Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Does anything rhyme with Ngapartji?

No. ‘Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji’ is the title of a documentary to be shown on ABC television (when that august organisation gets around to it). It was produced by Alex Kelly and directed by Suzy Bates, my daughter.

Suzy’s involvement explains how I know about the documentary, but not why I am writing about it now. I am writing about it largely because of something I read last week:
‘Conservatism makes the case for continued existence in a deep sense – not just the trivial sense of having biological descendants.
Too many Australian conservatives still don’t understand this crucial point. They believe Aboriginal Australians will be content to survive physically and become prosperous and culturally assimilate into the great global English-speaking tradition. We will not’ - Noel Pearson, ‘Pathways to prosperity for indigenous people’ 2010.

I took notice not because I consider myself to be a conservative, but because Noel Pearson is an aboriginal leader who is better known for quoting Adam Smith and presenting strong views about the importance of economic incentives. I was surprised by the passion of his defence of traditional culture and language. I will quote another few sentences to help make the point:
‘Individuals have the right to choose the course of their lives; my hypothesis, however, is that the cultural and spiritual side of human nature is suppressed. Aboriginal Australian traditional culture is evidence that when human behaviour is at equilibrium, people build structures of tradition tied to language and land and pass these traditions to the next generation’.

Noel Pearson argues that indigenous Australians have to meet the challenge of preserving the parts of their cultural heritage that are most important to them while dispensing with elements of cultural heritage that prevent them from taking advantage of the opportunities that a market economy provides.

‘Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji’ highlights an aspect of the challenge that traditional law can pose even to those aboriginal people trying hard to preserve culture, language and the history of communities and families. The film tells the story of how the award winning theatre show ‘Ngapartji Ngapartji’ - which had previously been performed in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Alice Springs – was taken to the remote aboriginal community of Ernabella in South Australia. The show ‘Ngapartji Ngapartji’ told the story of Trevor Jamieson’s family, while teaching the big city audiences a few words of Pitjantjatjara. Trevor Jamieson, a professional actor, was the star of the show.

The logistics of taking the show to Ernabella were difficult enough, but Trevor had to risk offending his audience by breaking the traditional law against mentioning the name of a deceased person. His father, a central character in the show, had died a few weeks before the Ernabella performance. Trevor had to decide whether he could still act the part of his father and show footage of him. (Further information about the film and a preview is available here.)

When Suzy first explained to me that ‘Ngapartji Ngapartji’ means ‘I give you something, you give me something’, I said something to the effect that it must be about the benefits of trade i.e. the concept of mutually beneficial exchange. Since then I can remember reading somewhere that the meaning of the concept is closer to an exchange of gifts, involving an element of bonding rather than a commercial transaction. When I attended the show in Sydney I certainly felt as though I was being given a valuable gift.

'Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji' is to be screened on ABC1 at 3pm, 3 July 2011 and on ABC2 at 8.50 pm, 10 July 2011.

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