THOMSON OF ARNHEM LAND Caledon Bay, 1935 From the Thomson Collection, Museum Victoria. CREDIT LIST The Thomson Collection is one of the most significant ethnographic collections in the world. It contains over 10,000 photographs and 7,000 artefacts and is held by Museum Victoria in Melbourne. Director JOHN MOORE Writer MICHAEL CUMMINS Producers MICHAEL McMAHON JOHN MOORE Narrator ANNI FINSTERER Thomson's Voice ROBERT MENZIES Elkin's Voice PETER BAIN-HOGG Editor ANDREA LANG Director of Photography KEVIN ANDERSON A.C.S Additional Camera JENNY MEANEY Composer DAVID BRIDIE Sound Recordist MARTIN KEIR Production Manager MICHAEL CUMMINS Script Editor STEVE THOMAS Camera Assistants BRIAN GUMBALA TERRY CHADWICK Producer's Attachment MARTIN THIELE Production Accountant MONIKA GEHRT Production Lawyers LOGIE SMITH LANYON Archival Researcher MARTIN THIELE Transcriptions ANNE-MARIE ALLAN Translations GARY DHURKAY Map Design WAIN FIMERI On-Line Editor SONIA COOK Titles TIM PARRINGTON Sound Editor TRISTAN MEREDITH DALE CORNELIUS Sound Mixer PETER WALKER SOUNDWAVES Post Production COMPLETE POST FILM AUSTRALIA PRODUCTION UNIT Business Affairs Manager PATRICIA L'LHUEDE Production Liaison HARRY REE Production Accountants FIONA WHITE MELANIE WEEKS Programs Promotion Manager SUSAN WILSON Executive Producer's Assistants TINA VALENTINE KYLIE SMITH ARCHIVAL SOURCES The Thomson Family Museum Victoria - Donald Thomson Collection ScreenSound Australia Australian Broadcasting Corporation Film Australia Footage Library Film World The Levy Family The Evatt Family The Woodbury Family Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies The Wilson Collection The High Court of Australia The Age Newspaper The Sun Herald Collection The National Library of Victoria The Sydney Morning Herald The Argus Sydney University Archive Australian Broadcasting Corporation Footage Sales SPECIAL THANKS TO: Dorita Thomson, Jimmy Burinyilla, Howard Morphy & Nicolas Peterson The Yolngu People of Arnhem Land The Thomson Family Museum Victoria Melbourne University Laynhapuy Homelands School Laynhapuy Homelands Resource Centre Arnhem Land Historical Society Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre Oceania Publications Qantas THANKS TO: Sascha & Jane Trikojus, Lesley Garton, Jenny Djerkura, Gatjil Djerkura, Bain Attwood Sharon Connolly, Ian Dunlop, Pip Deveson Marcia Langton, Steve Warne, Tina Valentine Lindy Allen, Melanie Raberts & Rosemary Wrench Ray Marginson and the Thomson Committee Jonetani Rika, Steve Baldwin, Sally Wagg Ningali Lawford, Jane Bayley, Kay Hart, Tony Ayres Gawirrin Gumana, Manman Wirrpanda, Wakuthi Marawili Will Stubbs, Andrew Blake, Dula Nurruwuthun, Ted Egan, Mickey Dewar, Debra Kroon, Gerry Blitner Helen Tully, Zsuzsi Szucs, Des Cowley, Mary Lewis Lex Howard, Kaye Nichols, Tony Arthur, Leon White Sophie Cieciwa, Ben Baker, Lauren Gannon & Trish Boland Nalwarri Nggurruwuthtt, Ngalwurr Munungurr Tony Wright, Nubar Ghazarian & Marsha Emerman A FILM AUSTRALIA NATIONAL INTEREST PROGRAM in association with JOHN MOORE PRODUCTIONS PTY LTD PRODUCED WITH THE ASSISTANCE OF THE AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION Commissioning Editor Documentaries GEOFF BARNES DEVELOPED WITH THE ASSISTANCE OF MUSEUM VICTORIA DEVELOPED AND PRODUCED WITH THE ASSISTANCE OF FILM VICTORIA, A DIVISION OF CINEMEDIA PRODUCER'S ATTACHMENT SUPPORTED BY FILM VICTORIA Executive Producer FRANCO DI CHIERA FILM AUSTRALIA LTD 2000 Synopsis In 1933, a state of panic erupted in Darwin after five Japanese fishermen and three white men were killed by Aboriginal clansmen on the east coast of Arnhem Land. Donald Thomson, a young anthropologist working in the field, was appalled by calls for a punitive expedition. Thomson suspected the Aboriginal men were resisting invasions of their land and had acted in self defence. At the same time, he was aware that the official policy of "protection" of Aborigines had failed. He volunteered to go to Arnhem Land to try to prevent the race war that people feared. He also proposed to make a scientific study of Yolngu culture as the basis for new policies that would finally bring justice to Aboriginal people. After a long journey through harsh terrain, Thomson met Wonggu, a Yolngu elder, clan leader and father of three of the men jailed for killing the Japanese. Wonggu gave Thomson a message stick to take back to the government