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Studies in Documentary Film


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Surrendering control: Two Laws as collaborative


community film-making: an interview with
Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini
a b
Therese Davis & Cassi Plate
a
Monash University, Australia
b
University of Western Sydney, Australia
Published online: 03 Jan 2014.

To cite this article: Therese Davis & Cassi Plate (2008) Surrendering control: Two Laws as collaborative community
film-making: an interview with Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini, Studies in Documentary Film, 2:2,
149-168

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1386/sdf.2.2.149_7

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SDF_2.2_04_art_Davis & Plate 11/21/08 5:14 PM Page 149

Two Laws Dossier


Studies in Documentary Film Volume 2 Number 2 © 2008 Intellect Ltd
Miscellaneous. English language. doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.2.149/7

Surrendering control: Two Laws as


collaborative community film-making:
an interview with Carolyn Strachan
and Alessandro Cavadini
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Therese Davis Monash University, Australia


Cassi Plate1 University of Western Sydney, Australia

Abstract Keywords
This interview with film-makers Carolyn Strachan and Allesandro Cavadini collaboration
focuses on their collaboration with the Borroloola Aboriginal community in the authorship
making of Two Laws (1981). They explain why they chose to ‘surrender’ direc- cross-cultural film
torial control to the community and how this action led to the unique form and Aboriginal history
style of this documentary. The detailed and frank discussion of the complex Land Rights
processes of collaboration, what Marcia Langton once called the ‘actual dialogue’ documentary
of cross-cultural film production, deepens our appreciation of this unique group-
authored film. It also allows us to consider how film in general can function
meaningfully as a site of cross-cultural exchange.

Introduction
Two Laws (Borroloola Aboriginal community, Carolyn Strachan and 1. This interview was
Alessandro Cavadini, 1981) is one of the most important examples of col- conducted as part of
large collaborative
laborative community film-making in film history. While its content is ARC-Discovery
often regarded as ethnographic – that is, in the broadest sense, a represen- research project,
tation of culture – the film’s project was and remains opposed to the ideology ‘Working Together:
Indigenous and
of the traditional ethnographic film. Two Laws is not a representation of non-Indigenous
the Other for western knowledge and consumption. Just the opposite! As Collaborations in Film
film-makers Alessandro Cavadini and Carolyn Strachan explain in the fol- and Writing’. The
main collaborators
lowing interview, they surrendered directorial control of content and film are Professor Nancy
structure to the Borroloola community, becoming what they call ‘facilita- Wright (University
tors’. Their approach challenged the then long-standing practices of of Western Sydney),
Dr Therese Davis
authorship and ownership in cross-cultural film-making, leading to a truly (Monash University)
unique group-authored film. Along with a small set of other Australian col- and Dr Brooke
laborative film projects from this period, Two Laws played an important role Collins-Gearing
(University of
in the advancement of Aboriginal film-making in Australia, a cultural Newcastle). This
development that Marcia Langton says we can, in hindsight, call ‘a minor interview was
social revolution’ (Langton 1994). researched,

SDF 2 (2) pp. 149–168 © Intellect Ltd 2008 149


SDF_2.2_04_art_Davis & Plate 11/21/08 5:14 PM Page 150

co- designed, edited Strachan and Cavadini both now live and work in New York. This
and introduced by
Therese Davis. The
interview is their first extended public discussion of their involvement in
interview was co- this remarkable film in more than twenty years. The discussion revisits the
researched, conducted important issue of how the collaborative production arrangements informed
and transcribed by Dr
Cassi Plate, a writer,
the film’s innovative and distinctly Borroloola Aboriginal form and style,
curator and indepen- bringing new details about this process to light. They also explain how the
dent research collaboration undertaken in Two Laws was not an entirely new approach
associate.
(as is often assumed) but part of their evolving practice of collaborative
2. The Aboriginal Land community film-making. As we learn, this practice originated in the poli-
Rights (Northern
Territory) Act of
tics of Aboriginal self-determination associated with the Aboriginal Tent
1976 was the first Embassy (1972) and the Aboriginal Land Rights movement. It was devel-
government recogni- oped across a number of other film projects, including Protected (1975),
tion of Indigenous
ownership of land
made with the Aboriginal community on Palm Island in Queensland, and
in Australia. The We Stop Here (1978), made with members of the Dyirbal language group
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Borroloola land claim of the Cairns rainforest region in Queensland. They discuss the signifi-
was heard in Darwin
and Borroloola from
cance of gender in the Two Laws collaboration and shed light on questions
September to of audience. And for the first time, they talk about their personal experi-
December 1977. It ence of making Two Laws, including political dilemmas that came to shape
became one of the
country’s most
their futures as film-makers.
protracted claims, This interview with Cavadini and Strachan also provides an opportu-
only fully finalized nity to consider the place of this film and collaborative community film-
in 2006. The legal
non-recognition of
making now. As Cavadini explains, for him Two Laws marked the end-point
the Yanyuwa people for the particular way of making films with Aboriginal communities that he
of Borroloola’s and Strachan had developed over a nine-year period. But they also talk
Aboriginal culture
and continuing
about the importance of the bonds of kinship and friendship they formed
religious life that with members of the Borroloola community and their strong sense of ongo-
occurred during this ing connection and obligation. In 2006 they returned to Australia to
first hearing caused
a great deal of anger
update the film. The newly released Two Laws DVD includes new and more
and frustration, detailed language translations as well as documentation of the official
and was the main hand-back of the last of the traditional lands claimed in 1977.2 The DVD
reason why the
community wanted to
revitalizes Two Laws, making it accessible to a new, younger generation of
make a documentary spectators within the Borroloola Aboriginal community, as well as to other
film about their Aboriginal communities, remote and urban, and national and interna-
history and culture.
For more information
tional non-Aboriginal audiences. It allows us all to reconnect with this
on the land claim and important work of history told from a distinctly Aboriginal point of view at
the Yanyuwa people’s a very particular point in time.
history, see Baker
(1999); Avery and
McLaughlin (1977); Interview
and Bradley (1988). Cassi Plate (CP): I’d like to go right back now with you and look at the whole
context, the social and political background to the film. I’d really like to get your
perspectives on the political climate around land rights and Aboriginal rights in
the 1970s, and how those issues started to emerge as issues for each of you.
Could you describe that period as you remember it, and how you became con-
scious of Aboriginal land rights and other issues?

