Kanyini the film chronicles the experiences of Central Australian Indigenous Elder and Stolen Generation survivor Bob Randall as he tries to communicate the titular concept to European Australia. Roughly, it translates to “connectedness”, but also draws in notions of caring, support, nurturing, and responsibility. Released in 2006, the film lets Randall tell of his experiences in his own words, and paints a fascinating and troubling portrait of two cultures in conflict occupying the same land.
Kanyini was the first feature documentary by filmmaker Melanie Hogan, who has gone on to make the plight and promise of Indigenous Australian cultures her specific field of inquiry.
What do you think has changed in terms of the relationship between Indigenous Australia and European Australia in the 11 years since Kanyini‘s first release?
I think we still haven’t gone into a real acceptance of our history in our national consciousness, so we can heal from the past. I still think we haven’t gone deep enough. I still think, as a country or as a group of people on this land, that we still haven’t heard or felt deeply the past, from an Indigenous perspective. We still have a long way to go.
What has changed? In the 10 years from when I made the film til now, the exciting thing is there’s more openness and excitement about Indigenous storytelling and Indigenous filmmaking and art, and that seems more open. I remember when I first pitched Kanyini to a few places, they kind of looked at me kind of strange and said to me, “Nobody wants to watch Indigenous people on television. People are just not gonna watch it.” So back then I was fighting that.
But I think as a collective, I think a lot of Australians still haven’t become friends with Aboriginal people or engaged with them in terms of friendship or learning language. When we arrived in Australia we didn’t start off with that deep mutual friendship and respect, which can still happen today. And that’s what Bob always used to say – just start with a friendship. We didn’t start with a friendship to start with, but it doesn’t mean we can’t start now.
How did you come to be telling Indigenous stories? What led you to this particular endeavour?
I think it was because when I was in my early twenties I was in England and I was working with Shekhar Kapur (Bandit Queen, Elizabeth). He saw a little film I did when I was at NIDA and said, “I’d love for her to come over and be my creative assistant.” I kind of hung out with an Indian film director who had a very different way of telling a story, and had a very deep emotional intelligence capacity when he was directing, and we used to talk about non-European storytelling perspectives, so it sort of started there.
And then when I came home to Australia, I decided I really wanted to be a writer/director and not just direct other people’s work. So I went into the Mitchell Library and started reading Indigenous Australian history for the first time and I was absolutely gobsmacked at what we weren’t taught in school. I went back, reading old survey reports going right up through New South Wales and I was really fascinated by what we weren’t taught, and then I had a big epiphany – I didn’t have any Aboriginal friends.
It literally started with that obvious fact – I’d been to uni and worked in an investment bank and I was in my twenties, and I had no Aboriginal friends, and I decided I had to fix it. Then I came across Uncle Bob’s book [Songman, his autobiography] in that library and came across this different way of thinking – the principle of kanyini. and that was a whole different lens, and I decided I needed to connect with that person and start learning.
How did you go about arranging to meet Bob?
I wrote a letter to the publisher and that was passed on to Bob, and then he invited me up to Uluru. That was one of the first times I’d been in a remote Aboriginal community where English wasn’t the first language. I walked in and Bob embraced me almost like a granddaughter. Petrol sniffing was a big problem then, and Bob was desperate to try and get some help. So he asked me if I could make a film with the petrol sniffers – he used to run the health clinic there. And I said sure – I was open to anything back then. So I was there for four weeks with one cinematographer, realising there was no English and there were kids sniffing petrol. That’s where it all started – that was the beginning of all these questions.
Then I began asking Bob all these questions – where did you come from, where were you born – and he began to tell me how he was taken. It was a friendship to start with, and then we realised a film could be made from the basis of everything I was learning. So Kanyini became my way of sharing everything I was learning with everyone else.
Now with the digital re-release of Kanyini, what are you hoping 2017 audiences will take from it, given the context of our current times?
In our current times what would be fantastic is, firstly, an openness in non-Indigenous Australia to go, “Hang on, there is a lot we can learn from our Indigenous brothers and sisters.” Particularly their connection to country, because I think if there’s one thing I’ve grasped travelling around Australia in various different Indigenous communities, I think that is something that is missing in our culture, definitely. This ability to feel a relationship with country and care for country. We have environmentalism, while Indigenous people have actually sat on country and taught me how to think about having a relationship with country – and that comes from living here for 40,000 years. We’re a more progressive culture with our materialism, whereas they chose not to go down that path. So I think they’ve still got that connection, and I don’t think we have that. So that’s something we could learn.
Kanyini is available on VOD now.