Whispering In Our Hearts: The Mowla Bluff Massacre

(Mitch Torres, Australia, 2001)


One of the immediately striking things about Mitch Torres' Whispering In Our Hearts: The Mowla Bluff Massacre (2001) is the rich variety of types of imagery in it: lyrical landscape photography, experimental techniques, archival footage, home movies, 'dramatic reconstruction', talking-heads interviews and testimonies, alternation of colour and black-and-white, still photographs, documents and maps. Isn't this mixture par for the course in most documentary these days, particularly historical inquiries of the sort that appear weekly on television?

Whispering In Our Hearts is different. It is as if the subject of the film forced Torres to question the very form of documentary, encouraging her to open this form out in a fresh, probing, heterogeneous way.

The film is about a shameful and tragic episode in Australian history: the Mowla Bluff Massacre of 1916, near Broome in Western Australia, in which white police seized, chained and murdered a large number of Karajarri and Mangala people. The incident, to this day, is covered over with official denials and lack of documentation, an absence of 'hard evidence'. Moreover, the story has re-emerged as a topic of debate within the contemporary context of the so-called History Wars led by revisionist Keith Windschuttle. The argument is often reduced to a melodramatic opposition: whitefella word (with its documentation records) against blackfella word (with its living, orally transmitted memory).

The challenge Torres faced was: how to make an investigative documentary about a case such as this? In the era of Capturing the Friedmans (2003) and of current affairs television programs like Real Crime, there is an enormous, almost phantasmatic investment in the business of nailing down hard evidence in a word, a sight, an idly recorded 'moment of truth'. But what can count as evidence in the case of Mowla Bluff? What materials can we place on the table in our accounting of this history, or indeed any history?

Over the haunting landscape shots which open the film, we hear the words, and read them subtitled in English: 'The rib bones are scattered all around. A lot of people were killed here.' The poignancy of the project comes from the fact that, although few viewers would be inclined to doubt the powerful veracity of this testimony, there is nothing to, in whitefella terms, 'back it up'. The past is covered over by denial, suppression, forgetting, as well as the natural oblivion wrought by time on the landscape. There is no evidence that Torres can simply go out and film. The recent important book by Felicity Collins and Therese Davis, Australian Cinema After Mabo (Cambridge University Press, 2004), posits the prevalence of a psychic and political 'aftershock' that today accompanies the sight of the 'haunted' Australian landscape – but the dispute around the Mowla Bluff Massacre, like all similar cases of systematic extermination, raises the question of who, exactly, is in the position to intuit and receive this salutary shock, as opposed to those who register nothing of the sort.

At the centre of Whispering In Our Hearts are two men, Johnny Watson and Peter Clancy. They are gripped by a compulsion to, in a sense, beat the whitefellas at their own game: to find and establish the evidence of the Mowla Bluff Massacre. 'My feeling is, it's still there', says one; 'I'm searching, really searching, to find evidence,' adds the other. We see and follow their journey through the land: in a car, on foot, eventually in a helicopter. We enter into both their mission and the rhythms of their daily lives. With enormous affection and respect, Torres records both the admirable and the comical aspects of their quest – as when they signal to the cameraman, 'Put your gun down please, you're shooting me all the time.' And we cannot also fail to note the quixotic, impossible, hopeless character of their own investigation. The land yields – in concrete, physical terms – nothing, no sign of the distant, traumatic past, no matter how truly haunted it is.

The film could have ground to a halt at this tragic impasse. But its accounting for, and recounting of, history is far from over. When there is no evidence, what remains to be done? Precisely the story, the legend – and the constantly renewed, precious process of its retelling. It is to this process that Whispering In Our Hearts so richly contributes – as much in its restless investigation of different visual and aural textures or modes, as in its cinéma-vérité observation. It builds to the very moving scene of a community memorial, where the solemnity of the spoken testimonies, and the quiet monumentality of the plaque erected, is balanced by the quotidian lead-up of shopping for materials (in daggy fast-motion) and the intricate detail of concrete-mixing.

Just as the film asks what counts as evidence, it also asks: what is a memorial? A memorial is an act of remembering and retelling that is also a necessary act of honouring. How different is this code of honour to the prevalent 'not our business' ethos of John Howard's Australia when faced with the genocides of the past and the traumas of the present – an ethos devastatingly exemplified by the official letter from the WA Police Department which Torres received during the making of the film: 'We have reason to believe the massacre allegations are false.' Armed with this letter – an irrefutable piece of evidence if there ever was one – Torres does what any self-respecting independent filmmaker would do: she puts it in the film. It is a great, if deeply circumspect, moment in Australian cinema.

It should be no secret by now that most of the best work in Australian cinema occurs not in the narrative feature realm, but in short films, documentaries, animation and experimental work – although this knowledge remains secret in official tomes like the Oxford Companion to Australian Film. Whispering In Our Hearts is a little-known and little-seen film, confined to a few television screenings and marginal distribution. It would be an enormous pity if, in future, it is cited (if at all) only as a footnote within the History Wars debate – for the film stakes out vital ground within the ongoing rapprochement between cinema and history.

Ultimately, Torres' film puts me in mind of a recent film-world story. When Bertolucci wanted to use a clip from Bande à part (1964) in his The Dreamers (2003), he naturally approached Jean-Luc Godard to secure the rights. Old JLG took the opportunity to impart a gnomic lesson in an aphorism: 'There are no rights, only responsibilities.' Whispering In Our Hearts is a tremendous film about the responsibilities of remembering.

Whispering In Our Hearts is available from Ronin Films.

MORE Australian indigenous films: Black Chicks Talking, Nice Coloured Girls, Night Cries, Bedevil, Beneath Clouds, The Tracker, Ten Canoes, Rabbit-Proof Fence

© Adrian Martin May 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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