If they don’t see
the joy in the film
at least they’ll
see the black
A pair of Black filmmakers. They’ve always been outsiders. At odds with the psychosis of whiteness, their lived experience has always been one of rootlessness and existential absurdity.
One of being a part of the Afrodiaspora.
Since birth, they’ve had to dwell inside the confines of what history has ungifted us — an inescapably white-washed world, scarcely changed over centuries, choked with the shadows of structures that limit our ability to find each other, to see beyond the end of this world. To see beyond everything that constrains us to a difficult, panting breath.
We must begin
One evening, inside Sydney’s urban sprawl, over fufu and peanut soup, they got to talking. About Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017), about the sublime beauty of the film, about the emotive pull of a narrative featuring people with who we can outwardly identify — Indigenous people, Black like us, who despite being racialised in ways dissimilar from our own, enable us to come at the film’s meditation on justice with a sense of familiarity. They got to talking about being together, senses touching, the Afrodiaspora and Indigenous Australia, feeling for each other.
Their talking stretched into the morning, stretched until a plan was sketched out. A plan to one day venture out into the Territory to try to make the still unmade film of Black existence by gathering our dispossessed feelings in common.
We know the fundamental racism of colonialism, its poison, its persistent roots.
We know the white-washed world owes its existence to our slavery.
We know trauma.
We know the bleeding obvious.
We know the founding story of Australia — the story of genocide has festered into a suppurating wound that refuses to heal.
We know we share much in common with Indigenous Australia, much we don’t scream about, moan about or speak about at all. But what is our position here, on stolen land?
What is our relationship to the legacy of a murderousness whose momentum we still ride?
Can you also feel
a deep ache
of a scream
that won’t come?
All these questions swam inside the thoughts of our pair of filmmakers as they made their way down Todd Mall, the commercial heart of Alice Springs. It was their first day in the Territory and the scalding winter sun was slowly sinking into a sky of cloudless blue. A distinct languidness infused the air. As two Black men in foreign space, they had to compose themselves to make sure they were not making anyone else feel uncomfortable.
They passed closed store fronts, windows of art galleries bursting with kitsch, cafés ticking over with a thin trickle of customers. They passed an old lady seated under the blessed shade of a red river gum, forlornly attempting to hawk dot-painted canvases to disinterested passers-by. They stopped at a pub, settled in the beer garden outside and watched the human swirl as it moved up and down Todd Mall.
Across from them, a woman started shouting and waving her arms their way. She was Indigenous. Her shouts were garbled, nonsensical and clung to her like a shroud. She proceeded to wander over and ask for a cigarette, some reparations for occupying her land, in broken English. Her eyes were pointing every which way.
Later that same evening they found her sprawled on the ground in the middle of Todd Mall, sobbing in silence. They knew this torment, this fire and force that can sometimes trap us in the hellified paralysis of muteness.
They knew this void of suffering, this speechlessness.
What do I do with
the look in her eyes?
There’s an image in Sweet Country, towards the end of the film, after Sam, his wife Lizzie and his niece, all exemplary in their goodness, are forced to work like slaves on Harry Marsh’s station. The image occurs after Sam, one evening, shoots Harry dead in self-defence, after Sam and Lizzie go on the run into the Australian outback and are chased by a posse of men, and it got our filmmakers talking as they drove through thrumming, brain-frizzling heat up the Stuart Highway.
Lizzie sits speechless in a pool of blood in a desert expanse after Sam has been shot dead. Her eyes, ardent and ferocious, are full of tears. They point towards the white-washed world — not its myriad discriminatory practices but its very fabric — being unethical.
When I first saw this image I was overwhelmed by the silence and by memories that lurk within this silence, shadow- bent, unable to form into the shape of words.
If we trace the black
what will we find?
So often, when we make films, we placate white audiences. We excavate our sites of pain for their consumption. Or we go the way of Sweet Country and appeal to their conscience, make repetitive assertions of our humanity. We try to open their hearts and minds to what we have to say. We offer stinging critiques of colonialism and racism, relentlessly depict the horrors and degradations of these twin scourges for both coloniser and colonised, but we temper these critiques. We make sure to include heavy doses of morally ennobled victimisation because innocence is too often the only lens through which our suffering can be made intelligible to their imaginary. Rarely do we stop and think and ground our work for a Black audience. Our filmmakers weren’t going to fall into that same trap.
