Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Australians were ready for their big moment, the launch of Blue Streak in the summer of 1964 from Woomera in the Northern outback. First the dump area, where spent rocket parts were expected to land, had to be checked for human habitation, a formality in such inhospitable territory, it seemed. A Native Patrol officer was sent there in a battered van. To his surprise he found evidence of aboriginal activity around Yuwali, a bullrush watering hole in the middle of a desert. After weeks of hide-and-seek, 20 knife thin, naked, charcoal black women and children emerged, like ghosts from the inferno, starving, terrified and proud.

Almost 50 years later, documentary makers Bentley Dean and Martin Butler bring the survivors of that group back to Yuwali to tell their stories. It is an emotional experience. The girls are now large, mature ladies, whose memory of their time with the Martu, their childhood, remains vivid. Before being discovered, because of space exploration, of all unlikely things, they had never worn clothes, nor seen a white face. They were convinced that the searchers were demons come to kill and eat them and their van, with its two bright eyes that glowed at night, was a monster.

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The concept is flawed. The aboriginals have been exploited, not in a bad way, but in order to make a film. The camera feeds off their ravaged faces, while the real story is in the archive footage, which is sadly limited. Watching old women plaster their skin with mud and walk barefoot across hot sand, like they used to before their heritage was taken from them by “whitefellas,” is uncomfortable, even humiliating.

The natives, as they were known, spoke their own language, prayed to their own gods, ran with dingoes, threw boomerangs with deadly accuracy, understood weather and fire and the preciousness of life. A rocket aimed at the stars would have been unimaginable, like cities and tea parties and cinema. How did they integrate after their “capture”? What happened to the men, who fled, leaving them unprotected?

These questions and many others remain unanswered because Contact is about tracking the remnants of the Martu before the silver rocket blasts into the firmament and possibly drops bits of itself on their heads. It is made like a thriller. Will they be found before the launch date? Will they die of fright, or be gathered like wild dogs to be roped together at night and later dressed in cotton like school children?

As they talk now of what it was to be free and why ignorance of the white world had benefits of a different kind, there is a suspicion that a better film lies buried in the bittersweet memories of such manufactured nostalgia.

Reviewed on: 19 Mar 2010
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The story of the indigenous Martu tribe, cleared from their land in 1964 to make way for rocket testing.
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Director: Bentley Dean, Martin Butler

Starring: Thelma Judson, Yuwali Nixon, Grant Judson

Year: 2009

Runtime: 78 minutes

Country: Australia


Australia 2010

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