This article proposes to explore an aesthetic problem—how can film express an idea of space that is both material and cultural?—that is complicated by an ethical and political problem—how can you try and express such experiences when they are not your culture’s own? In what follows, I analyze the politics of the aesthetics of two films that do not merely raise these questions, but engage with them formally: Where the Green Ants Dream (1984), a German-Australian coproduction directed by Werner Herzog, and Charlie’s Country (2013), Dutch Australian director Rolf de Heer’s third collaboration with Aboriginal star David Gulpilil, as well as members of the Ramingining community, including Peter Djigirr who co-directed Ten Canoes (2006) with de Heer. Both films, as their titles indicate, focus directly on Aboriginal relationships to the land; both depict a cultural, physical and spiritual landscape that is policed and/or exploited by a predominantly white capitalist order; both would, no doubt, qualify as politically committed films. The 1984 film recounts the case of an Aboriginal land claim against a mining company in the South Australian desert; the 2013 film follows Charlie, an Aboriginal man from Arnhem Land, whose ill health, provoked by a dire economic situation, takes him away from his country to the city of Darwin where he sinks into alcoholism. The two films, however, were produced in very different historical contexts: Where the Green Ants Dream eight years before the Mabo decision of 1992, which overturned the doctrine of Australia as terra nullius,and Charlie’s Country twenty years later. The Mabo decision forced Australians to rethink their colonial past and current race relations and had, in Felicity Collins and Therese Davis’s analysis, an impact on Australian cinema.
Aboriginal artists in film, television and video were emerging at the time Herzog directed his film; they were not passively waiting for white Australians or foreigners to tell their stories and were exploring the potentials of various media. Warlpiri Media Association was founded in 1983 “as a means for Aboriginal people to control their representations,”while EVTV (Ernabella Video Television) started broascasting as early as 1985. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Tracey Moffat directed the shorts Nice Coloured Girls (1987) and Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1990), as well as the feature film Bedevil (1993), Rachel Perkins the splendid Radiance (1998) and One Night the Moon (2001), and cinematographer/directors Warwick Thornton and Ivan Sen directed their first shorts, From Sand to Celluloid: Payback (1996) and Vanish (1998). Though distributed mainly in Australia, these works would draw critical and academic attention. So if Charlie’s Country was released at a time when the likes of Moffat, Sen, Thornton and others had reached international acclaim, When the Green Ants Dream came out at a time when the work of most Aboriginal directors remained under the radar outside of Australia. My pairing of these two films thus has to do with the visibility of the first due to its director’s notoriety, and with how the 1984 feature film anticipates the kind of collaborative filmmaking that had been encouraged by the Australian film industry since the 1980s,and that The Tracker (de Heer, 2002), Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country are examples of;Andrew W. Hurley sees Herzog’s film as both a predecessor of De Heer’s collaborative efforts and a valuable lesson in the “difficulties inherent in intercultural collaboration.”Although de Heer and especially Herzog can be situated within the art cinema tradition, their work remains more accessible—and is arguably more mainstream—than Moffat’s or that of the recent Karrabing Film Collective, begun in 2008, whose work (the 2014 When the Dogs Talked or 2016 Wutharr: Saltwater Dreams) can mainly be appreciated in festivals and exhibits, though excerpts can be found online.
My aim is not so much to assess how realistic the representations of Aboriginal Australians are in these two films, though anthropological, cultural and sociological concerns obviously inform both works, which tap into documentary and cinéma vérité aesthetics to various degrees. Rather, I mean to analyze the poetics the films resort to in order to evoke Aboriginal relationships to the land as sensory, emotional and spiritual experiences, and thus to potentially invite recognition from Aboriginal viewers and engagement from non-Aboriginal viewers with an other through another conception of space and time. The politics of Where the Green Ants Dream and Charlie’s Country do not reside exclusively in the diegesis and in questions involving what they represent; rather, they largely devolve from their aesthetics, that is from an encounter with another sensibility.
It is for this reason that the two films partake in a Rancièrian “distribution of the sensible.” In “Les paradoxes de l’art politique,” the third essay in Le Spectateur émancipé, Jacques Rancière attempted to redefine the relationship between aesthetics and politics, and answer the question what exactly makes art political. He argues that art becomes political not merely based on what it represents, but on how it engages the political on the level of the sensible: “[t]here is a politics of aesthetics in the sense that new forms of circulation of speech, of displays of the visible and of production of affects determine new capacities that break with older configurations of the possible.”For a Marxist philosopher who remains driven by the desire to encourage human subjects from a variety of social backgrounds to exchange,the ultimate function of political art is, in a sense, to redistribute aesthetic capital. This is what Rancière describes as a “partage du sensible,” i.e., a “sharing of the sensible” that has been translated in English, no doubt with the Marxist debt in mind, as a “distribution of the sensible.” Rancière himself defines it as “the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it.”This “something in common” could broadly be termed the human, while the “delimitations” would involve the variables of personal experience, notably as framed by intersectional identity politics. The political potential of art, and more generally of aesthetics, would lie in the revelation of an experience that is sharable within certain limits. In other words, the sensible is, to a large degree, bound with the cultural.
My interest has to do with how Where the Green Ants Dream and Charlie’s Country, which were made in collaboration with Aboriginal Australians, strive, through their aesthetics, to offer non-Aboriginal viewers a whiff of a strange experience of a strange land, which would, perhaps, be more familiar to Aboriginal audiences. With these attempts at experiencing an unfamiliar space, the sensible and the cultural, the aesthetic, the ethical and the political, are intertwined, just as they are in the Aboriginal idea of “country.” I argue that, if the poetics of each film similarly attempt to make sense of an other conception of space-time, they are also, albeit to varying degrees, conscious that the frameworks they rely on are specific to a given aesthetic and cultural context. Although the two films will be my primary focus, they will be considered within the history of Aboriginal representations in mainstream Australian cinema.
