Our own killing fields

August 10th, 2012 by admin

Coniston
PAW Media and Rebel Films
Directors: Francis Jupurrurla Kelly and David Batty
Screening: ABC Television, 9.30pm, January 14, 2013

The mass slaughter of Aboriginal people that started at Coniston station in Central Australia during the drought of 1928 became known as “the last massacre”. For some that epitaph can be read as a convenient full stop on the frontier violence that raged soon after the arrival of the First Fleet.

The Warlpiri and their neighbours never saw it that way. The events of those few months left a bloody stain on their country that will never be erased. The random killing of more than 100 innocent Aboriginal people is a painful enough legacy in itself, but these times were tumultuous for another reason. They also marked the transition from a traditional way of life on their lands to the unhappy experience of government settlements.

This documentary, a joint production by PAW Media and Rebel Films, tells the story of those killing times from a Yapa (Warlpiri) perspective. Most of those interviewed had forebears who were present. They lost mothers, fathers, grandparents when the armed posses roaming their land indiscriminately shot at hunting parties and even ceremonial gatherings.

The challenges involved in retelling this story emerge gradually but forcefully. Descendants of those who were there return to the country where the tragic events unfolded. Some old footage shot by the Warlpiri themselves is also used, revealing that this film has a long provenance. Key players comment on what they are being asked to do, and are then shown re-enacting scenes. In this way, the process of the filmmaking is also documented. We see the Yuendumu community planning to make the film, being led through various stages by veteran Warlpiri filmmaker Frances Jupurrurla Kelly.

In this version of the Coniston story, the character list is dominated by Yapa. Top billing goes to Bullfrog Japanangka, known to his countrymen at the time as Kamalyarrpa. It was the murder of the dingo trapper Fred Brooks by Bullfrog that sparked the killing spree. Bullfrog went looking for his wife after she had spent all day at Brooks’ camp. She was sent there to procure tobacco in return for domestic duties, but as the film intimates, Brooks took liberties with Bullfrog’s wife, provoking the murder. The film steps around the question of whether sexual favours were part of the tobacco deal, but it hints that the encroachment of cattlemen on traditional lands played a role.

Whatever his motivations, Bullfrog achieved notoriety among his people. He is now known as the “white man killer”. In the words of his descendants, Bullfrog was a “cheeky” man, a “fighter”. He was “a good bloke but a wild fella”. That wild streak did not lead to his own undoing – he escaped capture and survived to old age living among his people.  Tellingly, he was never punished for the murder under traditional law.

The back-story told here adds a critical dimension. Tension was building during this time because of the drought and the takeover of the country of the Warlpiri, Anmatyerr and Kaytetye by pastoralists. Brooks had camped by a natural spring on Warlpiri country called Yurrkuru, recently acquired by Coniston station with the granting of a pastoral lease. Bullfrog had taken his family there because there was no food or water further west. The recurring theme of drought and famine in the Australian outback is interwoven here with the dispossession of the traditional owners that was gathering pace.

The memory of this sorrowful time still casts a long shadow over the Warlpiri community and their country. But it’s the desire to correct an injustice rather than to dwell on that sadness that emerges as the strongest sentiment of this film. Intermingled with the quiet determination to set the record straight are expressions of pride in their traditional heritage and law, and in their own contact history.  Fiona Nungarrayi Kitson, who is chosen to play the part of Bullfrog’s wife, says: “I want to act in this movie so I can make my family proud and happy”.

No small part of the traditions evoked are the magical powers that are called upon by senior law men and women to overcome adversity, to outwit a malevolent spirit or, as in this case, an enemy. In sharp contrast to the sombre mood of many who tell their story, is the old man who breaks into chuckles as he recalls how Bullfrog used his knowledge of magic to outsmart his pursuers. “He sang away his footprints … He was a tricky one that old man.”

In a more conventionally Western sense, Yapa have seized the chance to rebalance the one-sided story that the rest of Australia knows something of from its own records: the reams of courtroom evidence, journalistic reportage and historians’ accounts.

The discredited findings of the federal inquiry that followed the court case were clearly a whitewash, a monumental travesty of justice. The inquiry found that just 31 Aboriginal people were killed and that these killings were all justified. No Aboriginal witnesses were even called. This film doesn’t go there, but it does touch on the motivation of the police officer who led the killing rampage, Constable George Murray. One of the storytellers alludes to a tragic sickness in Murray, a World War I veteran. Murray, he says, was a “returned soldier from Gallipoli … a crazy old fella”.  What bitter irony that a survivor of one iconic massacre in our history should perpetrate another.

In contrast to the brutal tale of disputed territory that Coniston evokes, there is another far more positive aspect to the making of this film that is imbued with the modern-day spirit of reconciliation. The joint production houses, PAW Media and Rebel Films, have a long association. Back in the days when PAW Media was known as Warlpiri Media Association, they made the highly successful ABC mini-series Bush Mechanics (2001), but their collaboration dates back much further. PAW Chair Francis Kelly and Rebel Director David Batty first worked together in the 1980s on early versions of Manyu Wana, a Warlpiri children’s series. Batty earned the skin name Jupurrurla, and so became a “brother” to Kelly and the “Jupurrurla gang” who put the series together. The same group made Bush Mechanics, and many were involved in this project.

David Batty says: “In many ways, Francis and I have had parallel lives, and filmmaking is something we do well together. He’s a brother.”

“We’ve always worked together, working things out,” says Francis. “David Batty Jupurrurla on the camera and with me sometimes acting, translating and directing Yapa and directing Jupurrurla too, telling him what to film. We’ve done this for a long time now.”

The progression of these joint productions from children’s tales to young fellas and their cars to one of the great injustices of contact history is also the story of a remarkable and enduring collaboration in Aboriginal media.

Coniston will be broadcast on ABC Television on January 14, 2013.

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