agreeing to keep the peace in his country. In turn, Thomson successfully negotiated the release of Wonggu's sons. For the next two years, Thomson lived with the Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land, learning their languages and documenting their culture. Thomson was accompanied on his journeys by Raiwalla, a Mildjingi man who remained a loyal friend and companion for many years. Thomson delivered his report to the Federal government in 1937. He focused on the importance of Aboriginal relationships to the land, their complex social, cultural and economic structures. He also argued for specific policies to regulate the impact of white culture and ensure the survival of a unique yet fragile civilization. The assimilationist lobby, led by Sydney University anthropologist Professor AP Elkin, outmanoeuvred Thomson by gaining the ear of key government ministers. The report was ignored. With the outbreak of World War Two, Thomson joined again with Wonggu and his sons. Ironically, this time it was to form a special Aboriginal Reconnaissance Unit to protect Australia's north coast against invasion from the Japanese. After the war, Thomson began to lobby the then leader of the opposition, Robert Menzies. Although Menzies expressed support, he changed tack after winning the Federal election in 1949 and completely embraced the policy of assimilation. Thomson was devastated; he felt that the Aboriginal people had been sacrificed on the altar of political pragmatism. Although Thomson became more and more isolated from the anthropological establishment, he continued his fight for Aboriginal rights until he died in 1970. His ashes were scattered over the waters of eastern Arnhem Land by Wonggu's sons. Today, his extraordinary photographs, field notes and artefacts are housed at Museum Victoria and are considered one of the most significant ethnographic collections in the world. Production Story As the painful consequences of Australia’s assimilation policy become increasingly recognised, the motivation and circumstances surrounding its introduction remain obscure. Thomson of Arnhem Land provides an insight into the personality clashes and political manoeuvring that led to its introduction in 1938. Many of the issues that informed the debate are still being fought over today. The idea for the documentary originated when the producer/director John Moore was visiting friends Jane and Sasha Trikojus who had lived in Alice Springs in the mid eighties. "I had just returned from a holiday in Central Australia somewhat overcome by the experience and I was looking for project ideas. Jane said, “ you should read this book it's incredible." Jane explained that Donald Thomson was a famous anthropologist who had lived just up the road from them in Eltham. He had done amazing things in Arnhem Land and no one had ever heard of him. Moore remembers, “When I first read Nicolas Peterson's book, Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land , I was struck by the quality of the relationship that Thomson had with the Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land. His efforts to understand Aboriginal culture from within, through immersing himself in their lifestyle, had given him a unique insight into their value systems and view of the world.” Thomson with Wonggu and Family, July 1935 As Thomson died in 1970 the first move was to make contact with his wife Dorita Thomson who immediately made her knowledge and extensive collection of historical material available to the project. Moore recalls, “I was knocked out by the extent of the material available. There were thousands of photographs, the two films he had shot in Central Australia and literally hundreds of newspaper articles. Quite apart from his career as an anthropologist, he was a highly skilled journalist." Moore then approached Tasmanian script writer Michael Cummins who quickly read Peterson’s book, largely a compilation of Thomson’s journal writing. “ I was impressed with Thomson’s courage and the poetry of his writing”, says Michael. I felt strongly that his words should be used to drive the narrative of the film.” In late 1998 both Film Victoria and Museum Victoria agreed to support the development of the script. The Museum allowed full access to Thomson’s vast and impressive collection of Aboriginal artefacts and photographs. In November 1998 Moore