Director Nicholas Wrathall on the making of feature doc ‘Undermined: Tales From The Kimberley’

Albert Wiggan in ‘Undermined: Tales From The Kimberley’. (Photo: Mark Jones) 

In late 2014, the Western Australian state government announced plans to close between 100 and 150 remote Aboriginal communities in the state, arguing it could no longer afford to service them.

Director/producer Nicholas Wrathall (Gore Vidal: The United States of Amensia) and producer Stephanie King, who had been working in the Kimberley, noticed there was little in-depth media on the topic, and decided to look into what happening on the ground.

“There didn’t seem to be much more than headlines,” Wrathall tells IF.

“What we found talking with people on the ground in the Kimberley was that what they were really concerned about was development. A lot of people even felt like the sources of development coming into the region were behind the idea of closing communities; that it was another wave of colonialism to get people off the land and open it up to big mining, pastoralism and general development.”

Feature documentary Undermined: Tales From The Kimberley was borne out of these conversations and the fears surrounding rhetoric that described the Kimberley as potential economic powerhouse.

“That really frightened people up there… It’s very much an unspoilt area and has a large Indigenous population, a lot of people living in remote communities, either full-time or part-time. That became our story.”

Mervyn Street’s Gooniyandi dancers. (Photo: Stephanie King)

The filmmakers did around 18 months of research before beginning the main block of shooting, trying to get to know the issues and people on the ground. From the outset, Wrathall and King signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with cultural governance group Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre (KALACC).

The Fitzroy Crossing-based organisation worked closely with the team on cultural precedents, and invited them to their peak governance meetings in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

“We spent a lot of time getting to know leaders, elders and a lot of the different communities and language groups. They saw us coming back over and over, pursuing questioning around the issues that were coming up in their meetings, explaining that we wanted to bring these discussions to a broader audience – that’s what really won people over to work with us.

“We were invited through these avenues into the community. It was a slow process, but that’s how we gained the endorsement of the senior cultural bosses there, and it enabled us to work closely on the ground with the characters we met; to get to know their families and spend time with them.”

While issues-focused, the documentary predominantly traces the stories of three traditional owners: veteran cattleman Kevin Oscar, senior elder June Davis and young activist Albert Wiggan.

Wiggan, a Bardi man from the Dampier Peninsula, also joined the film as a co-producer and Indigenous consultant.

Wrathall sought to follow Wiggan early on, as he thought he had both an interesting perspective as an activist and a young leader in the community. In particular, Wiggan was looking at ways communities could come together and create viable industries outside of development and mining.

“We found him very inspiring and very clear in the way he addressed and spoke to the issues, and [he was] someone that a lot of other young people seemed to engage with and look up to; someone we felt was relatable to anybody. His personal story was also fascinating, and opened up to the audience who he was.”

Most of the shooting took place over a two year period, supported by Screen Australia, Create NSW and the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) Premiere Fund. The team did between six to eight trips to the region, all around three to six weeks long, though the main shooting block took place over three months. Given the extended nature of the shoot, they used a small crew – Wrathall says it was often just him, a soundie, DOP Mark Jones, and King.

Kevin Oscar. (Photo: Mark Jones)

As the project advanced, Wrathall says they showed the people involved different edits and rough cuts. “We also just recently took the film up to do some major screenings in Fitzroy Crossing, Derby and Broome, as well as the Dampier Peninsula. We’ll do further screenings again later this year. We’ve tried to engage with the various characters and leaders and keep them involved as we’ve progressed the filmmaking process.”

Wrathall says the key question the film is asking is: for whose benefit is development currently occurring for?

“I think obviously there is going to be some development in the area, but what people on the ground seemed to be telling us, and what the film is truly asking is: how can that be managed in a way so that it doesn’t destroy the environment and upset, disperse or displace the people on the ground there?

“But, also, how can it benefit people? How can they be more involved and have more control over their own futures and own lives, rather than being expected to just receive a scrap from big mining and pastoral companies when they come in and develop the land.”

Undermined premiered at MIFF in 2018. Wrathall was heartened by the “robust, interesting” Q&A sessions after the film, and that the film was ranked among the Top 10 Feature Documentaries in MIFF’s Audience Awards.

It went on to screen at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival, Byron Bay International Film Festival, Brisbane International Film Festival and CinefestOz.

“All of the festival screenings were really well received, and the feeling I got from the general discussion was that a lot of people were shocked they didn’t know more about this region of Australia. They didn’t realise what was going on up in these places, and that people were really being pushed aside for development interests,” Wrathall says.

BTS at James Price Point (Photo: Nicholas Wrathall)

The filmmakers are also planning an impact campaign, working with partners in KALACC and the Documentary Australia Foundation – DAF CEO Mitzi Goldman and education and impact director Katie Barry are executive producers on the film.

The primary aim of the campaign is to change the conversation about the development of Northern Australia to include Indigenous-led, owned and managed development, and to elevate Indigenous science, cultural solutions and alternative industries around conservation and land management. In this regard, they hope to create a database to support Indigenous-run businesses in the region.

There are also several existing campaigns which the team are working to align the film to, such as the Pew Foundation and Environs Kimberley’s ‘Kimberley – Like Nowhere Else’ campaign, which aims to protect the Fitzroy River.

However, Wrathall says much of the impact campaign is being run on a shoestring at the moment. “We managed to raise money to make the film, but we haven’t had a lot of success yet in raising money to focus the impact campaign and hire an impact producer. We’re doing all of that ourselves at the moment. But we’re reaching out to raise that money and also create alliances so we can bring attention to these issues.

“There’s a lot more we could do with some initial funding, like taking the film on tour to have more in-depth discussions, and bring some people from the Kimberley down to forums and so on to educate people here on the East Coast about these issues.”

Those who want to support the campaign can donate online, tax-free here.

‘Undermined: Tales From The Kimberley’ is in cinemas from today via Umbrella.