Trying to Define the Dreaming and Country
The beliefs and practices of Aboriginal peoples are as varied as the number of distinct languages, which are estimated at somewhere between 250-300 when Europeans arrived in Australia and at about 100 today.But they have in common that they “consider that the social and physical aspects of their existence closely intermesh.”The corpus of beliefs is referred to as the Dreaming.The Dreaming does not necessarily refer to actual dreams, though in some Aboriginal cultures dreams are thought to provide insight.The Dreaming is, in Philip Clarke’s words, “the story of their old ways, how the land was formed, what they used to do and what they learned from their grandparents’ generation about their Ancestors.”It explains how a featureless land was shaped, and animals and people were created by the Ancestors during the Dreamtime.The Dreaming pertains not just to the past, but is relevant to the present understanding of the world;connections to the land and kin can also be discovered in time, and accounts can be adapted.The land is at once a physical and a spiritual place; it is not just an environment one needs to comprehend to survive. It is filled with signs of the Ancestors, and thus with cultural meaning, some places being more important than others.It is connected both to the Skyworld and the Underworld, with specific sites representing portals between the realms “to which [Aboriginal peoples] could travel in spirit form.”In his study of the relationship between nature and culture in a variety of cultures, anthropologist Philippe Descola describes the singularity of the Aboriginal conception of space-time and of the material and spiritual thus: “The Dreaming is neither a remembered past nor a reatroactive present, but an expression and an acknowledgement of the eternal in space, an invisible cosmic framework that ensures the continued existence of ontological subdivisions.”It is, for Descola, a totemic system that articulates the direct link between humans and the cosmos, between nature and culture, and whose structures preexist the ancestors: “Thus, mythical accounts relate not to an initial undifferentiated state but to a world already divided into substantive essences that were actualized as classes of particular entities thanks to the intervention of the Dream-beings.”
The land is thus part and parcel of Aboriginal identity, a relationship encapsulated in the notion of “country.” Clarke describes “[a] person’s ‘country’” as “a tract of land, or sometimes a set of sites, to which an individual has strong spiritual and historic connections that are recognised and given some legitimacy by the rest of their community.”For the Pintupi of Western Australia, for instance, the term country “means an expanse with which an individual is associated through genealogical ties, residence, and mythological links but which contains numerous sites that he does not own”;for the Pintupi, theirs is “an identity that each generation takes on from its forebears mediated through the ‘inheritance’ of place.”Thus, Clarke explains, “[t]hrough their intimate and extensive knowledge of the Dreaming, an Aboriginal person could never become truly lost in their own land.”This also explains the sense of responsibility Aboriginal peoples often have for the land, which they must “manage”or “care for.”While European settlers viewed the land as an “uncultivated” “desert,”Aboriginal Australians saw and often still see the spiritual and the physical, the past and the present, as existing side by side.
It is this sense of spatial and temporal copresence that leads scholars of educational sciences David R. Cole and Margaret Somerville to describe Aboriginal worldviews as a “flat ontology,”comparable to what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call a “plane of immanence,” i.e., a plane where things coexist on the same level.In 1982, Carl Georg von Brandenstein had also argued, according to Philippe Descola, that “the whole Australian totemic system is governed by a single immanent logic,”albeit without referring to Deleuze and Guattari. But Descola himself is more cautious when it comes to considering the Dreaming in terms of immanence: “Amid all these separate ontological streams, it would be hard to distinguish a purely objective materiality that could be separated from a structuring intentionality and from a creative project immanent in everything and to which everything testifies.”Descola’s prudence draws attention to the risks, for a Western scholar, of circumscribing another culture’s belief systems according to a familiar framework that appears to be close enough. Artists, and in the scope of this article filmmakers, attempting to express the singluarity of the Dreaming and country run a very similar risk: that of modeling the unfamiliar according to Western conventions and/or of attempting to appropriate the unfamiliar, but in this case the ethical and political problems are intermeshed with the aesthetic challenge of finding ways to share, at least to some degree, sensible experiences, that is experiences that are not necessarily discursive in the first place.
Earlier Cinematic Expressions of the Dreaming and Country
Many such attempts existed before Where the Green Ants Dream and Charlie’s Country. Feature films that depict encounters between Aboriginal peoples and Anglo Australians, usually from the perspective of the latter, often dramatize the differences in the perception of the land. Stephen Teo contends that, even in Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955), which “deal[s] with the effects of Aboriginal exclusion and social marginalisation,” the protagonists “appear to move in their own spaces as if in a trance,” and the story takes “place in Aboriginal time;”yet if the second half of the film follows Jedda’s enchantment and abduction by an Aboriginal man named Marbuck who takes her on a nightmare version of the walkabout she so longed for, the devices used to express this otherness are fairly basic exotic and Gothic tropes (images of snakes and crocodiles, of cliffs and pools, nightime scenes tinged with silver blue, strings descending a minor scale while horns sound the alarm), at least until the epilogue which utilizes animation to visualize Jedda’s “soul” flying with the wild geese, “happy with the Mother of the world in the Dreaming time of tomorrow,” as the voice-over explains. In a later film like Storm Boy (Henri Safran, 1976), the scene where the Aboriginal character, Fingerbone, tells the child hero the story of the pelicans contrasts with the pastoral aesthetics of the rest of the film; a right-to-left pan over the cliffs, as Fingerbone speaks in voice-over, even suggests that the latter is reading the land, is voicing its significance and has, by metonymy, become its voice.
Among these early feature films, no doubt the most radical experiment in the dramatization of the Aboriginal experience of the land is the British-Australian coproduction Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971), which introduced the young David Gulpilil. Lost in the desert, two siblings, the Girl and the White Boy, are saved by a chance encounter with a Black Boy whose command of the environment enables them to survive and ultimately return to white civilization. The first meeting immediately establishes their different relation to their environment: the Black Boy first appears hunting a goanna, and when the Girl begs him to help them find water, he laughs, turns a stick into a straw and shows them that, all along, the water had been right under their feet. While Anne Hickling-Houston, who mainly pays attention to the plot, deplores that “it is only in her dreams that [the Girl] can accomodate the idea of delight in the company of a black whom in reality she has driven to suicide,”Peter Malone insists on an interacial “communication of feeling […] in a shared quest.”For if it is true that the narrative positions us alongside the Girl and the White Boy, and thus constructs the Black Boy as an enigmatic other, the narration strives to convey the dynamics of disconnection and connection, alienation and encounter.
