Twenty-six years ago, Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson made “First Contact”, about New Guinea Western Highlanders seeing white settlers for the first time in the 1930’s. It remains one of our great documentaries.
Now comes another absorbing “first contact” film much closer to home. Bentley Dean and Martin Butler’s Contact looks at some of the last Aborigines to meet the modern world – a mob of 20 desert-dwelling Martu people.
Remarkably, there is film of that 1964 meeting, taken by Native Welfare patrol officers making sure the area was cleared before the launch of a test rocket in the West Australian desert. It shows a nearly naked mob of women and children, hunter-gatherers who travelled with few possessions, and pet dingoes for company.
One of them was Yuwali, who was 17 at the time. Now a genial 62, she returned to the Percival Lakes region of the Western Desert for the film and remembers being terrified by the patrol officers’ truck. “You know those big rocks that we always play on?” she told her friends. “The rock has come alive.”
The Martu were so frightened of being killed and eaten by the white-skinned “devil men” that they headed back into the desert, only to be tracked down again before a second rocket launch later that year.
Being held by the patrol officers was a rude awakening. The Martu were tied around the ankles to stop them escaping then shipped off to Jigalong mission, 200 kilometres away, ending their nomadic lifestyle.
Three decades earlier at the same mission, three Aboriginal girls escaped to take the epic trek though the desert dramatised in “Rabbit-Proof Fence”.
Contact, which shared the best documentary prize at 2010’s Sydney Film Festival, lets Yuwali and others – black and white – tell an emotional and historic story with a light touch.
Beautifully shot by Dean, the Race Around the World graduate who co-directed “The President Versus David Hicks”, it captures the collision of modern and ancient worlds. How incredible that it happened as late as 1964.