Arts Hub | 21.02.2019
Interview with Nic Wrathall, director of Undermined: Tales from the Kimberley
Fighting injustice and questioning the media are key drivers for this documentary filmmaker's latest work set in Australia's remote north west.
Nicholas Wrathall is an Australian born filmmaker who has spent many of the last twenty years living and working in New York as a documentary filmmaker and music video producer. He's best known for his award-winning political and literary portrait Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2013). But in his latest film, Wrathall went to the the most remote and contested parts of north Western Australia to investigate stories of the forced closure of Aboriginal communities. What he found instead was a complex and complicated set of issues around the ways that huge mineral-rich region (roughly three times the size of England) is being developed by government, big mining and big agriculture.
The resulting film is Undermined: Tales from the Kimberly, which premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August 2018 and is in theatrical release this week through Umbrella. Undermined is directed by Wrathall, who also wrote and produced alongside Stephanie King, a producer and campaigner around welfare and sustainability. Funded by Screen Australia, the MIFF Premiere Fund and Create NSW, Undermined is an unashamedly political documentary that showcases not only the stunning natural beauty of the Kimberley region, but the diverse groups of Indigenous people who live and work there. The film presents compelling arguments that development is happening without proper consultation of Indigenous residents, and without care for the rare and unspoiled ecosystems that belong to future generations of Australians.
While Wrathall and King are white Australian filmmakers, the subjects they interview are almost exclusively Indigenous. Significantly, young Bardi/Kija/Nyul Nyul activist and musician Albert Wiggan is also a co-producer and advisor, and emerges as the persuasive star in a sometimes complicated grab-bag of disparate stories.
We spoke to Wrathall on the phone last week about his driving motivations, the process and protocols of working with Indigenous communities and the need for documentary filmmakers to persist in the wake of a biased and limited commercial media.
Screenhub: How did you get into filmmaking?
Nic Wrathall: I went to Sydney University and did Arts. We had a film theory course. And while I was at uni I was also going to North Sydney technical college at night doing the film craft course they used to run there. I didn’t go to AFTRS. I moved to New York when I was 22 and immediately started working in film production, I worked for a documentary maker there, Jayne Loader, as an intern, started working as a production assistant in a production company working in music videos, slowly worked my way up as an Assistant Director. For a long time I worked as an AD and line producer, then the company was bought by RSA, Ridley Scott’s company and I started working as a producer for ten or 15 years and then started doing short films, documentaries and started getting into my own practice as a filmmaker. The way I got into the film industry and the way I learnt was by working on other people’s productions and I did that through my 20s and 30s before I started making my own films.
What drives you?
Injustice. I feel very motivated to tell stories that reveal injustices in different ways. That’s a constant theme. I'm certainly not driven by money. It’s very hard to make a living making these kinds of films as I’m sure you can imagine. I do support myself by working on other people's projects and I did some music documentaries that were paid for by record companies. It’s a tricky balance making this kind of film but it keeps me motivated getting involved in these types of issues. When you make a feature documentary it’s going to take a few years so you really need to be sure that what you’re getting involved in is going to sustain you through the tough times to finish it. It's a long process of investigation and you can’t rush these things especially as an outsider trying to win trust.
Have you always been political?
I’ve always been interested in politics. When I was at university I was always out at protests and my dad – both my parents are quite left wing. My mum is a lifelong member of the Labor party and my dad ran as a Green in the Bellingen area, so it was always a discussion in my family and something I grew up with.
Do you think there's a future for feature documentaries?
As I'm sure you're aware, Tom Zubryicki, one of our film's executive producers, has been in the media recently talking about how difficult it is to make this type of film. But I really believe there’s an appetite for documentaries. That’s been a benefit of working in the US a lot too, the documentary movement there is pretty strong, and it's a few years ahead of us here. There’s a lot of support for it by Netflix and TV and philanthropy funding. The documentary sector is in some ways is in a very strong place in that good films are being made, but it’s always difficult to find the means.
To what extent is the final film of Undermined a reflection of your initial story ideas?
I think most documentaries are a journey where you start off thinking that you know where you’re going and you have an aim, but you often end up somewhere else. What brought us into the film was the comments by Tony Abbott in 2015, saying that we couldn't support the 'lifestyle choices' of Indigenous people and that they were going to de-fund these remote communities. That led us to going there and investigating. And then that story went quiet as the government went quiet on the controversy. And we started to hear from people that the real issue was about development and the contemporary wave of colonialism, and how Indigenous people don’t feel they’re being included in the partnerships and discussions. They feel that development is an end in itself, and they feel like they’re just in the way, and that government and industry are finding ways, means, loopholes, to work around the fact that indigenous people have native title and live on this land, rather than making it inclusive and a real partnership in the development process.
One of the recurring themes in your film is the way Native Title actually does very little to protect Indigenous rights. Do you think this would be surprising to most viewers?
Absolutely. There's so much confusion around it, and there are so many examples of long ongoing court cases around native title and different language groups. What people seemed to be saying is that Native Title is not land rights. That’s what much of Australia perceives it as. But isn’t land rights. It gives people a seat at the table, to discuss development on the land when it comes up, and it gives people access to the land to hunt and camp and fish, but that’s it. And so one of the things we’re doing right now is working with a native title lawyer based in Broome to put an explainer about Native Title up on our website to help people understand it.