and Cummins flew to Arnhem Land to begin the research with the Aboriginal people who were central to this story. Cummins continues, “As was expected this initial contact was slow in developing. The Aboriginal people did not know us and we needed time to develop some mutual trust. But by the time we left to go back to Melbourne the ground work had been laid for a positive on-going relationship with the Arnhem Landers.” Wonggu and sons, Caledon Bay, July 1935 While it was immediately apparent that the Yolngu had enormous respect for Thomson and everyone including young children knew who he was, it was equally apparent that he was virtually unknown in the white world. Apart from Dorita others were approached to help explain this. These included Nicholas Peterson (anthropologist and author of DonaldThomson In Arnhem Land); Howard Morphy (anthropologist and regular visitor to Arnhem Land); John Mulvaney (historian and former Thomson student); and Tigger Wise (biographer of Thomson’s nemesis, A.P. Elkin). A picture emerged of a brilliant yet difficult man whose work seemed to dry up after the war. As Moore discovered, “The reason for Thomson's lack of academic output and loss of political influence can be traced to his conflict with his great rival and the architect of assimilation, A.P. Elkin. This battle for influence over Australia's policy on ‘native affairs’ was to have far- reaching and quite damaging consequences for Aboriginal people and for the country as a whole. It was a major turning point in the development process when we discovered this conflict. I'm not sure that Thomson was aware just how extensively Elkin undermined his credibility.” It was Thomson’s courage and commitment that then drew co-producer Michael McMahon as well as Film Australia’s Executive Producer, Franco Di Chiera to this story. For Di Chiera this was an opportunity under Film Australia’s National Interest Program to explore a key issue, “What if Thomson had been listened to? Perhaps the story of Australia and reconciliation may have been much different.” Di Chiera also recognised the power of this film. “It is an Aboriginal story from a white point of view that will enable Australian television audiences to appreciate Aboriginal culture through a white man who understood it.” As part of his brief to bring peace to Arnhem Land, Thomson had developed a close relationship with Wonggu, the head of the Djapu clan. Wonggu gave Thomson a message stick to take to the Commonwealth Government. The message said that he would keep the peace and ensure there were no more killings. In return he asked that the Government release his three sons and respect Yolngu culture. Wonggu kept his part of the bargain and Thomson was able to secure the release of Wonggu’ s sons. In April of 1999 the film’s development team learnt that the message stick which had been with the Thomson family for sixty-four years was to be returned to Wonggu's descendants. A ceremony was being organised to acknowledge the significance of the agreement between Thomson and Wonggu. Although the script wasn't finished and the ABC was yet to offer a pre-sale, Film Australia bravely provided the resources to film the ceremony. It was a major event involving the Governor- General, Sir William Deane, Dorita Thomson and the then chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Gatjil Djerkura, who is one of Wonggu's grandsons. In the words of Cummins, “This second trip to Arnhem Land was even more successful than the first. The Yolngu understood more clearly our reasons for being there and wanting to tell this story. The reticence of the first trip was now replaced with a great generosity of spirit.” From then things had to move fairly quickly. After further research and script writing in Melbourne, it was almost October and the wet season was fast approaching. If the people of the remote communities were to be involved, the crew needed to be up there and filming by December at the latest. A crucial decision made in pre-production was to employ Djangirrawuy Garawirrtja (Djangi) as a camera assistant. Djangi not only performed this role with distinction but he also acted as location manager, forward scout, translator and community liaison person, not to mention resident comedian and musician. Djangi felt that his job was made easier because everyone in Arnhem Land knows the Donald Thomson