Versions of Analysis, Visions of Immanence

From the Series: Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams

Film still from Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams, directed by the Karrabing FIlm Collective.

The Karrabing Film Collective makes films in and across the northern Australian country that most of its members call home. The collective includes people who grew up at the community of Belyuen on the Cox Peninsula, just across the harbor from the Northern Territory’s capital and biggest city, Darwin. They are joined by Beth Povinelli, who has been coming here since 1984 and who has known many of the members since they were small children, and at times they also welcome others.

The group took shape in the aftermath of a community conflict and the forced departure of the families who would become the Karrabing from Belyuen in 2007. When their distinctive perspectives on these events were given short shrift by local media, they turned to video to tell their story themselves. By 2011 they were bringing considerable energy to making films—films that give members a shared set of projects and aims that lend the Karrabing its very shape. That shape itself becomes diagnostic of the limits and strictures of Australian modes of cultural policy and Indigenous recognition. As a filmmaking collective, they are somewhat anomalous, unrecognizable to many Australian funding institutions, for instance, as they do not easily correspond to a specific language or clan or community group. They live on outstations and value the space and life the bush affords, but they also live in government housing in Darwin and Palmerston. And while they do share a history of displacement and dispersal, the family groups that constitute the Karrabing have come to understand themselves as a collective through the work they produce. The Karrabing might be best understood as an aspiration that comes alive in the relations its work sustains. The term karrabing itself, they remind, is an Emiyengal term for tide out or low tide turning, a figure not of ebbing energy, but of vast openings and possibility.

The films they produce explore facets of their everyday lives, performing kinds of collective analysis and improvised storytelling that canvass the frequently conflicting demands of the lives of its Indigenous members: to care for the country by visiting it, to share its stories with younger generations, to negotiate and make plain the thousand cuts of bureaucratic oversight, or simply to keep a car or boat running, a mobile phone’s credit topped up, or one’s family secure in government-subsidized housing. While their films chart the creative work necessary to endure in an increasingly inhospitable social margin, they all pivot in some way on the need to tinker and build in this margin in order to persevere, suggesting that such tinkering and building are itself kinds of thinking—a shared analysis built on what I am reluctant to call “work” because it is also evident that making these films is part necessity and exigency and part humor and fun.

But this truth might not quite suggest the provocative, fractious, and at times funny and hard-edged films they produce. Wutharr: Saltwater Dreams (2016), the collective’s third film, is exemplary. The film’s narrative canvasses the ways that the group finds its bearings amid the impossible, wearying world of bureaucrats, police, and paperwork to offer a reflection on the Karrabing’s own interpretive contests. I kept rewatching Wutharr to try to get my own bearings amid its stories, to find a solid through line or narrative core I could hold onto amid its temporal and ontological juxtapositions. On the surface of things, it is not so difficult to find one’s feet. The film traverses several related narratives, each addressing the same afternoon visit by boat to a stretch of its protagonists’ ancestral country on Australia’s northwest coast. In brief, a trip by boat goes wrong, and different accounts emerge to understand the events and their consequences.

But each “version” of the story has its own voice and feel, each offers somewhat different interpretive and filmic grounds for grasping the substance and stakes of these events, and each thus implies distinct ways out of their dilemma. One is curt and realist. A character tells us it’s only a matter of a busted motor—salt water has corroded some wiring. This is the most brief, and in its seeming self-evidence might seem the least revelatory, but its explanatory insufficiency for others reveals the interpretive dissent that subtends film. Another version is cloaked in frustration and takes us further into the story, as some members find themselves stuck on their own country, without potable water or the means to get back home. This version introduces the possibility that it is ancestors, frustrated with their relative’s infrequent visits to country, who have sabotaged the boat. A third is still more disconcerting and surreal, bringing past and present into the same frame—overlaid onto one another. These final ten minutes of Wutharr collapse time using superimposition and a dramatically altered color palate to leave realist convention behind. Images of the past float on screen as the community of 1952 (its pastors, its bureaucrats, and also the ancestors of today’s Karrabing members) is laminated onto the present, giving us a sense of the different sorts of lingering ancestors to which the Karrabing are responsible and the institutions with which they still must contend. One character seems confused about what year it is. Is it 2015 or 1952? When and where are we?

The film also explores the limits of recognition. In one charged sequence, Povinelli takes on the role of a settler Australian tourist fishing on the coast of the traditional country of Karrabing members. She is singing a song that most Australians will recognize, “My Island Home.” That song echoes an earlier and celebrated musical collaboration, between white Australian Neil Murray, Yolngu man George Burarrwanga, and brothers Gordon and Sammy Butcher who came together in the 1980s as the Warumpi Band.1 As revoiced by Povinelli’s character, the tune becomes a banner for the bad faith that can at times accompany recognition, the ways that Indigenous identity can become a cornerstone of settler belonging, and the ways that recognition can at times seem to evade equity, justice, and restitution. When asked for water, the character shouts back, “It’s your country, go find a water hole!” The sequence says a great deal about the extractive relations that have plundered and destroyed the country, such that what is returned to Indigenous people may well be worn out, contaminated, or poisoned. The differences between 2015 and 1952 might be less self-evident than many would take them to be.

Each version also works as an entry for a kind of interpretive contest around how to understand the events that transpire and how to prioritize the agencies involved. The corrosive effects of saltwater on an engine, spurned ancestral powers, the Christian church and the power of prayer, or recognition itself all become vehicles for grappling with the troubles that beset the group. These vehicles jostle for primacy. They might be all together in this project, but they have their own ideas and takes, their own versions of what is happening, and contending ideas about what to do about it—visiting country, praying, salvaging parts to fix a motor. And all these are cross-cut by the corrosive effects of policing and incarceration, bureaucracy, and the state’s varied interventions in the past and today. Povinelli’s (2011, 116–21) monograph, Economies of Abandonment, itself recounts a story that echoes many of the events in Wutharr. But from the ground of the film we might now also read Povinelli’s account as “Beth’s version”—another entry into this boisterous Karrabing conversation.2

To dissect these few minutes of screen time as minutely, and possibly as reductively, as this is just to scratch the surface of the film’s generative and collaborative work. Its producers offer scenarios that both represent and analyze their circumstances while also building something new. In some ways these particular sequences stand out for their accessibility. Others will require more interpretive work, but the film rewards those efforts as the stories and images illuminate not just the Karrabing’s analytic insights, but the power of their differences as well.


1. Penned by Murray and first released by the Warumpi Band in 1987 on their second album, Go Bush (Parole Records L38707), the song remains a revered staple of Indigenous radio programming. Its performance by Indigenous artist Christine Anu was later given pride of place in the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney.

2. I am struck too by the ways Wutharr’s themes, and even some of its sequences and the centrality of an engine to the story, echo Charles Burnett’s remarkable 1977 film Killer of Sheep, a work that Povinelli (2011) herself engages with at length in Economies of Abandonment.


Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2011. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.