“The spirit of my gods rising up to speak with me. And the water holes boiled.”
— Nyarri Nyarri Morgan.
In the 1950s in the Pilbara desert, ash rained down along with the bodies of kangaroos. Only twenty years later did he hear the words ‘atomic bomb’. It was not the gods, rather a British weapon tested as part of the extremely secret operations called Buffalo and Antler, which detonated seven nuclear bombs in Australia’s centre between 1956 and 1963, leaving lasting radioactivity.
In Australian artist Lynette Wallworth’s 17-minute virtual reality documentary Collisions, a mushroom cloud rises, angled high above us. “I saw the spirit had made all the kangaroos lie down on the ground,” continues Nyarri. “As a gift to us of easy hunting. So we took those kangaroos and we ate them. And people were sick.“ Everything was poisoned: the air, the water, the blood of the people themselves.
I swivel around in my chair as a flake of black ash flutters toward me. I follow the arc of a roo’s corpse, black as hell, as it comes towards me and falls behind, and I feel like I’m seeing the bomb through Nyarri’s eyes.
Wallworth first heard about Nyarri, an elder of the Martu nation, four years ago, having just visited the bomb site of Maralinga in South Australia, 2000 kilometres north-east of Perth.
“Nyarri was walking around in the desert when Britain was testing nuclear bombs, before he had any contact with any other culture but his own,” says Wallworth in a short film about Collisions. “This complete collision with Western technology and one of the oldest cultures in the world. What he saw and how that impacted him, I think he’d been waiting his whole life to tell the story.”
“We took the [virtual reality] camera there [to Nyarri], he looked at it and said, ‘It’s got sixteen eyes.’ And it’s got four ears,” adds Wallworth. This means that the audio cues sync with the visual cues: my ears heard what my eyes saw, regardless of where I turned in my swivel chair.
“Fundamentally, we’ve used the newest technology to talk about something ancient in this country,” Wallworth continues. “The Martu’s sense of stewardship, how you look after something for a hundred generations. That’s what Nyarri wants to share.”
Spherical shots encircle both the starry sky and the orange ground. Collisions’ visual imagination enlivens that stewardship and the notion of an entire ecosystem. I had the sense that every blade of desert grass, every leaf, every drop of ash: all of these things were alive and moving and enlivened further by the spaces of air between them. All is active within the film. To speak of Aboriginal land after seeing this film is limiting and false: Collisions makes you realise that even the stars form an essential part of Nyarri’s worldview. In terms of aesthetics and mindset, virtual reality is the perfect form for expressing this holistic Indigenous worldview. Wallworth’s sixteen-eyed camera is 360 degrees, all-encompassing in a way that cinematic experience—limited to one-point perspective in a single visual frame—could never be. When Nyarri restores the nuked lands to sustainability by control-burning spinifex, we can arch our necks and trace the arc of the smoke from his fires, rising from earth to sky.
From training cadets in the US armed forces to providing ramped-up gaming experiences, VR has been enthusiastically adopted for commercial and military applications, But Collisions offers proof of VR’s capacity for art in the form of narrative non-fiction film-making. Wallworth has also brought out the technology’s capacity for building empathy through immersion: “To place the viewer in relation to this community, to this man who wants to tell the story, and give a sense of place, not just what it looks like in the desert but what it feels like under that huge sky. The camera allows you to feel like you’re in his home.”
The opening scenes are exemplary of this: by sending the VR camera up with a drone and taking us over Nyarri’s country, I was immediately reminded of the paintings of Paddy Bedford and Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who both seem to bring a birds-eye view of the land: abstract shapes recall rivers and geographical contours and outlines of harbours – Gods-eye without God, with a sense of aerial spirituality instead. The overhead visuals of drone-enabled VR seem compatible with the abstractions of much Indigenous art.
