September 26, 2020

Lärr: a gentle film revealing a gently evaporating world [short-film review]

Shorts films about endangered languages and culture form a small niche genre but there are quite a few out there. I've never seen one as gentle and beautiful as Lärr.

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. 

And what I really like about Lärr is that its messages are not overt. The men simply show us what they know and do and the beauty and value of it comes through intrinsically. Their skill and confidence and love for their own culture and language shines. We value it not because we are told it's important but because we see, through them, the beauty and treasures of the land they walk and interact with. 

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: (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. 

This year, he has helped deliver Wägilak lessons for all the kids at Ngukurr School, spending two days a week there, fully committed and only absent when required elsewhere for other cultural obligations. I walk past the Ngukurr Language Centre on my way to work at 8am and nearly every morning, I wave hello to Natilma who is waiting there, with his dog, for the Language Centre to open. The other day, I heard that on (at least) one occasion, he had been sitting there waiting for Language Centre to open from before dawn. 

Lärr is available now on ICTV;

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.

September 20, 2020

A new domain for Kriol? Kriol as a language of economics and business

Bible translators translated the bible into Kriol because they thought it would be the best way for Kriol speakers to learn about Christianity. When Barunga School started a Kriol literacy program, it was because people thought Kriol speakers would learn to read and write faster if they learned literacy in their first language. When Kriol interpreters interpret in court, it's so Kriol speakers can get (marginally more) equal access to the justice system. I could go on...

All the reasons I could cite for choosing Kriol over English tend to have foundations of social justice, communicative efficiency, or other social/cultural reasons related to education, spirituality and more. One domain that is absent is economy and business. English remains the language of wealth and business; Kriol is for 'not-for-profit' purposes.

Well so I thought until I saw these work vehicles around Ngukurr recently. A plumbing and gas fitting company in Ngukurr helping with the new housing developments (I'm guessing):


I was pretty surprised to see that the company name was clearly a Kriol name - and a well-spelled Kriol name at that! Ai sabi means 'I know'. And not because it's a business coming out of a Kriol-dominant community. Trade and works companies like this are all based in towns like Katherine and service remote communities on an as-needs basis.

What I find very interesting about this is that the use of Kriol in a business name is not to do with symbolism, communication or social justice. It's surely primarly and economic decision. This company has decided that using Kriol for their name is a good business decision. And that's pretty huge really - Kriol stepping into a new domain. 

Ma... kipgon! 😎