Films in this micro-genre tend to do a few familiar things. They may be pedagogical videos, focusing on cultural practices that aren't being maintained well enough, and explicitly ask audiences to watch, learn and remember. There might be expressions of serious concern for the language and cultural shifts taking place and we see rhetoric from elders and cultural champions urging for action. Then there are ethnographic films - more 'fly on the wall' views of everyday life where constructing narrative or organising scenes to shoot are not primary concerns.
Lärr is a 16-minute look at life with some of the last few speakers of Wägilak in the world, on their country, doing very Wägilak things. But the beauty of Lärr is its softness. The four men in the film let you gently into their world, on the remote outstation of Ŋilipidji. Gorgeously narrated by Natilma (Roy) Wilfred, he quietly ushers viewers in and slows us down, so we can walk and sit with him and the other men as they fish, make things (spears, lettersticks, bush string and more) and talk and sing. The pace of Lärr is a wonderful reflection of the pace of outstation life where, somewhat paradoxically, not much happens but there is always something happening.
Credit must then also go to the producers: the Ngukurr Language Centre, Nicola Bell - who filmed, directed and edited Lärr - and Salome Harris who worked on the narration and translations. The film reflects a deft touch and gentle nature and an eye for craft and detail. On the linguistic side, the Wägilak content and English translations reveal a mindfulness and depth of understanding and are quite beautiful in some places.
Translating from Indigenous languages to English is really rather hard. Well, it's hard to do well. It can be fairly easy to arrive at clunky sounding sentences, sentences that omit nuance and sentences that, well, just aren't pleasant to read. Salome and the team's knowledge and translation gifts come through here, again elevating Lärr above similar films.
When Natilma shows us how bush string is made, he says "mel-guḻiny muka wiripuwatjtja yolŋuwatjtja ŋalapaḻwatjtja" and the subtitling is just lovely: "the old people were fastidious, you know, about how it was done". We see Lukuman trying to light fire the old way and calling on help from afar:
Brrrrrr! Gatjpu! Wäŋaŋara dhawalŋara nhe dhul'yurru!
(Come on, give it to us! Help us ancestors! On this country you'll light!)
But the bit that really made my eyes water and jaw drop was in the final scenes. I don't want to spoil it here, but there's an expression I'd never heard before that I found just so profound that it made me emotional. It's where Natilma tells us:
Yurru ḻuku napu ŋayathama yaŋanh'thu gathaṉdja napu, Djalkiridhu, ḻukudhu.And, well, if you don't know Wägilak you'll just have to watch. I don't think you'll be disappointed by Lärr, and it's freely available on ICTV: https://ictv.com.au/video/item/7980 (That it hasn't yet reached film festivals or NITV/ABC/SBS is a shame).
Lärr is so gently and beautifully created that it's easy to forget that we're actually listening to a critically endangered language. Keeping that in mind, it makes the film even more beautiful and the men we see and hear walking us through Wägilak worlds even more special.
Postcript for some trivia and acknowledgement of the living legend that is Natilma (Roy) Wilfred: if you're a linguist you may be familiar with the American linguist Jeffrey Heath who, in the 1970s, spent time in Southern Arnhem Land and did quite amazing descriptions of five different languages, including Wägilak. Natilma, as a young man, actually appears in Heath's archived recordings from the 1970s and, to my knowledge, he is the very last person still with us who Jeffrey Heath recorded. Natilma is a legend.
Lärr is available now on ICTV; https://ictv.com.au/video/item/7980
Lärr. 16 minutes. Wägilak with English subtitles. Filmed on location at Ŋilipidji Outstation. Featuring Roy Natilma, Andy Lukuman Peters, Peter Djudja Wilfred, Bruce Liyamunyan Wilfred. Produced by Ngukurr Language Centre. Directed, filmed and edited by Nicola Bell.
Big thank you the Ngukurr Language Centre and Salome Harris for help with the Wägilak text used in this article.
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