story and wants to talk about it. “ Some of our old people remember him personally and they always speak very fondly of him. Us younger ones have had the story passed down to us many times over, ‘til we know it backwards,” explained Djangi. Arnhem Land was hot and sticky but thankfully, mostly dry. What struck the crew more than anything as they travelled across Arnhem Land in air- conditioned (usually) four wheel drives were the conditions that Donald Thomson himself experienced during his two years there. Thomson travelled by foot, without any of the comforts the crew enjoyed and his courage and commitment were clear to everyone. Moore points out, “The Aboriginal people demonstrated their respect for Thomson by giving us their time and their stories. When we left three weeks later it was with deep admiration for their way of life and culture. Our time there reflected what happened to Thomson…and helped us to understand why he tried so hard for so long to convince the Government to reject assimilation in favour of policies based on self determination.” Wonggu and clan receive machine gun training 1942. In Darwin, the crew spent time filming at Fannie Bay Gaol where the three sons of Wonggu were imprisoned for killing five Japanese fishermen in 1933. Again the link between the Aboriginals in the justice system of the 1930s and issues swirling around the current reconciliation debate was brought home to them. With shooting completed, one last problem remained – how to accurately translate the Yolngu dialect? Following the advice of the Yolngu themselves, North Melbourne footballer Gary Dhurkay was asked to do the job. For him it was an opportunity “to make real contact with friends and family…like a free trip back home”. Telling the story of Thomson’s work and the making of the film itself are small but positive steps along the often painful road to reconciliation. Its importance is reflected by John Moore. “Australia's relationship with Aboriginal people is one of the major issues of our time and it will remain so until true reconciliation can occur. Donald Thomson's story is an important part of understanding our history and has the potential to influence our future”. Indeed the final scene of the film which acknowledges the scattering of Thomson's ashes over Caledon Bay by two of Wonggu's sons is a powerful symbol of reconciliation and suggests what is possible given mutual respect and understanding on the part of both black and white Australians. Biographies John Moore – PRODUCER/DIRECTOR John Moore is a Melbourne-based film producer. He developed an interest in film-making while working as Theatre Manager at the Pram Factory theatre in the late seventies. During the eighties he worked as a freelance film-maker until 1987 when he became the producer at Open Channel and later the Executive Director. During this period he produced or executive produced over twenty documentaries for television. These included the 1991 AFI Award winning Guns & Roses, a 30-minute documentary funded by Film Victoria which explored the causes of domestic murder, and the multi-award winning Black Man's Houses about the struggle for survival of the Tasmanian Aborigines. John left Open Channel in 1996 and has since produced Final Insult, a documentary about multiple chemical sensitivity for the ABC and The Astonishing Ashtons, about life on the road with Australia's oldest circus for SBS. Thomson of Arnhem Land is the first documentary John has directed since Radhaz in 1986. Michael McMahon – PRODUCER Michael McMahon is a Melbourne based film producer, arts management consultant and lawyer. He was Director of the Arts Law Centre of Australia from 1989 to 1993, and Director of the National Indigenous Arts Advocacy Association from 1993 to 1995. He is on the board of a number of arts and cultural organisations. In 1988 he co-produced Cruel Youth, a 30-minute drama funded by the Film Victoria Independent Film Fund. Since 1991, Michael has been a company director of the film production company, Big and Little Films Pty Ltd. He has produced Mrs Craddock’s Complaint (1997) a 12-minute drama for the ABC- TV series ‘Shortwaves’ and the recently completed documentary Sadness (1999) for Film Australia and SBS-TV. Currently he is co-producing Lowlife, a feature film written and directed by Tony Ayres.
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