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Author: Natasha Cantwell
Digital Communications & Public Programming Officer
The serenity of the coastal towns around East Gippsland belies a troubled and complex past, woven from stories of horrific injustice, but also resilience and reconciliation. A significant part of this history is the local Aboriginal Elders’ experiences of growing up on the Lake Tyers Mission and in improvised bush camps in the 1960s and 1970s. I talked to members of the Wurinbeena Board and Artists, and Fringe Dweller Films about their collaboration with the Elders to bring these personal stories of struggle into the light. (Due to the collaborative nature of the project, they requested that their comments in this article be attributed to the group, rather than individuals.)
With the help of a Local History Grant, a series of short films are being produced that will become a resource for the wider community and future generations. Wurinbeena explains that because of East Gippsland’s historical isolation, there is little existing archival documentation:
“The atrocities that went on here were never recorded very well at all. Those secrets have only been really carried on through people's spoken word and a little bit of knowledge. There's a great urgency to get this project done before the Elders pass away.”
And so Oral Histories of Lake Tyers and Surrounds will form part of a much needed archive, one that doesn’t just preserve these stories, but also helps with Wurinbeena’s objective to ensure that Aboriginal culture in East Gippsland is visible and positively represented. Wurinbeena says their partnership with Fringe Dweller Films came about in response to having a lack of stories represented in the media for the Koori people in East Gippsland. A lot of Elders wanted to share their stories and have them recorded for the younger ones who are not yet interested but they know they will get to a point where they are.
Both groups had also observed how emphasis is often placed on pre-colonisation history and the aspects of culture that have been lost, but to these Elders, the post-colonisation stories are just as important:
“It's really about validating people's experience no matter what the culture is or how it's shifted or changed.”
This project has been a long time coming: while recording began in late 2018, the years of collaboration and trust building that preceded it have been just as important to the process. Fringe Dweller Films stresses that the project “wouldn't have been possible if the film crew had just rocked up without any connections”. It was Wurinbeena’s 20 to 30 year history of cross-cultural collaboration with Aboriginal people in the area that ensured the participants were comfortable opening up about their personal experiences.
The interviews took place in a variety of locations, with some people preferring to be filmed in their homes, and others choosing a place on country that holds a special significance for them. Director, Vincent Lamberti asked the Elders questions about language, belonging, cross-cultural interaction and place. It was important to everyone involved that the stories remained in the voice of the interviewees, and so the camera was kept rolling while they were given the time they needed to think about their answers, without feeling rushed.
To create shorter versions for sharing online, Wurinbeena consulted with local Elder, Uncle Frank Harrison, who provided guidance on what were the most important aspects of each recorded interview. Uncle Frank worked as a leader on the project throughout the whole process, which Wurinbeena describes as a real groundbreaking moment. It was encouraging for the interviewees to see the 79-year-old Elder be empowered to take a leadership role in a community he’d previously been invisible in:
“For people to talk about things that are so painful in their past and have never been exposed, it takes a lot of trust. That trust was brought with Uncle Frank's leadership.”
Wurinbeena had plans to premiere the films at the local cinema, but COVID-19 means that is no longer possible. The poor Internet reception in the remote communities also ruled out the possibility of an online screening. So, to ensure that the local Koori community could see the videos, the team came up with the ingenious plan of a travelling drive-in, where the films will play to communities on a large outdoor screen and people can watch from the COVID-safe environment of their own cars. Wurinbeena are also keen for the transcripts and photographs from the interviews to be published as a book and given to local school libraries. Further down the track there will be an educational website too, which incorporates sound recordings, videos and animations, mapping the Elders’ stories in an interactive way.
While Oral Histories of Lake Tyers and Surrounds is focused on the experiences of incredible people who have survived in the most inhospitable conditions back in the sixties and seventies, there are other stories too, which need to be told. Wurinbeena sees this film series as part of a bigger project:
“The long term project will reaffirm the parallels between inter-generational trauma and difference, and the racial, socio-economic oppression that's going on all the time.”
Fringe Dweller Films agrees that it’s important to keep recording more stories that show the strength in talking about struggle. They’ve been amazed at how optimistic all the Elders have been, despite the difficulties they’ve had to face. Both groups are proud of how Oral Histories of Lake Tyers and Surrounds conveys messages of positive engagement and tells the stories of ten strong, resilient and creative people.
The 2020 - 2021 round of Local History Grants has just opened for applications. We’re looking for community projects that preserve, record and share the diverse histories across Victoria. Follow the link for more information: prov.vic.gov.au/community/grants-and-awards/local-history-grants-program