Film Australia Production Unit by gOdfYAt



              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
        Post Production       COMPLETE POST

      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

                         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

            in association with

    Commissioning Editor Documentaries
             GEOFF BARNES




                Executive Producer
               FRANCO DI CHIERA

             FILM AUSTRALIA LTD 2000

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

   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

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

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

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


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.

To top