Thoughts on ethnography and the Kimberley

I went into the premiere and special presentation around the film “Undermined: Tales from the Kimberley” with little prior knowledge about the film, or its social implications in respect to the current Australian geo-political climate surrounding the indigenous people of northern Australia. It was a thought provoking and informative documentary, and was very well made. What I was most curious about afterward though, was the level of research that went into the presentation of this film at the festival. Not particularly from the director’s, producer’s or ‘subjects’ involved in making this film’s point of view, but from the relationship between the work of an ethnographer and the curating of films.

Toby Lee wrote at length about how he had realised retrospectively the importance of his ethnographic research of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, and how it shaped his understanding of film festivals as “not only culturally, politically, and economically embedded social experiences…” but also his understanding of “the larger transnational networks in which (film festivals) operate” (Lee, 2016). This had made me wonder about the research that had gone into the curating and presentation of this documentary. The experience itself started off with a ceremonial ritualistic “welcome” to the audience, followed by a musical presentation by one of the “subjects” of the film. The main ‘subject’ of the film, then said a few more words before the film was then screened. After the film ended, there was a Q&A where several audience members shared their thoughts and emotions toward the topics before asking questions on the film.

As a documentary, it was not surprising that the questions asked were less about how the film was made but more about the implications of the message portrayed. Even after the moderator with the microphone asked the audience for questions, not statements, many had started off with extending their condolences. Questions were vague, as if the audience was struggling to find a way to help but couldn’t understand the problem from a much larger political and logistical perspective. Finally, and appropriately, the last question was “What can be done to stop thisfrom happening to the Kimberley?”. Such answers were difficult, but the entire presentation and message of the film was to culminate to this very question. And that was the point, to spark a discussion that could address how we get two different cultures to relate to each other enough to reach out and help. Bridging the cultural gap between locals of the Kimberley, and the audience of a busy and internationally assimilated city culture like Melbourne must have been no easy task, and while conveying a message that can be relatable to the viewer primarily lies with the creators of the film, the theme and careful curation within a film festival is where it is likely that a film is to find its most receptive audience.



Valck, Marijke de, et al. Film Festivals History, Theory, Method, Practice. Routledge, 2016.

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