Vale Ian Dunlop, pioneering documentary filmmaker

Ian Dunlop with Spencer (Nuni) Banaga, son of Djagamarra and Gadabi, from the first part of ‘Desert People’, filmed in 1965.

Australia lost a pioneering documentary filmmaker this week with the passing of Ian Dunlop in Canberra. A friend and colleague, Ian’s People of the Western Desert, begun in 1965 and comprising 19 films, was a landmark in the history of international documentary. The series of films won international acclaim. In 1967, Ian edited a cinema release version of the series which won even greater acclaim, including the prestigious Gold Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and was screened throughout the world.

Ian Dunlop began making films for the Commonwealth Film Unit in the late 1950s. I had the good fortune to meet Ian in the corridors of the CFU’s successor, Film Australia, in the mid-1990s when I was directing Mabo Life of an Island Man with producer/editor Denise Haslem. Ian was collating and cataloguing his enormous collection of films and production stills so they could be archived. Some of his work was going to the National Archives of Australia and some to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. We became good friends. My wife Rose Hesp and I would share many meals at Ian and Roey’s place on the edge of the bush in Gordon. Their beautiful mid-20th century minimalist wood and glass home housed a treasure trove of art works from Papua New Guinea and north-east Arnhem land. We also shared with Ian and Roey a passion for Italian red wines.

In the early 2000s Ian, Denise and I collaborated on a project together, Ceremony: The Djungguwan of Northeast Arnhem Land, produced in collaboration with, and at the request of, the Yirrkala Dhanbul Community Association and the Rirratjingu Association for Film Australia.

Like a ‘grand opera’ the ‘Djungguwan’ is an initiation ceremony of the Rirratjingu and Marrakula clans. It teaches young boys about discipline, law and respect for Yolngu traditions. A ceremony of transition, teaching and remembering, it can take weeks to stage and perform. The Yolngu’s ‘Djungguwan’ has a unique place in Australian cinematic history. It’s been filmed in its entirety on four separate occasions.

In 1963 the ceremony was first documented on film by anthropologist Nic Peterson for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Ian filmed the ceremony for Film Australia in 1976 with the great, then observational documentary DOP, Dean Semler. Denise, Rose and myself similarly recorded it the ceremony in 2002 in Yirrkala. In 2003, the ceremony was once again staged at Gurka’wuy and filmed by Kos Tambling.

The result of our collaboration with Ian was a DVD set comprising a three-hour version of the “Djungguwan” filmed by him in the mid-70s, and a 75-minute version directed by myself in 2002.

One of the great experiences Denise, Rose and I, along with our young daughter Angelita, had in our ten months living and filming in north-east Arnhem land was watching Ian Dunlop’s Yirrkala Film Project with the Yolngu. It comprises 22 films, each are around 60 minutes in duration. Our living room became an impromptu theatrette as dozens of family members dropped by and stayed for hours transfixed by the intricate preparations and ritual dances flickering on our TV screen. Their reverence was sometimes punctuated by tears and hoots of laughter. Ian’s films may be a priceless record of the oldest continuous culture on Earth, but for the Yolngu they are also ‘home movies’ in which parents, grandparents and extended clan members are lovingly remembered, immortalised on film performing one of their most important sacred rituals.

One of Ian’s closest Yolngu collaborators during his time at Yirrkala in the 1970s was Mithili Wanambi, an esteemed clan leader and artist. He instantly understood the importance of Ian’s work and fully embraced and supported his film project. Almost 30 years later, because of our friendship with Ian, we were welcomed by the Yolngu. He was a legendary figure in their eyes. He had documented their life at a time when Indigenous culture barely mattered to white Australia. He was loved and respected by their elders, and revered by their descendants. A friend of Ian’s was a friend of the Yolngu. Thus our consultant/translator became Mithili’s son, Wukun Wanambi. As the oldest male child of Ian’s lead consultant, Wukun adopted us into his family and his kinship line. We spent weeks and months with Wukun, and many, many hours with he and his family, watching Ian’s films as they pointed out relatives and explained the stages of the ceremony. Today Wukun is a highly acclaimed Arnhem Land painter, sculptor and video artist who uses his art to advocate for a true understanding of Aboriginal culture.