We have to listen
even when it's
an uneasy sound
They were seated out at the edge of the desert, at the top of a bluff. The vast, parched landscape, a reminder of beauty’s existence, spread out before them. They let it sink in. In the evening’s softness, their minds were growing still. It was as if something inside them was uncoiling.
They got to talking. About having to line up in a swarm of flies outside a bottle shop in Katherine to buy beers, about why the tattooed, bald-headed police officer slouched against a freezer just inside the entrance chose to check their IDs and the IDs of the Indigenous customers, about why everyone else in line wasn’t subject to this exercise of authority.
They got to talking until they fell through a chasm of laughter and tears. Until an uncanny space opened up, engulfing them in ache. The same ache many of us exist with, whether it is dull or acute, physical or emotional or some hybrid of both, an ache so chronic we don’t even notice it, couldn’t even tell you where it comes from or what it feels like.
And they kept on falling until they saw Lizzie, sprawled on the ground. A sound escaping from her lips with more than just a note of anguish in it. A plaintive look in her eyes, a look looking to another world in and on the ruins of this white-washed one, in the end of its ends.
It was a look that sharpened their rage and burned in them the urgency of bearing witness.
Help me, somebody
please, somebody help me
In Tennant Creek, on the outskirts of town, in a town camp, they met Maxi Graham and stumbled upon an idea: to juxtapose shots of passing clouds with audio of breathing sounds that would usher in a woman’s voice reciting the lyrics of Coloured Stone’s ‘Black Boy’ (1984). The recitation would propel a montage of still images of life inside the town camp rapidly flashing on the screen. As it unfolded, the montage would increasingly conform to the pace of the woman’s heartbeat, her breathing, her voice.
The montage would then fade to black and Maxi Graham would begin to tell his story. The story of how he had travelled to Camooweal, across the border in Queensland, for his youngest nephew’s funeral. How police stopped him at the border on his way back to town and found three casks of wine in his car. How the casks were confiscated, without explanation. How he was sick of this harassment, sick of how every time the police see him they mess with him. How he just wants to be left alone. The story he told when asked, ‘Where does it hurt?’
There are too many
stories to be told
Our filmmakers began to think about their Blackness in a different way. The Territory was forcing them to face a deep pit that talking could not rescue them from. They began to think that maybe Fanon was right, maybe the process of building a new world does require us to first understand the depth of abjection that Blackness has been cast into.
From the heart of the country, through desert communities, outstations long-forgotten by democracy, up the Stuart Highway, as they zigzagged through the Tanami, the Davenport Ranges, all the way up to the bright, shiny lights of Darwin and beyond, they trusted what pain was trying to tell them. They became literate in its confessional nature. The learned how naming pain takes away its power over our imagination and makes us braver in our vulnerability, and more alive, because you can’t be completely present if you’re pretending to feel nothing.
When people agreed to interviews, they made use of odd camera angles, close-ups of backs, napes of necks. They shot at very close range with the camera’s aperture wide open to create images with bruised colours. The faces of interviewees were sometimes obscured by the rays of the setting sun, hidden by visible hexagons of pinkish light produced by the glare on the camera’s lens. To help gather our dispossessed feelings in common.
One evening, back in Sydney, over fufu and peanut soup, they got to talking about the film they’d make from the footage they’d cobbled together in the Territory. The film they’d make from the feeling that this white-washed world is not enough, that indeed something is missing. They got to talking about Lizzie’s eyes, about the capacity to feel through others, for others to feel through you, for you to feel them feeling you.
They got to talking about the pleasure that comes from confessing what hurts, about how they could almost surrender our suffering to the joy of telling its story.
Born in Sydney to Ghanaian migrants, Brian Obiri-Asare is a writer who lives and works on the edge of the desert, in Jurnkurraku (Tennant Creek) on Warumungu Country. Brain is currently working on a book of poetry about the ongoing afterlife of colonialism.