“In the beginning, there were only Karrabing movies”

traduzido por Beatriz Filgueiras

One of the ghosts of modernity is attributing to Indigenous peoples and other racialized populations the status of belonging to the past. This is based on a linear and evolutionary concept of an alleged universal temporality, which relies, in turn, on the white man's emancipation from nature as regards the appropriation of landscapes and territories for exploitation and accumulation of capital. On behalf of this emancipation, other human - and more than human - peoples were, if not eliminated, dispossessed of their lands and now survive, in late liberalism (POVINELLI, 2016), under continuous occupation, intervention, extraction and surveillance. 

    The Northern Territory of Australia is one of these lands torn apart by the devastating effects of the colonial occupation by the British, since 1869. Ancient inhabitants of that region, a myriad of Indigenous peoples who speak more than a hundred languages had their territory progressively invaded and their lives closely regulated by the state bureaucracy that was established there. Their lives, previously pervaded by the constant flow of their bodies across “countries” with rather flexible boundaries and paths interwoven by the footprints of a continuous “ancestral presence”, were subjected to a catastrophic cartography drawn with the clear purpose of eliminating their difference or subduing them under the colonial rule. Concentration camps, forced labor, forced displacement, mass incarceration, disease and death… it all became part of the daily lives of these peoples after the arrival of the first European invaders. 

    More than a century after the invasion, the Australian state recognized, for the first time, the right of Aboriginal peoples to their ancestral lands in the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act of 1976. The act set forth a new “era of rights” for the peoples of the region. However, in practice, it facilitated the reification of a multiplicity of peoples and traditions as discrete units, small “nation-states”, halting the ancient flows that had characterized the occupation of those lands since the Dreaming times. Shortly after the enactment of the Act, the young American Elizabeth Povinelli, a recent graduate in Philosophy, arrived in the region and met a group of interconnected families living in the community of Belyuen, in the Northern Territory. The families insisted that she became an anthropologist and returned to the region to support them with their territorial claims. In 2007, however, after the enactment of a new Act, known as “The Intervention”, hundreds of Belyuen residents rebelled and abandoned the settlement, moving to the Bulgul region, at the mouth of the Daly River, closer to their own ancestral countries. As a response to the events of that year, together with Povinelli, the families decided to create the Karrabing Indigenous Corporation, from which the Karrabing Film Collective, featured in this exhibition, is one of the main offshoots.

    In Emmiyengal language, the word Karrabing refers to the low tide period, when the families of the region meet to carry out a series of activities favored by the dry season. As one of its founders, Rex Edmonds, defined: “Karrabing means tide out. And when it comes in, coming together.” (LEA, T.; POVINELLI, E., 2018) Therefore, it is not the name of an ethnic group, a clan, a “group of descent”, much less of a nation. In the words of Povinelli: 

“Karrabing” was proposed as much as for its semantic content as its conceptual pragmatics. [...] Karrabing would become the framework through which a set of land-oriented filmic practices would embody an ongoing resistance to the state’s effort to divide and pit indigenous people and their lands against each other. In other words, making films would not only represent the Karrabing members’ views about the irreducible condition of connectivity among the different countries. It would also practice this counter-discourse intergenerationally (POVINELLI, 2020).

The retrospective

It is with great pleasure that, in the 25th edition of forumdoc.bh, we present the first retrospective, in Brazil, of the Karrabing Film Collective movies produced between 2014 and 2020. The exhibition is organized in three moments, the first of them focused on “The Intervention Trilogy”. These movies were made in the wake of the ignominious Northern Territory National Emergency Response, in 2007, largely as a way to counteract it. The Australian government law established a new phase of intervention and control of Indigenous peoples’ lives across the Northern Territory of Australia. Measures included the banning of alcohol and pornography in Indigenous communities, increased policing in the region, military intervention in Indigenous affairs, and housing policies that set market-based rents for public housing. All these themes are present in the movies that make up the inaugural karrabing trilogy. 

