To Film, to Relate to Land: Karrabing Film Collective

The Genuine Specimen

This photograph, taken in 1975 by Aboriginal Australian Mervyn Bishop, depicts a ceremony that signalled the end of a 29-year battle led by Vincent Lingiari to reclaim the ancestral land that rightfully belonged to his people, the Gurindji. The photograph epitomised what was a landmark event, and came to stand in for the Australian land rights struggle at large. However the photograph was also a fake: the ceremonial exchange depicted was a restaged version of the actual event which took place minutes earlier, in a much shadier, and less photographic setting. This restaging was enacted purely for the sake of mediatic potency: the two leaders reenacted the handover because Bishop had asked them to. By taking the liberty to redo the ceremony, Bishop lent the resulting image with an affective quality that the initial photograph lacked. And yet even the original photograph, the one taken in the shaded shed, is necessarily mediated. Even that photograph bears traces characteristic of Bishop’s Hasselblad camera, particularities in the way it reads light, not to mention traces of Bishop’s artistic will. With the recognition that no image is unmediated, the truth of an image becomes less important than its function. Bishop’s restaged photograph did no less than provide a symbol, and thus visibility, for the Indigenous Australian struggle for recognition and land. The imaging of the event became a part of the event: the reality of the ceremony legitimises the image, and the power of the image legitimises the ceremony.

Around 500km due north of the site of this photograph, at the mouth of the Daly River, a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous filmmakers create films that convey a similar understanding of truth. Karrabing Film Collective, whose members now number over 46, understand images as conveying a relational rather than absolute truth. This understanding of truth is characteristic of those from settler-colonial experiences. If the truth belongs to the coloniser rather than the Aboriginal; if it is delivered through written word rather than oral history, then the apparently vanquished are left with the ‘instability of truth’ 1. Karrabing capture truths of this kind through re-enactments and stagings of their own. At the heart of their films is a particular form of relating to kin and country. The essential concern of this text is Karrabing’s capacity to depict a distinct experience of land;  an experience in which their positions as artists and as Indigenous peoples cannot be readily parsed from one another. Instead of focusing on their acclaimed aesthetic achievements, I will centre instead on their artistic methodologies, understanding their films as the ‘residual artifacts’ of filmic practices that incorporate everything from hanging out, to attentive analysis, to environmental empathy2. What results then is an experimental body of film work that depicts a multivalent understanding of land; an oeuvre which complicates dominant settler-colonial valuations of land.

Authentic Enactments

In a photo album from 2007, Linda Yarrowin keeps pictures from a time when many of the Karrabing crew had crammed into a single house on a public housing estate in Darwin, northern Australia3. This worse-than-unfavourable condition, over which the crew eventually opted to live in tents, was one that came about due to the countless adversities and constrainments that the government impose on those attempting to live in rural or remote communities. One event that was particularly catalysing in producing this condition of homelessness, and in rallying the group to formulate as Karrabing, was the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, also known as  “The Intervention”4.  Launchded by the Howard government in 2007, the ostensible purpose of the Intervention was the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse. The result of this Intervention was the piercing of what little sovereignty Indigenous Australians may have begun to develop, as well as a suite of human rights violations. The Howard government took control of townships on Indigenous-owned land, and shifted Indigenous people from community employment programs to welfare, allowing for the control of Indigenous people’s spending, while also dramatically reducing incomes in ‘a population already suffering general and sustained poverty’5. This ambition to protect the Indigenous from themselves was a move that echoed the sentiment that informed the Stolen Generations. What’s more, the Intervention allowed miners easier access to Indigenous lands, as less income meant greater pressure on Indigenous groups to cede their lands to mining companies. The films that Karrabing produce respond therefore not to a generalised condition of Indigeneity, but from a specific condition that arises in a specific time and place.

