cross-posted at walking and falling

I had the misfortune of seeing Whaledreamers on Friday, part of the Sydney Travelling Film Festival that made its way through Alice Springs. We are a hardened audience for the sort of vacuous worship that filmmaker Kim Kindersley profuses for the Mirning people. In the whitefellas-talking-about-blackfellas stakes, we are territorial and deeply wary, but always up for a challenge. So it was with horror that I realised I was watching a film about a British ex-actor’s spiritual quest to become an Aboriginal dolphin.

This man is sadly obsessed by his own journey. Every moment is infected with a terrible seriousness, as though the Southern Right Whale has a patent on profundity (perfectly good ancestral myths about stink bugs have proven less popular). His pat explanations of “the dreamtime” and the Stolen Generations will only please the ignorant who wish to remain so. The structure is hopeless, the delivery wretched. Even the nice underwater shots of whales swimming soon exasperate. In a studenty montage towards the end Kindersley suggests that gazing into the mystical eyeballs of charismatic megafauna will save us from George Bush. If only someone could save us from the plague of earnest hippies that crawl over Indigenous cultures like lice.

There is a serious conversation to be had here about the colonial fallacy of white ownership of Indigenous story. The ego boost some people seem to get from adopting Indigenous culture is a kind of consumerist racism. It seems to be Europeans who most enjoy thieving meaning in this way, though Aussies are not immune. I was also reminded of the execrable Mutant Message from Down Under.

The hippies come to Alice every winter looking for a culture more legitimate than their own, as if whiteness and its responsibilities can be sloughed off by rubbing against a witchetty bush. I am constantly surprised by the generosity and patience of Aboriginal people in continuing to share their culture in the face of such obvious disincentives.

The only pleasant thing about the evening was the performance before the film of a whale song by Bunna Lawrie, ex-Coloured Stone and secondary subject of the film. He came across as a gentle man with genuine concerns for the whale. It was a pity Kindersley couldn’t make room for much of Bunna’s story beside his own. Whaledreamers only got up through celebrity funding, but it’s narrated by Jack Thompson and distributed by the SFF, and they should know better.

Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I didn’t see it but I got the impression there was a certain amount of that sentiment in the ‘Australia’ turkey.

  2. Jennifer, I loved reading: despite the giggle-worthiness of your account, you bring hope that some day this kind of rampant culture-mining will be broadly seen for what it is.

    It’s my observation, from time spent with Indigenous art communities, that much of the ‘culture-share’ unfortunately stems from financial necessity – sometimes choice doesn’t enter the equation and culture is simply the only thing left to live off.

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