in these clans.
Mythologizing this land around the Gold Coast in this way makes it easier to come to terms with the theme parks and the multimedia industry that supports them, helps me to establish the past with the present and to think about the possible role multimedia could play in maintaining Aboriginal culture.
They are turning out boring home videos in which the clan is the central focus
The dreamscapes of traditional stories are the body of knowledge that form the unique world view of the Australian indigenous, and should be the training ground for young Aboriginal filmmakers and multimedia script writers. They need access to the elders who can convey this mindset. Aboriginal knowledge can foster an ingenuity in the Indigenous media-maker. The dreamscape of traditional stories has the potential to Australianize the media industry in this country – and present the public with something ‘other’, intellectually stimulating – and, god forbid, non-American!
However, I am not advocating a wholesale free-for-all grab at the stories, to turn them into multimedia fodder. You cannot just take an indigenous story, copy it down and think you have it.
For example, I have been approached by an Adnymathanha man bitterly complaining about an anthropologist who was invited by his community to compile the traditional stories of the clan into a working tool for the school. The anthropologist interpreted the copyright of the stories to be hers and told the community they could not perform their traditional stories at a coming public show.
From a Western legal perspective the anthropologist did have copyright. But the supposed author totally disregarded the fact that she was not dealing with a quaint collection of historical relics but stories that are the multifaceted carriers of the constitution of the clan.
What makes this kind of appropriation so ludicrous is that the traditional stories are resold back in their new form to the children of the traditional owners. In other words we have to buy back the Dreaming for our children!
And the new singers, the children learning the Aboriginal stories from books become re-producers rather than re-creators of the tradition.
There are many other examples of the abuse of indigenous stories – not just in books, but in movies, television, and other media – stories which form the customary Law of the many clans of the Australian Aborigine.
Some people propose that we prevent such abuse by ourselves using Western intellectual property or copyright law to protect our stories and culture. But intellectual property rights is a billion-dollar game for the multinationals. And this solution would mean the commodification of the Aboriginal.
We need a different strategy. I say, we should redirect money and energy away from copyright law suits and invest in our own image! Cultural appropriation of our stories by the entertainment industry is after all part of the wider process of the universalization of consumer law, the culture of the marketplace and all its attendant imagery – imagery the West has exported everywhere. We need to cultivate our own Aboriginal imagery, located in the Land and in our own kinship system as a clan activity.
So where is the image of our own kinship group, our own mob? Well, in a way, it is in a good position – due to its lack of profitability. It is actually in the hands of the mob. Yes, the dusty tribal and the downtrodden urban black have cameras in their hands. And what are they filming? Themselves and their kin. Yes – they are turning out boring home videos in which the clan is the central focus. There is a constant stream of oral histories and local content being made. Aborigines like to see their own selves in their own land. They like those long pan-shots of lots of people and lots of countryside. And the never-ending stream of talking heads. Unfortunate, if you are an outsider looking for an entertainment-fix, instant gratification from the media image being projected.
You certainly won’t get it from those of our elders who speak and think like Bill Neidjie, Lawman from the Kakadu: ‘Well, some people they say… “Lovely tree, look!” But me… I think that story. This tree ’e stay… watching you. Something… this tree. If you go by yourself, lie down, that tree ’e can listen. Might be ’e might give you signal. Spirit… quiet ’e say…’
Take the example of the film Bedevilled. Based on oral stories told to director Tracey Moffatt as a child, the audience, just like Tracey, needed to hear and see the film several times before they could comprehend a level of meaning from the ‘otherness’ depicted in the three ghost stories set in North Queensland.
One of the best examples of Aboriginal film is Benny and The Dreamings, an excellent documentary-come-storytelling by three Senior Law Men, produced by Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). This documentary travels with them from the day they came out of the desert in 1970 to when they return to it in the 1990s. It hadn’t really taken them long to work out that ‘civilization’ had got some basic problems which they didn’t want to participate in. These people are also some of Australia’s most successful international artists. This is the image that not only the locals but also outsiders need to see. They need to see these artists sitting down country in the dust, not standing up like props behind some Aboriginal Art Curator in Sydney.
We should not be looking to the Western legal system to protect our culture but should really address the image we perpetuate. An image which should have our customary Law attached to it, which is based in the Land. I say, empower the image and you empower the Law and the people. After all, it’s a lesson the multinationals have learnt well!
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