When the Dogs Talked (2014) opens with the rattle of brisk knocking at a flyscreen door. Inside a bungalow, on her way to the door, a woman rouses an assorted bunch of young and old relatives who inhabit every space available. Once she steps outside, the authorities from Territory Housing inform her that they’ve had complaints of overcrowding, and that if her sister, the currently absent owner of the house, doesn’t report to them that very day, she and everyone else reliant on the house will be evicted. Thus begins a journey into country to find the missing Gigi. Here Karrabing’s lived experiences of homelessness, unyielding pressure from authorities,  and ecological devastation each inform a narrative that is anything but baseless. The stories that find their way into Karrabing’s films, even those which present speculative futures (i.e. The Mermaids, or Aiden in Wonderland, 2018), are deeply rooted in a particular time and place. For Karrabing, and for countless other Indigenous groups, living under the Intervention in Australia’s Top End means ‘becoming refugees in [one’s] own country’6.  And yet through the enactments allowed by the process of making films, the members of Karrabing can gain some purchase on the harrowing events they have experienced, as well as on the stories they have inherited, and the places they are related to. ‘[W]e play it in the now times so it is not just in the past; it is here inside us, like when we always say it’s in our sweat. We work to make the film and the film also helps us make it really real to ourselves’7

In being performed, these stories which are at risk of being relegated to the past, enter into the bodies of the Karrabing members and of their children, from where they interface with the past and the future. Members of the group take turns as “real/actors,” a term which emphasises the  “constitutive dualities” involved in rearticulating your own story for the camera8. And the condition of being a ‘real/actor’ is somehow inescapable, in that within this particular social context, performance is effectively unavoidable: Karrabing and other Indigenous people must ‘perform assimilation’ according to the logics imposed upon them; they must perform nativeness according to the Western anthropological interpretation of their own culture9. What is made explicit through the term ‘real/actor’ is both an ontological and temporal ambiguity that for Indigenous peoples is already pronounced. The fact that such a term can be non-contradictory is emphasised by Karrabing’s own terminology for their filmmaking - “improvisational realism”.

In Dogs, the numerous ontologies that converge within Karrabing members are each personified and articulated in relation to land. On their search for Gigi, a few of the young people come across a hole in the ground - but what exactly, they ask one another, made the hole? Was it a dingo with their paw, a man with a stick, a machine, a ghost? While each person gathered around the water-well embodies a different perspective, the agency of the dingo is the one that quietly prevails; indeed it is the account of the dingo that is the namesake of the film. This water-well attests to the existence of a Dog Dreaming; a pack of once-humanlike dingoes, who, in making a fire to eat yams, rubbed sticks together until their fingers turned into paws. In the process they also burnt their tongues, which accounts for the fact that dingoes can no longer speak. On account of the rain, instead of making fire, the dogs made holes in the ground10. So when the kids argue over what made the holes, the Karrabing are keeping these sites and this Dreaming present within their children. In telling these stories, the Karrabing are reinstating their visceral connection to that land and that Dreaming; through the Dreamings,  the land is imbued with a profundity which far exceeds any settler valuation of the land. In sharing this land and this Dreaming, the Karrabing are further connected to one another.

On Their Own Terms

Karrabing make films, and they do so in spite of conditions that severely enfeeble their agency. This process is mirrored in the subject matter of the films themselves; Dogs concerns Karrabing’s own capacity to continue on despite the ongoing bureaucratic procedures that sap them of their energy and their resources - all the while avoiding depicting endurance in terms of liberal heroism11. Making these films means rearranging ‘these kinds of flattening nothings into charging somethings’; it means ‘generating life beyond the minima of survival.’12 And yet if these are the impacts that filmmaking have on the people making them, as well as on the people and lands that surround them, then what impact do these films have beyond Karrabing themselves? How does Karrabing’s filmography work to undermine the stranglehold of ‘geopower’ not just for themselves but for all peoples contending against the logics of a settler state? Whether or not an extensive consequence of this kind is an explicit ambition of the group, these films contain a vital prowess that would invigorate the struggle of anyone attempting to defy geontopower.

