NGUMPIN KARTIYA: Untold Stories of the Gurindji People and the Wave Hill Walk-Off

In 1966, two hundred Gurindji, Mudburra and Warlpiri people took a stand against their oppressors and won.

The defiant act of protest is known as the Wave Hill Walk-Off, a strike led by Vincent Lingiari that was a catalyst for the passing of Aboriginal Land Rights legislation in Australia. It’s a story all of us should know, but few of us are taught. That’s why filmmaker Ben McFadyen (These Wild Eyes) worked with The Gurindji Aboriginal Incorporation to produce NGUMPIN KARTIYA – Untold Stories of the Gurindji people and the Wave Hill Walk-Off. ‘Ngumpin Katiya’ translates to Whitefella Blackfella, which is a well-known Warumpi Band song, and an important theme for the Gurindji people and the annual Freedom Day Festival, which is also documented in the film.

During his stay in Kalkarindji, which is about a 12-hour drive south of Darwin, Ben learnt more about the history and resilience of the community there and became committed to helping the Gurindji people share their untold stories—both tragic and uplifting. The result is this powerful, inspiring, and cinematically stunning documentary that celebrates the Traditional Owners of the land while uncovering their painful past. We spoke to Ben about the project, his relationship with the community, and why it’s so important to keep Vincent Lingiari’s legacy alive.

Hi Ben! How did you get involved with making this film and what was it like collaborating with Gurindji Aboriginal Corporation?

I was humbled to be introduced to the Gurindji community around four years ago to help film and collaborate on the commemoration of the 50th Freedom Day anniversary. After leaving Kalkarindji, I was full of emotion and inspired by what I thought was a magical story there, and one that needed to be told. So much was untold about the story of Vincent Lingiari and the Wave Hill Walk Off, especially on a deeper level in terms of darker history, specifically the massacres that took place at the cattle station many years ago. I initially thought everybody should know about these stories, from the darker aspects of the past to the lighter visions of the future, it is a huge movement that shaped the future of Australia. The Gurindji Aboriginal Corporation knew how energetic and passionate I was about the piece and they helped me manage and get certain interviews and make sure all the Gurindji mob were behind the film.

How long did you spend with the community during filming?

From filming the 53rd anniversary of the event, we spent around a week or so in community. Filming stories from Traditional Owners and people that were involved in the walk-off many years ago. After I returned to Melbourne, I sat down, dropped a sequence in on the computer and thought, ‘Where do I start with this? There is so much to be told.’ I stared at the screen for hours just thinking about the community and the stories I knew still hadn’t been told. A few weeks later I booked a solo flight from Melbourne to Darwin and drove 12 hours through the atmospheric centre and filmed three interviews that I knew needed to be heard. It was liberating meeting some really strong, respected and important members of the community. They were extremely welcoming and appreciative that I wanted to capture some of these moments to educate the wider community. I sometimes found it hard to concentrate on some of the shots because I was completely in awe of what I was experiencing and learning during these conversations.

Aside from the stories you tell in the film, what else did you learn from the Gurindji people while you were there?

It’s funny, when I arrived in the community for the first time, there was this overwhelming feeling of something special. There is a silence that feels so loud, an energy and presence of purity unlike anything I have experienced anywhere around the world. I have tried to explain it to friends but it’s somewhat unexplainable. The single shop in town is run completely by the Gurindji Aboriginal Community, and when you enter the store I have never felt more of a stranger in ‘my own’ backyard. Having travelled to some pretty off the beaten path places over the years, I think that Kalkarindji is really up there when it comes to feeling different to what I’m used to. When you enter the town, the kids come running up to you and tug on your shirt and ask, ‘Hey, hey! What’s your name? What’s your name?’ They’re just curious to know your story and why you are there. They always let off a little giggle and run off whispering to their friends—it’s extremely warm and welcoming and puts a smile on your dial.

I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know about the Killing Times until Jimmy Wavehill mentions them in the film. It’s crazy how Australia’s real history is completely whitewashed in schools. 

It’s crazy to think all of this happened not that long ago. I cannot imagine families and the community having to go through that. Not only in NT, but massacres happened all throughout Australia, and so many people are completely unaware of that dark part of our history. The more I am learning, the more I am starting to wake up. We have had the concept and ideology hammered into us from an early age that Captain Cook founded Australia and we celebrate that with Australia Day—but this, in fact, is nothing more than the darkest day in Aboriginal History.

Is the curriculum in the Northern Territory more Indigenous-focused than other parts of Australia, or has it been left to the community elders to set the record straight?

I believe the stories kids are taught in schools these days are starting to reflect more of the actual history of Australia, but there’s a way to go. My understanding is that the remote communities, and Aboriginal people across Australia, know their history and want it to be shared widely. I know how important it is to the Gurindji community that their history is shared and I hope this film plays a part in that.

The Wave Hill Walk-off really brought Aboriginal Land Rights to the forefront of Australian politics in the 60s and was a catalyst for the movement going forward. How important is it for all of us to keep Vincent Lingiari’s legacy alive?

Completely. Before I started the clip, I wrote the main concepts I really wanted to push on a whiteboard and I wrote over and over again, ‘Legacy, legacy, legacy.’ He paved the way for Aboriginal Land Rights with most people calling the epic strike some 50 years ago the birth of Aboriginal Land Rights. After living on a concrete slab and being fed water and sugar, he decided to stand up for his men and women. I feel as a whole, this story is more relevant than ever. Not only with the Black Lives Matter protests and calls to end systemic racism, but it’s a story for the little guy who stands up to the big guy and says ‘enough is enough’, and that is very fucking inspiring. I think everyone can resonate with that and that’s the reason why the story and the film has been so well received.

The footage from Freedom Day is incredible. When is it, and what was it like experiencing the festival?

So Freedom Day is the celebration of the Wave Hill Walk Off and it is celebrated around the last weekend of August every year. Many musicians have ventured out to the community—which is a 12-hour drive or so from Darwin—and played to excited crowds from the local and surrounding communities. Over the years it has pulled artists like Remi, Dan Sultan, Baker Boy, and Ziggy Ramo, and this coming year they are hoping to bring down the legends Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody. Not only does the festival have amazing artists and local Indigenous musical talent, it’s also an amazing weekend full of culture, sports and arts. Tours to local rock art, learning how to make clap sticks and paint with some of the traditional owners, and football matches between the local communities are just some of the things that happen over the three-day weekend.

Can anyone go, or do you have to be invited by the Traditional Owners of the land?

For the Freedom Day festival weekend, the Gurindji community invite everyone. Words cannot describe how amazing and welcoming the community are. One of the first instances I arrived in Kalkarinji, a local Traditional Owner took me a for a walk and was proud as punch letting me know of everything and anything that was happening in the community. I can’t recommend it enough—best festival I have ever experienced.

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