    In When the Dogs Talked (2014), the dilemma between keeping the houses in the government's housing estate and recovering their sacred territory is an object of debate among generations. The movie inaugurates the “improvised realism” that characterizes the collective’s production as a whole. Inspired by Augusto Boal's “theatre of the oppressed”, the technique allows the continuous renewal of Indigenous memory in the constant movement across the ancestral territory, as Kênia Freitas (2021) points out, which also allows “access to a karrabing technology of time - time in its range of simultaneous versions and possibilities”. In the second movie of the trilogy, Windjarrameru, The Stealing C•nt$ (2015), the consumption of alcohol by a group of young people is the trigger for a series of events that, once again, unfold and overlap, reorienting time and space coordinates. Finally, in Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams (2016), included in “The Dead and the Camera” exhibition in forumdoc.bh.2019, time is once again fragmented as the viewers watch three co-possible versions of the same event: a boat breaks during a visit to the land of their ancestors. An important revolution in karrabing filmography can be noted here: if in the first two movies the camera was still on tripods and the shooting script followed a more conventional style, here the entire recording is made using IPhones, which only accentuates certain aesthetics of mobility and overlap pursued in all their subsequent films. 

    In a second moment, the exhibition presents two movies that address more directly the perverse effects of settler colonialism and revisit the origins of the Karrabing Film Collective, deeply rooted in the territorial claims of these peoples. In The Riot (2017), Povinelli interviews several members of the karrabing family, recounting the different reasons for the events of 2007 when, after the outbreak of internal conflicts, those families left Belyuen community and moved back closer to the countries of their ancestors, at the mouth of the Daly River. The movie starts with Povinelli asking her interlocutors, plainspoken, the following question: “What do you think caused the riot?” What follows next is the alternation between testimonies of people who, despite witnessing the same event, present different versions of the “reasons” for the conflicts, that are partially interconnected. These versions were organized, in the film editing process, in three main thematic axes: jealousy among neighbors and families confined and overcrowded in public housing units; despair and frustration in the face of the conditions imposed by these restraints; and, finally, the state of disrepair generated, among other reasons, by the Northern Territory Land Rights Act (1976), grounded on colonizing anthropological models that divided Aboriginal territories into radically separate territories and clan groups, as well as by the Intervention, in 2007, when the state redoubled the intensity and surveillance of law enforcement in Aboriginal territories and homes. In frank opposition to the essentialist perspective of the anthropological models adopted by governments and states, one of the founders of the collective, Linda Yarrowin, affirms: “everybody has their own [country] and everybody is connected”.

In the words of Rex Edmonds: “White people want to make us weak by saying that two or that three are the traditional owners, so the other Indigenous peoples in the area will argue with the traditional owners. And the white people say, ‘let them fight each other’”. The Riot (2017) is a phenomenal movie for showing, in a radical and sophisticated way, the living conditions of the collective themselves, founded in 2009 by the families displaced by the riot, who are continuously threatened by white racist culture coupled with forms of control, exploitation and capitalist extractive industries in late liberalism. It is worth quoting here one of the title cards displayed in the film: “Karrabing is also a concept and a hope for a form of relating to each other and their lands: separate-separate and connected”.   

    In Night Time Go (2017), the collective revisits the Australian colonial archive in search of records of forced displacements to and escapes from the war camps for Aboriginals created during World War II. In the movie, we are informed that no records, except for a few photos, were found in the colonial archives that could elucidate how so many Indigenous people were forced to move to war camps. Given the inexistence of these images, what remains are the eyewitness accounts that we hear off-camera throughout the film: “I was young when that happened. The army was here. The war came here. And the army took all the people away from here. The army moved us away. I went to Katherine [war camp] on a train.” It is worth noting the collective's choice to re-enact these events, creating their own archive of the past in the present, looking to the future. Thus, both the forced displacement in trains, a great pride of white civilization, and the escape from Katherine, when they crossed more than 300 km on foot back to the coastal region, are staged and superimposed against the archival footage, as Kênia Freitas (2021) points out, “that embodies the perspective of the Australian colonial state, taken not as official records but as perverse fictions elaborated by the Eurocentric imperialist project: of a white, civilized and peaceful Australia, benevolent to its native unprotected inhabitants.”

