The pioneering visual anthropologist Eric Michaels once said
I got into media studies, as an anthropologist, because I believed the media were the belly of the beast, and because I thought TV was central to the creation of the extraordinary contradictions that plagued the contemporary world.
I remember this quote as members of PAW Media and I drove out of Yuendumu for a day of filming out bush. The backdrop of
cloudless sky hints at infinity as we clamber to set up tri-pods and boom mics. Dramatic color contrasts infuse the scene: blue on red, green on blue, red on green. This is not your typical film set; then again, this is not your typical film.
If this is the belly of the beast, I think, it’s a beautiful place to be.
The Aboriginal people of Central Australia are no strangers to bringing stories their country to the screen. It is here in Yuendumu, according to the late Eric Michaels, that Frances Jupurrula “made” Aboriginal community TV – invented it, really – back in 1985.
“I can’t help thinking it’s a bit romantic,” a woman says to me, “to have a Texan here during the 30th year anniversary.”
Eric completed his PhD in Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin before taking a research position at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1982 to study the effects of satellite TV on remote aboriginal communities. Eric is long gone, but his legacy and friendship live on with members of the community. Small traces of him dot the office, unseen: personal correspondence in the archives, an occasional, perhaps unintentional, appearance in old videos. If you weren’t looking, you might even miss a a small bronze plaque on the windowsill by the water cooler, which reads:
Eric Japanangka Michaels
Died in 1988
A friend who gave so much
The Warlpiri were already making film before Michaels arrived, but his focus and writings certainly helped garner wider attention on and support for their efforts. What became Warlpiri Media was an outgrowth of the efforts of a handful of local Aboriginal peoples to tell their stories, their way. That organization, is now trading as PAW Media and Communications, has become an Aboriginal media organization known nationally for its innovative approaches to music, radio and film, for the Bush Mechanics series and for its latest documentary, Coniston. They operates a radio network across 14 communities, a semi-professional music studio, maintain radio and transmission facilities in the Tanami area, and undertake community video production as well as feature documentaries. Their animation work is truly some of the best I’ve seen, hands down (See Jack and Jones, Karnanganja, and Whale Song). Yuendumu, the remote Aboriginal town where they’re headquartered, is 293 kilometers northwest from Alice Springs.
PAW is one of the first, and in my opinion most important, remote indigenous media organizations in Australia, and their work continually inspires important debate on aesthetics, content control, and media policy for the whole country. That they have thrived through three decades of a shifting media landscape is a testament to something in the way they operate. And I guess I’m here to find out what that is.
My first trip out bush we set up cameras to capture Curtis, a Warlpiri man and local radio celebrity of sorts, telling his version of the emu Jukurrpa, a central dreaming to this country. PAW Media recently received funding to make an interactive DVD that incorporates place-based 3D story-telling to guide viewers through the Emu Jukurrpa that runs through Warlpiri country. Much of their content production now focuses on rendering traditional stories in new formats, whether animation, film, or interactive video.
Out bush, one suffers the relentless buzzing of flies that make a home of your face, hair, and clothing. But it is winter here in Central Australia, and almost cold, and the flies had retreated. The giant outcropping – the site of the Dreaming – announced its bold presence on an otherwise flat landscape. It’s no wonder this is an important emu dreaming spot; giant egg-like boulders scattered the area like a nesting ground for geology.
Curtis immediately took to this American woman. He gave me a skin name that rendered me his first choice for marriage within the Warlpiri kinship structure. I think he was just eager to have a a fresh face and new receptive audience to tell the story to, which he did five times – before we even got the cameras rolling.
Positioned around the fire, the PAW crew filmed Curtis as I asked him questions in English and he responded in language. “This is my country, an important one,” he said as he delivered a dramatic retelling of the emu and bush turkey who quarreled nearby. “It’s an important dreaming, this one.”
We brought along two kangaroo tails, which we’d purchased frozen from Yuendumu’s “Big Shop” before we left town. Jonathan of PAW had set to work rotating the tail over the fire, scraping off the charred hair with a stick. By the time shooting wrapped up, the kangaroo tail – the fattest part of the animal and a coveted local delicacy – was ready to eat. Cooked kangaroo meat pales in comparison to other local dishes I’ve eaten throughout the year, so I had no problem digging in. The smell of seared hair tainted the taste, and besides from being really sinewy, it’s not too bad.
As with other remote indigenous media organizations with which I’ve collaborated, sitting an office all day just feels like a means to an end: to return to story-telling on the land. So I’m a bit disappointed when the shooting ends, we pack up the “troupie” and head back to Yuendumu. However, my time volunteering with PAW is filled with interesting questions and research projects: how can PAW digitize its archive and present it in a way that is consistent with local knowledge management norms? How can community TV survive Australia’s national digital switchover? How can we develop sustainable business models for local media organizations while boosting community content and encouraging new Aboriginal producers?
For musings on these questions and more, stay tuned.