In terms of editing, Walkabout aims for the same kind of sensual “mosaic”that made Roeg famous with his first entry Performance (1970), a psychedelic gangster movie starring Mick Jagger. Michael Dempsey has argued that “Roeg’s montage does not say that two shots are connected, it says that they might be. Eisenstein’s editing aims at certainty, Roeg’s for uncertainty. With Roeg, A plus B does not necessarily equal C; it may equal D or Q or nothing, and plus may be minus.”This is mostly true of Walkabout, though I believe the film is nonetheless Roeg’s most Eisensteinian. The juxtaposition and repetition of signs (the goanna, the repeated image of the father’s suicide) create a sense of a timeless land filled with possible connections. As in Roeg’s other films according to Dempsey, the symbols are not necessarily imbued with a stable meaning, but it is implied that the meaning (or at least some of it), the “universal truths we do not understand,”have, like the water found by the Boy, been right under our feet all along. The material matters, even if its significance can be elusive. Thus, the sense of “uncertainty” Dempsey points to is somewhat dispelled by the presence of the Aboriginal worldview. Significantly, the Black Boy’s sudden appearance introduces a sense of structure that is both aesthetic and cultural: the random shot of the goanna is now integrated within a hunter-hunted relationship, and thus within a narrative and a practice. By displaying the connectedness of the world, the narration attempts to reproduce the Dreaming wherein the human and the animal, the material and the spiritual, the past, present and future are intimately connected. It is thus at odds with the white-centered narrative and debunks any sense of hierarchy between two worldviews that are diegetically opposed, most famously when the Girl fails to comprehend the Black Boy’s mating ritual in a scene grounded in an opposition between inside and outside. Even after the sister and brother’s return to civilization, it is on the utopian moment when the three bathed naked in a pool nestled in the rocks that the film chooses to end on via a flashback.
Although Huckling-Houston’s complaint regarding the containment of the potential interracial intercourse is understandable, the point Walkabout seems to be making is that it is only by looking back on that precise moment and re-experiencing it in memory—a theme that would structure Roeg’s subsequent film, Don’t Look Now (1973)—that the potential of the interracial and intercultural utopia can be sensed by the Girl. The end is thus metafictionally commenting on the film’s own endeavor to deal with the aesthetic and ethical problems tied to any attempt by a white person to express the Dreaming in cinematic form: the whole of Walkabout calls on a familiar framework—Roeg’s own brand of montage cinema—in its attempt to share a strange experience, but the familiar framework, like the flashback (or like the use of Fingerbone as a synecdoche of nature in Storm Boy), is both a distancing effect and a reminder of the gap between two worldviews, one that, in its attempt to reproduce the Aboriginal experience of time-space, threatens, as the Edenic imagery and gushy music of the flashback suggest, to romanticize and thus misrepresent it.
Where the Green Ants Dream: European Art Cinema and its Avowed Limitations
Most mainstream films that followed, such as Storm Boy and The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977), privileged the white-centered perspective on the encounter with Aboriginal peoples.Where the Green Ants Dream is no exception. The premise of Herzog’s film is loosely based on Milirrpum v. Nabalco Pty Ltd, the first litigation on native title in Australia opposing a mining and extraction company to the Rirratingu clan of western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The Rirratingu lost, but the 1971 case paved the way for the Woodward Report of 1975 and the Aboriginal Land Rights Bill of 1976.The casting of Roy Marika reinforces the documentary quality, as he was involved in the case, but his character is renamed Dayipu, Justice Blackburn becomes Judge Blackburn, and the feud is relocated in the desert of South Australia. Lance Hackett, a geologist hired by the Ayersmining company to study the subsoil, is caught in the middle of the feud; the Aboriginal worldview sparks his interest, while they, in the words of one racist police officer, “seem to like to want to speak to” him. Our initiation into the Aboriginal worldview partly follows the protagonist’s discovery of their ways in various conversations—Thomas Elsaesser even goes so far as to suggest that the narrative arc of Lance Hackett represents Herzog’s first venture in a Hollywood goal-oriented narrative,while Manuel Köppen argues that it is grounded in the European Bildungsroman tradition.But unlike Hollywood movies that offer a sympathetic perspective on Native Americans, such as Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves, 1950) and Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990), the white person is not “the gravitational centre of the film,” and the “Aborigines seem neither victims nor victimized heroes.”I would further argue that the foray into the worldview of the fictitious Aboriginal characters (the green ant totem was borrowed from a different clan associated with a different part of Australia) is not primarily narrative. Where the Green Ants Dream deploys, in effect, a specific poetics to evoke the schism, the “incompatibility,”between two cultural and sensible landscapes. Three strategies in particular are employed: one primarily related to the experience of time, another to the experience of space, and yet another relying primarily on sound.
