It’s very odd. All parties involved seemed to say that they are seeking a calm and rational debate about Bruce Pascoe’s amazingly popular 2011 book, but then they go throwing about out words like racist, fascist and ooga-booga. Pascoe himself described past responses from the likes of the Murdoch press and Peter Dutton’s reference of him to the AFP as a fraud as his “worst nightmare”, leaving him “feeling captive to Dark Emu” and causing his marriage to break up. Yet he persists in continuing the nightmare in a new film launched at the Sydney Film Festival – The Dark Emu Story – even sitting down with his heaviest academic critic, Peter Sutton and attempting to talk things out.

The trouble is that there are at least two debates going on.

There’s the ludicrous one from the Murdochs as to whether Pascoe is even Indigenous and whether he’s “the most successful conman of all time”. With a total book sales now well over 300,000, he’s certainly successful. This should have been left out of Gomeroi man Allan Clarke’s film.

But then there’s the more substantial debate that I covered when Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe’s book, ‘Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers’ came out last year.

Here we have the difference between those (not just Pascoe) who find the term ‘hunters & gatherers’ somehow offensive and redolent of savagery. And those who see the word ‘agriculture’ as an unnecessary Westernisation of the unique “light footprint” of cultivation that had been developed by the many nations of Australia.

Peter Sutton, an applied anthropologist with many years spent amongst those nations and the defence of 87 land rights claims in court to his credit, thinks that the “spiritual propagation” system applied by them is just what was needed for some of the harsher conditions of Australia, and it seems to have worked for 55,000 years. The spirituality came via increase ceremonies, though it’s possible that Alan Clarke’s picturing of Wik ceremony on Cape York didn’t fully reflect that case.

And those harsh conditions required many nations to live a nomadic existence – another term considered an insult by Pascoe – whose first hand experience has only been in the south.

I have to admit that Sutton’s pedantry in the film and earnest demeanour don’t help his case. Perhaps the film-makers didn’t want to assist him? But for Marcia Langton to get a cheap laugh (as she did at my screening) by dismissing him as “an ooga-booga anthropologist” wasn’t exactly a useful contribution to rational debate.

Stan Grant was rather more helpful in pointing out that “White Australians just don’t know us” which has made Dark Emu so valuable to them rather than to First Nations. And the negative vibes around hunter gathering were all about “proving that Aborigines didn’t deserve the land” that was being stolen from them. Mind you, he also bought into the personal debates about Pascoe – “Bruce identifies as Aboriginal, while I am Aboriginal”. Woh!

There was a final section to the film in far western Queensland amongst the Mithaka and their amazing quarrying of a possible 3 million grindstones for trade. This is the developing theory of archaeologist Michael Westaway and enthusiastically embraced as news by Pascoe. The sad thing is that First Nations have known all about trade in grindstones (and their ancient associations with the earliest bread-making in the world) for ever. The 2014 book and exhibition in the South Australian Museum ‘Ngintaka’ revealed the timeless Perentie Lizard Songline through 800 kms of desert in pursuit of the perfect grindstone. It’s replete with increase ceremonies and clear that it was always the man’s job to obtain the stone – by trade or even theft – while his partner did the grinding and baking.

So I’m afraid I still buy into the Sutton argument that Aborigines didn’t need all the limitations of ‘agriculture’ to maintain a perfectly satisfactory culture suited to living in Australia, which may yet be our salvation in a climate-crisis-ridden world. But I’m grateful to Pascoe, Sutton and Clarke for all contributing to a debate that we needed to have about the value that First Nations civilisation brings to Australia.

It looks as though The Dark Emu Story will turn up on ABC TV in time. Indeed, it’s now scheduled for tonight!

Meanwhile, it was really odd that the Documentary Australia Award at SFF went to the 24 minute slither called Marungka Tjalatjunu. I certainly didn’t watch all ten contenders, but this was just a nice little piece about a displaced gay Anangu called Derek Lynch, living an unpredictable life in Adelaide and returning to his APY community of Aputula for restorative comfort. We never found out why he’d left Aputula and only got a hint of reasons for his departure from Adelaide. Lynch was certainly welcomed home, even when clad in a gold lame dress, dancing to very untraditional music in the night. But resolution was there none.

The Festival in fact ran Matthew Thorne’s film in a double bill with the much more substantial Keeping Hope, featuring both a subject-matter – the Aboriginal suicide tsunami in The Kimberley – and a caring guide in the person of actor Mark Coles Smith, with a strong personal stake in the issue. Causes were sought, a variety of solutions tried out from Broome to Kununurra. A worthy effort by director Tyson Mowarin. Indeed, I might argue that this was a case for The Voice, bringing community experience directly to decision-makers. It’s worth watching when NITV shows it.

And Keeping Hope airs on NITV and SBS On Demand on Sunday 10 September.