Thursday, February 03, 2011

Stories like trees

My "Aboriginal Australia" course began with the film "Ten Canoes," made by Rolf de Heer with the people of the town of Ramingining, and at the invitation of David Gulpilil. Today we watched "The Balanda and the Bark Canoes" - balanda is the Yolngu word for white people - a making-of documentary in which de Heer describes the process as the most difficult of his film-making career, and where we learn that many aspects of the film you'd presumed to be his directorial decisions came instead from his Aboriginal partners. Like the casting, for instance - the Ramingining people insisted that characters be played by people in the same kin groups, and so the whole community was cast by the whole community. We'll be looking at the kinship system - which evidently surprised de Heer, despite his history of working with Aboriginal themes - soon.

Relatedly, it became clear that the people of Ramingining were not "acting" in a "fictional" story but doing something more like ceremonially uniting with their ancestors. My plan with this insight is to stretch it first to include the inventions by which Aboriginal traditions have reinvented themselves in the world the balanda have built around and on top of their world (like using balanda technology, film and film-makers), and then to suggest that reinvention and performance aren't new - desperate if virtuosic responses to the modern challenge - but the stuff of any and every living tradition. (As Stanner insisted, Aboriginal traditions are characterized by constant change as much as by continuity.)

But our discussion today focused more on storytelling. To de Heer's evident chagrin, the people of Ramingining proposed that their film be about a magpie goose egg hunt, a most undramatic thing. He needed a story which would be satisfying for a film audience - presumably with plot and characters, tension and resolution. They wanted none of that: their ancestors are presented as living in a jovial if hard-working harmony. A compromise was finally worked out. The recent ancestors (seen in black and white with a fixed camera, and in large part modeled on photographs taken among the Yolngu in the 1930s by ethnographer Donald Thomson) maintain their harmonious existence in part by telling stories of earlier, mythic ancestors (seen in glorious color with an always mobile camera), in whose time tension, trouble, violence, etc. can happen. Dramatically satisfying stories of conflict don't describe an actual reality, but a real possibility which - precisely through being narrated - is prevented from becoming actuality. For instance, a young character among the recent ancestors learns the value of patience through hearing a story in which rash and ill- considered actions among his mythical ancestors produce unfortunate conse- quences.

So is the didactic story told by the idealized recent ancestors the kind of story Western filmgoers can appreciate? No and yes. Yes, because the film is satisfying; viewers around the world have been entranced. But also no, because the satisfaction is only superficially at seeing a conflict resolved, tension released through catharsis. When you reflect on it, the conflict in question isn't the right kind of conflict. It's a different kind of story, a story (the main narrator says) "like a tree," with many branches - none of which is resolved in the way you might expect, or even fully explained.

The world of this story is the world of a bushy tree of interrelated happenings: inevitable frictions and temptations arising in a human community (not because of differences of personality), compounded by accidents and misjudgments based in part on the multiplicity of ongoing happenings, and ultimately overcome - not without loss - by communal ceremony. The film lets us feel that resolution without quite understanding the kind of resolution it offers; it's more a sense of finality, of closure. Most questions are still unanswered, but this set of disturbances has been put to rest ("this is where we stop," says Birrinbirrin, an elder), and the community moves on into new ones. One is reassured, somehow, by the sense that disturbances will inevitably arise, but that ceremony and storytelling will continue to let the community outlive them. A good story doesn't end but is like a tree, and good trees provide support by having roots deep and far and wide, and by having many branches which between them can bear a lot of weight. In its synesthetic way, film may be able to convey some of that.

(Pictures: the Thomson photo which inspired the film's title; a scene from the film with ancient ancestors Ridjmiraril and Birrinbirrin; Rolf de Heer; a Thomson-inspired scene from the film which we first saw in black and white - the goose egg hunters taking shelter in trees to be safe from the Arafura swamp's crocodiles overnight - but now we learn that their ancestors, too, hunted goose eggs, and in the same way.)

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