The aural terms are established from the outset. The film opens on Gabriel Fauré’s “Pie Jésu” from his Requiem op.48 (1887–1990), which accompanies sublime images of a Midwestern tornado, followed by the diegetic sounds of the mining machines seen on screen, until the didgeridoo takes over in a medium shot of Miliritbi, and accompanies two subsequent long shots, as well as a lengthy leftward tracking shot that surveils the South Australian desert. Three views of the land are thus presented: the European romantic, the Western capitalist and the Aboriginal Australian. The choice of a funereal piece by Fauré, a composer marking the transition from romanticism to modernism, seems to suggest that the two Western views, though dichotomous on the surface, are ultimately complicit. But the views are also organized according to an implacable logic from the mournful voice of the soprano to the low earthen tones of an instrument often used, according to Herzog, for ceremonies and burials.The opening thus invites us to rid ourselves of our romantic and/or utilitarian attitude towards the land to espouse, instead, an alternative view that places spiritual and material on the same plane. This is confirmed in subsequent scenes when classical music is associated with the Aboriginal characters following Cole’s complaint that his caterpillar no longer runs (Ernest Bloch’s 1936 “Voice in the Wilderness”), next when Dayipu and Miliritbi sit in the green plane after having lost the trial (Bloch again), then when the camera pans over the desert (Richard Wagner’s 1857-1858 Wesendock Lieder) and Lance recounts a childhood memory, and finally when the dynamiting commences (Bloch again). Whether romantic (Wagner), post-romantic (Bloch) or somewhere in between (Fauré), the music is shown to be be complicit with the assault on the land precisely because it taints it with a sense of pastness; it is likewise complicit with the construction of the Vanishing Aboriginal trope, and more profoundly perhaps, it is responsible for alienating some of us from other possible relationships to the land. Where the Green Ants Dream thus contains the critique of Herzog’s own romantic tendencies, noted by Elsaesser,notably in his apparent reliance on “the romantic conception of the noble savage,”tendencies that were particularly evident in the narrative of Fitzcarraldo (1982), whose hero wanted to open an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle; Fitzcarraldo’s mad venture, in which he exploits a native work force and destroys their land in order to impose Western culture, coded white like his suit, is ultimately just a later, more artsy version of the 1972 Don Lope de Aguirre’s colonizing enterprise. The significance of music in the opening credits and scenes of Where the Green Ants Dream ultimately alerts us to the multiple frameworks that are being tested to approach the Aboriginal experience of the land; by shifting from one type of music to another, the film’s aesthetics foregrounds its own self-conscisouness about its problematic ethical and political relationship to its material.
The second device, which follows from “a specifically European non-Hollywood emphasis on temps mort,”involves the duration of shots and sequences, particularly in landscape scenes where the Aboriginal characters are often portrayed sitting and watching the land. With or without these characters, these shots conform to landscape shots, the people’s stillness emphasizing their belonging to the land. By contrast, the intrusion of white people comes with action, noise and sometimes fury. The presentation of both parties—the Aboriginal characters outside, Lance, Miss Strehlow and Cole in the geologist’s office—is opposed on such grounds, a contrast reinforced by the use of analytical editing in the office and the lack of continuity in the shots of the Aboriginal people outside. The contrast gives way to conflict when Dayipu and Miliritbi block Lance’s way in the following scene. The shot/reverse shot depicts the Aboriginal spokesmen with the devastated land in the background, and Lance in his jeep with his prefabricated house behind him; the composition seems to reverse the apparent balance of power by depicting the white man framed by the Aboriginal men’s two sticks, but what it also suggests is that his exploitative attitude towards the land is restrictive both physically and spiritually. The situation is repeated shortly thereafter, albeit more brutally, in the scene where Cole threatens to bury alive three Aboriginal men sitting in his way with his bulldozer. Through imagery that recalls Herzog’s 1971 documentary Fata Morgana set in the Sahara Desert,two relationships to the earth are thus established: one that exploits it, one that inhabits it. Cole’s threatening to treat the Aboriginal characters like dirt paradoxically reinforces their claim to the land, which is visually rendered by the lateral shot that concludes the action.
The tension between the Aboriginal Australians’ and the corporation’s relationship to the land is expressed according to an almost Deleuzian opposition between immanence and transcendence. Aesthetically speaking, it is also an opposition between time-image and movement-image cinema: the images of Aboriginal people offer a direct representation of time and depict characters watching; those of the white people are organized according to a sensori-motor regime (and a goal-oriented narrative, as Elsaesser suggests) whereby time is evoked indirectly. Where the Green Ant Dreams employs the two modes of time-image identified by Deleuze: the lengthy deep focus shots invoke the “coexistence of sheets of past,” in this case the (hi)story of the land that is visible to the Aboriginal Australian; the lack of continuity editing the “simultaneity of presents.”And yet the tension between time-image and movement-image, or between New German and Hollywood cinema,is precisely one inscribed in our Western perspective. For what appears to the white characters and to many viewers, no doubt, as passivity is, in point of fact, the very opposite: the Aboriginal characters are not just sitting; they are connecting to the land and the Dreaming, and they “are keeping watch,” as Miliritbi tells Lance. In other words, they are not the passive, wandering subjects of art cinema. Theirs is simply a different sensibility to time and space, albeit one that remains largely enigmatic to the white characters, the viewers and even Herzog who admits to having “a certain understanding of them,” but one that is “limited.”By the end of the film, even after his many discussions with Dayipu and Miliritbi, Lance will end up admitting to another white character: “Some tribal Aborigines arrived yesterday from up in the mountains. Maybe they’ve got something to say. They just sit there saying nothing. You know the way they do?” The conventions of art cinema are just another framework the film resorts to try and apprehend the Aboriginal experience.
Figure 1 The Aboriginal characters watching over the land in Where the Green Ants Dream (Pro-ject Filmproduktion, 1984).
It is the film’s own limitations at capturing this different cultural and sensible experience that the third device emphasizes within the regime of time-image cinema. This device also involves shots of the Aboriginal characters and/or the landscape, but it consists more precisely in the repetition of specific compositions. Following the tracking shot that concludes the opening credits, a backshot depicts three Aboriginal people sitting down with a pile of dirt in the left midground and a truck in the right background (see Figure 1), before panning right to show the rest of the group, all staring in the same direction. The composition suggests that, like us, they are staring at the machines, an effect produced by the fact that we are facing the same direction as them without being able to see their gazes; even the pan to the left fails to disclose their gazes, at least until it settles on a frontal medium full shot of two characters, a man focused on his beer and a woman gazing offscreen to the right. What the film progressively reveals is that, all along, the Aboriginal characters were not seeing the same things as we were. Or rather, they were seeing much more. This is first stated explicitly when Dayipu and Miliritbi explain the motive of their protest: “There will be no digging and there will be no blasting. […] This is the place where the green ants dream.” The point is furthered in the supermarket scene where Lance inquires about the Aboriginal Australians’ strange behavior to the manager (see Figure 2).
