Dance has been called the first and common language of Australia’s many different First Nation peoples but the stories it tells are little known outside of the land from which they have sprung.
The ancient and modern have combined to allow anyone to sit on beach, desert and bush, beneath dunes, rock and forest amid the rhythmic clapping, stamping and singing of people practising their culture and bringing their stories to wherever you may be.
For Canberra, that’s the National Film and Sound Archive where a new virtual reality film, Carriberrie, has opened, that celebrates Indigenous song and dance in locations across Australia, some of which few will ever visit.
Introduced by iconic actor David Gulpilil and narrated by Jack Charles, Carriberrie features 156 dancers and 36 performances, representing nine cultural groups, and encompassing both traditional ceremonial song and dance through to contemporary and modern expressions.
From a work by Bangarra at the Sydney Opera House to Uluru and the Arnhem wetlands, Carriberrie showcases a stunning range of locations and performances, allowing viewers to be immersed in these environments and in close proximity to the artists.
The film’s genesis was a life-changing moment for director Dominic Allen when he saw a ‘sorry business’ dancer at Gunbalanya in east Arnhem Land, Joey Ngannjmirra, who performs in the film.
“I don’t think I’ve witnessed that level of power and agency through a single person singing and dancing before,” he said.
Inspired, he reached out to different Indigenous groups, cultural custodians and film bodies such as Screen Australia about a project to take that experience to the rest of Australia.
One might think it would be a project fraught with challenges but in 20 years of filmmaking, he had never experienced an easier process.
“Everybody kept saying yes,” he said. “The technical side of it is an absolute minefield and nightmare but the logistical elements and the cultural elements and the production elements were really easy.”
Delta Kay, a Bundjalung woman from Byron, who also performs in the film, said Allen followed the right protocols, was honest and had his heart in the right place.
“So it felt right when he explained the project to us, and I explained it to my people and they were excited,” she said.
“We’re all different, all these dancers from around Australia, we all know that Aboriginal people are all different. We’ve got our own languages, our own customs and laws, but we’ve got something the same, and that’s love for our land, that’s our duty, to look after our land. Through our dances we tell our stories, we become one with our totem, we respect the spirits of our animals, that’s what dance does for us, we connect with our ancestors, we dance and massage our mother’s back.”
Indigenous people wanted to share their culture and for Allen, VR offered the perfect medium to transport viewers to country for an on-the-spot experience like his.
“This project is an expansive wonderful journey into traditional and living First Nation culture in this country,” he said. “It really paid witness to a really robust an impressive and beautiful culture that I’ve been blessed to get a little bit closer to over the process of making it.
“I think a lot of Australians are fascinated and we’d all love to get out to country and to know more about the wonderful culture that’s been there for so long. And dance is a really great way to be able to communicate and understand that together.”
He said the film was an introduction for people to go on a journey around Australia to places they can’t go to in order to meet people they can’t usually meet, and to have a face-to-face real personal experience with those cultures, practices, songs and dances.
“You can almost touch and feel these people, you can’t stand on the stage with Bangarra in real life but you can now. And you can’t go to east Arnhem land without an invitation or a permit and you can now. There’s wonderful sharing you can do through VR and that’s why we chose it,” he said.
Viewers can experience it through VR headsets sitting in swivel chairs for the full 360-degree experience, interactive screen, iPads or app.
No stranger to Indigenous experience after spending time at Fitzroy Crossing as a young man, Allen said making the film had only reinforced his respect for First Nation people’s connection to country.
“After travelling around the country and seeing nine more groups now, and seeing these practices, it’s really cemented my confidence, my deep respect for the integrity and power of First Nation culture in this country,” he said.
NFSA Deputy Chair Wayne Denning (a Birri Gubba man) said sharing Indigenous culture in digital platforms and innovative ways was one of the most important things the country could do.
“The more young people, old people and Australian society share in that the better we are,” he said.
NFSA CEO Jan Muller said it made sense for the NFSA, as the guardian of the visual heritage of this country, to present this VR film.
“As the custodians of a significant collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander works, we believe in the power of stories to transcend cultural boundaries and build a deeper understanding and respect. Carriberrie achieves all of that, using cutting-edge immersive technologies, which the NFSA is now collecting and preserving, alongside traditional audiovisual formats,” he said.
Carriberrie comes to Canberra after seasons and screenings in Sydney (Australian Museum), Melbourne (MIFF), Cannes (Marche du Film), Guanajuato (Mexico) and Toulouse (France).