“Muruba” is a short documentary film aimed to popularize indigenous knowledge. It has been shot with a purpose to be screened on IPBES stakeholders meetings and to provide the organization with material on one of the direction of their work. In our case, it is promotion of the engagement with traditional owners.
The documentary is named after a Kuku Nyungkal word that means togetherness. This word perfectly describes the idea of the documentary film which was built on the comparison of two different knowledges – traditional knowledge of the Nyungkal people, represented by Marilyn Wallace (the elder of the Tribe) and scientific knowledge, introduced by Christina Howly (environmental and aquatic scientist).
Initially we intended Marilyn to be the only respondent of the film, but later we have changed our mind and came up with a decision to add another character with a contrary point of view.
“Aboriginality” only has meaning when understood in terms of intersubjectivity, when both the Aboriginal and the non-Aboriginal are subjects, not objects. (Langton, 1993: 32) Specification of the topic was one of the most difficult tasks our team had to solve. We did a broad research on the issues of the northern Queensland tropical forests, found a list of species which are under a threat of extinction; we looked through the indigenous project of the area financed by the Australian Government. Finally, with the help of Marilyn we elected the suitable topic. The Annan River became the object of the documentary. Both our interviewees have done the water measurement and assessment of the river, however they have different approach and preferences. The distinction of two methods creates a conflict that formed the plot of the documentary. For the conclusion of the film we emphasized that despite the differences in assessment techniques the two societies use they are willing to work together.
It was a privilege for our team to collaborate with Marilyn, but also it was a great challenge. The traditional owners are strongly connected to the land, they have their rules and laws, and they have different policies and agreements. We had to learn how to communicate with the indigenous people in a correct way in a limited period of time. Apart from this, filming sacred territories and spirits of the Land requires us to be cautious to the footage. We cherish those recordings as an apple of ones’ eye.
“The very cultural heritage that gives indigenous peoples their identity, now far more than in the past, is under real or potential assault from those who would gather it up, strip away its honored meanings, convert it to a product and sell it. Each time that happens the cultural heritage itself dies a little, and with it its people.” (Stabinsky & Brush, 2007)
Our production team is responsible for safekeeping the knowledge Marilyn generously shared with us. To decrease the chance of misusing the entrusted information we have tried to implement all requests and suggestions Marilyn made during production and post-production periods. She was not only the protagonist of the documentary; she became one of our production team members with a strong voice and ability to change the narrative.
Birch (2003) states that interaction should be bilateral “as a visitor you initiate a conversation with Indigenous people as an exchange of knowledge and creativity. Where you offer a gift that is not motivated by gaining something at the expense of the host. But where each party involved in the collaboration leaves both on equal terms and have gained something through the encounter (The Woiworung practice of Tandurrum).” In the final part of the documentary Marilyn says “We are givers, we are takers…” . In that context the phrase was related to the land, however it is also describes the Bama traditions of hospitality and collaboration. We accepted the rules and the Land accepted us.
The Muruba concept also defines the collaborative atmosphere on the set. Though we are all friends it was the first time for us to work together. And I should say this experience was extremely positive. There are reasons why we succeeded in collaboration. First, as Sabal (2009) ascertains that it is important to maintain the equality of all members of the team. If someone does not do his/her piece of work the production mechanism breaks down. In our team responsibilities were divided equally, everyone has a specific field to work on. Second, all members were taking part in the decision making process. Rees (1993) explains the necessity of reaching consensus on production meetings. He also distinguishes the difference between consensus and agreement, when it is more important not to accept the decision made by other group members but to participate and to affect on the decision. As representatives of different cultures we have the full range of opinions and various visions on the film, and we have learned how to use it efficiently.
On the other hand, Sabal (2009) highlights the significance of a conflict on the set, “Because each of us has a unique way of being and acting in the world, when we work together, conflicts will inevitably emerge. Lack of conflict is not a measure of the healthy functioning of a group. No conflict suggests that group members have stopped caring about both the work and the outcome.” Based on cooperation and communication we had on the field trip and after, it is hard for me to agree with his point of view. I could not recall any conflicts among the team members on the set; however everyone was fully engaged with the documentary.
In some way collective decision making jeopardized my proposed role as a director. “As Abraham Polonsky notes, “you have to be a real leader. That’s to say you have to let those who are doing their work do their work”. (Sherman, 1976) Objectively, I am not a leader. I know the production process from the inside, I have a clear understanding what will work and how but I cannot lead others. Being part of a production team for me is easier and more familiar than taking reins as a director. So absolutely naturally we started directing the documentary as a team. Moreover, as I have already mentioned before, Marilyn became a member of the production team.
After I lost my personal role I started compensating the lack of responsibilities by helping others in their roles. Thus I was a cameraperson, operating the Sony x-200 and GoPro camera, I set up the lights for interviews, and acted as a grip.
