Massimiliano Mollona: Ethnographic filmmaking and the political imagination: A review of “Desert People” by Ian Dunlop (1967)

In the opening sequences of Desert People (1967, 49 minutes, Australian National Film Board), we read, “This is a film on two families of the western Australian desert.” But in fact the film’s real subject is the wonderful Gibson Desert—whose textural surface is magically rendered by black and white 35mm film—and the relationship with “its” people as they constantly move across it, stopping only for short moments of rest. This relationship is marked by material scarcity and hard labor. We see boys and men restlessly digging the hard surface of the desert with spears and wooden tools. We see their bodies slowly disappearing inside it, to reappear with handfuls of water, small lizards, and rats. We see women making food out of wild grass. We see families gathering to eat, forced into a momentary standstill by the heat of the sun at midday.

But the “desert people” are not victims of material scarcity. Instead, they face it with creativity and self-determination. As they hunt and gather food, they inscribe the landscape with a sense of beauty: soft molds of earth, sinuous footprints in the sand, grass seeds scattered in the wind in soft circles. Desert People describes two aboriginal families as they travel through the desert not so much as (film) subjects—hence, objectifying them—but rather through their relationship with the landscape and the natural elements. This relationship is intense and fleeting. The group shares long silences and deep laughter. The wind erases their footprints in the sand. The sun brushes their bodies into long shadows. Toward the end of the film, the sun falls and one family rejoins in the camp. We are told that during the night the temperature will reach freezing level. Only now do we become aware of their naked bodies. Boys gather firewood and water. Mimma, the head of one family, makes an encampment with wet tree brunches. Women sweep the ground and then lay supine inside it, breastfeeding their children. 

desert people GIF2

Just at the onset of dusk, several small fires are lit inside the camp. Shifting our gaze away from them, we can guess the explosion of color in the sky. Dusk turns into darkness. Small clusters of burning grass envelop each person. The group eats. The atmosphere is joyous and joking. Their faces and bodies flicker in the darkness. Mimma finishes to eat then lays supine between two small fires and starts singing. Women follow suit, carrying with them to the ground the small children they are gently playing with—their silhouettes blurred in one single body. Now we can see only a constellation of fires flickering in the darkness and hear Mimma’s voice in the background. The desert people have disappeared in the landscape.

It could be argued that director Ian Dunlop’s decision to focus on the nomadic lifestyle of western aboriginal communities at a time when they were being violently pushed into reserves and mission stations was nostalgic at best. The limitations of such an approach to indigenism became evident with the development of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op in the 1970s, when indigenous filmmakers were able to define such conditions in their own terms (Ginsberg 1995). For instance, Essie Coffey was the first indigenous woman filmmaker to introduce a female perspective, and Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini in Two Laws (1982) set up a participatory framework, which exposed the legacy of colonialism through the lenses of indigenous aesthetic and epistemology. Yet, by filming in black and white 35mm and with virtually no sound—instead of using the newly developed, lightweight 16mm synchronous sound equipment—Dunlop broke away from the realist tradition of ethnographic filmmaking. The film’s extended silences, bright contrasts, and long shots of the desert’s majestic presence seem to emphasize its own limitations and inconsistencies. Toward the end of the film, when the faces of Mimma, his children, and his wives flicker in the dark, we feel transported back in time—at an early cinema screening—and wonder about the film’s politics and intended audience. In Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss describes the experience of watching early ethnographic films in Paris:

Not many people traveled professionally in 1905, and those who returned to tell their tales could count not on five or six full houses at the Salle Pleyel, but on a single session in the little, dark, cold, and dilapidated amphitheatre that stood in a pavilion at the far end of the Jardin des Plantes. Once a week the Society of Friends of the Museum organized and may still organize, for all I know, a lecture on the natural sciences. Lantern lectures, they were; but as the screen was too large for the projector, and the lamp too weak for the size of the hall, the images thrown were intelligible neither to the lecturer, who had his nose immediately beneath them, nor to the audience, who could with difficulty distinguish them from the huge patches of damp that disfigured the walls. A quarter of an hour before the appointed time there was always doubt as to whether anyone would come to the lecture, apart from the handful of habitus who could be picked out here and there in the gloom. Just when the lecturer was losing all hope, the body of the hall would half fill with children, each accompanied by mother or nanny, some delighted by the prospect of a free change of scene, others merely craving relief from die dust and noise of the gardens outside. This mixture of moth-eaten phantoms and impatient youngsters was our reward for long months of struggle and hardship; to them we unloaded our treasured recollections. A session of this sort was enough to sever us forever from such memories; as we talked on in the half-light we felt them dropping away from us, one by one, like pebbles down a well. ([1955] 1992: 5)

Likewise, we can think of Desert People as a space of imagination for the audience to confront its own ghosts, memories, and projections—of unburdened nature and human freedom—rather than as a realistic representation of the indigenous subject. Desert People was released the year western aboriginals won the right to become Australian citizens. Perhaps the film’s self-reflexivity mirrors that moment of transition, when the indigenous subject was disappearing as it was “democratically” assimilated into the modern nation-state.

Massimiliano Mollona teaches political and economic anthropology and visual art at Goldsmiths College. His research focuses on the anthropology of labor, class, and political economy.

Ginsberg, Fay 1995. Mediating culture: Indigenous media, ethnographic film and the production of identity. In Leslie Devereaux and Roger Hillman, eds., Fields of vision. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. [1955] 1992. Tristes tropiques. Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. London: Penguin.

Two Laws. 1981. Directed by Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini. Documentary. Australia:  Sydney Filmmakers Co-op, 16mm, col., 130 min.

Cite as: Mollona, Massimiliano. 2015. “Ethnographic filmmaking and the political imagination: A review of “Desert People” by Ian Dunlop (1967),” FocaalBlog, April 23,