An intriguing short documentary about indigenous colonisation and the clash of civilisations, shown through the lens of manganese mining on Groote Eylandt island in the 1960s. Situated in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory, the BHP mine employs local aboriginal people to work alongside Europeans and there is extensive footage of indigenous workers operating large mining equipment, which is said to represent great prestige in the community.
The film is beautifully shot by Keith Gow, formerly a member of the Maritime Union of Australia Film Unit. With a strong anthropological approach, the film creatively juxtaposes images of mining and western modernity with traditional imagery of the Dreamtime and aboriginal culture. The incongruity of mining and traditional culture is often expressed through the intercutting of mining operations and the destruction of habitat, as bulldozers symbolically flatten forests and the old ways of living, much to the lament of older indigenous people.
As to be expected for the time, the film earnestly frames Christianity as a force for positivity on the island, regulating the social contract and aiding in social integration. There is extensive footage of indigenous community members attending church, where a European preacher delivers a sermon in the local aboriginal language. While these scenes are uncomfortably colonist by today’s standards, the film does reflect on the uneasy relationship between western religion and tribal beliefs. The film also acknowledges how outsiders come to the island without making an effort to understand tribal laws and ceremonies, which is described by indigenous voices as unhelpful, especially since they are learning the ways of the white man.
Aboriginal children are seen attending school and playing with toy transportation and mining equipment. Over footage of new homes built by the government, a European woman acknowledges the difficulty Aboriginal women have had adjusting to these homes and western lifestyles. Aboriginal workers are seen being trained, while elders lament how the young are not interested in the tribal ways. While the aboriginal workers earn the same pay as their European counterparts, local Europeans lament how indigenous workers spend everything they make on incidentals and their tribal relations. Some indigenous workers walk out from their employment in the mine because it’s perceived as hard and then they are unemployed and turn to gambling. The film concludes on a positive note of social integration, as an indigenous voice over declares that the indigenous workers are happy that BHP came to the island, since they are equals who work together, live together and go to the club together. The film employs a lively indigenous soundtrack throughout that works well to seamlessly integrate the juxtaposition of opposing imagery.
A Commonwealth Film Unit Production for the Department of the Interior.
Author: J Bird, 2023