Renowned ethnographic filmmaker, Ian Dunlop, died at a retirement village in Canberra in September.
A few years ago, some university friends held a fancy-dress party with the theme - "Our intellectual ancestors". I took this to mean "come as your favourite intellectual" and decided to come as my former employer, long-time colleague and friend, Ian Dunlop - complete with beard and khaki shorts. Ian never thought of himself as an intellectual, but he was a person of great vision and intellectual integrity whom I truly admired.
Ian's great legacy is a body of ethnographic films produced over a period of 50 years - from what he regarded as his first properly "ethnographic" film, shot in 1965, until the release of the last film we made together, in 2015. This was a period of massive change in the technology of filmmaking and approaches to ethnographic film.
As a trainee director for the Commonwealth Film Unit, Ian's first film assignment was in 1957 about the Giles Weather Station in WA. While there, he encountered Aboriginal people for the first time and experienced what he described as a life-changing moment when, from the top of the Rawlinson Range, he saw "the distant smokes of hunting groups and individual families" and realised that people were still living in the surrounding desert country.
Thus began an eight-year-long quest to film "the daily life of an Aboriginal family living in the Australian Western Desert". Ian finally got the go-ahead to pursue this dream in 1965 with joint financial backing from the Commonwealth Film Unit and Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (now AIATSIS). However, over those intervening years, many desert families had moved, or been encouraged to move, into government and mission settlements. Ian was now desperately worried that maybe only two or three families remained - but following a lead from a local patrol officer, he miraculously located the family of Djagamara with his three wives and seven children.
On this and a second trip in 1967, Ian and a small crew filmed with Djagamara and other family groups. One of these - Minma and his family - were brought back from Warburton Mission for the filming, but the others were still living in the desert. He chose to use 35mm black and white film to get the best possible quality and durability for this never-to-be-repeated opportunity. The aim was also to shoot as if the film crew didn't exist, with the camera as the "eye of God" looking down upon a pristine environment. Ian humorously recalled how he was constantly brushing out the ripple-sole footprints of Bob Tonkinson, the young anthropologist who accompanied him on the trip.
The result was a series of 19 films titled People of the Australian Western Desert, and the more general film Desert People. The series played for many years on ABC television as part of children's educational programming and later became a central part of a NSW primary schools educational kit. Desert People received significant acclaim overseas - particularly in France where, following a glowing review in Le Monde in 1967, it was screened every night for a week to packed houses at the Cinématèque Franaise in Paris.
Ian was subsequently invited to join French anthropologist Maurice Godelier in the 1969 filming of male initiation ceremonies of the Baruya of the Eastern Highlands of PNG. Even with smaller 16mm cameras, Ian remembered the monumental difficulties of filming where you couldn't see the results of your shooting and had to rely on reports from Sydney that took weeks to arrive. Film was despatched via a Baruya warrior, who put it under his bark cloak and, clutching his bow and arrows, set off in the mist and rain over a mountain range to the nearest airstrip.
A nine-part film series, Towards Baruya Manhood, was completed in 1972 and a second full-length archival film was released in 1992.
In 1970, Ian began another project in Australia - at Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land. The Yirrkala Film Project, as it became known, came out of an original proposal to document the development of bauxite mining on the Gove Peninsula. The idea was modified when H.C. 'Nugget' Coombs suggested it would be better to record the impact of the mine on Aborigines at Yirrkala.
The project evolved into a lengthy engagement, with eight filming trips resulting in the production of 22 films, finally completed in 1996.
From the beginning, Ian realised that Yolngu had their own ideas about what should be filmed and, to his credit, he allowed himself to be guided by them. With incredible prescience, clan leaders grasped the significance of Ian's filming, as we see in the film, Pain for this Land, where Roy Marika says:
This is our chance to record our history for our children
and our grandchildren.
Before we die we should make a true picture,
our own Yolngu picture, that will teach our
children our dances and Law and everything -
our singing - our own Yolngu culture.
Fifty years since Roy made that statement, it is moving to read the following Facebook messages, posted in response to news of Ian's death:
From Yirrkala's Buku Larrnggay Mulka Arts Centre: Through (Ian Dunlop's) films elders still speak to us and share their knowledge many generations later. It is with great sadness that Mulka has learnt today of the passing of this great film maker. We are eternally grateful for the work you gave us wuman and for your friendship. Your legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of Yolu for generations to come.
And from Tristan Cole, general manager of Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa: It is with great sadness we have heard about the passing of Ian Dunlop ... The series of films known as People of the Australian Western Desert record everyday Martu life and have become an important record of traditional life. They are watched regularly by members of the Martu community. The films provide an important link for younger Martu to traditional knowledge, practices and culture.