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Capturing songlines

You may not be aware, but across vast and remote parts of Australia, a film project has been underway for several years.

In a remote part of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia, a group of elderly women gather in the cool evening air. There’s an air of excitement, but their faces are solemn. It’s serious work that’s brought them back here to their country, which they haven’t seen for many years. And it hasn’t been an easy journey to get here – some may never have the opportunity to visit again.

They’re here to perform their songline: Tjawa Tjawa as part of the Songlines on Screen film project. Theirs is a story about a group of women in search of husbands.

The songline charts a long journey that takes them from Roebourne, through Kiwirrkurra and Lake Mackay, all the way through Manga Manga, south of Balgo in the Great Sandy Desert.

The songline is part storytelling, part painting, and part dance. And, like all songlines, it’s a moving art – a map guiding travel from one place to the next.

Songlines are a unique art form and one that may soon start to disappear, as younger generations move away, and lose touch with these aural traditions. Traditionally, they’re held by a custodian, who performs the songline as they travel, bringing the land into being through song. The custodian also acts as a manager helping maintain the relationship with subsequent custodians.

Bulunu Milkarri Bulunu Milkarri
The songlines concept doesn’t match with anything familiar in European thinking, which sees the material world as separate to the conceptual, temporal and imagined. To understand it, requires a letting go of this framework to allow for the possibility that all can exist simultaneously. Within this concept come the songlines.

Songlines are often made up of cycles – sections that relate to different aspects of a story and different sections of the route itself. Where the route takes you across the land of different clans, different custodians have charge of that section or cycle – literally singing you forward along the route to the next where another custodian awaits with their own song. In this way the songline can connect a number of different clans under one law, and one ancestral homeland.

Bulunu Milkarri is a womens crying song about Bulunu, the south east cloud formations. Bulunu Milkarri is one part of the foundational songline that connects the Djambarrpuyŋu clan groups and their traditional Island estates off the north coast of Arnhem Land through the underlying currents of the Arafura Sea. It relates to the cycles of the seasons and the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of the Djambarrpuyŋu people.

The Bulunu Milkarri songline calls the rain to replenish the land and bring the time of abundance in bush food. The rain that Bulunu storm clouds bring also represents grief, tears and the ancestors returning in the form of rain, which heals the heart and brings abundance of spiritual and emotional wellbeing.

This women’s songline must be performed at Djambarrpuyŋu funerals to prepare the spirit of the deceased for its journey back to the ancestral homeland. Without it, the funeral process is incomplete. With very few women left who can perform this songline and uphold this responsibility for funeral ceremonies, this film strives to contribute to ensuring the future of this songline for generations to come.

These are just a few of many songlines that have been captured on film across the country. For the past four to five years, small film crews, mainly remote Indigenous media producers and broadcasters, have been capturing them bit by bit. Many of them will never be seen by anyone outside the tribe or the bloodlines, to which they belong. Many of them are sacred and secret. But here and there are parts of the stories that can be shared openly. And some of these have made their way to screens around Australia as part of Songlines on Screen – created by remote Indigenous filmmakers and songlines custodians across the country, with the help of Screen Australia.

Clearly Songlines on Screen is much more than a film project – it’s an entire layer of Indigenous heritage and life that once lost, will be gone forever. Captured on screen, its survival is assured for future generations.

Songlines on Screen premiered at the Sydney Film Festival on 9 June 2015 and screened on NITV in early 2016.