Thomson Of Arnhem Land

ABC • 2002

Donald Thomson spent his life fighting to preserve traditional Aboriginal culture.

In 1933 six Japanese fishermen and three Europeans were killed by Aborigines in what was to become known as the last battle in the war of white settlement.  Donald Thomson, a brilliant young anthropologist, volunteered to go alone into Arnhem Land and live among the Aboriginal people in order to resolve the conflict.  He was quickly accepted and set about gathering information to convince the Australian government that every effort should be made to preserve Aboriginal culture.  But he was to remain a prophet in the wilderness.

A Film Australia National Interest Program.




Production Story

Thomson Of Arnhem Land provides an insight into the personality clashes and political maneuvering that led to the introduction of the Australian assimilation policy in 1938. Many of the issues that informed the debate are still being fought over today.

Thomson with Wonggu & Family July 1935

Producer John Moore recalls “When I first read Nicolas Peterson’s book, Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land I was struck by the quality of the relationship that Thomson had with the Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land.  His efforts to understand Aboriginal culture from within, through immersing himself in their lifestyle had given him a unique insight into their value systems and view of the world.”

As Thomson died in 1970 the first move was to make contact with his wife Dorita Thomson who immediately made her knowledge and extensive collection of historical material available to the project.  Moore recalls “I was knocked out by the extent of the material available. There were thousands of photographs, the two films he had shot in Central Australia and literally hundreds of newspaper articles.  Quite apart from his career as an anthropologist he was a highly skilled journalist.”

Moore then approached Tasmanian script writer Michael Cummins who quickly read Peterson’s book, largely a compilation of Thomson’s journal writing.  “I was impressed with Thomson’s courage and the poetry of his writing.  I felt strongly that his words should be used to drive the narrative of the film.”

In late 1998 both Film Victoria and Museum Victoria agreed to support the development of the script.  The Museum allowed full access to Thomson’s vast and impressive collection of Aboriginal artefacts and photographs.

In November 1998 Moore and Cummins flew to Arnhem Land to begin the research with the Aboriginal people who were central to this story.  Cummins continues, “As was expected this initial contact was slow in developing.  The Aboriginal people did not know us and we needed time to develop some mutual trust.  But by the time we left to go back to Melbourne the ground work had been laid for a positive on-going relationship with the Arnhem Landers.”

Wonggu and sons. Caledon Bay July 1935

While it was immediately apparent that the Yolngu had enormous respect for Thomson and everyone including young children knew who he was, it was equally apparent that he was virtually unknown in the white world.  Apart from Dorita others were approached to help explain this. These included Nicholas Peterson (anthropologist and author of Thomson In Arnhem Land); Howard Morphy (anthropologist and regular visitor to Arnhem Land); John Mulvaney (pre-historian and former Thomson student); and Tigger Wise (biographer of Thomson’s nemesis – AP Elkin).  A picture emerged of a brilliant yet difficult man whose work seemed to dry up after the war. As Moore discovered, “The reason for Thomson’s lack of academic output and loss of political influence can be traced to his conflict with his great rival and the architect of assimilation, A.P Elkin.  This battle for influence over Australia’s policy on “native affairs” was to have far-reaching and quite damaging consequences for Aboriginal people and for the country as a whole.  It was a major turning point in the development process when we discovered this conflict. I’m not sure that even Thomson was aware just how extensively Elkin undermined his credibility.”

It was Thomson’s courage and commitment that then drew co-producer Michael McMahon as well as Film Australia’s Franco Di Chiera to this story.  For Di Chiera this was an opportunity for Film Australia’s National Interest series to explore a key issue, “What if Thomson had been listened to?  Perhaps the story of Australia and reconciliation may have been much different.”

Di Chiera also recognised the power of this film. “It is an Aboriginal story from a white point of view that will enable Australian television audiences to appreciate Aboriginal culture through a white man who completely understood it.”

As part of his brief to bring peace to Arnhem Land Thomson had developed a close relationship with Wonggu the head of the Djapu clan. Wonggu gave Thomson a message stick to take to the Commonwealth Government.  The message said that he would keep the peace and ensure there were no more killings. In return he asked that the Government release his three sons and respect Yolngu culture.  Wonggu kept his part of the bargain and Thomson was able to secure the release of the three sons.

In April of 1999 the development team learnt that the message stick which had been with the Thomson family for sixty-four years was to be returned to Wonggu’s descendants.  A ceremony was being organised to acknowledge the significance of the agreement between Thomson and Wonggu.  Although the script wasn’t finished and the ABC was yet to offer a pre-sale Film Australia bravely provided the resources to film the ceremony.

It was a major event involving the Governor general Sir William Deane, Dorita Thomson and the then chair of ATSIC Gatchil Djerkura who is one of Wonggu’s grandsons. In the words of Cummins, “This second trip to Arnhem Land was even more successful than the first.  The Yolngu understood more clearly our reasons for being there and wanting to tell this story.  The reticence of the first trip was now replaced with a great generosity of spirit.”

Sound recordist and local Yolngu man having a laugh during production.

Sound recordist and local Yolngu man having a laugh during production.

From then things had to move fairly quickly. After further research and script writing in Melbourne, it was almost October and the wet season was fast approaching.  If the people of the remote communities were to be involved the crew needed to be up there and filming by December at the latest.

A crucial decision made in pre-production was to employ Djangirrawuy Garawirrtja (Djangi) as a camera assistant.  Djangi not only performed this role with distinction but he also acted as location manager, forward scout, translator and community liaison person.  Not to mention resident comedian and musician. Djangi felt that his job was made easier because everyone in Arnhem Land knows the Donald Thomson story and wants to talk about it, “Some of our old people remember him personally and they always speak very fondly of him.  Us younger ones have had the story passed down to us many times over, ‘til we know it backwards.”

Arnhem Land was hot and sticky but thankfully, mostly dry. What struck the crew more than anything as they travelled across Arnhem Land in air-conditioned (usually) 4 wheel drives were the conditions that Donald Thomson himself experienced during his two years there.  Thomson travelled by foot, without any of the comforts the crew enjoyed and his courage and commitment were clear to everyone.

Moore points out, “The Aboriginal people demonstrated their respect for Thomson by giving us their time and their stories. When we left three weeks later it was with deep admiration for their way of life and culture. Our time there reflected what happened to Thomson…and helped us to understand why he tried so hard for so long to convince the Government to reject assimilation in favour of policies based on self determination.”

In Darwin the crew spent time filming at Fannie Bay Gaol where the three sons of Wonggu were imprisoned for killing five Japanese fishermen in 1933.  Again the link between the Aboriginals in the justice system of the 1930s and issues swirling around the current reconciliation debate was brought home to them.

One last problem remained – how to accurately translate the Yolngu dialect? Following the advice of the Yolngu themselves, North Melbourne footballer Gary Dhurkay was asked to do the job. For him it was an opportunity “to make real contact with friends and family…like a free trip back home.”

Andrea Lang – AFI award winning editor for Thomson of Arnhem Land

Telling the story of Thomson’s work and the making of the film itself are small but positive steps along the often torturous road to reconciliation.  Its importance is reflected by John Moore, “Australia’s relationship with Aboriginal people is one of the major issues of our time and it will remain so until true reconciliation can occur.  Donald Thomson’s story is an important part of understanding our history and has the potential to influence our future”.

Indeed the final scene of the film which acknowledges the scattering of Thomson’s ashes over Caledon Bay by two of Wonggu’s sons is a powerful symbol of reconciliation and suggests what is possible given mutual respect and understanding on the part of both black and white Australians.


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