Warning: This article deals with domestic violence, and may be distressing to some readers.
This piece is dedicated to the life and memory of proud Arrernte woman R. Rubuntja, a founding member of the Tangentyere Womens Family Safety Group, who lost her life to violence in January this year.
Not Just Numbers is a stirring three-part documentary depicting the hearts and minds of the Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group (TWFSG) as they work to put an end to devastating family and domestic violence within their communities in and around the town and camps of Mparntwe (Alice Springs), Northern Territory.
Not Just Numbers recently featured as part of the official selection for 2021’s Birrarangga Film Festival – Indigenous Films from Across the Globe, curated by Yorta Yorta/ Wurundjeri actor, playwright and producer Tony Briggs and his partner Damienne Pradier of Typecast Entertainment.
The festival was held over four days at the newly refurbished Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Naarm (Melbourne). The film’s international premiere was part of the ‘world’s largest distributer of Indigenous screen content’, ImagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival held in 2019 in Toronto, Canada.
It can happen in a split second; a fist coming towards you – you feel the energy rising in your body, your heart is beating fast but you pretend it’s not you – sometimes it’s like it’s happening to someone else in slow motion and you can see it, but your energy has stalemated – the trauma can exist in your body for a long time after, or indeed others' bodies, being passed down through bloodlines, through generations. Alcohol, the ‘white man’s poison’ is almost always involved.
“We are real women and we want to live in peace.”
The film, that was also screened on NITV in 2019 as part of in-house show Karla Grant Presents, was directed by the Women’s family safety group’s co-ordinator, Shirleen Campbell.
Campbell and her group take a deliberate and empowering approach to domestic violence in training women to see the early signs of a possible incident, understanding how quickly it can happen, the substances that contribute to instability, and ‘supporting each other’ unwaveringly.
“We don’t want to be invisible any more, we are not just numbers,” Campbell says.
“We are people – walking, breathing humans. We want to show the world we are standing up against domestic violence.”
“It’s not about breaking up families, it’s about making our families stronger and healthier for our children and the future generations,” she said.
There’s inspirational women around the world, many phenomenal ones and agents of change; then there’s the ethereal Shirleen Campbell – a stunningly passionate and dedicated Arrernte, Anmatyerre, Warlpiri, Luritja woman, wife, mother of five, grandmother to one, and co-coordinator of the Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group.
Not Just Numbers is a staunch and heartfelt response to the senseless deaths of several women in Campbell’s family and many in the surrounding community to violence, including her own mother and aunty some years ago.
“No matter how hard we talk to our white people, they seem to not listen. We know what works best for our people,” she says in the film.
The inspiring group is supported by elders of differing tribes, peers, non-Indigenous women allies and well-known activist Barbra Shaw. Not Just Numbers documents the consistent work of the group, their travels to Parliament House in Canberra and showing that a grassroots, ground-up approach, where solutions come from community for community, is the only way forward.
“It’s a two-way learning, you need to have that co-working relationship between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal as well,” Campbell said.
“Stand with us,” she urges the non-Indigenous people of Australia.
Campbell is a third-generation resident of from Lhenpe Artnwe (Hoppy’s) town camp of Alice Springs, never forgetting she is directly descendant of over 65,000 years of family residency of areas around Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and beyond. Campbell, who has not only overcome domestic violence within her own direct family, provides a safe place for her children with her partner who has overcome his own battles with alcohol abuse and violence.
“You gotta try and make a change there somewhere and break the cycle… there’s a certain way you gotta behave.” Campbell’s partner Chris Forbes said in the film.
“You’ve gotta be the one that’s standing up and saying – ‘look, it’s (the violence and alcohol) not a part of our culture, it’s not our way'.”
Last year Campbell was awarded an Australian of the Year award as the Northern Territory State Recipient Local Hero.
“One Aboriginal women carries a lot when it comes to family and domestic violence…we’re actually doing something and Australia need to know that,” Campbell said.
“This work we’re doing is for the women that are not here today and for the next generation.”