Alessandro Cavadini (AC): Well yes I can start: 1970s Sydney. I had come
to Australia from Europe and I was trying to put together a film about the
Left in Australia, primarily as a reflection of what was happening in
Europe 1968, May 1968. I was researching and filming at the same time,
a must without money. Friends suggested that I contact the Aboriginal

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people of Redfern, because they would answer many of my questions. I did,


and had very good discussions with them, Paul Coe, Gary Foley, Gary
Williams, Billy Craig, later Mum Shirl, Isabelle Coe, Chika Dixon, Bob Maza,
Dennis Walker and many more Aboriginal people from Redfern and
Australia as a whole. I felt that there was an urgency to acknowledge their
political movement for land rights and decided to drop the initial idea of the
film and just go with them. They took me to Canberra where they’d just set
up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns in front of Parliament House
to make land rights visible with a national Aboriginal movement. That
night I slept there. The film Ningla A-na (1972) came out of that moment in
Australian politics.

CP: And what about you, Carolyn?


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Carolyn Strachan (CS): When I was growing up, we had a painful family
secret: my grandmother was part Aboriginal. This secret and my grand-
mother’s fierce denial of it, cast a long shadow over our family. When I got
to university and was doing History honours, I challenged the History
Department about the dearth of Indigenous history, and the lack of original
documents of first contact available for study. It became a passion to
unearth Aboriginal history and give it a dignity of place.
I grew impatient with academics and, in the spirit of the 1960s,
announced precociously that I was ‘going to the barricades’. I decided
film-making was a way to work at the grass roots and chose to learn the
craft by working on various film-related jobs. At the Sydney University
Television Unit, for instance, I worked on a film of Gough Whitlam’s elec-
tion campaign. At some point I heard about a film being made in Redfern
with the Aboriginal community, and I immediately volunteered to work on
it, even before I’d met the director. It seemed inevitable that I be part of it.
I so much wanted to be part of a national movement that challenged the
legitimacy of white settler culture and its policies of dispossession and
second-class citizenship of Aboriginal people. I wanted to redress the
humiliations suffered by my grandmother.
By that stage, the film was already fairly under way but I worked full-
time on its distribution. Alessandro and I formed a small company, and we
went on the road showing and leading discussions of the film in many
cities, in schools, universities, union halls, all over eastern Australia.

CP: Do you think it’s significant that you both came to this not as ethnographic
film-makers? Prior to your films, almost all documentary films with Aboriginal
people as their subjects were being made by ethnographic film-makers, from quite
a different perspective, whereas you two, each separately, have come to your films
from a more political background.

CS: Yes, neither of us came from an institution, neither anthropological


or film. We didn’t quite fit into the ethnographic film world. We were
often treated as outcasts by the Anthropologists. I quit History honours
because it denied multiple voices of history and because it was the 1970s
and I wanted to be part of the political immediacy, of action against the
Vietnam War and apartheid. And, yes, at that time, we probably did

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regard ourselves as the children of the revolution. Alessandro came out of


Paris 1968 and I came out of the campuses, both from the political
activism of the late sixties.

CP: I’m going to talk about your earlier films Ningla A-Na, Protected (1975)
and We Stop Here (1978) in a moment, but I’ll just stick to this idea of ethno-
graphic film-making, because there was a significant conference in 1978, the
Canberra conference on ethnographic film-making. Film histories often mention
this 1978 conference in Canberra as a catalyst for changes in films about
Aboriginal people and culture, because it was a conference where Aboriginal peo-
ple voiced demands for access to film training and for films that allowed for
Aboriginal self-expression.

CS: Yes.
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CP: I wondered if you two, or either of you, were at this conference, and whether
you were aware of these sorts of debates or any other debates in film circles at
that time?

CS: While I had left official academia, I kept up to date with the debates in
the anthropology and film worlds and I was especially thrilled by new film
theory that sought to create a film language that matched revolutionary sub-
jects. At the same time, Alessandro and I worked in the communities, and we
were close to many Aboriginal communities from Melbourne to Cairns. At
the 1978 conference, the MacDougalls asked us to show our films Protected
and We Stop Here on opening night and they invited quite a few Aboriginal
people, some of whom had worked on our films, many others, our friends as
well. It was an explosive mix. It was a shocking revelation: the people who
studied the other didn’t know how to relate to ‘the other’. At one point, Judith
(MacDougall) turned to me and said, ‘Maybe we won’t do that again.’ Each
day, an esteemed academic conducted a day of films and lectures with discus-
sions. The Aboriginal people complained that they were treated as scientific
objects and that their immediate political issues were not addressed.
Alessandro and I were given Friday, the final day of the conference, to design
the day’s agenda. However, as the Aboriginal people had been complaining all
week that the academic structure had denied them their voice, Alessandro
and I decided to hand our day over to them. If we didn’t have a radical repu-
tation before, we certainly did then, and this time our reputation went around
the world – because there were so many people from overseas.
In spite of the ‘damage’ to our personal reputations, a lot of good came
out of that Friday. The meeting itself was chaotic because it immediately
went into an Aboriginal way of conducting meetings. There was no leader.
Everyone had their say and things got thrashed out. On that Friday, it was
decided to set up an Aboriginal film committee. The committee drew up a
list of protocols to be sent to every Aboriginal community setting out
guidelines and a checklist for the community to negotiate with film crews.
And the committee set up a film-training programme for Aboriginal peo-
ple. Who was on the committee? Alessandro, the McDougalls, quite a few
Aboriginal people were on the committee (AC: Marcia was on it). Yes,
Marcia Langton was on it.

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CP: Did that experience influence the way you made Two Laws, in comparison to
the earlier films?

CS: I don’t think so. We were evolving, rethinking film-making all the
time. Both the earlier films were community-involved films, but Ningla
A-Na was an agitprop observational film recording a community action,
whereas Protected was a community commitment to create a film, to re-
enact a historical moment. This evolution took place over the years of
travelling and showing films in local communities. I sat with the audi-
ences and watched them receive the film. Discussions always followed
the screenings so we got to know how the films worked with audiences.
We struggled for a very long time about the concept of form and content.
We thought we had to change the form in order to get new ideas across.
Two Laws was the result of our evolving film thinking and practice. We
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were already practising what the academics were preaching at that con-
ference. We’d been practising it for years: total community participation.

