Two ambivalent lives long spent in the Indigenous sphere came to an end this month. One made indispensable ethnographic films that became politically unfashionable at his peak; the other lived and worked in the deserts, denying that ‘assimilation’ (which he always put in quotation marks) was the functioning policy at the sharp end of the business.

Internationally renowned Australian documentary filmmaker Ian Dunlop OAM has passed away at the age of 94. Ian received the National Film and Sound Archive Award for Film Preservation in 2009 in acknowledgement of his major contribution to the preservation of films of Australian Indigenous communities through his own work and his preservation and protection of the work of others.

Ian Dunlop began making films at the Commonwealth Film Unit in the late 1950s. Up to this time, the Commonwealth Film Unit had used images of Aborigines as curiosities in newsreels and as examples of the splendours of the Australian bush. Ian Dunlop changed all that. He first saw and filmed Aborigines whilst making a documentary about the remote desert weather station at Giles in Western Australia, and was inspired to make the film study of Indigenous Australians his life’s work.

Pressures fuelled by pastoral development and military needs, and the extension of bureaucratic control over formerly remote areas, saw round-ups of Aboriginal people and their removal from their lands to government camps and settlements such as Papunya and Yuendumu. Dunlop came back from the Giles trip and arranged to return in 1962 to make ethnographic films. He took two newly-arrived families from a government ‘settlement’ back to their country and they showed him various aspects of their life in the desert. This resulted in the publication of a long (19-part) series of films made over the next six years entitled ‘People of the Australian Western Desert’.

In 1967 Dunlop edited three parts of the series into a cinema release called ‘Desert People’. This film didn’t go on to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, as many have claimed. But it was screened all over the world, especially at Florence’s Festival dei Popoli, which may have been confused with Venice, and for many people the images in it became their defining images of Aboriginal Australians.

Few realise that, for the subjects of the films, it was only a brief return to their country for the purposes of filmmaking. Minma and his family were ultimately obliged to return to the government settlement.

Later in his career, Dunlop concentrated his filming at Yirrkala in Arnhemland and formed a close, collaborative relationship with the great painter, Narritjin Maymuru. Unfortunately, this type of complex, extended ethnographic filmmaking project was too costly to fund and maintain and also became too difficult to defend politically in the face of the growing noisy debate regarding the politics of representation that arose following the Whitlam Government’s election in 1972. Both the AIAS (later AIATSIS) and Commonwealth Film Unit (later Film Australia) ceased to make ethnographic films by about 1985.

Tristan Cole, General Manager of Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, the Martu cultural support organisation, however, writes:
‘It is with great sadness we have heard about the passing of Ian Dunlop. In 1965 Ian travelled to a harsh and inhospitable part of the Western Desert to film a group of nomadic Martu Indigenous people who were still living on their own land, as they had done for millennia. The series of films known as ‘People of the Australian Western Desert’ record everyday Martu life and have become an important record of traditional life. They are watched regularly by members of the Martu community. The films provide an important link for younger Martu to traditional knowledge, practices and culture.

In Arnhemland, where Dunlop’s career climaxed, the ‘Djungguwan’ is an initiation ceremony of the Rirratjingu and Marrakula clans that takes on the character of a grand opera. It teaches young boys about discipline, law and respect for Yolngu traditions. A ceremony of transition, teaching and remembering, it can take weeks to stage and perform. And it has a unique place in Australian cinematic history; it’s been filmed in its entirety on four separate occasions.

Ian Dunlop filmed the ceremony in 1976 with the great Director of Photography, Dean Semler, who would go on to make international feature films from ‘Mad Max‘ to ‘Dances with Wolves‘.

Dunlop would go on to build his ‘Yirrkala Film Project‘ with the Yolngu, filmed between 1970 and 1982; 22 films running for 1,271 minutes. Ian’s films are a priceless record of the oldest continuous culture on Earth, but for the Yolngu they are also home movies in which parents, grandparents and extended clan members are lovingly remembered, immortalised on film performing one of their most important sacred rituals.

Oddly, the other loss to the community of First Nations this month was Jeremy Long, 89, who would differ strongly from Dunlop regarding the ‘coming in’ of remote Aboriginal tribes. For this man who was a cadet Patrol Officer in 1957, was superintedant of the Haasts Bluff community in 1958, and would be responsible for policy and practice between Papunya and the Canning Stock Route in WA until 1975. On a 1962 trip into the Western Desert, he concluded: “It seemed evident that most, if not all, of these people intended to move in to Papunya. It was apparent that ‘there [were] not enough people left in the desert for the social system to function effectively: young men cannot be initiated and young women cannot find appropriate husbands’”.

He went on to explain: “The decisions to leave traditional country which the Pintupi in the Petermann Ranges took were consistent with a tradition of opportunist exploitation of resources when and where they appeared. It was not a helpless ‘drift’ but a series of highly motivated and purposeful moves: as one emigrant from the Petermanns has put it, ‘we were like perishing bullocks rushing to a waterhole’. If their migrations meant that they abandoned, for a time at least, the care and use of the land they knew best, they also allowed them to re-establish links with their relatives and to establish new ties to many more people, and this maintenance and extension of personal and ritual links was also a strong tradition.

“The pull of the homelands remained strong and for some of the emigrants the hope of being able to arrange to return sustained them during decades of voluntary exile and motivates their continuing efforts to win government support for the further development of services in those homelands”.

Jeremy Long was involved in facilitating AIATSIS films in the deserts made by Roger Sandall, choosing the location for the ceremony that forms the basis of ‘Pintubi Revisit Yumari‘ (1970). He also worked with Ned Lander, and when the popular 1992 film,’Benny and the Dreamers‘ was made in which Benny Tjapaltjarri, Mick Namarari, Freddy West Tjakamarra and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa discuss the Dreaming and the ongoing importance of tjukurrpa, the Pintupi elders insisted that Jeremy Long feature as well.

Much of Long’s experience went into the 2007 exhibition, ‘Colliding Worlds’, subtitled ‘First Contact in the Western Desert 1932-1984’ and seen in Adelaide and Melbourne.

Coincidentally, in an AIATSIS report, ‘Daily life, portraits and food gathering and preparation from the Western Desert‘, Ian Dunlop photographed Jeremy Long.

And in another coincidence, one might argue that the differences between the two men regarding the ‘coming in’ of Aborigines from the deserts is not unrelated to the debate between Bruce Pascoe and Peter Sutton over ‘Dark Emu’. Jeremy Long asserts agency by the Pintupi and others, and the loss of critical mass in the desert; while Ian Dunlop believes that government policies (implemented by Long) gave Aborigines no choice about leaving their Country for settlements like Papunya, Haasts Bluff and Mt Leibig.



Artist: Narritjin Maymuru, Benny Tjapaltjarri, Mick Namarari, Freddy West Tjakamarra, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa,

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Tags: 'Colliding Worlds' , AIATSIS , assimilation , Benny Tjapaltjarri , Bruce Pascoe , Desert People , freddy west tjakamarra , Ian Dunlop , Jeremy Eccles , Jeremy Long , mick namarari , Narritjin Maymuru , National Film and Sound Archive , Peter Sutton , ronnie tjampitjinpa ,