    Finally, the exhibition features three of the collective’s most recent productions, which take up and build on the themes and approaches forged in their first movies. In The Jealous One (2017), an Indigenous man deals with the excess of bureaucracy to get to a funeral in his native country, while a fight breaks out when another man is consumed by jealousy of his wife. The two narratives intersect in an ending that reintroduces the mythical theme of the “jealous one”, so to speak, in the current dilemmas experienced by the group under the impact of colonial surveillance. It is worth reminding that the “jealousy” and the “jealous one” figures are also highlighted among the “reasons” for the riot in the previous movie. Thus, in both films, jealousy is a driving force that is mobilized by different agents, humans and beyond humans, who end up unveiling a network of contradictory relationships that are informed by the movie's own plot. At a certain point in The Riot, Povinelli asks her interlocutors how the different peoples and Dreamings are interconnected. In order to make himself understood, Rex Edmonds recounts precisely the same story told in The Jealous One. According to him, by means of the Therrawin, Eagle, Crab and Blue Tongue Lizard ancestors, among others, this story illustrates “how our people got together and got related” by meeting each other in the places where these ancestral animals live and act. However, no spoilers intended, the viewers should pay attention to Natasha Lewis’ testimony (off-camera) at the end of The Jealous One, in response to another specific and accurate question asked by Povinelli: “Natasha, what are we doing here?”. With a voice revealing to be that of a young girl from the collective, Natasha starts with the following statement: “We came here to burn an old car for our new movie”. What follows next is the disclosure of an underlying narrative in the movie, certainly a difficult one to grasp for someone who is not familiar with this landscape filled with Dreamings and overlapping timeless temporal regimes. A must-see!

    In turn, Mermaids, or Aiden in the Wonderland(2018) takes place in a dystopian present-future, when an alarming contamination caused by extractive activities throughout the territory starts to poison only the perragut (white people). Like the previous movies, this one is also divided in four moments: Inside, Outside, Aiden in Wonderland, and The Mud Place. Right at the beginning of the movie, a title card announces: “Starring: the Mermaids. Those who see them and those who don't”. The initial sequence takes place inside a laboratory that conducts scientific experiments on Aboriginal subjects. In a dialogue with his mother, who is convalescing on a hospital bed in the corridor of the institution, young Aiden, kidnapped as a baby to serve as a subject in the experiments, says: “they say it's not working. They're going to take me back”. Along the corridors of the institution, a woman carries a pile of papers to the office of another “woman who dressed like a man” and who, in a phone call, sounds intrigued: “There has to be some reason why the land is poisoning us and not them”. The “reason” sought by the head of the experiments uncovers, of course, her real concern. After all, the problem is that the poisoning now only affects “us” and not “them” – as it “should be”… This inversion, in fact, is one of the main ideas of the movie. Outside, young Aiden reunites with his Indigenous relatives who welcome him and take him on a visit to his ancestral country, inhabited by dreamings like the mermaids, the blowfly, the pelican and the cockatoo bird. There, the young man is faced with two co-possible pasts and futures that are up to him to modify. As Juliana Fausto points out: “in these stories, alliances with the ancestral present change in an unexpected way, for the colonizers, the course of History. The tide always rises. Dreamings and Karrabing actuating one another, baits being thrown, archive-bodies in process. Far from defeated, the ancestral present rises. At the end of Mermaids, we hear: “We try to warn white people. They don't understand the consequences of violating black law.” (FAUSTO, 2021). Shortly after, while end credits are still rolling up, a child's voice can be heard sounding like an enigma: “In the beginning, there were only karrabing movies… the mermaids… and mud!”.  

    If, as we have seen, the first three karrabing movies are known as “the intervention trilogy”, we might as well say that the “intervening condition” imposed on Indigenous territories is a boundary that karrabing filmography incessantly blurs. Adopting original filming strategies, the movie that closes our retrospective, A Day in the Life (2020), presents another reflection on the tragic state intervention on bodies and households. It is divided in five vignettes that constitute an ironic comment to one of the ways of dividing and controlling time and daily routines imposed on Indigenous lives by the perverse “compelling society”: Breakfast, Play Break, Lunch Run, Cocktail Hour and Takeout Dinner function as spatiotemporal chunks intersected by a soundtrack in which the dreamings hip hop music, written and sung by karrabing youth, stands out and dialogs directly or transversely with “improvised realism”, now twice performed either in front of the cameras or for the soundtrack. “Forward to the bush. But where’s he gonna go? / There's something funny here, someone making money here / There's something funny here, no one fucking cares” are some of the chorus lines repeated throughout the film questioning, along with the images, the precarious living conditions in overcrowded households, in which women live under the constant threat of losing their children to law enforcement agencies and plan to escape at any time in order to hide their kids from the agents. In an outstanding essay for Art in America magazine (2020), Maori writer Matariki Williams explains: “The mother's fear is an inherited one, evident in a refrain repeated throughout the film: ‘We’re gonna do what our old people did, we’re gonna hide our kids.’ This is one of many references Karrabing filmmakers make to the Stolen Generations, the thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families between roughly 1905 and the 1970s.”