AC: Yes, on Palm Island, when we shot Protected, we took the very early
portable video cameras, the reel-to-reel black-and-white kind, which were
cumbersome to use, but nevertheless the people used them. They were
given out in the community and they did whatever they wanted to do. I
remember the kids making the remakes of all the Kung-Fu TV series.
People would come back with their work and it was shown without edit-
ing. We would screen it at the pub and the community would get together
and socialize and watch the material. We finally put monitors outside the
pub with some of the work always running. That is how we did some of
the groundwork. It was the initial method with all our films. So when we
came to Two Laws we were very ready. Like Carolyn says, we wanted to
surrender the film-making process and go off somewhere else; we were
ready to go to a different level.

CS: It was disconcerting that we had read the work of Jay Ruby and the
other academics at the conference. They showed documentaries to ques-
tion documentary practice and our films addressed many of the ethical
issues that they were raising, but we were seen as beyond the academic
establishment. They were coming out of academia, and we were coming
from the grass roots and there seemed to be a serious division, even
though we were practising what they were preaching.

AC: There was a gap and it still exists, the political gap between activism
and the theory. We worked very hard all the time to narrow that gap, so
that the practice of the theory could be seen. In making Two Laws, we
incorporated that idea, of making the theory visible in the film-making.

CP: How did you come to make the film Protected? Were you invited to make it?

CS and AC: Yes.

AC: During the making of Ningla A-Na there were a lot of people in
Redfern who came from Queensland. Alana Doolan said plainly: ‘You’ve

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got to move your arse and go where things are happening. You have to
understand more of Aboriginal culture.
You’ve got to understand where our anger comes from.’ We were
always sitting around talking, hanging around, and sometimes getting
drunk, and the conversation often turned to the Reserves. ‘We come from
the Reserve, and this is why we’re angry. We were taken off our land, and
you’ve got to go to Palm Island. First stop, Palm Island.’

CS: When we were showing Ningla A-Na, we were aware of the white
audiences’ discomfort and alarm at the young Aboriginal radicals’ anger.
In class discussions, students had no idea of the Reserve system. We knew
we had to fill in the gaps of that unspoken history. I think Gary Williams
got in touch with the Palm Island people, and said: ‘ We’re sending these
film-makers up.’ It was really a command.
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AC: First stop, Palm Island.

CS: They said, ‘You’ve got to go to Palm Island first.’ The island had a
serious reputation. It was often in the news as having the highest rate of
suicides and murders in the world. Members of the Redfern community
organized the introduction. We wouldn’t have been able to go to Palm
Island without them sending ahead and getting us permits to go on to the
island.

AC: We arrived on Palm Island and Fred Clay, his wife Iris and family
greeted us. What was his title? Chairperson of the Community Council, or
Aboriginal Community Council of Palm Island. I don’t know if you real-
ize that Palm Island was at best a prison, an uncharted penitentiary. I
remember Fred took us down in his four-wheel drive to a beach at low tide
and we walked around for a while. There was nobody in sight; it was really
beautiful and peaceful. He said: ‘We’ve got to make this film. We have the
story.’ It was the story of the strike they had in 1957. And we said we
would go back to Sydney and get the money together. We went back and
got it together.

CS: Palm Island had television, so the community wanted to make the
film like a TV drama. Their motivation for making the story of the strike
was to redress the outside impression that they were just a bunch of lazy
drunken people. They often said, ‘We are not just sitting here. We are not
passive. We fought back. We had a strike. We want to tell the story of our
strike.’ The story had been burning in people’s hearts for a long time and I
don’t think there was anyone in the community that disagreed with the
idea. Choosing who was going to play the parts was done in the same way
as it was done in Two Laws. We were thinking about who would play the
main character, the main strike leader, a very charismatic person. We’d
spent time with Eddie Mabo in Townsville, so we went off to ask Eddie but
he said: ‘I’d love to play the part but I can’t; he’s not my kin.’ All the peo-
ple who play the parts in Protected were chosen, not because they matched
the personalities in the real story, but because they were the closest kin to
the real strikers. They were chosen along kinship lines, and they did the

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choosing. We spent a lot of time with the community before filming


because we had to get to know the story and the people. There were casual
talks under trees and there were meetings.

AC: We had workshops. I remember workshops on the script and


rehearsals. There were a lot of pre-planning discussions if you want to put
it in those terms.

CS: We recorded the stories and then wrote down scene descriptions that
were to be included in the film. Everybody contributed the bits and pieces
of the story. While organizing the film on the strike, we were also employed
by Henry Reynolds from the History Department of James Cook University
to record as many oral histories as we could. We spent a lot of time sitting
in houses and under trees recording old stories far beyond the story for the
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film.

CP: So the whole project was informed by that other, parallel, process?

CS: Yes. It was a way of getting to know people and getting to know the old
tribal people, recording the stories of their various ancestral lands and asso-
ciated practices. We also became familiar with the history of Palm Island –
the history of people from all over Queensland, from many different lan-
guage groups, sent to Palm Island because they were deemed troublemak-
ers in the original communities. Palm Island was based on the system of
divide and rule. These people, separated from their traditional communities,
often did not speak English and sometimes no one else on the island spoke
the same language. There was bound to be tension. Sitting down for hours
and respectfully listening to stories is a cherished custom in any culture,
but it is very significant in Aboriginal culture. We became insiders and not
outsiders in terms of trust. When it came to making the film, we had the
scene descriptions but we didn’t script it. The people fleshed out the scenes,
sometimes using the videotape, sometimes on the spot.

AC: It was basically one take.

CS: Yes it was all one take.

AC: A one-take situation. They would get ready, tell us the story or a tran-
sition of one, and say: ‘OK, we do it tomorrow.’ So everybody got ready and
in one take it’s done …

CP: I’d like to talk about Two Laws and some of it relates back to the experience
of making Protected. I’ll start with the pre-production and Leo Finlay, because
we’ve read that he approached you to make the film with him and the Borroloola
people. Apparently he’d seen Protected. What do you think it was about this film
that appealed to him? Do you think it was the use of dramatic re-enactment, for
example?