So what is geontopower? In the words of Karrabing member Elizabeth Povinelli, it is “a set of discourses, affects, and tactics used in late liberalism to maintain or shape the coming relationship of the distinction between Life and Nonlife”13. Povinelli contends that a biopolitical account of contemporary governance, in which governance is enacted by enforcing the distinction between political life (bios) and bare life (zoe), must be understood as reliant on Western metaphysics’ privileging of one single form of existence - that of Life (bios, zoe). Povinelli advocates instead for a reading that accounts for a form of governance that relies on forcefully distinguishing between Life and Nonlife (geos). If settler governance occurs according to this latter distinction, it also judges people according to their capacity or willingness to adopt that distinction. Those peoples, such as many Indigenous Australians, who deny such a distinction, are thereby understood to possess a premodern mentality. Furthermore, the Australian government only recognises Indigenous claims to land according to Western anthropological interpretations and equivocations of Indigenous cultures.

The 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act, enacted in response to the protest led by Vincent Lingiari, gave Indigenous people the capacity to claim rights over their own land; and yet for many this persisting form of state recognition is seen as an unwelcome imposition14. Geonotopower demands that for Indigenous peoples to make claims on their own land, they must adhere to the settler late liberal interpretation of their own logics: you must understand your country and yourselves according to our own understanding of you. Specific parcels of land are apportioned to “Traditional Owners”; a category of legal personhood which individualises and places hierarchies on the negotiation of access to land. While apportionment of this kind is intended as recompense, it serves to benefit non-Indigenous extraction and enterprise development. These conceptions, such as ‘traditional ownership’ not only undermine relations amongst peoples, but they can delimit and derange Indigenous ties to land15. In being constituted by a social form that goes unrecognised by the state, Karrabing actively reject these constrictive forms of recognition. Beyond that, through the representation and analysis of the conditions they face, Karrabing substantiate their calls for the state’s recognition of social forms such as their own16.

Karrabing defy not only state conceptions of their ways of relating, but also Western perceptions of their ways of filmmaking. Since 2016, they have shot their films using smartphones; a filming process which allows them to elude the strictures typical of standard film productions18. Stern schedules, set scripts and technicalities have little use in a context where contingency reigns supreme. When members aren’t sick, tired, imprisoned, or otherwise incapacitated, they show up and they make film. The contingencies that are inherent to their ways of living and working only enhance their films. Take Windjarrameru, The Stealing C*nt$ (2015) as an example; it’s a film about corrupt miners and toxic mangrove swamps, in which a group of young men are wrongfully accused of stealing beers. Cameron Bianamu, who was originally cast as part of this group, decided he’d rather be a ranger. As the rest of the crew agreed that this was the best role for Cameron, even though the storyline had already been largely established,  it was rearranged to facilitate this shift. Incorporating this new character resulted in a far richer film19.

Audiences undoubtedly comprehend that Karrabing’s production process diverges from that of standard film productions, however what is more difficult to grasp is the question of ‘what for?’ There is a misalignment between Karrabing’s own understanding of their filmmaking as “cultural maintenance”, and the interpretation of their work as being ‘a teleological quest for a self-disciplined and accredited future destiny’20. Karrabing don’t map so well onto the image of the militant Indigenous activists either: there’s too much fun involved, too much meaningful messing around. They undermine the presumption that Indigenous people possess an inherent proximity to land. The knowledge and care for land that may be presumed to be an a priori feature of Indigenous folk is in fact something that is gained through culture, and something that can therefore be eroded through colonial occupation. When residents of Minmarama Village (where Karrabing had crammed into a single house) expressed concerns about a Darwin building company dumping undisclosed building waste directly into the mangroves behind the village, their main complaint was about ‘the locked gate erected by the builders around the dump site which had until then been used…as the village rubbish dump’21. Seeing Indigenous people as necessarily being eco-warriors undermines the pragmatics of survival required to endure ongoing occupation.


In making films, Karrabing keep their stories active and real, they help their kids to learn, and they even get to have some fun. These films also help Karrabing to live without feeling utterly crushed by the inescapable tribulations of occupation. First and foremost this is what making the films does. And yet the films also have a life beyond the group itself. By presenting an ulterior logic to that of geontopower, their depictions of the land work against a persistent conception of land as valueless until penetrated. By centring the shooting process on improvisation, performance, and reenactment, these films refuse placement in the genres of ethnographic or documentary film. These modes of being filmed are bolstered by an unyielding focus on Indigenous experiences and knowledge. This core focus means that none of the extensive anthropological expertise and non-Indigenous technologies that are drawn into the work are able to function appropriatively.

