This is remarkable film documents the first contact between the Desert People, the last group of the Aboriginal Martu who were still living in the desert in the middle of the twentieth century, and white European Australians. The story is told, using both archival footage and current interviews, by Yuwali, a 62 year-old woman who was 17 in 1964 when the “contact” occured.
At that time Yuwali lived in a group of about twenty with her mother, aunts, nana and many children of various ages. There were no men. Hundreds of kilometres away scientists were preparing to launch a test rocket which would crash back to earth within a huge “dump site”. Two (white) men were sent to check that there were no inhabitants in the area, expecting to find nothing. Yuwali’s account of what actually happened is riveting, terrifying, haunting.
Alone near the camp with the other children Yuwali saw the giant rock they used to play on rolling around their camp. Then two men appeared, two “white devils with plates on their heads”. They were too scared to move and waited for nightfall to run away, following Yuwali’s mother’s tracks out into the desert. Eventually finding her mother, the whole group flees through the desert, terrified being caught and eaten by the cannibals who were persuing them.
Just one of the striking things about this film is hearing Yuwali talk about her life, describing normal, everyday activities which to us are so new and foreign. Also their response to and reasoning the new things that happened to them was so different, so that hearing Yuwali speak was like a light going on in a dark part of your mind. When they were finally taken away in cars she described the experience, “we saw the trees and bushes start running. We were scared we’d be thrown out.”
Being able to see glimpses of their desert lives in the archival footage was really amazing. Walking naked through the desert they just seemed to belong – it made me think of how ridiculous it’d be if my pasty white self was there. It just wouldn’t work. But Yuwali and her family really belonged there. They could survive with almost nothing. The physical beauty of their home is also represented in the film, so that you envy them for their belonging there, and you appreciate just what they lost. Their spiritual attachment to the area is also represented in the film and it makes their abduction from their even more savage.
The documentary also features interviews with one of the whitefellas who was also there at the first contact. It’s interesting to hear his view, particularly on incidents which are also described by Yuwali and her cousin (or half sister?) Thelma, often with a conflicting account. It’s so fascinating how they explain past events and have the experience now to compare their different ways of life, before and after they were taken. The wearing of clothes, for example. The have no use for clothes in the desert and when the whitefellas clothe them the garments seem slightly superfluous, ill-fitting and absurd.
Their language (Martu), too, is really nice to listen to. In New Zealand we officially acknowledge that Te Reo Maori is a taonga, Maori language is a treasure, but even so many of us feel we don’t use it, respect it enough. Although Australia is our close neighbour, I feel like we know nothing of their indigenous culture at all. It’s invisible. Even when you go there, Australia looks like a white country which celebrates its immigrants but denies its original inhabitants.
This documentary is poignant, powerful, beautiful, painful, shocking… but most of all I think I just feel lucky to have seen it. Grateful that Yuwali shared her story. Many of us have wondered what it would’ve been like for an indigenous population when they were thrust into the outside world for the first time. Or what it would’ve been like to be that person from the outside, knowing that you were the first they’d ever seen of a different race, culture, way of life, the first contact. So this film is really extraordinary.
Directors: Bentley Dean and Martin Butler
Starring: Yuwali, Thelma Judson
Before came a book, Cleared Out: First Contact in the Western Desert by Sue Davenport, Peter Johnson and Yuwali