In Three documentaries–one of them a surprise thanks to NITV and How NITV and ABC News 24 have transformed my TV habits… earlier this month I recommended Channel 34 should become a regular part of our viewing. Indeed, I can think of few better ways to celebrate Australia Day than to go on over to Channel 34 as much as possible. Don’t miss the News at 5.30 pm. It’s a revelation.
Back to NITV then. They constantly surprise me, one example being a scoop that seems to have passed over the heads of too many of us: Join NITV’s Political Correspondent Jeremy Geia with his exclusive documentary Julian on the Inside.
Jeremy Geia is a regular on the news. He is really very good. He is also an artist.
Last night NITV showed the 2004 documentary Dhakiyarr vs The King.
In his acceptance speech when the film won the Audiovisual History prize at the NSW Premier’s History Awards in 2004, the producer of the film, Graeme Isaac remarked, "It has been said that history is written by he who holds the pen, but much of the Aboriginal history of Australia since white settlement has been unwritten history, a history conveyed orally rather than through books and letters. The court case of Takiyar vs The King and the following appeal to the High Court is a famous part of Australian legal history, often taught to undergraduate law students, but Dhakiyarr’s story has never really been told from the point of view of his own people. We fashioned this film project to rectify that imbalance, and to fill in the gaps in the white history created by our ignorance of the Aboriginal oral tradition. We wanted the film to be a mouthpiece for Dhakiyarr’s descendants to tell their side of the story from their own perspective.
They told it not just in words but also with their painting and their ceremony. And in commemorating Dhakiyarr’s memory in the way they did in the High Court in Darwin, with their generous offer of reconciliation with the system and the society that took their leader’s life, they have also changed the feelings and the views of many others, effectively becoming not just tellers of history but also makers of history" We made our film specifically to present the point of view of a participant, to enrich our understanding of a story that is important not just to the Yolngu but to all Australians, one of the great iconic stories of our frontier history – not a ‘black’ or a ‘white’ history but a shared history, where both sides must understand and learn from the other in order to glimpse the full story.
Northern Territory Supreme Court Justices Brian Martin (left) and David Angel (right) and High Court Chief Justice Murray Gleeson (second from right) meet Yolngu Law Man Wuyal Wirrpanda.
Photographer: Peter Eve
In 2004 my former SBHS student Sacha Molitorisz had this to say:
Tom Murray and Allan Collins have a remarkable story, and they’d prefer to let someone else tell it. It’s about a blackfella called Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda from north-east Arnhem Land.
In 1933 this Yolngu tribal leader came across a policeman who had broken Aboriginal law by trespassing on Yolngu land. He had also chained up Dhakiyarr’s wife. In accordance with black law, Dhakiyarr speared the policeman, Constable Albert McColl, through the leg. McColl died.
The retribution, in accordance with white law, was equally harsh. On the advice of a missionary, Dhakiyarr travelled to Darwin to face the Northern Territory Supreme Court, where he was sentenced to death for murder.
After lobbying by academics and unions, however, the High Court overturned the decision, ordering Dhakiyarr be freed. At the time, it was a hugely controversial result, recognising Aborigines should be treated equally before the law. "It was an amazing decision," Murray says.
But the Yolngu celebrations were short-lived: as soon as Dhakiyarr was released, he disappeared. Rumour had it he was killed, possibly by vengeful policemen, or by vigilantes. His remains have never been found.
Murray, a Manly resident with a deep love for Arnhem Land culture, has long been fascinated with Dhakiyarr. "I’ve spent a bit of time up there. I’d heard the story in whispers. It was such a significant trial of the time, so I’d read bits and pieces. And I thought to myself, ‘I bet Dhakiyarr’s family have an amazing story.’ When I went to meet them, this raw, unreconciled story of wanting to know what happened to Dhakiyarr revealed itself."
When Dhakiyarr’s descendants reconciled with the McColl family, Murray decided to make a film about them. As an experienced maker of radio documentaries who lacked film experience, he teamed up with Allan Collins, the cinematographer of Beneath Clouds.
Funding proved hard to raise – until Film Australia’s National Interest Program saw the project’s significance. So filming began, with the focus on two of Dhakiyarr’s grandsons, Wuyal and Dhukal.
"In the Yolngu way, they call themselves sons of Dhakiyarr," says Murray. "To us they’re his grandsons. The film is about Wuyal’s and Dhukal’s attempts to reconcile this raw wound after 70 years."
Last year, Wuyal and Dhukal sent a video letter to Clare Martin, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, asking for the return of Dhakiyarr’s remains. Alternatively, the brothers asked to hold a ceremony at Darwin’s Supreme Court, where Dhakiyarr was sentenced to death. Martin agreed to the latter, and the ensuing scenes – featuring a meeting of Dhakiyarr’s descendants and McColl’s family – form the climax of the finished film, Dhakiyarr vs The King, a powerful piece of work. Last week, the filmmakers learnt they’ve been nominated in the best doco category at this year’s Dendy Awards, scheduled during the Sydney Film Festival.
The Supreme Court ceremony had a reconciling effect on the Wirrpandas and the McColls. As Joan McColl of Narracan wrote to The Age last week: "The Wirrpanda family involved the McColl family in a wonderful healing Wukidi ceremony during which they apologised for Albert’s death and presented to Alan McColl, his nearest living male relative, a ceremonial headpiece. In turn, gifts were presented from the McColl family and the two families now are in close, friendly contact."
Says Murray: "I think it’s been a profound experience for the McColl family. Alan McColl is from Gippsland. He said to me a year ago he’d never even met a black person, and now he has a family of them."
In the process, the McColls have adopted a sporting legend: 24-year-old David Wirrpunda, a star with AFL team the West Coast Eagles. He spells his name differently, but he is Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda’s great-grandson. Wuyal is his dad. Yesterday, Murray, Wuyal and Dhukal went to a West Coast game in Melbourne.
"It’s the first time Wuyal has seen his son play football since he was a kid. David lives in Perth, and Wuyal is the leader of a community in north-east Arnhem Land," says Murray.
This week, Murray returns to his hometown for the Sydney big screen premiere of his film at the Chauvel in Paddington. Wuyal and Dhukal will attend. "It takes courage to acknowledge the past and to apologise, as Wuyal did to the McColls. That’s been missing from the national debate, where we don’t seem to have that leadership. Dhakiyarr going to face white law, that’s showing leadership … With Wuyal, his leadership was made very clear. He showed dignity and courage, and I think that’s what people are responding to. And the same is true of Alan McColl – the McColls were willing to reconcile their own past."
One of the film’s biggest strengths is that it lets the Wirrpandas tell their own story. "Where there is narration, the two brothers narrate," says Murray. "And I think the film was really affirming for them, especially now so many people are saying to them, ‘You’ve done something really important for the Aboriginal debate. You’ve told a really important story.’
"After the screenings, people have been saying that it’s the first time they’ve been given the privilege of gaining insight into an Aboriginal community, unmitigated by a white voice trying to explain it."
It will no doubt be repeated. Don’t miss it.