Figure 2 Lance asks the manager about the Aboriginal Australians in his supermarket in Where the Green Ants Dream (Pro-ject Filmproduktion, 1984).
Supermarket manager: “It’s a sacred site.”
Lance: “There beside the detergent?”
Supermarket manager: “Yeah, that’s where the one tree for miles used to stand. Then we put up the shop, cut down the tree, didn’t we? They weren’t too happy about that (laughs). […] Where their children are dreamed. That’s what they reckon. First the fathers dream the children, then the children are born.”
Lance: “And that’s the only place the children can be dreamed?”
Supermarket manager: “That’s right. We used to chuck them out of there, but they kept on coming back. Then we sort of got used to them. […] I’ve belatedly formed the opinion that they’re good for business. More children, more customers.”
The Aboriginal characters are not squatting; they are gathered round a site that remains relevant to them in spite of the absence of the tree in the here and now. These two scenes in particular invite the viewer to look again, more closely, and try and see the tree and the green ants.
The repetition of landscape shots throughout the film thus serves a specific purpose: they are beckoning us to broaden our sense of vision. For instance, the supermarket scene is introduced by a 35-second-long left-to-right pan, a very common way of setting the stage in a film, notably in Westerns. The next left-to-right pan (37 seconds long) depicts the landscape before locating Dayipu and Miliritbi, who have been waiting outside Lance’s office “for a little long while,” “since the sun went down.” The last instance of a left-to-right pan (15 seconds long) shows the moon in the background between the machines, a celestial body that in some Aboriginal beliefs connects earth and sky (Clarke 27), the subsequent 54-seconds-long right-to-left pan the mist rising out of the earth, introducing verticality in an otherwise horizontal vista. The repetition and duration of what could have been mere establishing shots ultimately heighten the significance of the landscape: we are encouraged to see more than just the land occupied physically by the company and the Aboriginal people more than just the present land changing, but the land as a cultural landscape that stretches back in time to the Dreaming, a land that is rich not just in minerals, but in history, myth and spirituality, and thus a land that needs to be actively and constantly watched over. If Herzog came to regret the moral didacticism of a plot that unabashedly chooses its sides,aesthetically speaking, Where the Green Ants Dream subtly draws attention to its own limitations, hinting that, in the end, all it can do is suggest the Aboriginal experience of the land, evoke it through metonymy, and not offer a direct depiction.
Charlie’s Country: the Potential of Slow Cinema and Haptic Aesthetics
Charlie’s Country is the third of a trilogy that proposes a sort of history of Aboriginal Australia, from pre-colonial (Ten Canoes), early 20th (The Tracker) to post-Mabo (Charlie’s Country) times. In The Tracker, the introduction to Aboriginal country is mediated by a white character named The Follower, as Felicity Collins and Therese Davis have argued:
The Tracker is now recognised as the one who is ‘at home’, welcoming The Follower to another’s country where they are both strangers, or guests. Indeed, The Tracker’s hospitality extends to a willingness to share cultural knowledge, opening the eyes of The Follower and the spectator to his cultural understanding of the land as ‘country’. This is a relation to the land that eschews notions of ownership in favour of custodial obligation and belonging. The end of the film makes the meaning of country even clearer as The Tracker sets off on the long return journey to his own country. This scenario of hospitable exchange in another’s country stands in contrast to the discourse of exile generated by neo-conservatives in the wake of Mabo.
Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country likewise aim to share cultural knowledge, but the notion of “hospitable exchange in another’s country,” which remains central to the films’ ethics and politics, dispenses with a white follower and relies entirely on the films’ aesthetics. Unlike Where the Green Ants Dream, then, but like more recent films such as Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson, 2001), Ten Canoes and Samson & Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009), Charlie’s Country is entirely centered on the Aboriginal protagonist. The dialogue is mainly in Aboriginal languages. And with the exception of a few nobody’s shots of landscapes, the narration is firmly aligned with Charlie’s perspective.The white characters are not only secondary; they are reduced to functions (the credits identify them as Bank Teller, Darwin Hospital Nurse, Darwin Police, Parole Officer, Bottle Shop Operator, etc.) and are somewhat dehumanized by the narration by being relegated to the margins or even to the offscreen—the only one with a name (Luke) ends up using Charlie as an example of his race’s essential dishonesty. Clearly, our sympathies are meant to lie with Charlie, and this is heightened for viewers familiar with Gulpilil and the difficulties he faced at the time. The film is not even remotely concerned with how white people are affected by the Aboriginal characters; it is all about how the latter are affected by those they call the “white bastards” and their law: “I work for them catching criminals and they don’t pay me,” Charlie tells his friend Black Pete. “They stole our land and put a police station on it.” In this respect, Charlie’s Country represents a step forward from what Hickling-Houston observes in earlier films such as Jedda and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which are limited by what she calls the “dilemma” of “white liberalism,” i.e., the suggestion that “the central feature of black identity is the internal conflict”it provokes within whites.
