This clip shows a number of Indigenous men performing the Jardiwarnpa ('fire ceremony’) of the Warlpiri people. It is night and the action takes place outside, around a fire. Onlookers from the community, both in traditional and Western dress, watch the ceremony. A young dancer performing the ceremony is coached by male tribal Elders who call out instructions. He dances by the fire, removing from it two brushes of leaves that he then shakes over himself. A series of male dancers then perform aspects of the ceremony, some of them accompanied by chanting and the sound of instruments. The clip includes English subtitles.
Educational value points
- The Elders of the Warlpiri community, who appear in the clip, decided to document, through film, the Jardiwarnpa ceremony as a way of passing on the tradition to younger generations. The Elders approached filmmakers and asked them to record the fire ceremony in a documentary. The Warlpiri people are concerned about the drift of their young people to regional and urban centres. The threat to their language and culture is also of great significance to the community. The process of filming took place over several weeks and was directed by the Elders, demonstrating their awareness of the power of film as a tool of communication.
- The country and some of the people of the Warlpiri nation, whose land is situated north and west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, feature in the clip. The largest Warlpiri community is at Yuendumu (about 900 people), while other members live at Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Willowra, Lajamanu, Nyirrpi, Mount Allen and other small settlements. About 3,000 people still speak the Warlpiri language. The Warlpiri people’s first contact with non-Indigenous Australians took place in the late 19th century at a time when the missionary movement was coming to an end. The so-called community movement that followed resulted in a nominated 'homeland’ for the Warlpiri people.
- The clip indicates that in cultures without a writing system, visual representation and storytelling are vital ways of passing on cultural knowledge. Traditionally, Warlpiri culture has placed importance on symbols and been visual in its communication style. All the knowledge that the Warlpiri needed for living, food sources, kinship relationships and technology had to be remembered and passed on to the next generation by the Elders, the custodians of the culture and laws. The Warlpiri people’s complex symbolic system acts as a mnemonic, for example in linking landscape to stories, and this is reinforced by repetition in ceremonies. The clip shows the appropriation of a media technology to extend the scope of communication of traditional knowledge to new generations of Warlpiri.
- The 'observational’ style of filmmaking, used here, in which people’s lives are recorded with minimal intervention from the producers of the film, is often particularly suited to the recording of cultural practices that are unfamiliar to the producers. By refusing to 'translate’ what is seen, the filmmaker invites the viewer to interpret for themselves the activity of the people they see. In some observational films, as in this film, the filmmaker’s presence is not disguised. Other features of observational filmmaking include the extended take and a loose structure.
- The clip includes footage of a Warlpiri Elder and law man, Darby Jampijinpa Ross, who had a varied history and became an important community leader. Ross (1905–2005) lived through a period of great change for his people and died the day after his hundredth birthday in March 2005. After the deaths of his family members in 1928 he travelled widely as a stockman, camel handler, prospector and drover before returning to his traditional country. There he became a community and ceremonial leader and also gained recognition as a painter and advocate for Indigenous law and culture. Ross is a central figure in Jardiwarnpa, the film from which this clip is taken, interpreting the beliefs and rituals of his people for the film’s audience.
- The longstanding relationship that the Warlpiri people have had with various forms of media, starting in 1931, is continued through Jardiwarnpa. The earliest catalogued filming of Warlpiri community life is contained in a 1931 black-and-white 35-min film for the Board for Anthropological Research (South Australia). This was followed by In the Wake of the Wailbri [sic] (1951), a colour 16-mm film produced by the Australian Baptist Home Mission Board. Warlpiri people have continued to be the subject of many films in the intervening years but in the case of Jardiwarnpa the film was initiated by Warlpiri Elders and made in close cooperation with the community and under its direction.
- The noted Australian anthropologist Marcia Langton was the researcher and writer of Jardiwarnpa. One of Australia’s leading scholars on Indigenous issues, Langton (1951–) has become known for her work in several academic fields. The common feature of this work is her interest in Indigenous rights, justice and artistic expression. Her anthropological work supports land claims and negotiations with mining companies. After spending five years as Professor at Charles Darwin University in the NT, she was appointed Foundation Professor of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne in 2000.
- Jardiwarnpa is one of four episodes in a documentary series called Blood Brothers (1992), which tells the stories of four Indigenous men whose lives are interwoven. Jardiwarnpa shows Warlpiri Elder Darby Jampjinpa Ross, while civil rights leader Charles Perkins is the subject of Freedom Ride, and the other stories depict Rupert Max Stuart and Mandawuy Yunipingu respectively. These very different Indigenous stories examine oppression, resistance, identity and survival. All explore different ways of being an Indigenous Australian.
A dancer emerges from the darkness, entering the glow of the ceremonial fire. He moves deliberately, then kneeling by the fire, shakes his shoulders. He takes brushes from the fire, and scatters the embers over his back. Elders stand by him, coaching him in the correct procedure of the dance. Children are watching from the crowd. There are English subtitles throughout the clip.
Man 1 Slowly, slowly… Go forward slowly to the fire. Make it serious.
Man 2 Yeah, yeah
Man 1 Don’t be frightened. Carefully, carefully! Pick them up now. Down lower. Hold them down. Yeah, like that! Hands behind your back. Don’t be frightened; follow your father’s style. Ready now. On the other side! Now shake. Don’t gallop. Slower!
Women and children are watching on from the crowd. The performer walks around the fire slowly looking all around.
Man 2 Maybe my nephew is thirsty for water. There must be two rock holes with water.
Performer (singing) The emu burns himself and then disappears into salt water country.
Man 1 Sing louder, quicker!
Older men are watching on from the crowd. Other men are singing and making music. The performer sits by the fire and shimmies then grabs two sticks out of the fire and taps them together above his head making sparks fly everywhere. He stands and dances towards the crowd.
Man 1 That’ll do now. Shake, shake. This one Darby Jampijipa, he’s the one, a good dancer. Good emu dreaming! Good on you, my brother!