By Mick Daley
“I wanna tell you a story about why this country means so much to us blackfellas and why it should mean something to you, too.”
Through a drone’s eye view of the spectacular Pilbara country of Western Australia, this is the introduction to the timely documentary Connection to Country, from filmmaker and multimedia innovator Tyson Mowarin.
It’s an upbeat and light-filled production that examines the physical and spiritual bond of Aboriginal people with their traditional lands. The stories and living histories that animate its rocks, rivers, plants and animals are indivisible from the skin groupings that determine proper human behaviour.
Partly narrated in Ngarluma language by Mowarin’s Aunty Jean Churnside, it’s a family affair also featuring his daughter Charlia and cousin Patrick Churnside, a Tjaabi (traditional song) performer. His simple message; “You got to learn to have a balance – look after the country and in return the country will look after you”, eloquently sums up an Aboriginal world view.
The film also tackles grim truths about the provenance of our ‘lucky country’. Mowarin, a Ngarluma man undertakes a forensic but heartfelt examination of the arid interface between white society’s economic demands and the traditional cultural beliefs of the most venerable society on earth. Measured optimism and impeccable cinematographic technique maintain a steady emotional temper that never tips into pathos.
Without rancour Mowarin addresses a malignant secret at the heart of Australia. The antiquity of Australian Aboriginal’s unbroken cultural heritage eclipses that of any other civilization. Yet in their own country they are treated as third class citizens.
He depicts the deliberate destruction of the artefacts of Aboriginal civilization by successive federal and West Australian governments hell-bent on facilitating the demands of mining companies.
In the Burrup Peninsula west of Roeburne we’re shown thousands of rock carvings of animal petroglyphs far older than the Egyptian pyramids. Many thousands more have been relentlessly destroyed by mining company Woodside.
Mowarin’s graphic history lessons demonstrate how the slaughter and exploitation of indigenous tribes throughout white settlement was matched only by the dismantling of their sacred artefacts.
The attempted closure of 150 Aboriginal communities by Tony Abbott’s Coalition Government in 2015 for what he sneeringly called ‘lifestyle choices’ is of a piece with the steady erosion of Indigenous rights. According to anthropologist Nic Green, owner of a most photogenic hat, there’s been a‘whittling down of cultural heritage values’ to make an easier path for approvals for mining.
The Department of Aboriginal Affairs is notorious for deregistering heritage sites overnight, as Mowarin discovers when he talks to gnarled Aboriginal cattle man Ricky Smith, who shows him the location of registered site 7092, a ceremonial man made structure that’s been destroyed by local Shire council workers.
Greg McIntyre SC, a native title barrister observes that the WA government gives ministers the discretion to destroy sites of extreme significance. He also notes that Aboriginal heritage sites are designated less significance than a Perth sewage pipe from 1910.
There are vibrant scenes forecasting a dynamic future, such as the 2014 revival of the Yule River Bush meetings, rallying points for tribes-people who have been amongst the most politically active in Australia. The interaction between countrywomen and Indigenous man Ben Wyatt, WA’s newly elected Treasurer and Minister for Finance, Energy and Aboriginal Affairs in Perth is a showstopper from a wily filmmaker.
A buoyant soundtrack by David Bridie, with contributions by Indigenous musicians such as Steven Pigram in no way diminishes the film’s sobering message. Rather it depicts the courage and optimism of Aboriginal people who have after all, survived over 50,000 years of adversity
While the plundering of WA’s traditional lands continues apace – the last Coalition government removed over 1300 Aboriginal Heritage sites by stealth – the overall sense of Connection to Country is that the spirit of the land is living and breathing still.
Cattlemen Reg Sambo and Ricky Smith, artist Allery Sandy and Tjaabi singer Patrick Churnside demonstrate that spiritually and physically it remains an essential part of the identity of Aboriginal people.
Finally, through the agency of his daughter Charlia’s budding interest in filmmaking, Mowarin reminds us that the future of Aboriginal people and indeed that of Australia lies in properly educating children to take on the responsibilities of looking after our country, so that it can look after us.
Most Australians would consider Mowarin’s hometown of Roeburne to be impossibly remote. Yet it’s the centerpiece and focal point of a one-man cultural industry that has generated a stunning array of multi-media productions.
Mowarin’s made a Welcome to Country app, a card game based on Indigenous skin groups (Who’s Your Mob?) and an album of songs in five indigenous languages. He’s also filmed and produced fifteen documentaries about the people of the Pilbara region.
Mick Daley is a Sydney-based writer recently published in The Saturday Paper, Sun Herald and Fifth Estate. He specialises in environmental writing and having just returned from Frontline Action on Coal's blockade camp expressly designed to deter the Adani mine and coal port, he is pretty fired up about it.
Connection to Country is screening at Environmental Film Festival Australia 2017 on Saturday, October 14, 2017, where director Tyson Mowarin is a guest of the festival. This screening will be followed by a panel discussion.