The word “karrabing,” from which the Karrabing Film Collective takes its name, means “tide out” in the Emmiyengal language, invoking the northwest coastline of Australia that connects the members of the collective, an intergenerational group of around thirty artists and filmmakers, most of whom are indigenous to the Northern Territory of Australia. Their use of the word offers an immediate insight into their work. As Karrabing member Natasha Bigfoot Lewis puts it, “We are all saltwater from the same coast—connected lands from the same coast.”¹
Karrabing’s films are varied in style, but the group members have adopted an approach that they refer to as “improvisational realism.” Shooting with iPhones or handheld cameras, they typically begin with a loose idea rooted in their everyday experiences rather than a fixed script, developing the plot and dialogue as they go, incorporating input from each participant. While their immediate community and environment are the foundation of Karrabing’s films, often positioning viewers as fly-on-the-wall observers, these are not straightforward documentaries: realism is interwoven with alternative histories, speculative futures, and Dreaming narratives. As Nhanda and Nyoongar artist and curator Glenn Iseger-Pilkington explains, “the Dreaming is the realm of ancestral spirits who formed Australia, giving plants, animals, language, lore, and law to the land. It operates beyond Western constructs of time, as a realm of cultural manifestation and unfolding that exists concurrently in our past, our present, and our future.”²
One main catalyst for the group’s formation was the 2007 Northern Territory National Emergency Response, commonly known as the “Intervention,” a set of policies implemented by a federal government task force in response to a report commissioned by regional authorities on child sexual abuse and neglect in Aboriginal communities. The federal government enacted broad new legislation that gave it heightened control over Aboriginal communities, including restrictions on alcohol consumption, mandatory child welfare inspections, and a significant rise in policing.³
The Intervention coincided with the fallout from a riot at the Belyuen settlement, a rural Aboriginal community where many of the Karrabing members lived. The riot had attracted the attention of mainstream media outlets, and the members—many of whom had been left temporarily homeless—decided to produce their own accounts representing their perspective on issues affecting their communities. Along with American anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli, a professor at Columbia University who first visited Belyuen in 1984 and has maintained a close relationship with the community since, they formed the Karrabing Film Collective and made their first short film, Karrabing! Low Tide Turning, in 2011.
As a Māori person from Karrabing’s neighboring country, Aotearoa (New Zealand), I have certain historical commonalities with Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, Australia’s two distinct Indigenous groups. We are all also citizens of Commonwealth countries with a long and sustained relationship built on geographical proximity, and we share a head of state, Queen Elizabeth II. Indigenous communities around the world—what Māori refer to as iwi taketake, or the long-established people—have similarities in terms of our relationships to our environments, and how our cultures are sustained by intergenerational connection. Despite a sense of solidarity in these shared values and the dubious honor of having experienced colonization, however, we reject a simplistic view of global Indigenous homogeneity. We are not the same and cannot speak for one another; what we can do is speak with adjacency.
This is something I consider when approached to write about an Indigenous culture that I don’t whakapapa—have a kin connection—to: I mustn’t oversimplify our similarities, nor overstate the closeness of our connections. Instead, I want to focus on what is most compelling to me about the Karrabing Film Collective’s work: the way they tell their histories, unashamedly from their own perspectives. They have what I would call mana motuhake in their approach, mana motuhake being self-determination of your future.
Karrabing’s most recent film, Day in the Life (2020), charts a day, presumably like many others, in which the authoritative hand of the government is a constant, shadowy presence over the community. The film comprises five satirically titled vignettes—“Breakfast,” “Play Break,” “Lunch Run,” “Cocktail Hour,” “Takeout Dinner”—illustrating the ways in which the community’s everyday lives are shaped by external influences and constraints, in the form of state agents policing their behavior or private mining companies stealing resources and polluting their lands. In the work, the perspectives of the Karrabing cast are always central, creating an empathetic viewing experience that flips mainstream assumptions about Aboriginal communities on their head.