CS: I think he’d seen all the films. He’d certainly seen Ningla A-Na because
as he was a member of the Northern Land Council, he attended Aboriginal

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conferences where the film was often shown. When we met him in Sydney,
we’d come out of the Canberra conference so we explained that if we made
the film we’d get a lot of flack because we’re white film-makers and it’s
time for us to bow out and have Aboriginal film-makers make their film.
We offered to introduce him to Aboriginal film-makers. But he said: ‘No,
no, we want you because we think that we can control you. We’ve seen
your other work, and you don’t seem to have the egos of these young film-
makers. I’ve seen their work. I’ve met them.’ He’d asked around the
Sydney community about us. I think he knew who we were.
He said: ‘You must come and sit down with us.’ He was asking us to
surrender to the community and we were more than willing to take as long
as it needed, and to go further in our film-making practice. We couldn’t
resist the challenge.
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CP: What was Leo Finlay’s role in the community?

CS: He was powerful in the Northern Land Council, but he wasn’t more
powerful than anybody else is in Borroloola because that would be con-
trary to Aboriginal practice. There are no leaders in traditional Aboriginal
communities. He approached us with the idea of the film but the idea had
been circulating in the community since the denial, or part-denial, of their
land claim. They were very angry because their land claim hadn’t been
understood. He explained that Judge Toohey wasn’t convinced of their ties
to their land. The people had been troubled that, ‘He doesn’t understand
our history. He doesn’t understand how many times we were rounded up
and taken off our land – chased all over the place.’ They were very angry
and so the film, in one way, was to answer Judge Toohey. Leo got the ball
rolling but it wasn’t exclusively Leo Finlay’s idea to make a film; it was a
community idea, a kind of boiling-point thing.
They’d already decided what they wanted to say in the film. At that
first meeting, Leo mentioned police times, the welfare system, and Judge
Toohey.

CP: And what role did he go on to play in the production? You say that within the
community he was no more a leader than other people.

CS: He told us: ‘I will propose you two as the film-makers to the commu-
nity and I’ll send you a telegram with the answer.’ He took the idea back
and some of the other Aboriginal people in Borroloola had seen our work
too. The key factor for choosing us was that we were willing to go up and
live with them on their terms.
So I think it took about six weeks, was it Alessandro?

AC: Yes, a couple of months.

CS: A couple of months. He would have gone around to every family


clan to ask them. Within a couple of months we got a telegram saying:
‘We would like you to come up and make a film with us.’ Once we were
up there, Leo had no leadership role. He participated when it was
appropriate.

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CP: I’m going to ask you some detailed questions now about the processes of col-
laboration in the production of Two Laws. Initially you took a projector around to
all the communities who weren’t film literate, didn’t have access to television, and
very few had probably seen films, or very few films. You held open-air …

CS: Yes, exactly. Only Borroloola itself (an airstrip and a country store) had
electricity and there was no TV and many of the old people who lived out
in the bush told me that they had never seen a film.

CP: And so you held open-air screenings, and critically, these were followed by
discussions immediately afterwards or the next day. Was this an important part
of the whole cultural exchange that went on during the film-making process?

CS: It was a very important exchange because there were two things going
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on at the same time. One: we were getting films sent up from Canberra,
from the National Library. We showed films of other Aboriginal communi-
ties, Inuit and African films. We tried to get as many different documen-
taries as we could.
We would spend many nights a week travelling to scattered clan com-
munities. We took a portable generator to run the projector and put a
sheet between the trees for a screen.
At the same time we were initiated, given a skin. We couldn’t have
functioned without a skin because a skin name determined our relation-
ship with everyone. The rules of kinship is the most fundamental way the
community functions so once we were given kinship titles, we could visit
the communities with a very important guidebook, the kinship system.
We had to get to know our relatives of all four language groups; we didn’t
learn everybody’s name, but we certainly learned our kinship relationship
to them. They got to know us. I think they were testing us. The basic test
is the sitting down and spending time on the ground, on the land, with
them. Slowly we were learning the daily customs around the campfire
as determined by tribal law. Showing a film was like a ritual. When
Aboriginal people visit each other, they put on a corroboree that often
resembles miming storytelling. Our gift was to show a film, and then there
would be a formal meeting to discuss the film. They discussed what they
thought of the film, what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what they
wanted to do with their film.
And so it was the formal meetings, the seat of Aboriginal government,
of communal decision-making, where all the details of the film were
decided as well. They were seeing films and discussing film-making, and
we were learning to be Aboriginal. We were in graduate school, expanding
the knowledge that we had learned from other Aboriginal communities
over the years. It was a powerful learning exchange.

AC: To complicate the picture a little, there was another way film was seen.
While the bulk of the film production work was done out in the outstations,
way out in the bush, there was a short time during the dry season when a
teacher set up open-air Friday-night movies for the people who stayed
around the town. It was quite a different event to any other. People put on
clean clothing, wore perfume. It seemed like a welfare legacy of a white-fella

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ritual. It was quite a social event with families sitting on the grass watching
pictures, old westerns, etc. We took this opportunity to show some of our
rushes like a trailer to the main event. It placed the film, the movies and the
act of film-making in a very different context and this perhaps led to their
later decision to place the making of Two Laws into white-fella law, to
bypass Aboriginal law of no one seeing dead people. They knew John
Wayne was dead.

CP: And they’d also give you feedback on what they did and didn’t like in cer-
tain films?

CS: Yes. There were very interesting discussions. They were quite interested
in seeing other Aboriginal communities and how they made a dugout
canoe, for instance, and the comments were: ‘We don’t do it that way; we
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do it this way.’ The most common complaint was that many of the films
chose a singular personality as the focus of the film. It was usually a man,
sitting down, doing his painting or making his boomerang or whatever it
was, with his wife and kids around him sometimes, and sometimes alone.
They didn’t understand it. They said: ‘What is he doing alone?’ There is
always a big mob of people. They said: ‘That’s not the Aboriginal way.’
It became clear that the film wasn’t going to have a singular, central
character. Another issue was eye contact, which involves a whole system
of taboos. I had learned I couldn’t give eye contact to my brothers or
fathers-in-law. The people were disturbed by close-ups, with the camera
moving right into someone’s face. This became a reason to use the less
intrusive wide-angle lens.

CP: So a lot of these things really did feed into your film-making process. The
community really directed you to use wide-shot at all times so that you could
always, in fact, include an entire group rather than just singular people, and
avoid the close-up and again the kind of individuation of people.
Could you just talk about that, and also another very interesting aspect in
the film, which is the idea of the witnessing, which occurs within the wide-angle
frame. We noticed how witnesses are always there when others are recounting
the history, and at times intervening in it or changing it; being involved in that
history. Was this something that you were particularly instructed to do by the
community or was it something you knew to do?

