The story

Eighty years after the last known massacre of Indigenous Australians in Central Australia the relatives of families who survived tell the events and their impact.

The mass slaughter of Aboriginal people that started at Coniston station in Central Australia in the harsh drought of 1928 became known as “the last massacre”. For some that epithet can  be read as a convenient full stop on the frontier violence that raged soon after the arrival of the First Fleet.

The Warlpiri and their neighbours never saw it that way. The events of those two months left a bloody stain on their country that will never be erased. The random killing of their countrymen – officially 31 people but widely considered to be many more – is a painful enough legacy in itself, but these times were tumultuous for another reason. This period also marks the transition from a traditional way of life on their lands to the unhappy experience of government settlements.

This documentary, a joint production by Yuendumu-based PAW Media and Melbourne-based Rebel Films, tells the story of those killing times from a Yapa (Warlpiri) perspective. Most of those interviewed had forebears who were present. Many lost mothers, fathers, grandparents and other family members when the armed posses roaming their land indiscriminately shot at hunting parties and even ceremonial gatherings.

The enormity of the task of retelling this story for the wider world emerges gradually but forcefully. The strong themes of family and country are ever present. Descendants of those who were there return to the country where the tragic events unfolded. Some old footage shot by the Warlpiri themselves is also used, revealing that this film has a long provenance. Key players comment on what they are being asked to do, and are then shown re-enacting scenes. In this way, the process of the filmmaking is also documented. We see the Yuendumu community planning to make the film, being led through various stages by veteran Warlpiri filmmaker Francis Jupurrurla Kelly.

In this version of the Coniston story, the character list is dominated by Yapa. Chief protagonist – top billing even – is given to Bullfrog Japanangka, known to his countrymen at the time as Kamalyarrpa. It was the murder of the dingo trapper Fred Brooks by Bullfrog that sparked the killing spree. Bullfrog went looking for his wife after she had spent all day at Brooks’ camp. She was sent there by Bullfrog to procure tobacco in return for domestic duties but as the film intimates, Brooks took liberties with Bullfrog’s wife, which provoked the murder.

Although the precise motivation behind Bullfrog’s actions are not made entirely clear, it is obvious that he has achieved notoriety among his people. He is now known as the “white man killer”. In the words of his descendants, Bullfrog was a “cheeky” man, a “fighter”. He was “a good bloke but a wild fella”. That wild streak did not lead to his own undoing – he escaped capture and survived to old age living among his people at Mt Doreen and Yuendumu. Neither was he ever punished for the murder under traditional law.

The back-story told here adds a critical dimension. Tension was building during this time because of the drought and the takeover of the country of the Warlpiri, Anmatyerr and Kaytetye by pastoralists. Brooks had camped by a natural spring on Warlpiri country called Yurrkuru, recently acquired by Coniston station with the granting of a pastoral lease.

Bullfrog had taken his family there because there was no food or water further west. The recurring theme of drought and famine in the Australian outback is interwoven here with the dispossession of the traditional owners that was gathering pace.

It’s clear that the memory of this sorrowful time still casts a long shadow over the Warlpiri community – and their country. But it’s the desire to correct an injustice rather than to dwell on that sadness that emerges as the strongest sentiment of this film. Intermingled with the intention to set the record straight are feelings of pride in their traditional heritage and law, and in their own contact history. Fiona Nungarrayi Kitson, who is chosen to play the part of Bullfrog’s wife, says: “I want to act in this movie so I can make my family proud and happy”.

No small part of the traditions evoked are the magical powers that are called upon by senior law men and women to overcome adversity, to outwit a malevolent spirit or, as in this case, an enemy. In sharp contrast to the sombre mood of many who tell their story, is the old man who breaks into chuckles as he recalls how Bullfrog used his knowledge of magic to outsmart his pursuers. “He sang away his footprints ... He was a tricky one that old man.”

In a more conventionally Western sense, Yapa have seized the chance to rebalance the one-sided story that the rest of Australia knows something of from its own records: the reams of courtroom evidence, journalistic reportage and historians’ accounts.  The discredited findings of the federal inquiry that followed the court case were clearly a whitewash, a monumental travesty of justice. The inquiry found that just 31 Aboriginal people were killed and that these killings were all justified. No Aboriginal witnesses were even called. This film doesn’t go there, but it does touch on the motivation of the police officer who led the killing rampage, Constable George Murray. One of the story-tellers alludes to a tragic sickness in Murray, a World War I veteran. Murray, he says, was a “returned soldier from Gallipoli ... a crazy old fella”. What bitter irony that a survivor of one iconic massacre in our history should perpetrate another.

In contrast to the brutal historic tale of disputed territory that Coniston evokes, there is another far more positive aspect to the making of this film that is imbued with collaboration and the modern- day spirit of reconciliation. The joint production houses, PAW Media and Rebel Films, have a long association. Back in the days when PAW Media was known as Warlpiri Media Association, they made the highly successful ABC mini-series Bush Mechanics (2001), but their collaboration dates back much further. PAW Director Francis Kelly and Rebel Director David Batty first worked together in the 1980s on early versions of Manyu Wana, a Warlpiri children’s series. Batty earned the skin name Jupurrurla, and so became a “brother” to Kelly and the “Jupurrurla gang” who put the series together. The same group made Bush Mechanics, and many were involved in this project.

 David Batty says, “In many ways, Francis and I have had parallel lives and filmmaking is something we do well together. He’s a brother.”

 “We’ve always worked together, working things out,” says Francis. “David Batty Jupurrurla on the camera and with me sometimes acting, translating and directing Yapa and directing Jupurrurla too, telling him what to film. We’ve done this for a long time now.”

 The progression of these joint productions from children’s tales to young fellas and their cars to one of the great injustices of contact history is also the story of a remarkable and enduring collaboration in Aboriginal media.

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