The name ‘collisions’ brings up something deeper, too: what Wallworth has called an “extreme cultural interruption” is a collision that is still unfurling, not a lapsed aspect of past history. The film made me think of the eminent American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ question of whether you can reform a political system of governance based on plunder – in Australia’s case, a colonial settler society and the lie of Terra Nullius, a found myth that has never been fully retracted in the mainstream Australian imagination. The myth is so huge, so uncorrected and so downreaching, but Wallworth is striking back against colonial narrativisation and the still-dominant idea that Indigenous stories and systems are quaint native traditions that belong in the past.
Collisions’ portrayal of nuclear testing in Aboriginal spaces made me realise the great contradiction of this myth and its lingering colonialist view of Australia as a dead-hearted, empty land: that the wealth of Aboriginal ecology is what makes that land so desirable and exploitable to colonisers and capitalists. Collisions shows how the resources of the Indigenous nations—the iron, the ore, the gold, the copper, the opals, the trees to fell, the spring water to bottle, the barramundi to farm, the space in which to grow wheat and corn and rice and slaughter cattle and cut into real estate and build houses and test weapons—are integrated and essential parts of an Aboriginal worldview that extends from beneath the ground into the air and up to the stars, with unquantifiable spiritual value. But to free-marketeers, and those who permitted the nuclear testing, this abundance has a dollar value that is both tangible and constantly renegotiated. Maralinga’s expansiveness was what made it so attractive for testing.
If a land is truly empty, then why is it worth occupying? You cannot say a continent is worth nothing and worth taking from. The wealth of contemporary Australia, and the mad unsharedness of that wealth, is the evidence of that central lie. Through personalising the story of nuclear testing in the Pilbara desert via Nyarri’s recollections and survival, through uniting and mediating his memories with the right approach to story, sound and vision, Collisions is a vital exposure of this cross-eyed view of Australia’s centre as both valuable and expendable.
Collisions is also significant for its departure from much of Australian cinema’s Anglo-centric representations of blackness. It is not about white people’s encounters with blackness, rather, it is about one Indigenous man’s experience of colliding with a society that is essentially hostile to him and his people, country and spirit. Collisions does not use natural elements, like water, as a metaphorical critique of disturbed Aboriginal-white relations, for instance, the drowning of an Indigenous woman in Jindabyne (Ray Lawrence, 2006). It is not about an enlightening white encounter with blackness, for instance, Walkabout (Nicholas Roeg, 1970). It is not a white portrayal of Aboriginal mysticism as in Dead Heart (Nick Parsons, 1996). More akin to Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013), Collisions is a film in which a non-Aboriginal artist has collaboratively given over their resources and skills to give an Indigenous person a chance to author their own story, to discuss in their own voice the conservation of the memories and spirit of a place and, in this case, of Martu knowledge. In other words, it is not about the descendants of settlers and convicts moving towards Indigenous people, but enabling Indigenous worldviews and stories to reach beyond Aboriginal people to a wider public. It enables an ecological dialogue about the relationship between a place and the restoration of a peoples’ spirit, as it makes visible yet another absence in Australia’s history books.
Nyarri experienced something profound in the fifties: a violent clash between old nature and new weaponry— the weaponry of an imposed society—and he and his people will always carry that story with them. Although the film is upbeat about Nyarri’s peoples’ commitment to conserving their spirit and their place, the central collision the film speaks to remains active. Cameco and Mitsubishi are now planning a uranium mine called Kintyre in the ranges between two branches of a creek called Yantikutji, in the heart of Martu country. Preservation and home, care and place, are at the heart of Wallworth’s beautiful film, and those values are at odds with the political and financial system of today, which is itself the poison. By exploring new cinematic expressions for Indigeneity, Collisions suggests another way we can live in this country, which is stewarded so carefully by Indigenous nations, and always has been.
Collisions can be seen for free at Melbourne’s ACMI until January 2017, or by downloading the Jaunt TV virtual reality app. More information about the Martu people’s efforts to protect their home are available at http://www.wanfa.org.au.
Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and artist, published in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, The Guardian Australia and others. She researches cinema at UNSW as part of her PhD, is a contributing editor to Metro, and the author of Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s Film Distribution Problem (Platform Papers, 2013).