CS: We understood that a story couldn’t be told unless the people who
were the caretakers of the story were present. But it was complicated
because some of the significant elders didn’t speak English, so they directed
the younger ones to speak for them. The caretakers had to be present, and
if they weren’t present, we didn’t film. We didn’t know who the story-
keepers were, so we waited for it to be organized, and it was usually the
women who organized it. Then they would say, ‘We’re going to film now,
everybody’s here.’ There was a level of seriousness and formality in these
meetings. It may have been simply because it was being filmed but I felt it
was the traditional way of imparting knowledge, a system of witnessing
and involvement in community history. And so these formal meetings of
the community became the primary format of the film.

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And of course the wide-angle lens was chosen to include as much land
as possible in the frame, and to include the group, essential to understand-
ing the Aboriginal way of life.
Slowly we began to see that much more was going on when Aboriginal
people watch the film. They scan the whole frame. They’re not just looking
at who’s talking; they’re not really concerned about who’s talking. They’re
concerned with every bit of detail that’s coming across within the whole
frame. When they were watching the rushes, they saw so much more than
we did. We knew that we were just opening up a window, opening the lens
to information of a different cultural frame of reference, including sacred
signs imbedded within the frame that we would never know.

CP: So were they able to look at rushes and direct you to alter something or to
include more or not include certain things?
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CS: Yes, every step of the way. They saw rushes every week and significant
decisions were made on the spot. In ‘Police Times’, scenes were shot for
dramatic effect. The people had spent a lot of time working with Bob, the
guy playing Constable Stott, because he was too nice and they wanted him
to act meaner. However, when they saw the rushes of Constable Stott’s
cruelty, they realized that they didn’t want a straight, realistic repeat of
the event. We edited it without the dramatic cuts, producing a stylized ver-
sion instead, somewhat resembling the miming storytelling and dances
around the campfire.
There was an evolution of style over the course of the film. We shot the
first three parts chronologically. In ‘Police Times’ (Part 1) you see a lot
more confusion in the film-making process. There was a lot of experiment-
ing going on and there’s a little bit more in ‘Welfare Times’ (Part 2). When
they saw the rushes and saw people walking into the frame and talking
directly to the camera, they wanted to do it like that. By the time we got to
‘Struggle for our Land’, the third part, they’d evolved a Borroloola style,
which is more formal than in the earlier parts.

CP: And that’s not something that they’d seen, presumably, in the other films
that you’d shown them.

CS: No. We only showed conventional documentaries.

CP: A lot of critical attention has rightly been paid to the film’s innovations in
representation, particularly its transmission of cultural knowledge. Could you
discuss how some of these innovations came about, because it’s so different from
the way it’s done in a typical or conventional ethnographic film.

CS: We wanted to make a film that represented the decisions and aesthet-
ics of the community. We knew we were going to surrender our under-
standing of how to structure a film. We discussed with each other about
how an organic style could evolve. If we thought too much we could be
over-determining it. But it wasn’t difficult because the structure was
already in place: the Aboriginal meeting, a central part of Aboriginal com-
munity life, provided the vehicle for all film-making decisions and it also

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presented a formal aesthetic arrangement for the film. Within this basic
aesthetic frame, all other decisions were determined according to kinship
rules. Alessandro would sit with his men kin and film from that position.
And I would sit with my women kin, which determined where the sound
was recorded. Sometimes the sound and the image are not together, pro-
ducing its own unusual image/sound disconnect.
We didn’t have to make decisions as to where to point the lens. The
wide-angle lens encompassed the formal arrangement of the group, and as
I said, the wide frame also opened up multi-layers of meaning. A few sim-
ple rules created the aesthetic.
Other aesthetic solutions came from expediency. When people were lis-
tening to the sound tapes, for example, the stories or explanations were
often very long and we knew that it was often an insult to cut a story. It
was a delicate matter. We suggested that if we had to cut the tape, we were
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going to insert a black space to acknowledge the cut. It was discussed a


few times and the people felt satisfied that the black space would be a mark
of respect for their story. What I found interesting was that black spacing
was something that was being discussed in feminist film theory. It was
exciting to come up with a practical solution from a theoretical context.
We never determined what would be filmed. Clearly, if we’d gone up to
the community as conventional film-makers and just filmed the amazing
stuff that was happening around us, and with Alessandro’s great cine-
matography, we could have made an extraordinarily exotic and very mar-
ketable film. But we didn’t want to repeat conventional codes of film-making.
We chose to work with the community, to surrender to the exciting
unknown, to obey a different set of rules. We chose to be very strict about
fitting into the formal structure of the community, to kinship laws, to film
only when the community said ‘Roll film’.

CP: I want to talk specifically now about the role of the women in the film’s pro-
duction. The women have such a strong presence in the film. Does this reflect their
role in the discussions and the planning and the film-making process?

CS: Yes. Up until the recent period, most anthropologists were men and,
therefore, most of the anthropological work was written from male
sources. It sometimes led to lopsided land claims. With the two of us in
the community, it made it much easier to have access to the women. The
women were very present in the film because a lot of what was filmed was
women’s business, the more secular aspects of the community. There is a
division of labour: women tend to do more of the secular work and men
do more of the sacred work, even though the women have their own
sacred ceremonies and equal claims to land. A lot of what they were
doing for the film was in their domain. They are the secular administra-
tors of the community.

CP: So it’s actually their job to tell the secular history? They’re in charge of some
of that secular history?

CS: It was more that the organization of the film-making was women’s
business. Of course, men are equal ‘owners’ of secular history, but a lot of

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men’s time is spent in prolonged arrangements of the sacred, which could


not be filmed. We include references to ceremony but we don’t film it. We
film the lead-up to ceremony, but we don’t film the actual sacred.

CP: So the critical fact of having you there as a film-maker, Carolyn, that allowed
the discussion of aspects and ideas to take place separately with the women in a
way that just would not have been possible otherwise?

CS: Yes, very much so, and it is only unusual to see so many dominant
women if we learn about Aboriginal culture from the usual western-style
documentaries, or about women in general from Hollywood films for that
matter. They don’t reflect the reality of everyday life here or there. Without
the women, the film would not have reflected the realities of Aboriginal
social structure and the importance of women in the community. The men
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are in the film when they are the keepers of that piece of information;
when it’s their land, their story, they represent it.