The Ceremony – Djungguwan DVDs were launched by Film Australia to mark UNESCO World Day for Audio Visual Heritage and presented to their collection in 2007. The documentaries featured in the set are cultural crown jewels: a priceless part of Australia’s heritage made with and for the Yolngu for future generations.

Ian Dunlop will never be as well-known as film directors like George Miller, Peter Weir or Gillian Armstrong, but he has left a legacy to Australia’s cultural and filmmaking heritage every bit as important, and one that may well stand the longer test of time.

As Wukun Wanambi says in the Ceremony Djungguwan: “So this is now for the future generations. Dhuwa and Yirritja so that you can see this picture and remember what we are doing”.

Ian’s films will live on, but he will be greatly missed.

  1. I remember Ian with his shock of white hair at Film Australia – always in the archive rooms and rushing around the corridors. Us young pups never knew what he did in there except that it was something very important. It wasn’t until much later that I truly comprehended the significance of Ian’s body of work. It’s great to have all this context Trevor and Rose. What a legacy he leaves.

  2. I worked at the Commonwealth Film Unit in 1971 as a PA. Richard Moir, Peter Gailey, Esben Storm and I were the lowest of the low. The place was awash with the most amazing talent. The camera department headed by Bruce Hilliard, had Academy Award winners Dean Semmler, and Don MacAlpine, plus Leo Elia a world acclaimed macro photographer. The Unit didn’t not have Directors as such, founder Stanley Hawes did not believe in them!! They were some category of public servant grade 1-6. Peter Weir was one of the grades as was Ian Dunlop. He had a permanent cutting room down that long corridor and generally the only time you saw him was at lunchtime, when invariably he would be playing croquet on the lawn out the front of reception. Every day. One of my first jobs was syncing rushes. Meg Stewart had the unenviable task of teaching me. And one of the first jobs I did was syncing Aboriginal leader Roy Marika on Ian’s Yirrkala job. After some infraction I was punished by being put in charge of logging rushes through the theatre every morning. It was at one of these screenings that I had to record in the log that Dean Semmler’s rushes from a desert shoot had a problem. Dean always shied away from rigorous use of the light meter and on this occasion he was sprung. His rushes consisted of a group of haunting eyes floating around a white screen. It was mesmerising but not what was intended. He had exposed for the eyes and not the surrounding desert in full sun! I think this was one of Ian’s shoots. Decades later I was directing a reconciliation doco with the biggest bands in the country donating their copyright to the film for the cause. We were shooting Yothu Yindi and singer Manduwuy Yunupingu took us out to a camp to meet someone he thought might be interesting for the film. And there in the shade of a beach side lean-to was old man Roy Marika! My first syncing job. I relayed the story and we laughed. His regard for Ian was evident. The work Ian produced was the filmic equivalent of pure research. It’s value to be truly understand much later. The recording of the people, ceremonies and culture was justified then as a social necessity. It wasn’t a Screen Australia application wherein it was reduced and polished and committe’d ad absurdum to a observational mini series. It did not have a dollar value assigned to it to give it validity. It was not turned into whatever style or construct was the “plat du jour” of the cultural authorities. It was serious, long term, long form work – the likes of which is hard to imagine in today’s commissioning process. Ian was a unique filmmaker and at the Commonwealth Film Unit he inspired others who knew the value of what he was doing and in some ways followed in his footsteps. Michael Edols, Les McLaren and others went bush with Eclairs on their shoulders to create unique recordings of Aboriginal culture as the film industry exploded in the 1970s. The films that Ian Dunlop made, become more valuable as time passes. The croquet court is now a housing estate and the CFU is gone. The Irish have a saying, which I believe is true of Ian Dunlop and the people he recorded and worked with, “the likes of them will not be seen again”. Vale Ian Dunlop

  3. Prof. Ian Dunlop in the early 80’s visited my son’s primary school in Sylvania, and presented some of his films, which had a profound affect on us.
    Myself, and my sons both in their 40’s now still remember the knowledge and understanding we gleaned from the footage to make us better people. I am so pleased to see his legacy will live on. I googled his name on the off chance I would gain some further information on him. I am doing Indigenous studies and felt he deserved a mention because he gave me the inspiration to work with First Nations People.
    I was sad to find that he had passed away in 2021, and only now we see the accolades he has always deserved.
    Vale Ian Dunlop

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