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Walbiri Ritual at Gunadjari 1968. A review in The American Anthropologist (1970) by W. E. H. Stanner.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies was established by the Commonwealth Government in 1961, with a handsome annual grant, for research into the traditional culture of the Aborigines. It devotes a substantial part of its funds to making film records of those features of the culture that survive anywhere within the continent. The work has now attained a high professional standard. The present film records the performance of a totemic rite by twenty-five Walbiri-speakers at a place within the former domain of the Walbiri, 150 miles northwest of Alice Springs in central Australia.

The performers, all men, were taken by Mr Sandall from the Yuendumu government station or settlement, where they are now resident more or less permanently, to Gunadjari, a natural rock bridge the Walbiri have invested with great historical and religious significance. There they carried out a commemorative and productive rite over three days.

The first act was to freshen with new paint the old, faded rock-paintings at the site and thus, in Walbiri belief, to restore them to totemic efficacy. Then followed the making of the emblems and insignia and the bodily decoration of the performers for the recapitulative mimes concerning the mythical personages associated with Gunadjari.

In some respects the film is a little masterpiece. The camera-work is excellent for the at times difficult light conditions. The color is joyously authentic. The mechanics of the film never obtrude. An audience will feel itself drawn into something like participation in the events into which the aborigines throw themselves with enthusiasm and apparent conviction.

The film has a distinct pedagogic value. Its spoken commentary, which is admirably brief — less than 800 words in all — and undominant, brings out in an illuminating way something of the social structure behind the ritual. It makes a distinction that has often been overlooked between the “owners” of the site and the totemic ceremonies and the “managers” or conductors of the performance. These are moiety-functions.

The student will find in the film a vivid illustration of the warmth, intimacy and fellowship that run with the relation we abstract to “complementary opposition.” By making films of this order, the Institute and Mr Sandall put anthropology in their debt.

Emu Ritual at Ruguri

Also in 1970 Nancy D. Munn reviewed two other films in The American Anthropologist, Walbiri Ritual at Ngama and Emu Ritual at Ruguri. She didn’t care for the first, but wrote of the second film (which had won an award for documentary at the 1968 Venice Festival) that it should be of special interest to anthropologists —

For it combines a truly artistic production with a genuine ethnographic document. Looked at from the perspective of the social structure, the film well illustrates the ritual nexus of the patrimoieties in ceremonial exchange: the owners of the ceremony, who represent a patrilineal descent group of one moiety, are the dancers, while those who prepare the ceremonial paraphernalia are of the opposite moiety.

The symbolic procreation of a totemic species (and of the associated totemites) is structured as a reciprocal exchange in which the ceremonial forms (body decorations and body extensions such as headdresses, as well as ground decorations) are the vehicles of mediation.

The expressive qualities of this exchange, excellently conveyed in the film, will be of interest to those concerned with the relationship between esthetic dimensions of action and the maintenance of social relationships and obligations. The film also suggests the subtle variations and versatility of Walbiri artifacts and performances achieved within a relatively stereotyped range of visual-dramatic formulas.

Finally, I would like to remark on the use of subtitles to carry background information (rather than the use of a narrator’s voice) in the Ruguri film. This device works extremely well, in my opinion, since it deletes the “foreign” voice of a commentator that inevitably intrudes upon the relationship between observer and film action. The effect is one of maximum “room” for the observer to enjoy the interplay between Walbiri men in the film sequences. I would highly recommend the Ruguri film for use in courses on Australian Aborigines, religion and ritual, and comparative art.


Emu Ritual

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