CP: And who did the Borroloola community see as their audience? In the film
they talk about the need for their young people to hear the stories, and how the
film is an opportunity for them to hear the stories they don’t know. And then
there are other Aboriginal communities and white audiences needing to under-
stand Aboriginal law and stories and history and experiences. Were they always
juggling these three audiences?

CS: Yes, all three. The film was made for the community, but there was
certainly an urgent imperative for it to go to other Aboriginal communi-
ties. Before we even started filming we had to promise that we would take
the film to the Alice Springs mob and to the Kimberly mob, because they
were about to have their land claims heard and they wanted to warn
them.
And that’s why they chose to speak in English. Most of the films that
we showed them were subtitled, so I fully imagined that Two Laws was
going to be spoken in their languages and it would be subtitled, but they
said: ‘No, because that Alice Springs mob can’t read subtitles.’ I thought
they were more powerful speakers in their own languages. However,
their struggle in English is even more powerful because it was done with
political purpose.
They wanted the white audience to see the film too. They wouldn’t
have gone to such great pains to explain some of the fundamentals of
Aboriginal law if they hadn’t intended it for a white audience. But I don’t
think they fully understood that the film was going to be so difficult for a
white audience. I think they thought, ‘We are making this film and invit-
ing you to come and sit with us.’ An important purpose of the film is to
ask non-Aboriginal people to understand them on their terms. They often
said about us, ‘One day they’re going to take our film away and take it all
around the world.’

CP: One of the most important aspects of Two Laws is the way in which the film
shows so richly how the past lives on in the present. What can you remember
about your experience of this, this very particular aspect during the film-making,

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and how would you describe that relationship between the past and the present
that the film enacts?

AC: Part 4 starts with the brolga song that sends the spirits of the dead
people back to their own country. In big ceremonies, they sing their gud-
jika, the song lines that describe the land. It’s not only that, but they
describe the mythology of the formation of that land, describing the land
throughout, the landmarks, where you get food, in those song cycles. They
still hunt along those song lines; it is their map. That’s the present and the
past merging all the time. It’s a very significant part of everyday life. It’s
there, it’s present. So it’s reflected in all of the film, basically. Like ‘Police
Times’, like ‘Welfare Times’ or ‘Living with Two Laws’.

CP: So why do you think the film is so successful in showing those things as
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history, the ‘Police Times’, the ‘Welfare Times’, ‘Living with Two Laws’, but it
also shows it as present?

CS: One of the most amazing examples of this is in ‘Struggle For Our
Land’. Some of the jungkayi (traditional caretakers of the land) of the shark
dreaming at Manangoora woke us very early in the morning, very agitated,
and said, ‘Come with us. You’ve got to come with us now. Get your gear!’
We got our gear and followed them to Manangoora where they confronted
a European guy who had cut a vast stand of ancient Cycad trees, a site of
important scientific studies, and very significant in Aboriginal law, the
Shark Dreaming. We began filming the people asking a Yugoslav guy why
he cut the trees and he answers that he cut them with an axe. What
unfolds is a debate about Aboriginal and European law. The European asks:
‘Didn’t some white people buy this land from you?’ And the people answer,
‘No, they didn’t.’ This one scene, shot in the present, not only discusses the
ancient story of creation, of the trees and the shark, but it exposes the rela-
tively more recent sorrowful history of the people’s dispossession of tradi-
tional lands and the dismissal of tribal law. We had spent the previous
months filming that history and here was a culminating moment that
explained the purpose of the film. The sequence after this is of old Leo, the
owner of the Shark Dreaming, and he says: ‘No white man is going to live
‘round there forever.’ He’s not talking in terms of the next thirty years.
When Aboriginal people talk about ‘my Grandfather’s land’, they don’t
usually mean ‘Grandfather’; it could mean 40,000 years, 80,000 years
prior. There’s a huge difference in sense of time, of past, present and future.
The film-making style blended past and present. There are moments of
reflexivity reminding us that the people are making a film of their past. We
see them taking charge of it. For instance, ‘Police Times’ was not shot as a
realistic historical record. We see the people recreating the scene in the
present, telling the story and correcting it so that the reflexive moments of
the film-making remind the viewer of the people’s present empowerment
in recording a dismal past.
We recorded another historical moment in 2006, 26 years later, when
we filmed an update, Hand Back, an extra on the Two Laws DVD. We were
there to record a moment of triumph, the return of their islands. As Two
Laws is about the land claim, it was an enormous privilege to go back to

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Borroloola and to fill in the gaps of the historical record. At sunset, at the 3. Dr John Bradley is
a senior lecturer in
end of the hand-back ceremony day, the people put lighted candles into Anthropology at
small carved wooden canoes and pushed them out to sea, in memory of all Monash University.
the old people, many whom had worked on Two Laws, and who had fought For most of his adult
life he has been work-
the hard legal battle between 1977 and 2006 for the land claim, but had ing with the Yanyuwa
died before it was realized. While on those islands, the tribal owners along people, documenting
with John Bradley, the anthropologist, had walked over the islands and their language and
culture. This work is
found very ancient burial bones in caves; the ancestors were watching the subject of a recent
over us.3 There was the sad immediacy of the death of the recent elders, ABC TV documentary
and at the same time the very strong presence of the very ancient elders. The Language Man.
Bradley is also
Many times in the film the Aboriginal people speak in a flat monotone currently working
style. It’s only when certain pieces of information or stories are repeated with Dr Amanda
over and over again do they accumulate significance. I think it’s all part of Kearney from
Monash University’s
this very long historical expanse: ‘This is what happened; this is the way it
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Centre for Australian


is.’ It is a similar storytelling delivery style to that of the Onondaga Indian Indigenous Studies
Nation in upstate New York. and members of
the Borroloola
community on a film
CP: To move onto another aspect of the production of the film – were written con- animation project –
tracts drawn up between you and the community, or any other sort of contract, animating over 400
kilometres of song
and if so, what were the terms of the contract? lines and 26 stories
from Aboriginal
CS: We didn’t do written contracts. Agreements were done sitting on the elders in the
community.
ground in Aboriginal meetings. They told us what they expected from us,
and we agreed and we kept our promise.

