Larry Gurruwiwi, Djalu Gurruwiwi’s son and possible successor, searches through a eucalyptus grove for the tree trunk he will craft into a didjeridu.
Larry Gurruwiwi, Djalu Gurruwiwi’s son and possible successor, searches through a eucalyptus grove for the tree trunk he will craft into a didjeridu.

Crisis in Arnhem Land

Joshua Bell ’99 turns his lens on Aboriginal Australians fighting to save their culture.

By Laurie Lindquist | December 1, 2014

Filmmaker Joshua Bell’s new documentary, In Between Songs, released in August 2014, frames a critical juncture in the lives and history of the Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory.

In 1952, beset by a shortage of food, high unemployment, and a chronic lack of investment, 20 Aboriginal clans were coerced into letting Western investors open a bauxite mining operation near their ancestral territory. For 60 years, a lucrative processing plant—set a few hundred feet from the clans’ homeland—has turned rock into aluminum destined for computers, cell phones, and soda cans. Of the $50 million in royalties they were promised, the clans have seen very little, and for every ton of aluminum wrenched from their land, 13 tons of toxic chemicals leach into their soil and the water table.

As the film opens, clan elder Dhanggal Gurruwiwi stands barefoot on the shore of Wirriku Island. She tosses her fishing line into the water, time and again, while ruminating on the troubles faced by the Galpu people. Life was never easy, she says, but before the mine the clan drew spiritual health, unity, and purpose from traditions—their roots tracing back 40,000 years. 

Mining has eroded clan traditions. Living standards have plummeted; alcohol and drugs are everywhere. Young people sport name-brand clothing, sip Coca-Cola, and play video games, but have no formal education.

Now in his 80s, Dhanggal’s brother, elder Djalu Gurruwiwi, must find a successor among the younger clan members to guard and teach the sacred law and songs. Not only does Djalu play the didjeridu (yirdaki or mandapul for the Galpu), but he is arguably the most respected spiritual custodian of the sacred instrument, whose haunting vibrations echo throughout the film.

Joshua spent more than a decade making In Between Songs, which he wrote, directed, and produced, with narration by Emmy Award–winning actor and activist James Cromwell. The story may have had its beginning at Reed, he says, where his creative foundations and critical thinking were forged, and where he studied English and creative writing, and first discovered the didjeridu. “I heard the sound of the instrument and my life changed,” he says.

“Hunting for Didjeridus,” one of three short stories in Saltwater Man, his creative thesis written with Prof. Nathalia King [English 1987–], tells the story of Joshua’s first foray into Aboriginal society in Northern Victoria. Through a series of chance encounters, and diligent research, Joshua was invited to Arnhem Land and introduced to Djalu, which set in motion his quest to learn the didjeridu. 

Over the next 12 years, he made five trips to Arnhem Land, bringing additional crew and building a unique bond with Djalu, his family, and the Aboriginal community. “Nothing could prepare me for the challenges of working within the community,” he says. “It was wonderful and scary, tragic and mystical, simultaneously. My head was constantly spinning.”

Joshua earned an MFA in film at the University of Southern California, having started his career as a filmmaker at the Northwest Film Center in Portland. He spent nearly two years working with Cody Hanson ’99 on his first documentary, Elements of Style, about underground hip-hop in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

In Between Songs frames the crisis in Arnhem Land with a series of vignettes. A woman at work in her garden talks about the pace of the work being vital to her mental health. An inebriated man rails about his need for beer as a child looks on in the dark. Women meticulously paint designs on the skin of boys for the ceremony of manhood. A young man sings “new music” accompanied by the pop beat of an electronic keyboard. 

Joshua shows Dhanggal teaching her grandchildren about sacred water and about finding fish and turtle eggs to share with the hungry community. She muses about relocating the clan to an undeveloped portion of Wirriku Island, where distractions would lessen in the face of tasks necessary for survival, but it is an expensive and impractical solution.

“In the current media landscape, the art of storytelling is getting lost,” Joshua states. “Though filmmaking perfectly synergizes painting, photography, dance, acting, and music, the immediacy of social media has replaced the art of thought-provoking content creation.” 

Djalu moves instinctually through a eucalyptus grove to a tree that has been hollowed out by termites. When cut down, cleaned, and peeled, its trunk will be transformed into a didjeridu that Djalu will carefully tune. But, who will take up the ancient work? he wonders. Who will make the music? The sound Djalu produces is deep—it is the sound he came to hear and the one held by the land. The sound others make is like the wind blowing . . .

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