Nicholas Wrathall: Mining for Truth in the Wild West

February 15, 2019
We spoke to writer/director Nicholas Wrathall about his impactful and eye-opening documentary Undermined – Tales from the Kimberley.

Undermined is not only a film, but also an advocacy campaign for Indigenous rights. Since starting work on the project how much has the conversation shifted? Is Australia and the wider world waking up to the issues raised in the film?

It’s a good question. I’d like to think that Australia and the rest of the world is waking up to the issues in the film, and certainly the process of making the film has been a couple of years, so we’ve started to see a shift. Especially because of the movement around treaty and the discussions in the Indigenous community that are currently putting the federal government on the spot about the treaty issues. I think that’s bringing a lot of the other issues in Indigenous communities to the fore.

When we started the film, there were a lot of questions about de-funding remote Indigenous communities; that’s one of the things that got us started on the film. Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister at the time, made his comments about not being able to support people’s “lifestyle choices” to live in remote communities and that caused quite a backlash and many protests in Sydney and Melbourne – people saying this is not “lifestyle choice”, this is where we’ve always lived and we just want to be allowed to live on our homeland. So, I’ve noticed a lot of these issues are in the media and it goes in waves. It becomes a topic for discussion and then seems to disappear again.

I really do think the Australian population is sympathetic and open to bringing these discussions around Indigenous communities and welfare into a much more urgent discussion. I think people feel that it’s important and hopefully things can change. I think the Australian public is ready to support Indigenous people and open up the cultural discussions as well, and people feel we can learn from Indigenous people rather than constantly sidelining them. I certainly hope that that’s the direction we’re going and maybe a change of Government, if we get one, will bring this discussion more to the centre of our culture.

Mervyn Street & Nic Wrathall on the Margaret River, Gooniyandi Country

How closely are the spate of suicides of young people in the Kimberley connected with the industrial development of the region? Is it a continuation of ‘intergenerational trauma’ as cited by coroner Ros Fogliani last week?

I think it is. But, I do think that there are a lot of problems in these communities and in the towns, especially, where there’s just not much to do for young people. There’s not much sense of hope. There are no jobs, their parents aren’t working, their older brother and sisters aren’t working, they’re disconnected from their cultural roots.

People are always saying to us, culture is the key to keeping people grounded. The development push is another thing that undermines people’s sovereignty and there’s this constant feeling that people don’t have the security and they don’t know where they’re going to be in a year or two because their land is under question. So, it’s adding to the pressures that lead to things like suicide, but I couldn’t put the blame at that door, because it’s a complicated world with inter-generational trauma.

It seems that the dangers to young Aboriginal people and to the land are closely connected?

They are. I think that comes down to the uncertainty that people are left with. Not feeling secure where they live. Another way that uncertainty is reflected is in the constant changing of government programs in these communities. Now, they’ve brought in this welfare card where people don’t even have cash. They’ve just got a card and they can only buy things that are on the list they’re allowed to buy in the shop. So, they haven’t got cash to let their kids go on the school excursion or whatever, because they don’t have any cash. It’s criminalisation of poverty.

It’s the taking away of choice?

Yes, and marginalising these people so there’s another level of control over their lives. So, they can’t decide what they’re going to spend their money on. These cashless cards are really being pushed in WA and Northern Territory by right-wing elements. By not just the Liberal Party, but also private interest. Twiggy Forrest’s lobbying for these cards to be brought into all these communities, and he’s also one of the biggest leaseholders pushing for fracking. There’s definitely tangible connections between the developers and the issues on the ground that are being exacerbated by the uncertain policies.

How far would you say Kimberley has come from the days one commentator in the film described as being like the Wild West?

In certain areas it’s come a long way. But there is a definite feeling out there, especially for me as an outsider, that it’s still the Wild West. The way that people behave, like you see in the film, with companies coming in and making deals. Pushing things in an aggressive way. Taking cattle off the stations without permission. Basically cattle rustling. That’s the Wild West! It’s hard to believe that goes on in 2019. But it does. And not just in the Kimberley. I’ve heard stories from New South Wales cattle owners where cattle’s been stolen off their property too. So, these things still exist.

There is a certain freedom, but also a little bit of a lawless feel in these remote places, because there isn’t a lot of structure in place in remote communities and towns, so it does still feel like the Wild West and a lot of the big corporations know that. They know if they can get a few people on side and push through their agenda that way, they can lobby local government.

Albert Wiggan

One of the stars of your film, Albert Wiggan’s explanation of Indigenous science, and science as a whole, to be based on experimentation, cause and effect, and what works and what doesn’t, is extremely enlightening. Looking at the risks of climate change and over production in many industries, how and why do you think most of humanity has moved so far away from this central scientific principle?

That’s a big question! Firstly, it’s great that Albert’s description of Indigenous science inspired you to ask that kind of question. That’s one of the amazing things about someone like Albert. He’s able to articulate something in a way that really makes you think down to the core of our assumptions. And that’s one of the things we’ve tried to bring out in the film is ‘OK, let’s look at our assumptions of the world, why can’t we look at things from an Indigenous point of view?’ There are things we can learn from Indigenous culture and Indigenous science as Albert calls it; Indigenous foods, like these super foods, ‘gubinge’ that he refers to. Those are things we are importing from around the world! They exist here in our country and if we would just value and invest in Indigenous knowledge, we’ll find that they’re all around us.

