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Reviewed by:
  • The Dreamers of Arnhem Land
  • Jonathan Zilberg
The Dreamers of Arnhem Land by Chris Walker, 2005. 50 min, color. First Run/Icarus Films. Distributor's web site: <>.

The Dreamers of Arnhem Land is a documentary account of a sustainable development project. It begins with imaginary film of Aboriginal life before the European arrival and what seems like a parody of the cultural encounter with Europeans, the encroachment of white settlement, the subsequent dispossession of ancestral lands and the descent into poverty, both economic and cultural. After depicting the deprivations of modern life for such communities, it proceeds to tell the story of how two Aboriginal elders returned to their land to begin anew. The remainder documents their apparently successful attempt to reconnect the future to the past through bringing the next generation back to their ancestral homes.

The strongest and main part of the documentary relates how Stuart and Valerie Ankin set about working with European technical advisors to provide a better future for the North Coast Aboriginals. Their idea is for their descendents to be able to live healthy and productive lives in which they harvest and market traditional natural products in a sustainable fashion. It is an interesting example of how two elders have resolved to ameliorate the

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multiple problems facing Aborigines in Australia, namely unemployment, poverty, chronic illness, alcohol abuse and drug addiction. It all came about as the natural culmination of such people's return to their homes after the Australian government changed its land policies and recognized their rights to their traditional estates in the late 1970s.

The film will prove useful for educators looking for an example of how highly motivated indigenous peoples can team up with scientists and other advisors to use native knowledge creatively to produce new products in a sustainable and profitable fashion for the market. The dual purpose of this project is to provide meaningful employment in which Aboriginal people return to live on their lands as their ancestors did, to varying degrees, but to do so in order to earn a living and live more healthy lives. In this, the Ankins, the Australian government and the universities and business community are working together to provide hope and an alternative future to the bleak life of the settlements into which these populations were forcibly settled when their lands were appropriated for ranching and farming in the 1950s.

It is an interesting film in that one gets a sense of the powerful connection these Aboriginal peoples have to their land and to their ancestors. Indeed, the film succeeds in conveying this connection. It is not a particularly compelling documentary. Nevertheless, what makes The Dreamers of Arnhem Land important is that it shows that there is significant potential for sustainable development and cultural survival if isolated local communities work with universities, entrepreneurs and the state to synergistically combine "blackfella's" and "whiteman's" knowledge. From the women collecting female long-necked turtles to harvest their offspring for the pet market to the men planting and harvesting indigenous fruit trees to produce a health tonic, from men harvesting crocodile eggs for crocodile farmers to women harvesting and preparing natural medicines for local use and potential future markets, there is hope in the land.

The movie ends with a particularly compelling scene of a musical event. After the MC's quintessentially modern invocation, "Let's rock 'n' roll," the youngsters begin to dance to electronically enhanced indigenous music. What is so striking is how they do so, if at first tentatively, in the same way as their ancestors have, right there-for tens of thousands of years. Although these children grew up in town watching television and listening instead to rock and country, and surely hip-hop and rap, they are finding their way home again here through their very bodies and through sound itself. Through the re-embodiment of the past, of their ancestral knowledge and experience, they are developing a profound sense of local pride. In this, the proud young rangers of Arnhem Land, and these children, will finally escape the...


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