The aesthetics of Charlie’s Country tap into two contemporary trends that have drawn much critical attention: slow cinema and haptic visuality.While scholars have drawn attention to the increasing presence of slow cinema,Catherine Fowler explains that “engagements with slow cinema traditions” have, since Chantal Akerman and Andrei Tarkovsky, converged “around the conviction that through diegetic variations in speed viewers who engage will start to see things differently.”This is clearly what a film like Charlie’s Country is aiming for. The narration is based on slice-of-life scenes, many of which are lengthy single-take shots. The opening credits immediately establish the rhythm with a two-minute-long medium full shot of Charlie studying a piece of paper.The aesthetics of duration are reinforced by the stasis of some scenes, which the handheld camera and slight movements (pans, track-ins) somewhat temper, as well as by the silence (including pauses between spoken lines). Compositions can even heighten both the sense of silence and stasis by materializing the distance spatially, as in the scene where Charlie and Bobby converse after fifty seconds of silence. The repetition of certain situations largely contributes to the aesthetics of duration: Charlie is depicted sitting in front of his fire seven times, hanging out with Black Pete three times, running into Luke three times, collecting his check twice, etc. Such repetitions are typical, of course, of the slice-of-life approach indebted to documentary.But they also serve to foreground the economic and legal impasse Charlie and the community find themselves in. This is particularly obvious when their instruments to procure nourishment (car, rifle, spear) are, each in turn, confiscated by the police. The mundane is occasionally broken by mini-dramas and -comedies, yet even these scenes are based on repetition. This is notably the case when Charlie dupes two groups of white people (first Gas, then the police) who perpetuate the original settlers’ employment of Aboriginal people as trackers, Gulpilil momentarily reprising his role as racial avenger in The Tracker and thus debunking this staple figure of Australian cultural traditions, that has long featured in purgatorial narratives centered on white characters.Significantly, the spiral of repetition is broken only when Charlie, the hunter, decides to abandon the community and “live the old way” in his “Mother Country.” It returns with a vengeance in the second half of the movie when, evicted from his country, he sinks into the routine of alcoholism and, after defying the police, ends up doing time in prison; in both cases, specific shots and scenes are repeated up to five times each—Charlie at the ATM or pushing the laundry in prison—thus confirming that life on tribal land under the watchful eye of the police was, at least to some extent, already a form of dead-end, a symbolic imprisonment.
Charlie’s turn to traditional ways in the second act is also a departure in aesthetic terms. If the slice-of-life approach persists, repetition and stasis make way for diversity and movement. Scenes become shorter, and the editing more dynamic. Charlie’s first days in the bush are narrated in a montage scene, including nine single-take shots ranging from 10 to 30 seconds in length. Though his ill health eventually catches up to him, Charlie demonstrates his knowledge of the land, his ability to build a shelter from branches and leaves, to spear a fish and find edible nuts which must be roasted before they can be consumed, to move to higher ground and sleep under a rock when the rain comes. It is in these scenes in particular that the film employs a haptic aesthetics in order to relay Charlie’s own experience of the land. Laura Marks says of haptic visuality that it “is more inclined to move than to focus, more inclined to graze than to gaze”;“[t]he viewer’s vision takes a tactile relation to the surface of the image, moving over the figures that merge in the image plane as though even faraway things are only an inch from one’s body.”Marks identifies several devices that have haptic potential, including close shots of bodies, camera movements that caress, attention to the surface and the grain of the image.
In Charlie’s Country, the haptic turn is signaled from the outset by the close-up of a branch swaying gently before the protagonist enters the bush, an image of quasi-stasis that can be described, in Deleuzian terms, as an opsign, a pure visual signwhich we experience for its own sake rather than in the scope of an action-driven plot. It is followed by a long shot of Charlie entering the bush; as Charlie moves away, the weeds swaying in the foreground increasingly draw our attention away from the protagonist, their gentle movement teasing our gaze which darts back in forth between the figure and the weeds, until the figure is sufficiently removed that we can give it up and allow the weeds to take over and caresss our gaze (see Figures 3.1–3.2). Subsequent shots emphasize the tactile through close shots and an emphasis on a variety of textures: the weeds, of course, the embers in the fire, Charlie’s sacred board,the white flesh of the fish, the smoke and flames rising up in the foreground, the sheets of rain falling. The flames and smoke especially, like the weeds, draw attention away from Charlie to the surface of the image, touching our gaze, so to speak. The sheer density of the bush creates a sense of flatness, as in the POV shot that pans slowly over the foliage while Charlie eats; if the camera movement directs the viewer’s gaze, the flat effect encourages it to wander over the surface of the image. A similar effect is achieved when the camera pans over or tracks in on the rock art that itself lacks perspective, inviting our gaze to touch it. Of course, the viewer’s eye cannot, as Antoine Gaudin notes, be forced into adopting a two-dimensional rather than a three-dimensional persective on cinematographic space;such devices can only encourage us to do so. Images that invite a haptic gaze do occur prior to this scene—for instance, when smoke drifts up from the fire in a medium close-up of Charlie or when Charlie and Peter enter the bush in pursuit of a water buffalo—suggesting that such sensual experiences with the environment persist in contemporary Aboriginal lives. However, the fact that they are distributed more sparsely than in the scenes where Charlie lives in the bush emphasizes how hard it is to resist and maintain a mode of inhabiting the land that differs from the Western capitalist model.
Figures 3.1-3.2 Charlie enters the bush in Charlie’s Country (Bula’bula Arts Aboriginal, 2013).
If the haptic aesthetics appear to be predominantly applied to economics (food, housing), they also encompass the spiritual ties to the land (the sacred board, the rock art). For ultimately, the title of the film suggests, “Charlie’s country” can only be understood as both a space and an identity, in which the cultural, social, physical and spiritual are intermeshed. De Heer and Gulpilil’s resorting to haptic aesthetics to invoke a sensual and spiritual relationship to the land participates in a larger tendency discussed by Marks; she associates the haptic turn to intercultural cinemas in particular, cinemas which engage with cultures that value the senses of smell, taste and touch, senses that imply greater proximity than those of hearing and sight.In such films, and certainly in Charlie’s Country, haptic aesthetics, in tandem with slow cinema conventions, aim, in effect, not only to mimic an experience, but to bridge the distance between viewers and the people who, perhaps, appear strange to them, in other words to make these sensual experiences felt to a wide variety of audiences. Unlike Where the Green Ants Dream, then, Charlie’s Country does not appear to question its capacity to evoke this experience cinematographically but resolutely believes in the expressive potential of its poetics. Perhaps, De Heer, unlike Herzog, is simply not as self-conscious about his position as an outsider because of his collaborative approach to directing and because he is not aiming for the symbolic aspects of Aboriginal culture but for its singularities.