There’s a great opportunity for Australians to learn from Indigenous culture. It’s always been there, but we’ve not embraced it. I think, Indigenous people, now more than ever, are trying to reach out and open up their culture and their laws and their history in a way that we can learn from. In this time of climate change, where we’re heading off the cliff, and in denial of it, there’s so much we can learn and benefit from in this culture. We should embrace it.

How can people help support the culture and the land of the Kimberley and First Nations people there and beyond?

One thing we’re doing with this film is developing an impact campaign around it to answer that question. Obviously, start by talking to Aboriginal people. Include them in the community more. Get involved with the issues that they’re involved in.

One of the things that is growing in the Kimberley is tourism. A lot of the tourism up there is busses and four-wheel drives guided by outsiders from wherever and they’re not engaging with Indigenous communities very much. There’s a big push up there to have Indigenous led tourism. Things like you see in the film with Albert leading people around his community, talking to them about bush foods, showing them some of the beautiful landscapes and explaining things to them from a different point of view. Those opportunities are there and there are people creating businesses around those in the Kimberley. People visiting the area can consciously decide to engage and hire an Indigenous tour guide, get those people to take them out, show them the land, go on Indigenous camping trips, go to one of the coastal camps run by Indigenous people that take you fishing and show you the land and show you the rock art. Engage in those things and help those industries grow.

I think there’s a big opportunity there for people on the ground to have sustainable businesses, and a big opportunity for Australians and foreigners going to the region to engage and learn from that. There have been studies by Tourism Australia and by Tourism in Kimberley and WA that show that people going into those remote areas, one of the things they’re looking for is to have an Indigenous experience, to engage with Indigenous Australia, but it’s not something that everyone finds. It’s not something that Tourism Australia and Tourism WA is really promoting. There seems to be a disconnect between what the market’s looking for and what we’re offering. So that’s a big thing. Support Indigenous businesses, whether it’s arts spaces, tourism, bush foods, and all the other Indigenous run businesses that are going on, especially in a place like the Kimberley and Northern Territory.

Could this be part of the de-colonisation process?

Yeah, I think it could. I think the de-colonisation process is something that needs to happen in terms of supporting businesses and allowing people to make money and have more control of their own lives, but it’s also an attitude thing and it’s a government thing. All of this discussion around treaty and having Aboriginal representation in government is vital to that de-colonisation process. Also, on a cultural level embracing and learning from Indigenous culture. I think that’s something that white Australia needs to do. That’s the only way we’re going to see an improvement.

It seems to be something that needs to happen across many different areas. Education, as well. For example, certain institutions, such as Western Sydney University are actively de-colonising the curriculum, placing less importance on European and western history, and western methods of knowing and learning.

You mention history there. I think that’s vital. Part of our re-education and de-colonisation for Australia is embracing the truth of our history. I don’t know if you’ve seen those massacre maps that have been created and all of those discussions… that’s always been something that’s been in our history, but it’s always been denied. Or, if not denied, then it hasn’t been something we’ve really owned up to. And we can’t really move forward with our embracing of Indigenous culture without owning up to the facts of the history.

But all of the information is starting to come out. There have been all these interesting books like The Fourth Estate and Dark Emu that explain the way that Indigenous people lived on the land in a very detailed and archaeologically proven way; that people did have grain houses, that they had fish traps, and they were permanent fixtures on the land. So, you can’t pretend and go along with the idea of Terra Nullius that people weren’t living on the land in an organised, structural way anymore. That was always the argument in our historical context that these were nomadic people, so we were able to justify our colonisation in that way. But it’s undeniable now. All the archaeological proof is finally being discovered.

And is that helping to shift the consciousness?

I think the consciousness is shifting within people; people who are willing to seek out the information, and I think we’ve got to find a way to then spread that throughout the rest of the culture. Make sure it’s in the education system.

Hopefully your film will be a part of that.

I really hope our film is part of that. I feel that some of the strengths of the film is not just the information you learn but just feeling closer to the people there and getting to know these characters and they’re all such strong and inspiring characters and people. That’s one of the things I’ve discovered from spending all this time up there is that all you have to do is go out and seek connection and information. And you’re going to meet interesting people who are going to bring you in and tell you the stories and teach you the culture. We just have to open ourselves to it, and it’ll come in.

We made a very conscious effort in the film to let people tell their own stories. We didn’t want to have voice-over or any editorial voice in the film. Obviously, it’s there in subtle ways, but we tried to let the people on the ground tell the stories. I think that’s one of the real strengths and one of the interesting things about the film – meeting these amazing people and hearing their stories.

Cinematographer Mark Jones and director Nicholas Wrathall

Were people initially mistrustful or suspicious of your motives in making the film?

I think people were slow to come on board. We took a lot of time doing research and going up there and getting to know people. Luckily, we had very good introductions – to Albert, for example, through Mark Jones, who’s our cinematographer, who helped as he’s had a lifelong relationship with him, so he was very open to working with us.

We also worked closely with KALACC, the Kimberley Aboriginal Law & Culture Centre in Fitzroy Crossing, very early on and they were careful to keep an eye on us, to make the right introductions, to talk to us about cultural protocols. Merle Carter, who’s in the film, is on the board at KALACC and she really embraced us early on and made a lot of introductions to people up there. I think, slowly, when people saw us at the festivals year after year and they saw us keep coming back and they got to know us and trust us – it was a slow process in developing that trust – but I think we got there in the end. People are always a bit wary, but we were consistent and slowly won people over.

Undermined: Tales from the Kimberley is in cinemas February 21, 2019

For more information and screening times check



Leave a Comment