Christmas in Arnhem Land: Jennifer Deger interview

A collaborative film by the Yolngu (Aboriginal) and Balanda (non-Aboriginal) members of Miyarrka Media, the documentary shows the Yolngu Christmas rituals that begin in October when the first Wolma thunder clouds form marking the coming wet season.

The film recently received a special commendation at the 2012 Margaret Mead Festival. I spoke with Jennifer Deger in New York and include comments by Paul Gurrumuruwuy and Fiona Yangathu recorded in Gapuwiyak in 2009.

“I’ve been working in Gapuwiyak for 20 years doing community based experimental video work," says Jennifer Deger. "This is the first time I’ve worked with anyone on a project that’s not simply aimed at a Yolngu audience. I have spent many Christmases up there and really appreciate the kinds of values the people bring to their Christmas and the quality and texture of combining sorrow and joy into something so rich."

"I approached Paul Gurrumuruwuy and his wife Fiona Yangathu who immediately said yes and took over the structural planning of it all," Deger explains. "They expanded my original idea to include three men from Paul’s clan; to open it up so it would be relevant to everyone in Gapuwiyak because of their relationships through these three men."

"From the beginning there was a commitment to working under Yolngu guidance, Yolngu aesthetics and Yolngu social structures. The commitment was that we would make a film that would satisfy Yolngu and also reach out to a wider audience. In that regard, Paul and Fiona were the guiding light through the filming and editing, making decisions about what should and what shouldn’t be included. At the same time we made decisions together."

"I think I can speak for all of us when I say that the making of this film was extremely satisfying and a truly collaborative process. The end result was more than anyone of us could have done on our own.”

Speaking of the Yolngu Christmas rituals, Paul Gurrumuruwuy explains that “the Wolma cloud brings the first sign of Christmas. When the Yolngu hear the thunder it brings tears… and melancholy. People start thinking about those who have passed away. Their brothers, their family.”

For Fiona Yangathu, “there’s always memories inside, buried in our hearts and in our minds. Every year when Christmas comes around we think about the members of our family. That’s why we’ve focussed on particular graves in this project,” Yangathu explains. “We bring them out from the graveyard so they will have Christmas with us in spirit.”

Previous 10 | Next 10

About this Blog

Manapanmirr, in Christmas Spirit (Paul Gurrumuruwuy; Fiona Yangathu; Jennifer Deger; David Mackenzie, 2012) is an observational documentary filmed in Gapuwiyak, northeast Arnhem Land.