The film’s dialogue is interspersed with a rap soundtrack composed by younger members of the collective and audio clips from radio and television programs—sourced predominantly from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation—repeating deficit statistics about Aboriginal communities. These samples mention community impoverishment, overcrowded housing, and, most tellingly, the amount of money provided by state and federal governments, illustrating how the mainstream media and Australian politicians perpetuate negative stereotypes about Aboriginal communities squandering government aid. The effects of one particularly damaging stereotype—that Aboriginal parents are unable to care for their children—are highlighted in the “Play Break” segment of Day in the Life: two women enjoying an idyllic afternoon playing outdoors with their kids are abruptly interrupted by the arrival of government authorities.
It is in these mothers’ fear that the effects of governmental oppression are felt most keenly. Fear accelerates their movements as they seek to hide the children. The segment reveals the double-edged sword of living under a government that provides significant welfare: it also determines what “good” parenting looks like and will enforce that model accordingly. When the authorities ultimately take one woman’s children, she morphs from close kin to pariah. The fear and stigma surrounding her make her repellent to others: will the events that befell her rub off on the community? This is a victory for colonization: Indigenous families turning on each other in order to protect themselves.
The mother’s fear is an inherited one, evident in a refrain repeated throughout the film: “We’re gonna do what our old people did, we’re gonna hide our kids.” This is one of many references Karrabing filmmakers make to the Stolen Generations, the thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families between roughly 1905 and the 1970s. The effects of these removals are everywhere in Karrabing films, regardless of whether they are explicitly mentioned. The consequences are seen in the dependence on welfare, the overcrowded housing, and the fear of government authorities. They are also evident in the quest to reclaim traditional knowledge and relationships to country. As Karrabing films increasingly circulate internationally, perhaps their focus on the social inequity experienced by Indigenous people will compel audiences around the world to examine how their own governments legislated the assimilation of “dying” Indigenous peoples into dominant settler power structures. After all, knowledge is a collective responsibility.
One Scene in Day in the Life follows a young man who wakes to find he is unable to cook breakfast and have a shower, as the utilities in his house have been cut off. As he walks from house to house along seemingly deserted streets, it becomes evident that other households are in the same impoverished predicament: pipes are blocked and the residents are waiting for assistance, or the electricity has gone out. A refrain from the accompanying rap soundtrack lodged itself squarely in my brain: “Forward to the bush, but where’s he going to go?” There is a popular belief, even among Indigenous people, that we know best how to live harmoniously, symbiotically, with the environment. Frankly, it’s a romanticized view. The reality is that as Indigenous individuals, we don’t inherently hold that knowledge. Because of colonization, which systematically removed Indigenous people from their lands and subsequently stripped them of their languages and cultures, we don’t all know how to survive on our own land. One of the most devastating pieces of legislation passed in Aotearoa was the Tohunga Suppression Act (1907), which outlawed Māori cultural and spiritual practices, dismantled our traditional wānanga teaching systems, and led to the eventual banning of our language in schools. As with the Stolen Generations in Australia, it is impossible to quantify how government interventions have contributed to shorter life expectancy, lower quality of life, and Māori overrepresentation in prisons. So, forward to the bush, but what’s he going to eat, and wear, and where’s he going to live?
My iwi (tribe) are bush people from the Te Urewera mountains, and many of my family members are hunters, a role that feels completely entwined with who we are as Māori. However, the animals that we hunt in the twenty-first century—wild pigs, deer, tahr—are all animals that were introduced by European settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There are no mammals (apart from bats) endemic to Aotearoa: native birds, which would have traditionally been hunted, are now protected species. Knowledge of edible flora, another traditional food source, has eroded due to violent disruptions to our cultural well-being such as land confiscations, postwar migration from tribal homelands into urban centers, and the convenience of the supermarket. Meticulous crafting of bird snares and spears has been eschewed in favor of guns. As is likewise seen in Karrabing films, displacement from land and the removal of younger generations also disrupts another foundation of Indigenous life: intergenerational living. If this way of life is interrupted, so too is the ability to pass knowledge down.