In 1975, when Mervyn Bishop photographed Whitlam and Lingiari exchanging a handful of soil, he provided a symbol for the Indigenous struggle for equity, and thereby helped to establish land rights as a fundamental issue of Australia’s subsequent era. Through their extensive analytics, which can be couched in terms of filmmaking, Karrabing illustrate the damaging impact of a deeply lacking land rights policy - one that is all the more damaging in its latest guise: the Intervention. What the work of Karrabing does is provide a new symbol; one that provides a stark reminder of the need to improve how the Australian government interfaces with Indigenous Australians. Through their films Karrabing present an image-world which readies the ground for a near-future in which Indigenous Australians are able to relate to the world around them on their own terms.

[1]  Croft, B.L. (2018), The Instability of Truth: Aspects of Developing a Specific Indigenous Methodology on Experimental Practice‐Led Research. Vis Anthropol Rev, 34: 15.

[2]  Lea, T. and Povinelli, E.A. (2018), Karrabing: An Essay in Keywords. Vis Anthropol Rev, 34: 44.

[3] Ibid, 38.

[4]  Povinelli, E.A. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011: 52-61.

[5]  Ibid, 53.

[6]  Povinelli, E.A. The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

[7]  Bigfoot, N.L, in The Karrabing Film Collective, ‘Growing Up Karrabing: A Conversation with Gavin Bianamu, Sheree Bianamu, Natasha Lewis Bigfoot, Ethan Jorrock and Elizabeth Povinelli’, un Magazine, issue 11.2, October 2017.

[8]  Margulies, I. In Person: Reenactment in Postwar and Contemporary Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press,  2019.

[9]  Johnson, L. in ‘Holding Up the World, Part IV: After a Screening of When the Dogs Talked at Columbia University’, e-flux Journal, issue 58, October 2014.

[10] Ibid.

[11]  Povinelli, E.A., ‘Holding Up the World, Part III: In the Event of Precarity … A Conversation’, e-flux Journal, issue 58, October 2014.

[12]  Berland, L. ‘Holding Up the World, Part III’.

[13] Povinelli, E.A.,  Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016: 4.

[14]  Vincent, E. "Against Native Title": Conflict and Creativity in Outback Australia. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2017.

[15]  Smith, B.R., and Frances Morphy, editors. ‘The Social Effects of Native Title: Recognition, Translation, Coexistence.’ Vol. 27, ANU Press, 2007: 15.

[16] Povinelli, E.A. in ‘Holding up the World, Part IV’.

[17]  From ‘Karrabing Film Collective Tackles the Cultural and Environmental Devastation Of Settler Colonialism’, Matariki Williams, Art in America, May 2020.

[18]  For more on Indigenous Australian usage of new technologies see Miyarrka Media, ‘Phone & Spear: A Yuta Anthropology’, 2019.

[19]  Povinelli, E.A. in ‘Holding up the World, Part IV’.

[20]  Lea, T. and Povinelli, E.A. (2018): 42.

[21]  Day, W. B. Minmarama, "Village of the Damned!" : the plight of the neglected tenants of the Gwalwa Daraniki Association living on the Kulaluk lease in Darwin. Mayland: Western Australia, 2011: 2.

Mervyn Bishop, ‘Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into
the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory.’ 1975.
(National Portrait Gallery, Australia)

Visible Project, The Karrabing Film Collective - Salt, YouTube (2015)

Karrabing Film Collective, When The Dogs Talked, 2014, film, colour, 34min.

Karrabing Film Collective, When The Dogs Talked, 2014, film, colour, 34min.

Natasha Bigfoot Lewis (left) and Chloe Gordon filming Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams, 2016,
Karrabing’s first film to be shot on iPhones17.