It comes up over and over in the film. Native title is not working. Not working for Aboriginal people. It’s working for government and developers but it's not working for the people we thought it was intended to protect.
There's one story you follow about one of the Indigenous-owned cattle stations in the region. The owner enters into a joint venture partnership with a big company, hoping for a capital injection into the business, but it goes sour in a confusing way. What exactly happened there?
I'm sorry if that was unclear, but there were certain details we couldn't legally go into. What we wanted to show was that this is an example of the kinds of things that are happening where outside promises are made to communities and then they're not delivered on for various reasons. There was such hope at the start, and then huge disappointment and it's heartbreaking. We wanted to take the audience on that emotional journey that we witnessed so many times. There are situations where people make a deal with some members of a community, but not the community's full consent. Some people have asked us why we didn't end the film on a happier note, but I think that would be dishonest. But these are resilient people, and they will survive and they're fighting back.
We don't see that image of resourceful Indigenous business owners and resilient remote communities very much in the mainstream media.
Exactly, and the that's part of the problem and why we needed to make the film.Especially living on the East Coast of Australia we only hear about all the problems in remote communities - and there are problems and issues with alcoholism and drug abuse, but those things are going on in all communities. We don’t hear about the real issues people are facing, andthe positive stories. We don’t meet the Albert Wiggans in the media and hear about all the great things young leaders are doing in their communities.
We also wanted to focus on very contemporary issues, as outsiders and as white filmmakers, I didn’t think we should get too involved in cultural issues. I think the film tries to live in contemporary world where the questions of development are the main theme.
How did you come to work with Albert Wiggan as a cultural advisor and co-producer?
We started out with different people involved before we met Albert. Initially we were working with Steve Kinane but he was too busy to get involved in the actual filming. That’s when we met Albert. We were also working with KALAC, the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture centre based in Fitroy Crossing throughout the film. We had a Memorandum of Understanding with they were also our cultural advisors. Merle Carter and some others at KALAC looked at various stages of the edit, advised us on cultural protocols, they invited us to those festivals that you see shown in the film, and they were very involved. We felt well looked after, and Albert became more involved as the film went on, and more of a story within it.
What advice would you have for other filmmakers wanting to go into the Kimberley and work with communities there?
You really have to find the right partners. You need people to chaperone you. You need to respect people’s wishes there and the time frame involved. We spent three years making this film so you cannot rush these things. Tread very carefully and make the right partnerships. Work closely with Indigenous people and possibly have Indigenous filmmakers involved in the process.
Have there been significant developments or changes since you stopped shooting?
With some of our key characters, Albert Wiggan has become very much a young leader in his community and very involved with the Kimberley Land Council and has emerged as a young leader, involved in the ranger program. Kevin Oscar, [the Aboriginal cattle station owner] has since raised money to take control and they've done a cattle muster themselves.
There’s been a big push to open up WA and especially the Kimberley to fracking. It’s something that's not really a focus of the film but it’s a big issue for people up there. And they're starting to rally around opposing fracking. Twiggy Forest, who has a leasehold on a lot of land up there, is really pushing to open up the land to fracking.
The agricultural basin that people are projecting around the Fitzroy River is being strongly opposed by the traditional owners, including the KLC. There's been a real coming together and they're hoping they can stave off major agricultural development around Fitzroy River. If increased water leases are given over to big cattle stations it will disrupt natural rhythm and flows of the river there, which are already just billabongs in the dry season.
And of course there are ongoing issues around youth and child suicide. There's a lot of work being done on that and lot of tragic intercultural tragedy there.
One of the key solutions raised in the film is the idea of tourism as the way forward for the Kimberley. Don't you think this has its own problems?
There is potential for a lot more Indigenous-led tourism. That’s something a lot of people are trying to build infrastructure for. One of the things we kept hearing in the tourism sector was that tourists that go to the Kimberley and tourists from overseas who come to Australia, are really looking for an Indigenous experience of some description. We kept meeting busloads of 'grey nomads' and tourists and speaking to the tour operators, and I asked several of them on camera what their experience was of local people, and most of them hadn’t met a single one. A couple of the tour operators they said ‘sometimes we manage to introduce them at an arts centre or something’ but it’s not a priority to those people. They just want to show the people the beauty of the landscapes and nature and have a outdoorsy experience, but I think there's a lot of potential for that to evolve and be a much more interesting experience for tourists.
Obviously tourism brings its own problems, but it’s also one of the things that can protect the place because people can see the beauty and value of it. There’s also a big push starting at the moment towards having a large part of the Kimberley listed as world heritage and that’s something the Shadow Minister for environment Tony Burke is backing heavily, so perhaps we might see some movement around that next year if the Federal government changes.
Undermined: Tales from the Kimberley is in selected cinemas from Thursday 22 February. To find a screening in your city, visit here.
First published on Thursday 21 February, 2019
About the author
Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She is now the the co-host of Australia's longest running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates'. She has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can follow her musings on Australian film and television on Twitter @Milan2Pinsk.