What memories this conjures! “The Gwyon Gwyon, huge spirits from the Kimberley Ranges hover. As the clans unite, they birth a giant Wandjina – ancestral creation spirit and lawmaker. With a roar of thunder, the Wandjina flings a lightning bolt to ignite bushfire that will regenerate the land”.
That, lest you’ve forgotten, was the plot for ‘Awakening’, the section of the Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony in 2000 when Donny Woolagoodgja’s vast, 35 metre image of the boss Wandijna Namarali rose from the ground and stunned the live and TV audience of about 3 billion with the ancient power of Aboriginal ceremony. Donny also painted the Gwyon images.
Intriguingly, the event, initiated by Stephen Page and Rhoda Roberts, also reignited culture for the Dambimangari clan, lead by the late Mr Woolagoodja. As was appropriate, back home he’d consulted with his Worrorra mob before permission could be granted to expose Namarali. But everyone was excited for Namarali. They said it was about time he should show himself to the world. And the recent documentary film, ‘Namarali’ suggests that the prominence given to their sacred image in the Olympics gave Woolagoodja the courage to take his clan from Mowanjum, their government-created community outside Derby, back up the coast to the cave where the core ancestral figure in their mythology rests on the roof. It even allowed Donny to take on the traditional ‘refreshing’ of the painted image, despite not being “the right person”.
We don’t discover why he’s wrong, but his father had done it before him, and that too was recorded in the 1972 film, ‘Lalai’, the Kimberley name for the Dreaming.
We also don’t discover why this important event, which seems to have taken place in 2002 has taken 21 years to get to our screens. It could be because the film-maker involved – Tim Mummery – is really a busy cintematographer who fell for the story in 2000 and became distracted by other work after filming the key visit. His other projects include working for another Kimberley mob – the Wunambal Gaambera people – to promote a return to Country further north. Or could he have wanted to wait until after Woolagoodja’s death, which occurred only last month, aged 75?
For the new documentary is very much a visual feast, but misses out on much anthropological commentary. For instance, the beach, where the large multi-generational party arrives to follow the trail of rocks – representing Namarali’s blood – to the cave, is a fascinating rock-scape itself. We’re told that the mass of black protuberances represent other Wandjinas who died during the Battle of Langii. But why would such such spiritual power figures need to fight a battle on earth?
I speculate that the answer is that these Wandjinas were representatives of the people forced off the Arafura Plains by rising sea-levels as the last Ice Age ended c10,000 years ago. They would not have been welcomed by the then-residents of The Kimberley, with their powerful Gwion-Gwion culture. Battles are certainly pictured on Kimberley rock-shelter walls elsewhere, and, it seems, on Langii Beach.
Namarali himself was wounded – though the film offers two different explanations as to why. Did he consort with the wrong woman??? Who’d have that mighty Wandjinas can be constrained by such rules? But the volcanic trail leads true to the cave, which has remarkable similarities to Arnhemland’s Gabarnmang rock shelter, looking as though it might have been man-made. We join the preparations necessary before accessing it – cries explaining the visit; painting up for everyone, from tiny kids to Woolagoodja himself; and the remarkable concession of allowing women into the cave, “because of changing times”.
But then, the piece de resistance, Namarali’s fading image, untouched since 1972, now tackled by Woolagoodja with his ochres on a brush, where his father used his fingers. A final mouth-shower of white ochre for the Wandjina’s face. And at the end, such joy on the artist’s face as he quietly proclaims, “It’s done”.
So far, ‘Namarali’ has been seen at specialist festivals in Perth and Sydney, and will be seen next Thursday at the Fremantle Design Week Film Festival. But so far I haven’t been able to track down other screenings.