    It is also worth noting Povinelli's brief performance in the movie as a Miner, ousting Indigenous people from their own territories. Her role as an “outsider” seems to be maintained in this and other films, such as Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams, along with the respectful treatment she receives from her friends in the collective who, in front of the camera, do not hesitate to call her Sister Beth. Povinelli is also the editor, director and cinematographer, sometimes with other members of the crew, in most of the collective's films. 

    As already mentioned, even though the “intervening condition” imposed on Indigenous territories is a boundary that karrabing filmography incessantly blurs, we would like to highlight what Matariki Williams (2020) identifies as the most appealing aspect of the collective's work: “the way they tell their stories, unashamedly from their own perspectives. They have what I would call mana motuhake in their approach, mana motuhake being self-determination of your future” (emphasis added). 

The timeless imprint

The karrabing saga and their incessant struggle alongside their ancestors for their lives and lands have, undoubtedly, deep connections and resonance with the filmmaking experiences carried out by Indigenous people in Brazil for more than three decades. We have been following the collective's movies for some time now with great enthusiasm, but the recent meeting between the anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli and the couple of filmmakers Sueli and Isael Maxakali, as part of the Sheffield DocFest 2021 program, definitely contributed to having this retrospective in the year that we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the festival. Last June, when the meeting took place, the couple and their community of more than one hundred families were living on provisional land - the second they moved to in less than a year - after the group left the reserve where they had been living for the past decade, a very mountainous area with no rivers and no room for groups to spread out and ensure harmonious coexistence. During the conversation, Povinelli commended the couple who had just received, the day before, the award for best international movie for Nũhũ yãgmũ yõg hãm: this land is ours!. She said that she had shared the movie's link with her karrabing friends and that everyone was thrilled to watch it. Finally, she remarked: “Same same! Reminded them of not that long ago and of today, in a ‘nicer’ form, you know...”

    A few months later, at the dawn of September 28th, 2021 - Night Time Go! -, more than a hundred families moved once again and reclaimed a land belonging to the Brazilian state in the city of Teófilo Otoni, region of Itamunheque. Today, as we write these words, the Tikmu’un are once again getting ready to rebuild their lives, their homes and their future in a place they called Village-School-Forest, a place to value yãmiyxop chants, stories and rituals, to teach young shamans, artists and filmmakers, to exchange knowledge and sponsor the reforestation and recovery of the Atlantic Forest. In that same virtual conversation, Isael Maxakali stated: “We need land! We need to have our land back to us! Because the whole territory is weakening, it is sick. White people are destroying the forest, destroying the river. The land is screaming, but white people don’t listen. We need to have our rituals on the land! We want land to survive with our families. Because without land, there are no indigenous people.” Then, Povinelli added a beautiful reflection on why the Karrabing make movies. First, as she has said on other occasions, because they have fun doing it. But then she amended: “We make films in order to get the ancestors to understand that everyone still cares. (...) We make films for the land!”

    In 2007, while the Karrabing and other Aboriginal peoples of the Northern Territory of Australia suffered with the “Intervention Act”, in Brazil, Bill 490 was introduced in the Congress, boosting an offensive against Indigenous constitutional rights based on the infamous “time frame” argument, as we know, another “perverse fiction” of Brazilian legal whiteness in the defense of agrarian interests. According to this “thesis”, only the lands inhabited by Indigenous peoples on October 5th, 1988, the day Brazilian Constitution was enacted, should be recognized as Indigenous lands. In practice, the law grants amnesty to all the invasions of Indigenous lands perpetrated up to that date, most of them, it is important to say, stimulated and sponsored by the Brazilian state itself, as in the case of the Maxakali. The “time frame” is, thus, a colonial technology to control time with the ultimate purpose of erasing the timeless imprint of Indigenous ancestors across this continuously invaded and plundered territory. The decision on the validity or not of the “time frame” thesis will be under the Federal Supreme Court responsibility, where the issue is still to be voted. But here, too, they do not understand the consequences of violating the other law… As the Yanomami xapiri warn, in the words of shaman Davi Kopenawa:

If the breath of life of all of our people dies out, the forest will become empty and silent. Our ghosts will then go to join all those who live on the sky’s back, already in very large numbers. The sky, which is as sick from the white people’s fumes as we are, will start moaning and begin to break apart. All the orphan spirits of the last shamans will chop it up with their axes. [...] Then the sky will remain dark for all time. (KOPENAWA; ALBERT, 2013, pp. 406)

Thus, wouldn’t the Karrabing opposition to the Northern Territory Emergency Response, also known as “The Intervention”, and the opposition to the #PL490 [No!] be interrelated tactics in the creation of counterfutures, as Kênia Freitas (2021) suggests, in the face of the quotidian corrosion of historically racialized and subordinated populations under contemporary colonialism, as the prominent feature of Indigenous filmography, here and there? Would this opposition, in turn, be intrinsically connected to the ability to dream(ing), to a dreamings-cinema?After all, as Renato Sztutman (2021) states, “dreaming is the possibility of conceiving the coexistence of different times, which affect one another. In the Karrabing collective’s movies, the ancestral lives in the present, the future alters the past”.