A work becomes political, Rancière says, when it establishes a conflict between several sensorial regimes.This is exactly what Where the Green Ants Dream and Charlie’s Country aim to do. Concluding that the land cries out in these movies and nothing more entails falling back on a Western romantic view. On one level, their narratives are unambiguous indictments of the treatment of Aboriginal peoples at the hands of a Western capitalist State, one which exploits and polices their land, determines its boundaries, rules and value, and threatens to unleash the green ants who “will destroy the whole universe world.” Capitalism may uproot a tree and disturb the ants, the law may uproot an individual, but the cultural landscape remains, persists, resists, and, in these films at least,will be passed on by the elders and the stories they tell. In terms of aesthetics, the films endeavor to evoke an Aboriginal view of the land as immediate, present, as an ontology in which identity, land, present and past, the material, the spiritual and the mythical coexist. Beyond the slice-of-life approach indebted to documentary, both films strive to convey a specific experience of the land that is sensible and cultural. They do so through a poetics of duration and repetition, which many contemporary films about Aboriginal people’s lives, whether set in the contemporary world (Samson & Delilah) or in pre-colonial times (Ten Canoes) resort to. But each film also privileges a specific aesthetics, whether based on European art cinema conventions in Where the Green Ants Dream or on haptic visuality in Charlie’s Country. This is not to say that these aesthetics are incompatible, nor that Herzog rejects the tactile or that de Heer rejects the art cinema tradition. For Eric Ames, Herzog’s approach to landscape is very much haptic.In Where the Green Ants Dream, for instance, the pans and tracking shots analyzed above encourage our gazes to graze the land, to run over the anthill-like mounds, while the color scheme and texture insist on the grainy red-orange earth as much as those of Charlie’s Country do on the raspy greenish-brown bush.
Rather than attempting to assess if one aesthetics is more appropriate than the other (personally, I think that, in each case, they mainly achieve what they set out to do), I would like to make a series of observations. First, the films’ aesthetics are intimately correlated to the narratives and their political implications: the haptic visuality of Charlie’s Country is consistent with a narration that clings to the body of its protagonist, and thus implicitly rejects the dominance of sight (Charlie does away with his glasses); in Where the Green Ants Dream, the tension between movement- and time-image cinema, or between mainstream and art cinema, resonates with a narrative relating a clash between two highly different worldviews. Second, the films’ aesthetics reflect the trends of their times: Herzog as a figurehead of New German Cinema and one of Deleuze’s examples of time-image cinema;Gulpilil, de Heer and their team as representatives of the sort of intercultural cinema that emerged in the 1990s. Third, both aesthetics resonate more broadly in the artists’ œuvre: the tension in Where the Green Ants Dream also confirms that Herzog is questioning the way his films tread the fine line between anthropological and metaphorical,while the haptic visuality of Charlie’s Country also participates in telling the story of the most famous Aboriginal film actor who, like Charlie, sunk into alcoholism and went to jail, and whose body bears the scars.Finally, the films’ aesthetics evince a degree of awareness in the political and ethical problems posed by the aesthetic challenge of expressing an experience of the land that is singular to another culture: in this case, white directors attempting to give cinematic expression to the Aboriginal notions of country and the Dreaming. Herzog and de Heer’s awareness of the problem, however, lead to different solutions specific to their times and personal situations. In the case of Where the Green Ants Dream, the political problem is addressed in the film’s form by foregrounding the various frameworks that can be used to apprehend the Aboriginal conception of space-time. For the Dutch Australian director, the solution has more to do with practice than form, although the former obviously has consequences on the latter. De Heer attempts to resolve the problem through collaborative filmmaking as a cultural and aesthetic exchange (this was already the case in The Tracker where Aboriginal country singer Archie Roach plays the part of the voice-over narrator), so that, in the end, Charlie’s Country is as much a collaboration between De Heer and Gulpilil as Ten Canoes is between De Heer and Peter Djigirr.
In any case, the aesthetic problem explored in these two films is not specific to non-Aboriginal directors, but can be one for any filmmaker. Films by Aboriginal directors resort to many of the same devices associated with art cinema, haptic cinema, slow cinema, as Where the Green Ants Dream and Charlie’s Country. Stephen Teo claims that the post-Western neo-noir Mystery Road (2013), written and directed by Iven Sen, “take[s] place in Aboriginal time.”Indeed, Mystery Road and its sequel Goldstone (2016) feature jarring lengthy extreme high-angle establishing shots that put into relief the flatness of the land and turn the characters into ants that are barely decipherable to the eye, inviting our gazes to wander across the image in search for their presence, but also, given the length of such shots, to read the traces of the present (the tire tracks) and the persistence of the past (the tree) that mark the land (Fig. 4).
Figure 4: Detective Jay Swan exits his vehicle in Goldstone (Bunya Productions/Dark Matter, 2016).
In Warwick Thornton’s splendid Sweet Country (2018), the teleological linearity of the Western narrative of progress and conquest, supported by classical narration, is regularly broken by scenes which resemble classical flashbacks, yet turn out to be flashforwards or fantasies, thereby introducing uncertainty as to the coordinates of such scenes which nonetheless exist alongside the classical narrative. Sen’s and Thornton’s films suggest that Aboriginal directors may also find themselves struggling with film conventions, developed primarily by white male directors, to give expression to their culture’s singular experience of the land.
