Namatjira Project: Review + Screening

Gross 0218 Albert Namatjira

Sera Davies’ excellent documentary Namatjira Project had its UK premiere at Bertha DocHouse, Curzon Bloomsbury on Friday 1 June, followed by a Q&A with Dr Diana Young (University of Queensland), in conversation with producer Sophia Marinos and Big hArt Creative Director and playwright Scott Rankin (live via Skype from Australia). A repeat screening took place on Saturday 2 June. Namatjira Project screened as a parallel event to the RAI conference Art, Materiality and Representation, in partnership with the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London.

To tie in with the screening, I wrote a short review for the Menzies Centre website.

Review by Stephen Morgan

Australia, 1953.
As The Phantom Stockman unfolds across cinema screens, its typical (if still somewhat rare) brand of outback drama is punctuated by an utterly untypical cameo. Out painting en plein air, noted Aboriginal watercolourist Albert Namatjira – playing himself at the height of his fame – is approached by archetypal Australian post-war actor Chips Rafferty (the film’s star and producer), with whom he engages in a short conversation about a mysterious murder. This brief cameo, Namatjira’s only feature film appearance, is part of a concerted effort in this low-budget production to offer a unique backdrop to a fairly standard Western storyline, with Namatjira and Rafferty both deployed alongside the typical gratuitous shots of landscapes and kangaroos, in order to sell a particular vision of post-war Australia to audiences at home and abroad.

Australia, 1946.
Several years prior to directing Namatjira’s cameo in The Phantom Stockman, Lee Robinson – fresh out of the army – finds himself working for the fledgling Films Division of the Australian Government. Hoping to share the story of Namatjira, and his relationship with fellow painter Rex Battarbee, Robinson writes a treatment and is suddenly thrust into the role of film director.  The following year, Robinson’s documentary Namatjira The Painter plays as a popular supporting feature in hundreds of Australian cinemas.

Australia, 2017.
Drawing together years of footage shot whilst following the intercultural collaborations between Albert Namatjira’s descendants and Tasmania-based arts and social justice organisation Big hArt, director Sera Davies and her team of editors look back to the earlier films of Lee Robinson (and others) in order to give shape to Namatjira’s legacy in the twenty-first century.

Folded time, folded histories, and folded images all play a significant role in the Namatjira Project, a complex, layered documentary that relates the family’s struggle to regain the copyright to Albert’s work, and the various collaborations with Big hArt that help to bring that campaign to wider attention. Running parallel to a central narrative about Namatjira’s relationship with Battarbee and the subsequent, decades-long struggle over rights, is the creation and subsequent performance of the theatrical production, Namatjira, directed by Big hArt’s Scott Rankin and starring Pitjantjatjara actor Trevor Jamieson, alongside members of the Namatjira family. Thus, the journey undertaken by the stage production is also the journey undertaken by the family and the campaign, as they tour from Sydney to Ntaria (Hermannsburg), and across Australia.

The highlight, in some ways, comes with the chance to share their story at the heart of the colonial metropolis in 2013. In London, as Albert’s paintings take prominent place in the Royal Academy’s Australia exhibition, and Namatjira has its international premiere at the National Theatre, Albert’s grandchildren, Lenie and Kevin, gain an audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. This particular encounter is cannily contrasted with the Queen’s own visit to the Aranda country of Central Australia in the 1960s, and the contrasting fortunes of the Queen and her former subjects is stark. Indeed, this is one of several moments in which the film folds histories together, subtly demonstrating the impact of the past upon the present, and the present upon the past.

In fact, one of the virtues of the Namatjira Project is the way that it interweaves several narrative strands to shape a subtle, but no less powerful critique of modern Australian society, and its various impacts on Namatjira himself, his extended community, and Aboriginal Australia more broadly. In some senses, this multi-strand narrative is merely a reflection of the multifaceted struggle to re-assert cultural authority.

Running through all of this is the Aranda concept of ‘nama’, or sitting side by side in learning and observation. Evident in the unique friendship between Battarbee and Namatjira, it is also central to how Big hArt, the film, and the broader project operates. ‘East coast’ creatives sit side by side with the extended Namatjira family in learning and observation, helping to bring about both the stage production and this documentary, and, ultimately, to bring about justice for the Namatjira family.

In highlighting Albert’s role in a changing nation, and in its subtle address of sovereignty lost but never ceded, the Namatjira Project is testament to the power of truly collaborative, intercultural work. Amid all the cosy collaboration, it doesn’t shy away from the various difficulties encountered by the family, nor from the broader systems of maltreatment that have long faced (and continue to face) Australia’s First Nations population. That it also serves as the culmination of a long campaign to regain the copyright is key, and the fact that the family were successful in doing so shortly after its premiere is testament to the strength of the campaign, and to the symbolic power of righting past wrongs.

Kevin and Lenie ready to go in to Buckinham Palace  Intergenerational on country workshop_Finke River_image courtesy Big hART

If you missed the Bertha Dochouse screenings of Namatjira Project in June 2018, it is available to stream or download from key digital platforms, including iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon. Namatjira Project is distributed in the UK by Journeyman.TV.

LAST EDITED: 13 June 2018

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