CP: So the relations negotiated were those sit-down meetings over time and the
familiarity, the friendship. Would you say that that the friendship that you
formed, the relationships that you formed in that two or three months before you
started filming, was that your contract?

CS: Yes, it was about trust. I think it began in our first meeting. In the
film, Leo says: ‘I suppose you know these two, Alessandro and Carolyn?’
Our commitment began by living with the people and obeying Aboriginal
law. They gave us skins fairly quickly because it integrated us into the
community with all the tribal obligations that that entailed including the
business of making the film. They chose skins so that Alessandro and I
were husband and wife, and it made me a wife to all the senior men who
were then Alessandro’s brothers. It meant that we could approach the old
men, sit down with them and learn from them. If I were a daughter or
another skin, I wouldn’t have had the same access. It was very cleverly
designed so that the kinship system bound us to them and to our job.

CP: And who has the copyright for the film?

AC and CS: We do.

AC: We were forced to put it on by the Australian Film Commission [AFC].

CP: How do you go about negotiating: on a collaborative film generally, how is


that negotiated in terms of copyright?

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AC: Well, the AFC didn’t want to hear anything of that. For them, we got
the money, so therefore we were to put our names on it. And so OK, we
didn’t want to argue the point.

CS: I think it was very early times for the AFC. There was no legal prece-
dent. It seemed to be understood that way by the community as well
through trust and obligation. I don’t know if it was part of the Canberra
committee film-making protocols that went out to the communities
shortly after we filmed. I’m quite sure there would be a much more elabo-
rate process now, and so it should be.

AC: The AFC didn’t really have any guidelines for those things – it was a
money contract with the AFC – so for them, they didn’t want to go into a
lengthy negotiation with a community that they didn’t know, that required
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them to go over there with lawyers and whatnot. I don’t think they
wanted to spend the money for that. So they said: ‘You better put your
names on that film.’

CS: Looked at in another way, it was natural in an Aboriginal law sense


that we are the ‘owners’ of the film, the keepers, the guardians of the work.
As our obligation, they gave us the responsibility of taking care of the film.

CP: And do you think that the community had a sense, and have a sense of own-
ership of the film anyway?

CS: Yes, the people understand European law matters, but as it is about two
laws, we have understood, as obligated members of this community, that it
is, and always will be, a Borroloola film. At this moment, the younger mem-
bers of the community don’t know the film. It was important to the old peo-
ple, but many have died. When I talked to Barbara McCarthy, now
Malarndirri McCarthy (a Yanyuwa woman from Borroloola, and the
Member for Arnhem, Northern Territory), she supported the DVD produc-
tion enthusiastically. Old copies of Two Laws are sitting in the Borroloola
library but nobody bothers, nobody knows about it anymore. Malarndirri
did the introduction for the DVD because she sees the film as an important
Borroloola legacy. The film records a history, and now the film itself is a his-
torical record of the people who made the film and fought so hard for the
preservation of tribal law. We understand that it is our job as guardians to
keep it alive.

AC: Also they said, Leo Finlay when he introduced us to the community
said, ‘It’s our film.’

CS: Yes, he said, ‘It’s our film and we’re going to make a really good film
out of it.’

AC: That’s right.

CS: We saw ourselves as facilitators for their stories, but we are also
members of the community, but only by our single votes, 2 out of 600 plus.

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CP: Were there any restrictions on which images could be used in terms of
things like deceased people’s images meaning the film should go out of circulation;
were there any restrictions like that?

CS: This was another thing that was filmed and if left to our own decisions
we might have included it in the film; it was out-voted. We filmed a discus-
sion where we explained that a lot of Aboriginal films couldn’t be seen any
more, because they contained images of dead people and we asked what
their policy might be. The issue spread through the bush to the various
communities. By the time we’d get to a place, they had already discussed it
a few times.
I think we also filmed the decision meeting. They said: ‘We’ve decided
that we’re going to put film-making into European law. We already know
that John Wayne is dead and some people have seen a John Wayne movie.
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So under European law, it is OK to show dead people.’ When I suggested


including this decision in the film, they thought we were being a little too
academic.

CP: You were saying on the one hand that it’s in the library and probably not
much seen by a current generation in Borroloola; has the release of the DVD
opened up a new awareness? You were saying that Malarndirri McCarthy’s
involvement brings it back to the Borroloola community. Have they been involved
in the updating of history?

CS: Yes, she was involved. She’s filmed the introduction for the DVD and
she asked us to film their hand-back ceremony in 2006. We sent her the
edited versions as we went along.

CP: I just want to finish on Two Laws and the sort of personal relationship that
you both have to the film. It’s been such a long and ongoing involvement and I
wonder how you feel about the project now.

AC: It’s interesting. It’s very enlightening actually, it’s very positive. Now
that we’ve done the DVD and we’ve included a version with notes and sub-
titles, it has another dimension; another film almost, where you can stop it
and read all the translation of the songs or more information about cer-
tain things. For me, personally, it’s been very beneficial.

CP: Was the community involved in those changes? Were they consulted about
the changes?

CS: Yes. We consulted through Malarndirri McCarthy because we could e-


mail her at her office. We double-checked everything, people’s names, kin-
ships, spellings, land sites. At Malarndirri’s suggestion, we were also in
touch with John Bradley, an anthropologist and linguist and very close to
the Borroloola people who helped with the land claim. We cleared every-
thing with her first, sent updated DVD versions. We worked the same way
as we always have done with the community being part of the process,
harder, from New York, perhaps, but then with cyberspace it might have
been easier than when we made Two Laws.

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CP: Looking back, are there things that you might have done differently?

CS: The only thing that I regret is that there isn’t more humour in the film.
The people are very warm and very funny. You pick up these clues from
within the frame if you watch closely, but as this film was the opportunity for
the people to present their case, as if in a courtroom, they adopted a very
formal presentation. What I’m proud of was that we were brave enough to
surrender and just let it unfold without panicking. Because we had worked
in other Aboriginal communities, we knew that if we just relaxed and just let
it unfold and not worry if a week, two weeks went by without filming, it
would work out – trust the process.

AC: That was our contribution.


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CS: With Aboriginal people, you can’t make it happen. It’s going to happen
or doesn’t. Two Laws had its own special energy. It was magical almost, in
that the people were ready and determined and everything fell into place.
It is similar to Hollywood films. The great ones happen almost magically.
On the other hand, some Hollywood movies have the huge budget, the
best script, producer, director and stars, and the film doesn’t work because
all the ingredients don’t jell. Somehow or another, the stars lined up for
Two Laws; great powers were at work in that land.