This predicament is portrayed in the “Takeout Dinner” segment of Day in the Life, wherein an elder is taking a younger family member on country to teach him the ways of the land when they are distracted by the discovery of a lithium extraction site. Both the elder and his protégé question how they’re meant to learn from and protect their land if it’s being dug up and poisoned by white people. As portrayed here, the health of the land and the health of the people are inextricably linked. But, as is often the case in Karrabing films, the rather depressing storylines in Day in the Life are saved when Indigenous people’s own stories and ways of life are asserted. In the film’s closing scene, the protagonists initiate a corroboree, creating a swirl of time in which the ills of the past are undone. Karrabing stories become powerful catalysts for survival itself.
One Karrabing film, Night Time Go (2017), addresses the past directly, posing as a documentary depicting an alternative history of Australia’s domestic experience of World War II. Combining archival newsreel footage with grainy, black-and-white reenactments staged by Karrabing members, the film narrates the wartime experiences of Karrabing ancestors who were forcibly relocated to inland internment camps in anticipation of an imminent Japanese invasion, lest their “simple minds” be manipulated by Axis influences to undermine the Australian government. The Karrabing ancestors escaped from the camp in September 1943 and returned to their homes on foot, a journey of more than two hundred miles. A title card at the beginning of the film states, “No record of their journey, or others like it, exists in the settler archive.”
This film is an intervention into what mandated truth looks like, speaking back to the settler government’s portrayal of official history. Researching the Katherine internment camp depicted in the film, I came across the following description on the government-run Northern Territory Tourism website: “The Mataranka Aboriginal Army Camp was established by late 1943 comprised of 350 Aboriginal workers who were supporting the war effort by working for the Army.”4 “Supporting the war effort” and “working for the Army” is an interpretation of events far different from the one portrayed in Night Time Go.
The government voice in the film, represented through archival clips, presents a picture of Australia that is pastoral and patriotic: the government is the benevolent patron of Aboriginal peoples, who are enjoying their “simple lifestyle . . . under the shelter of our great nation.” But Karrabing subverts this government archive, bringing historic photographs to life in reenactments. Settler histories have often ignored the fates of the people depicted in these images, but the film shows them as fully fledged individuals on a mission to re-chart their futures. In the process, Karrabing members also rewrite history, imagining an alternative course of events in which their ancestors not only escape the internment camp but expel the whitefulla from their lands on their journey home. At the end of Night Time Go, the “Karrabing Free Broadcast System” announces: “Australian North Falls. Army Retreats to Brisbane Line. Indigenous Peoples Celebrate Freedom.” Though the film borders on mockumentary, its satire isn’t done for the sake of humor. Rather, Karrabing’s re-creations elicit hope for what an alternative, mana motuhake, future would look like for Karrabing members and their families. It also illustrates that for Indigenous peoples living in settler states, participation in the World Wars meant turning attention to fighting external enemies at times when their own freedom was still under internal threat.
The Karrabing Film Collective has shown me that hope lives and dies on belief. For Indigenous peoples, this belief is tied to knowing our land, our kin, and our stories. To believe in ourselves is to unlearn much of what is told to us by the dominant media, and to escape all the tentacles of government that find their way into our schools and homes. The swirling circularity of history that Karrabing so deftly foregrounds in their work reminds us that our story has not yet ended.
1 “Growing up Karrabing: a conversation with Gavin Bianamu, Sheree Bianamu, Natasha Bigfoot Lewis, Ethan Jorrock and Elizabeth Povinelli,” UN Magazine, 2017, unprojects.org.au.
2 Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, email to the author, April 6, 2020.
3 Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, Durham, N.C., and London, Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 24–25.
4 “Katherine in WWII,” Northern Territory Tourism, northernterritory.com.
This article appears under the title “Survival Stories” in the May 2020 issue, pp. 50–53.