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Contact in the Outback

26 January is Australia Day, or, Invasion Day as Mulubinba wrote about on the day. Australia is a country that has fascinated me since I was maybe ten years old, when I fell in love with it through obsessing over The Flying Doctors. It’s a beautiful country … with a not so beautiful history, especially when it comes to its indigenous people. So when I came across Contact in the Outback on Virgin’s catch-up service, I thought it would be something worth watching. And it was.

Yuwali was 17 when her first contact with white men was filmed. In 1964, as part of a rocket-launching exercise, a native welfare patrol officer was checking that an area in Australia’s Western Desert was not inhabited when he met Yuwali and 19 other Aboriginal women and children.
They were from the Martu people, traditional nomadic herders. Confusingly, there were no men in their group, and the welfare officer could not speak their language. And they had to get out of the desert before the rockets were launched. The women and children were taken to Jigalong Mission.
Yuwali is now 62 and still lives at Jigalong. This Sydney Film Festival award-winning True Stories film follows Yuwali as she returns to visit her homeland.

The story is mainly told by Yuwali and a little bit by one of the men trying to find her group of people to evacuate them from the danger zone, what with the rocket testing and all. She and her family had been living in the desert and had never seen a car before. They thought it was a rock come to life, a monster, demons and cannibals. It might sound really odd to us today, but just imagine – how would you have reacted if you saw something for the first time and had absolutely no reference points on how to describe it? It would be frightening for sure. Even if it happened in 1964 and not three hundred years ago.

The culture clashes as well, especially poignant when the woman is telling the story of how one of the white men was coming on to some of the women and wanted to sleep with them. The man who was interviewed, apparently had a panicked call from the bloke in question who said it was as if the women were almost like expecting something from him. It was a bit weird, to say the least. And apparently yes, he did sleep with someone. Most peculiar situation.

While it wasn’t an action-packed documentary, it was a heartfelt and remarkable story told at a leisurely pace. Around the campfire storytelling, so to speak. Just curious what happened after the family came to the mission, but I guess I’ll never know. But thanks for sharing your story, Yuwali. It was very touching.

Traxy Thornfield

A Swedish introvert residing in Robin Hood Country (Nottingham, UK) with a husband and two cats. She's an eager participant in tabletop and play-by-post roleplaying, woodworking, photography and European travel. Will get a novel out one of these days, if she doesn't get too distracted along the way.

3 thoughts on “Contact in the Outback

  1. I saw this film last year some time. It’s still hard to get my head around the idea that first contact was so recent (I think the last ‘first contact’ was in the 1970s, but I could be wrong!). I’ve seen footage of that moment lots of times, so it was nice to finally hear the story from the point of view of the women.

  2. I think that’s the most puzzling thing – that it was so recent! Amazing story, and she told it very well. Tried finding some of the photos they showed in the documentary, but failed. Another thing that struck me was that while the women were mostly skin and bones, their faces were beautiful and so expressive. Which sounds incredibly naff, perhaps, but I mean it in the right way! (i.e. of course anyone can be beautiful and expressive regardless of if they’re desert-dwelling nomads or not, nor did I expect them to be ugly and was surprised when they weren’t. I meant it the way I said it, no hidden meanings. It was a respectfully meant compliment. :))

  3. I will check it out. Mulubinba suggested Rabbit Proof Fence to me, but I have already seen it. Don’t know if you have or not. I have seen quite a few of these type films and documentaries.
    Being a native myself, I have always been touched by Australia’s struggle.

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