CP: What about the collaboration between you and Alessandro? That must have
been one of those important factors in it all working?

CS: Yes, because we didn’t have to talk, we just sensed each other. We’d
been working together for a long time so it was easy.

AC: Yes, we’ve done a lot of production and post-production work, dis-
tribution, which makes us cooperative. And we understood our position in
Borroloola. Once we were locked in with the kinship system, then that’s it,
it was our family, so we were set, we were home, you know. We are not
strangers, certainly not strangers. We were part of that; we danced, we
danced in ceremonies. We really did a lot of things that are very important
in a community, it’s like being part of a huge family, it’s like being home.

CP: Did you miss being part of that big family?

CS: We missed them a lot and they did come down to Sydney and stay with
us several times after the film was made. I missed them a lot. They would
say to me, ‘We’re going to sing you gugadi.’ The people believe in commu-
nicating with people far away in songs they sing by the campfire. The
smoke takes their messages up into the sky and is carried away by the
stars. And for years, every time I was in trouble, they would come to me in
dreams. They would walk into my New York life, sit down and say, ‘Let’s
talk about this problem.’ They came many times and I longed for it; I
longed to be back there. However, the Aboriginal situation in the city was
very different especially amongst some young radicals who had become
more hostile towards whites and I was reminded of this when Gary Foley

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[Aboriginal activist, actor and historian] confronted me on the opening


night of Two Laws in Melbourne. For weeks I had invited members of the
various Aboriginal communities to previews of the film. I had called Gary
Foley at least 25 times but he never responded. Then on opening night, he
showed up in the lobby with his friends and in front of everyone, yelled at
me: ‘I’m not going to let anyone see this film. I’m going to ban it because
it’s been made by white people. It’s a white film. I’m going to make sure it
is never ever seen.’ This propelled me to leave.
It had been an exhausting nine months in the bush and then working
day and night for almost a year on the editing. It was a very emotional
time and to have this extraordinary film reduced to a white contamina-
tion! I churned it over in my mind, tried to focus on what had been accom-
plished. It had always been our practice to show our films to the elders of
an Aboriginal community first, to get approval to show it, and as a way to
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spread the word. When we previewed Two Laws to the Alice Springs elders,
a serious law mob, they gave it their stamp of approval declaring it ‘a prop-
erly law film’. In Melbourne, all of the other representatives came to the
previews except Foley. So, big deal?
Gary Foley was symptomatic of the political reality in the cities, a moment
in urban Aboriginal history, and I understood and agreed with it to a certain
extent. If I stayed in Sydney, there was always going to be a Gary Foley and I
didn’t want to live with the ostracism. We had already begun to work on a
new project that didn’t involve Aboriginal people at all, but did that mean
that we had to sever our ties with the community? That was impossible; it
would have been a betrayal. The bush, the people, was too powerful. It tor-
tured me; I didn’t know how to resolve it. I saw a way to escape.

CP: Escape to another country altogether?

CS: Yes. We were committed to an ongoing life with Two Laws and that would
have involved an ongoing relationship with the community, but would we
have been chastized for it? I thought I would do the white-fella business of
taking the film and introducing the Aboriginal struggle to the bigger world
outside Australia and leave Aboriginal business to Aboriginal people. New
York was almost as crazy and stimulating as living with the Borroloola mob.

CP: What about you Alessandro?

AC: Well I miss them a lot. I miss Australia a lot.

CP: Was that a dilemma for you too? Being told you weren’t to make films with
Aboriginal people again?

AC: No, no. I wasn’t there for the confrontation. I don’t mind those
agitational conflicts. But we knew that for us Two Laws was kind of a (CS:
finale?), not a finale in itself, but we went as far as we could. We certainly
don’t want to make or repeat the same films.

CS: We were approached by other Aboriginal communities to make films


with them.

Surrendering control: Two Laws as collaborative community film-making 167


SDF_2.2_04_art_Davis & Plate 11/11/08 9:23 PM Page 168

AC: But no, we declined. Now there are a lot of communities that make
their own films, so they have to go through it themselves and find the way
to do things. There are a lot of people that we met recently in Sydney,
young people, even related to Borroloola people, that are working in films
or writing, so therefore it’s great!

References
Avery, John and McLaughlin, Dehne (1977), Submission by Northern Land Council to
Aboriginal Land Commissioner on Behalf of Traditional Land Owners in Borroloola
Region of the Northern Territory, Darwin: Northern Land Council.
Baker, Richard (1999), Land Is Life: From Bush To Town – The Story of the Yanyuwa
People, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Bradley, J. (trans. and illustr.) (1988), Yanyuwa Country: The Yanyuwa people of
Borroloola Tell the History of Their Land, Melbourne: Greenhouse Publications.
Downloaded by [University of Toronto Libraries] at 13:46 03 January 2015

Langton, Marcia (1994), ‘Aboriginal Art and Film: The Politics of Representation’,
Race and Class, 35: 4, pp. 89–106 (p. 93).

Suggested citation
Davis, T. and Plate, C. (2008), ‘Surrendering control: Two Laws as collabora-
tive community film-making: an interview with Carolyn Strachan and
Alessandro Cavadini’, Studies in Documentary Film 2: 2, pp. 149–168,
doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.2.149/7

Contributor details
Dr. Therese Davis is Senior Lecturer in Film and TV Studies at Monash University. She
is author of The Face on the Screen: Death, Recognition and Spectatorship (Intellect, 2004)
and co-author with Felicity Collins of Australian Cinema After Mabo (Cambridge
University Press, 2004). She is currently researching the history of collaborations
between Indigenous and non-Indigenous filmmakers in Australia.
Contact: School of English, Communications and Performance Studies, Monash
University, Victoria 3800, Australia.
E-mail: Therese.Davis@arts.monash.edu.au

Dr. Cassi Plate is a freelance writer and curator. She has been a Research Fellow at
the Research Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Sydney.
She wrote her PhD thesis on the life of her grandfather, A. G. Plate. The thesis,
called Restless Spirits, was the first book published by the Picador imprint as part of
a project called ‘From Thesis to Book’.
Contact:
E-mail: cassi.plate@gmail.com

168 Therese Davis and Cassi Plate