Review of ‘Renewing Women’s Business: A Documentary’ by Julie Drew and Wardaman Aboriginal Corporation

01st June 2008

Babidge book review cover AA66Renewing Women’s Business: A Documentary by Julie Drew and Wardaman Aboriginal Corporation, Crow’s Nest NSW 2005, 57 mins, DVD.

Sally Babidge

School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, St Lucia Qld 4072, Australia

Renewing Women’s Business is a documentary film that follows Lily Gin.gina Burdum, an elderly Wardaman woman from the Victoria River District (referred to throughout the narrative as Lily), and Julie Drew, an archaeologist from the University of Sydney, on a camping trip. Lily is one of the few women of her generation who was taken through initiation rites, and the accompaniment and attention of her younger relatives on the trip is central to the narrative. We see Lily, with the assistance of Drew, teaching the younger women aspects of ‘women’s business’ and ‘culture’ through viewing rock art, learning dances, visiting waterholes and other places, and recounting ‘Dreamings’, associated mythic beings, and the social regulations associated with these. The DVD includes the film itself as well as a ‘Picture Gallery’ with many images of the group’s camping trip, rock art, scenery and fishing, as well as the film crew and other ‘behind the scenes’ images.

Spatial orientation is provided with a still of a good map of the Northern Territory and Victoria River District, as well as the location of the Wardaman community and Innesvale/Menngen Station. The introduction to the film also includes footage of preparations for the bush trip: adolescent girls having a telephone conversation with their teacher from Katherine School of the Air explaining their coming absence in terms of going camping to ‘learn about culture’ (Chapter 2); loading a vehicle with swags and supplies; and narrated introductions to the elder women central to the film as they warm themselves around a fire next to their house. This includes Lily’s sister (Queenie Nabijiji Morgan) who, it is pointed out, was not initiated in her youth due to having lived far away from the area from a young age with her ‘promise husband’. Both older women worked on cattle stations, but Lily grew up close to her family and country.

Drew’s personal depth of experience and knowledge of the women, the region and the topic plays a prominent role in the documentary, including as scriptwriter. The narration swaps between Drew and May Rosas (who Drew introduces as the narrator and ‘Lily’s niece’). They have apparently pitched the film at both a local and national audience. For example, we are told that ‘elders must share their knowledge … so that all young Australians can value it’; and that ‘Lily is happy to share these stories to help build a better understanding and respect for Wardaman woman’s business’ (Chapter 12). Given the audience they seek, I thought that the sparse use of subtitles was a tactic that may annoy some who like every word uttered on screen translated to text. However, I personally found satisfyingly the resultant requirement that the viewer focus on the central figures’ movements and non-verbal communication in conjunction with the spoken Aboriginal English.

The structure of the film and steady camera work is easy to follow and good to watch. As a subject Lily seems comfortable with the lens turned upon her, although Drew less so. In contrast, the young girls interact directly with the lens, acutely aware of its gaze. The girls –with their solemn expressions and sidelong glances at the camera as they listen to Lily’s interpretations of the figures in the rock art galleries; their raucousness as they are taught to dance; and their hands cupped over their mouths as they giggle (and are heard being told to ‘shush’) at the discussion between Lily and Drew of first menstruation rituals – lend a lively presence to the film that this reviewer appreciated. My favourite scenes in the documentary were of the group of girls and women sitting in a waterhole digging out the oily mud to smear on themselves as ‘love magic’ (jirri) (Chapters 5-6); and later, the conversation among a handful of adolescent and teenage girls sitting on the riverbank telling the camera about the power of the love magic, and about ‘skin’ laws in terms of who each of them can and can’t ‘go with’. Their preoccupation with sexual and social relationships was telling of the girls’ age and gender. More than this, these scenes demonstrate their lived social realities. On camera, they engage in gender and generational specific (but traditional) interpretations of knowledge in order to recount ‘skin’ regulations, and convey a sense of the contemporary-mythic when they tell a story about a woman they know of who successfully wielded love magic over her man, and in a later scene, talking about ‘breaking that spell’ (Chapter 12).

These scenes contrasted with the rather staged presentation and representations of cultural knowledge in questioning and response between Drew and Lily in the rock art galleries. The narrator informs us that knowing connections between ‘Dreaming’, law, and person means being a businesswoman, and respect for Lily’s depth of knowledge is made plain. Nonetheless, Drew’s constant interjection with questions, comment, and interpretation is a major hindrance in the appreciation of both myth and symbolic representation that we can see in the rock art.

While in many ways an interesting film, the production of Renewing Women’s Business needs some finessing. The cover provides only very basic information and the inside cover simply lists images in the DVD’s ‘Picture Gallery’. Furthermore, it would seem to make sense to indicate on the cover of the DVD that there is a detailed website associated with the film (, including teacher’s notes, and other useful information. As with the DVD itself, the information on the website would seem to me most useful as a record of one woman’s knowledge for the local community, but it seems to me to need further refinement if it is to be used by the wider public or university educators. Perhaps the most obvious lacunae in production detail was that nowhere could I find information around the issue of secrecy or gender sensitivity, except for a brief warning to Aboriginal men at the very beginning of the film. Apparently it is suitable and appropriate to be shown to non-Aboriginal men (given there is no warning to the contrary), but given the obvious question, I feel this could have been addressed explicitly.

It is worth making some critique of the way in which Drew (who is referred to as an ‘ethnographic archaeologist’) applies the culture concept in the scripting and narration. To take the most obvious example, the young girls are said to ‘live in two worlds’ (Chapter 2). Firstly, Lily herself (and her sister), as well as the young girls’ mother’s generations, and the young girls themselves, all live (currently and apparently have done so throughout their lives) in a complex social and cultural context that cannot be characterised as simply Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal. From an ethnographic perspective, the whole of their social reality, from which they draw meaning, and which they take for granted, is their cultural world. In the way they engage with the cameras, it is clear that the youngest take for granted the role of multimedia and its power as a representational tool. At the same time, they emphasise to their school teacher (over the phone) that they must be absent for camping and ‘culture’, and they express their respect for their grandmothers’ knowledge. All of these things and more are part of their world, rather than necessarily belonging to one of two separable ‘cultural spheres’.

A further comment on the use of the concept of ‘culture’ must be made. The narrator states: ‘Today the girls have lost the knowledge of their ancestors’ traditions’ (Chapter 2). The premise of the documentary, or perhaps simply what underlies the narration of the film, is the pretence that one documented camping and education trip with a knowledgeable woman and an inquisitive archaeologist will ‘renew women’s business’. Perhaps the activities recorded on film are a minor part in other processes of cultural renewal and that this film documents only a fraction of a larger picture. Perhaps it is the case that the documentary represents only one excursion in a series; or perhaps much more work is being done by Wardaman women to ‘renew women’s business’. However, minimal information on the context of cultural renewal is emphasised in the film. I argue that in a film showing living people engaged in recording and representing aspects of their culture, more must be done to develop a clear language of the present in all of its complexity. By this, I mean an awareness of the politics of performance, and greater sophistication in both the representation of the process of salvaging an old person’s knowledge and young peoples’ apparent interest in this knowledge renewal and what they may do with it.

Sally Babidge
Review of ‘Renewing Women’s Business: A Documentary’ by Julie Drew and Wardaman Aboriginal Corporation
June 2008
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