A years-in-the-making account of a unique example of cultural cross-pollination, Naina Sen’s The Song Keepers tells the story of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir, culminating in the group’s successful tour of Germany.
What’s the connection? The choir has its roots in the work of German Lutheran missionaries who ministered to the local Indigenous people in the area, teaching them – among other things – Lutheran hymns. Those hymns, now reconfigured for the Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara languages, are the basis for the modern choir’s songbook.
The result is a striking example of benign cross-cultural communication, and one that flies in the face of accepted narratives about colonialism. Not that Sen’s film shies away from the thornier elements of Imperialism; softly spoken and enthusiastic choir leader Morris Stuart, a black Guyanese, relates his own experiences with racism, while later in the proceedings stories told by the choir members themselves paint a picture of callous cruelty and prejudice against children of mixed descent.
Yet the nameless German missionaries, whose shadow looms large over the narrative, are depicted as all but saintly, rescuing abandoned children, protecting abused women, and even saving their charges from becoming part of the Stolen Generations. The film admirably but gently disabuses us of the usual simple binaries, condemning racism and colonialism, but illustrating that some degree of altruism can exist within those structures (to be fair, the problems we’re told the Lutherans dealt with are all a result of colonisation anyway, so…).
While Sen’s film doesn’t gloss over these issues, the focus remains firmly on the music and the German tour, and it is certainly something to hear a 4th century hymn sung in an Indigenous language. The tour itself is a wholly joyful affair, with the ladies of the choir almost overwhelmingly excited about leaving Australia for the first time. Even then, the institutional issues affecting Indigenous people occasionally comes to bear, as when the choir is confronted with the bureaucratic challenge of arranging passports for people who lack birth certificates. On the whole, though, The Song Keepers much prefers to accentuate the positive. This is a rousing, feel good film tempered with just enough grit and complexity to leave the viewer in a thoughtful mood afterwards.