And still I have accomplished my proposed role later in an edit suit. “Consequently, the role of the director is less that of the orchestra conductor than that of the soloist. He tries to capture the essence of the film by working with others—the cinematographer, the sound recordist, and the editor. The documentary film is found and shaped in the editing…” (Dancyger, 2014)
To begin with, our decision was to create a narration without the additional “voice of God”. An absence of textual connections requires supplementary attention to make an ideal combination of phrases recorded as interviews. This means that we had to listen carefully to every sentence of an interview and pick up the pieces that can come together. First, to decrease the amount of footage we chose only the needed phrases of both interviews. “Montage was used to build a narrative (by formulating an artificial time and space or guiding the viewer’s attention from one narrative point to another), to control rhythm, to create metaphors, and to make rhetorical points.” (Bordwell, 1972). The trickiest aspect of an edit without the voice over is an absolute impossibility to record and add even one missing word. While we were in Roseville we agreed to let the narration flow with the Annan River – from the Head of the Serpent to the Catchment and the ocean, through the places Marilyn identified as important. However, neither Marilyn nor Christina mentioned the Rainbow Serpent by itself, moreover, Marilyn explained that it is a sacral knowledge and she cannot tell the traditional legend. That is why we had to think of a new idea and new way of narration.
Assembling is like a puzzle game with an abstract final picture. What it will look like at the end depends only on how the player organizes fragments. I was that player, who organized and reorganized segments of both interviews. When the assembly was finished, we understood that there is one piece missing. Likely Marilyn was nearby and agreed to record an extra sentence to make the narration of the documentary sound completed.
To study montage in depth, the method of juxtaposition formed the narration of Muruba as we intended it to be at the very beginning. “The most celebrated exponents of this style-Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Vertov, and Eisenstein-were also its most eloquent theoreticians, all of whose theories assumed that filmic meaning is built out of an assemblage of shots which creates a new synthesis, an overall meaning that lies not within each part but in the very fact of juxtaposition.” Bordwell, D. (1972). To create a flow of the River as it meant to be geographically we juxtaposed the footage according to the location where it had been recorded.
Those people who had never seen the map of the area would hardly understand the hidden meaning of the cut. Uninitiated viewers would see in the documentary only the combination of the beautiful footage of miraculous sights of the Northern Queensland Wet Forests. “…narrators also bring their own contexts to the narratives in which they engage. Tacit contexts are implicit in the way stories and their segments are seen/read/heard/interpreted by a narrator.” (Schutt, 2011) Though, the complexity of the narration it is not evident for spectators, there are people who appreciate the delicate and precise juxtaposition of the footage. Marilyn, who values her Land more than anything, was confused to see the rough cut of the documentary. Going back to the first screening, the footage was organized in a different way; the b-roll was used to emphasize the meaning of interviews. I did not expect that the juxtaposition according to location will work not in the symbolic but in visual way. But it almost suited as it should be, apart from a couple of scenes.
That is how we applied the juxtaposition to create the so-called figurative cinema. “Figurative cinema is a cinema of mental images evoked by methods peculiar to film, but not different in kind from some constructions found in literature and drama. Eisenstein used two basic types of figurative cinema. In the first he juxtaposed and contrasted shots so that a spectator can compare them and generalize from them.” (Kuiper, 1963) The starting point of the documentary is at the Waterfall, at the third quarter of the documentary Marilyn turns back to the waterfall again. We were thinking how make the video metaphoric and figurative and at the same time how to lock the circle and show the whole water cycle. One file with raindrops on the river made it possible for us to implement the allegorical reversion to the Head of the Serpent.
To summarize, the Muruba project came out to be allusive but also scientifically based. It is relevant to both indigenous community and scientific society.
Personally I am grateful for experience I got working with Kuku Nyungkal people, learning to act according to their lore and customs.
Muruba is the most interesting, challenging and time consuming project I have ever worked on. Every member of our production team left a piece of their soul in the documentary. And the final cut shows that it was worth it.
List of references.
Birch, T. 2003, ‘Collaboration and Exchange with Indigenous Communities’, Craft Culture, vol 6, no. 248, pp. 4-5, viewed 10 December 2009
Dancyger, K. (2014). The Technique of Film and Video Editing History, Theory, and Practice (5th ed.). Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.
Kuiper, J. (1963). Eisenstein’s “Strike”: A Study of Cinematic Allegory. The Journal of the Society of Cinematologists, 3, 7-15. doi:10.2307/1224790
Langton, M. 1993, ‘Well, I heard it on the Radio and I saw it on the Television…’ : An essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people and things, Australian Film Commission, Sydney.
Rees. F, (1993) 25 tips for teams. San Diego: Pfeiffer & Company, 53.
Sabal, R. (2009). The Individual in Collaborative Media Production. Journal of Film and Video 61(1), 6-17. University of Illinois Press. Retrieved June 2, 2017, from Project MUSE database.
Schutt, S., & Berry, M. (2011). The haunted photograph: context, framing and the family story. Current Narratives, 1(3), 35-53.
Sherman, E (1976). Directing the Film: Film Directors on Their Art. Los Angeles: Acrobat, Print.
Stabinsky, D., & Brush, S. B. (Eds.). (2007). Valuing local knowledge: indigenous people and intellectual property rights. Island Press.