This is not to say that film is ontologically inapt as a medium to express various cultural and sensible experiences, but that its conventions need to be interrogated and reimagined to allow for the emergence of new potentials. This is exactly what anthropologist Jennifer Deger observed while working with members of a Yolngu community. Her experience with Bangana Wunungmurra, the director of Gularri, broadcast on local public television from 1997 to 1998, convinced her that “Yolngu imaginations have not been colonized to the extent that it is only possible for them to perceive the world according to the representational logics of a Western technological modernity.”On the contrary, Wunungmurra saw video as a means to allow Yolngu people to reconnect with country. Of his treatment of space, and in particular of the water and river system shot in pans and close-up,Deger notes that he exploited “the gaps beteween the ‘unseeing’ eye of the cameraman and the knowing eyes of Yolngu viewers.”He thus created a highly empowering experience for his target audience—a relation to the image that is reminiscent of Herzog’s project because of its haptic aesthetics and attention to the invisible, but that eliminates the colonial gaze by not making it about the white person wondering what the Aboriginal person is seeing. Such reinvention is central to what Rancière describes as the practice of “dissensus,” which the philosopher considers to be essential to political art and its “efficacy.”Therein lies the paradox of the endeavor at the heart of these films’ expressions of the Aboriginal experience, and perhaps at the heart of all political cinema: that to be effective, the “sharing of the sensible,” in this case experiencing the Aboriginal view of the land, depends on disconnections between a singular worldview and the frameworks called on to try and apprehend it.
In 1992, the High Court of Australia, in Mabo v. Queensland (No 1), put an end to the colonial doctrine of terra nullius, which stipulated that English law would be applicable in any country that the law deemed to be “uninhabited.” Aboriginal land rights had consequently been denied.
Herzog insists on the fact that there were “discussions” with the Aboriginal Australians he worked with, notably concerning whether they found his ideas “acceptable;” moreover, Wandjuk Marika performed the didgeridoo score and is credited as the film’s composer. De Heer also insists on the part played by members of the Ramingining community in “creating interesting things” in both Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country; Peter Djigirr is credited as co-director of the 2006 film, Gulpilil as co-writer of the 2013 film. De Heer also spoke about “creative collaboration” at the 2015 Asia Pacific Screen Awards in Brisbane, and explained in particular how “a sort of balance” between the people in Ramingining and his crew was achieved “from the outset” because each party depended on the other to make Ten Canoes; he also explained that, as he was “from the dominant culture,” he “had ceded creative control to the Yolngu subordinate culture,” so that, in the end, it “was their film as much as it was anyone’s.” See Simon Mizrahi, “Interview with Werner Herzog on Where the Green Ants Dream,” in Werner Herzog: Interviews, ed. Eric Ames (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2014), 87. And Michel Ciment and Lorenzo Codelli, “Entretien avec Rolf de Heer,” Positif 646 (Dec 2014): 34. See also “Rolf de Heer on Creative Collaboration,” speech given on December 7, 2015, http://www.screendirector.org/post/2015/rolf-de-heer-on-creative-collaboration.
Andrew W. Hurley. “Whose Dreaming? Intercultural Appropriation, Representations of Aboriginality, and the Process of Film-making in Werner Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream (1983).” Studies in Australasian Cinema 1.2 (2007): 188. Hurley explains that Aboriginal artist and activist Wandjuk Marika was particularly uncomfortable with both Herzog’s creative license and directing methods (183-84).
Jacques Rancière, Le Spectateur émancipé (Paris : La Fabrique, 2008), 70, my translation. Note that a different version of this essay, entitled “Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community,” is included in the English translation The Emancipated Spectator.
Philip Clarke, Where the Ancestors Walked: Australia as an Aboriginal Landscape (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2003), 39. Alan Rumsey, “Language and Territoriality in Aboriginal Australia,” in Language and Culture in Aboriginal Australia, ed. Michael Walsh and Colin Yallop (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1993 ), 191.
Clarke, Where the Ancestors Walked, 19. L.R. Hiatt, “Aboriginal Land Tenure and Contemporary Claims in Australia,” in We Are Here: Politics of Aboriginal Land Tenure, ed. Edwin N. Wilmsen (Berkeley, L.A. and London: U of California P, 1989), 111.
Fred Myers, “Burning the Truck and Holding the Country: Pintupi Forms of Property and Indentity,” in We Are Here: Politics of Aboriginal Land Tenure, ed. Edwin N. Wilmsen (Berkeley, L.A. and London: U of California P, 1989), 40.
David R. Cole and Margaret Somervielle, “Thinking School Curriculum through Country with Deleuze and Whitehead: A Process-based Synthesis.” in Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and the Arts in Education, ed. Christopher Naughton, Gert Biesta and David R. Cole (London and New York: Routledge, 2018), 72–73.
Philippe Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 274. Desola is here referring to Brandenstein’s Names and Substance of the Australian Subsection System (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1982).
The name of the company is highly symbolic, as Ayers was the English name given to Uluru, a rock that is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara Anangu that live in the area. The name of the company thus points to another form of capitalist exploitation of the land: tourism.
Thomas Elsaesser, “An Anthropologist’s Eye: Where the Green Ants Dream,” in The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History, ed. Timothy Corrigan (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), 142.
Manuel Köppen, “Didgeridoo, or the Search for the Origin of the Self: Werner Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream and Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines,” in A Companion to Werner Herzog, ed. Brad Prager (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 361.
Corinn Columpar has insisted on how the film sticks close to Gulpilil’s body and perspective. Corinn Columpar. “Charlie’s Country, Gulpilil’s Body.” A Companion to Australian Cinema. Eds. Felicity Collins, Jane Landman and Susan Bue. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2019. 58, 63.
See Tiago De Luca and Nuño Barradas Jorge, eds., Slow Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University UP, 2016). Or more recently Emre Çağlayan, Poetics of Slow Cinema: Nostalgia, Absurdism, Boredom (Newcastle upon Tyne: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
Catherine Fowler, “Slow Looking: Confronting Moving Images with Georges Didi-Huberman,” in Indefinite Visions: Cinema and the Attractions of Uncertainty, ed. Martine Beugnet, Allan Cameron and Arild Fetveit (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2018), 242.
This is not the case of Samson & Delilah which insists, instead, on the generation gap within an Aboriginal community, the protagonists getting kicked out of their village following the death of Delilah’s Nana.
Ciment and Codelli, “Entretien avec Rolf de Heer,” 33. See Paul Risker, “A Veteran’s Next Step: Rolf de Heer on Charlie’s Country,” Film International 71 (2015): 135. For an analysis of the relationship between Gulpilil and his character, see Columpar’s “Charlie’s Country, Gulpilil’s Body” (57).