Tom 'Putuparri' Lawford’s people have lived in the desert of Western Australia for over forty thousand years. They lived a nomadic life knowing they could always retreat to their sacred waterholes when times were hard. Kurtal is one of the most important of these waterholes in the heart of the Great Sandy Desert. It is the site where underground artisan water known as ‘jila’ or ‘living water’ comes to the surface and it is where the spirits of Putuparri's people return to when they die.
When Europeans arrived, their cattle and horses fouled the water holes and forced Aboriginal people off their land. Many of them worked on cattle stations where they retained a physical link to their Country. But in the late 1960s when the courts introduced equal pay, many Aboriginal people were forced off the stations into towns like Fitzroy Crossing.
Putuparri grew up in Fitzroy Crossing as part of an activist family. He was ten years old when he joined the picket line at Noonkanbah Station to fight oil-drilling on sacred land.
His grandfather, ‘Spider’, grew up in the desert and taught Putuparri bush knowledge and the dreamtime myths. But Putuparri struggles with being singled out to care for his law and culture. The expectations of passing on 40,000 years of cultural tradition are a heavy burden and the party lifestyle in Fitzroy Crossing doesn't help.
A trip back to Spider’s homeland in the desert begins the process of cultural awakening. Putuparri is shocked to learn that the dreamtime myths are not just stories, that there is a Country called Kurtal and a snake spirit that is the subject of an elaborate rainmaking ritual.
The film spans twenty transformative years in Putuparri's life as he navigates the deep chasm between his Western upbringing and his traditional culture. He and Spider go on a series of epic journeys to their family’s Country. Each trip marks a different stage in his passage from rebellious young man to inspirational leader.
Set against the backdrop of the long fight to reclaim their traditional lands, Putuparri And The Rainmakers is a story of love, hope and the survival of Aboriginal law and culture against all odds.
My first experience of Fitzroy Crossing was in 2001, landing on a red dirt runway and thinking ‘where am I?’ I had never met an Aboriginal person and was here to address the assembled Elders at Fitzroy Crossing about participating in a documentary I was making. My pitch did not go down well. Instead, they told me that I could go with them on an upcoming desert trip and that I could film that.
After the trip Daniel Vachon, an anthropologist, gave me his thesis about rainmakers in the Great Sandy Desert. He cited Kurtal as a main ceremonial waterhole where rainmaking ceremonies were conducted and Spider was one of the custodians. He also gave me a VHS videotape of their first trip to Kurtal in 1994. I didn’t look at it thinking ‘I’ve been there, shot that, I don’t need ugly VHS footage’ and put it away in a drawer.
I continued to return to Fitzroy Crossing over the years working with the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC), Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Women's Resource Centre and Nindilingarri Cultural Health Services making films for the community and new media for exhibitions curated by Mangkaja Arts. I established on-going relationships with these Aboriginal NGOs, and befriended many of the old women, in particular Dolly Snell who took me under her wing and instructed me.
During this period I was writing film outlines experimenting with different approaches to a possible film. I applied for funding support but was unsuccessful. I was however finding myself in Fitzroy Crossing with opportunities to film and because Spider and Dolly are prominent Elders my archive about them and their family continued to grow.
In 2006 I was in Fitzroy Crossing making a film about alcohol and domestic violence. I interviewed many men on this subject and one of them was Putuparri. He was very open about his alcohol abuse and the cycle of violence that it propagated. That interview became one of the pivotal moments in the film.
In 2007, I started work on Yiwarra Kuju: the Canning Stock Route, a blockbuster exhibition co-produced by FORM and the National Museum of Australia. The Canning Stock Route is a place where Indigenous and non-Indigenous histories intersect. First surveyed in 1906, and running almost 2,000 kilometres across Western Australia, it dramatically affected the lives of the Aboriginal people who lived in the region. The project gave Aboriginal people who grew up in the desert the opportunity to tell the story of their 'country' and how the wells that Alfred Canning constructed were based on traditional Aboriginal waterholes called jilas. Putuparri was the project’s cultural advisor. I brought on Paul Elliott as my cinematographer and his images took the filming to another level.
As with all projects in the Kimberley, Yiwarra Kuju spanned many years. It enabled Paul and me to be in the region as key events were taking place. The Land Claim Determination was about to be announced and Putuparri's family were organising another trip out to their homeland in the desert. Paul and I wanted the upcoming shoots to have a cinematic look in order to frame the many formats and styles that would need to be combined in the telling of the story. We started to work together while on the road cutting the main scenes that became the first assembly of Putuparri.
While I was preparing for the shoot, I found the old VHS videotape of the first trip out into the desert in 1994 that Daniel Vachon had given me. At the time Putuparri had shot it as evidence for their land claim. It was an amazing experience watching it for the first time as it showed the entirety of a rainmaking ceremony involving a mythical snake spirit and ending with a dramatic thunderstorm. I had seen fragments of this rainmaking ceremony performed on our trips to Kurtal in 2002 and 2008. It all started to make sense, the desert people making rain, underground waterholes that could sustain the tribe during the dry season, the meaning of the headdresses and the old people’s paintings.
Back in Melbourne, I started preparing a pitch for the project and received some development support from Screen Australia in the form of an invitation to attend their ‘Think Big Documentary Lab’. It was for cinematic feature documentaries and the workshop helped to focus the story.
AIDC 2013 selected Putuparri for their inaugural Pozible crowd funding campaign and we raised $20,000 for four weeks of intensive editing, resulting in a rough-cut with the focus now more squarely centered on Putuparri and his evolution from defiant alcoholic to inspiring leader.
During this time, John Moore came on board as Producer. His experience with long-form historical documentary, as well as his experience in producing docs on Indigenous subjects, has been invaluable to the project.
In October 2013, we were able to do some more focused interviews for the film and by the end of the year the film was fully financed. The key partners are NITV, Screen Australia, Film Victoria, Ronin Films and the Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Fund.
It has been a long process but one which I feel very privileged to be involved with. And of course the journey isn't over yet.
Nicole Ma is an award winning filmmaker who has worked on major multi-media projects for the National Museum of Australia, produced big music documentaries in the US with singers like Annie Lennox and produced award winning docos like Dances With Ecstasy that had sell out screenings in New York, LA and San Francisco.
She also produced and co-directed Kurtal Snake Spirit that won two ATOM awards in 2002 and Best Documentary at Religion Today, International Festival of Cinema and Religion, Italy.