The Karrabing Retrospective is pleased to present, firsthand, the Portuguese translations of a seminal article by Tess Lea and Elizabeth Povinelli, published in Visual Anthropology Review (2018), and of a recent essay by Povinelli for e-flux magazine (2020); in addition to three original essays, especially written for this exhibition by Kênia Freitas, Juliana Fausto and Renato Sztutman, available in our catalogue. The program also features a roundtable discussion to explore karrabing filmography and the masterclass “Ecologies, inheritability and the ancestral present”, with Elizabeth Povinelli, both of which will be held online at the forumdoc.bh channel on YouTube. 

In 2008, we held the Melanesia Exhibition at forumdoc.bh, which featured a series of movies made in Papua New Guinea, by Papuans and foreigners. On that occasion, we had the opportunity to invite and welcome, in Belo Horizonte, Papuan filmmaker Martin Maden, who stayed with us for two weeks in a memorable encounter with the local audience. With the Melanesia Exhibition, we had the worst impression of Australian colonizers, even though most of the movies focused on the post-independence period, that is, from 1975 onwards. But what caught our attention the most was the inventiveness of Papuan cinema, in particular, the work and presence of Martin Maden, whom we dearly miss. The Karrabing Film Retrospective is an opportunityto deepen our understanding of the colonial dynamics taking place in the Northern Territory of Australia, as well as to amaze ourselves with the aesthetic creativity of their movies. We wish the Karrabing collective could be present with us in the movie sessions at Cine Humberto Mauro but, given the circumstances, we hope that, in the future, we will be able to connect beyond the screens of our computers, laptops and smartphones. We would like to thank Trevor Bianamu, Gavin Bianamu, Sheree Bianamu, Ricky Bianamu, Telish Bianamu, Danielle Bigfoot, Kelvin Bigfoot, Rex Edmunds, Linda Yarrowin, Chloe Gordon, Claudette Gordon, David Gordon, Michael "Miles" Gordon, Ryan Gordon, Claude Holtze, Ethan Jorrock, Marcus Jorrock, Melissa Jorrock, Patsy-Anne Jorrock, Peter Jorrock, Daryel Lane, Robyn Lane, Sharon Lane, Lorraine Lane, Tess Lea, Elizabeth Povinelli and all the Karrabing Film Collective partners for the great opportunity of having you with us on the 25th anniversary of forumdoc.bh.


FAUSTO, Juliana. Pele e osso do cinema Karrabing. In: Catálogo forumdoc.bh.2021 - 25 anos. Belo Horizonte: Associação Filmes de Quintal, 2021.
FREITAS, Kênia. Sobreposições e Rotas Alternativas do Espaço-Tempo. In: Catálogo forumdoc.bh.2021 - 25 anos. Belo Horizonte: Associação Filmes de Quintal, 2021.
LEA, Tess.; POVINELLI, Elizabeth A. Karrabing: An Essay in Keywords. Visual Anthropology Review, Vol. 34, Issue 1, pp. 36–46, ISSN 1058-7187, online 1548-7458, 2018.
POVINELLI, Elizabeth A. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2016.
POVINELLI, Elizabeth A. The Ancestral Present of Oceanic Illusions: Connected and Differentiated in Late Toxic Liberalism. IN. e-flux Journal. Issue 112, October, 2020. Available at: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/112/352823/the-ancestral-present-of-oceanic-illusions-connected-and-differentiated-in-late-toxic-liberalism/ Accessed October 13th, 2021.
SZTUTMAN, Renato. O cinema como sonhar.  In: Catálogo forumdoc.bh.2021 - 25 anos. Belo Horizonte: Associação Filmes de Quintal, 2021.
WILLIAMS, Matariki. Survival Stories. In:  Art in America, pp. 50–53. May, 2020. Available at: https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/karrabing-film-collective-day-in-the-life-1202686183/ Accessed October 8th, 2021.