Story, Film Style and Cross-cultural Collaboration in Aeroplane Dance (1994)

In 1997, Graham ventured into writing and directing new media. From 1997 to 2000 he co-wrote and directed the encyclopedic documentary (CD-ROM and website) Mabo – The Native Title Revolution, which was nominated for a British Academy Award (BAFTA) in 2001. In 2002 and 2003 he worked in Yirrikala in Arnhem Land where he directed the documentary Lonely Boy Richard (2003), and worked on the multimedia project Ceremony – The Djungguwan of Northeast Arnhem Land (2006) with Wanyubi Marika and Wukun Dennis Wanambi, members of the Yirrikala Indigenous community who went on to establish the Mulka Project, a new multimedia and archive centre at Buku, the Yirrikala art centre. Throughout 2008 and 2009, Graham was employed by ABC TV as a Series Producer on the broadcaster’s flagship Indigenous weekly TV strand Message Stick.

At U-matic to Youtube, Graham spoke in a panel discussion titled “Entangled Histories” about his collaboration with the Indigenous community of Borroloola on the film project Aeroplane Dance (1994). The film records the community’s story of the Ka-Wayawayama or Aeroplane Dance, which was created after an American Liberator bomber crashed in the area in December 1942 after a mission in the South-West Pacific. The film is a made-for-television docu-drama that re-creates the plight of the flight crew in their trek across the inhospitable terrain of the Gulf of Carpentaria and documents the role played by the Yanyuwa people of Borroloola in the search for the lost crew. What follows is an edited extract of Graham’s comments in that discussion. (Therese Davis)

The challenge of this film was to do justice to two stories and define the meeting point of the two stories. That was one of the main attractions for me. Firstly, a solid Yanyuwa story, Yanyuwa history, with absolutely monumental characters from my point of view, and the operatic nature of the Aeroplane Dance, to coin a whitefella term. It’s a dance, it’s a song, it’s a performance; there are lyrics, there’s a stage, props and costumes – if you want to put it in those terms. And I was given the opportunity to explore all that from the inside, so to speak.

And then, second, to find that in the Library of Congress, as part of the US’ official WWII military history, there’s another story: an official report written by Sergent Grady Gaston, a story which was out there in the public domain as a book (which is how it came to John Bradley’s attention). To have the opportunity to bring these two stories together was just fantastic from a filmmaking point of view.

In the film my sympathies lie with both sets of characters, if you want to see it that way. But the overriding thing that drove my intention as a filmmaker (beside the story itself), the thing that I found most interesting, was what Darlene [Johnson] talked about yesterday, and that was the empathy. I thought that the incredible empathy that people like McDinny and Jerry Brown had for Grady Gaston and the other American airmen, was … well, today I was sitting there watching my own film and feeling quite moved by it, I have to say, because that empathy comes across quite strongly. And I think that empathy is a bit of a metaphor for what’s important about film and filmmaking, particularly when you are working on Indigenous stories and in Indigenous communities. I think the most cherished thing we can do as filmmakers is not only faithfully represent stories, but also, in representing them, make them accessible and attractive to people like you, to audiences.

The thing is to try to create empathy between the characters and the story and essentially what are white, mainstream audiences; that’s the most important thing that I have to offer a community as a white filmmaker – to create empathy. I guess it doesn’t matter whether it’s Indigenous or non-Indigenous story from my point of view, the raison d’être for being a filmmaker is to engage audiences and to win them over. And I think Aeroplane Dance does that.

The film applies a television aesthetic as opposed to a cinema aesthetic. It was made for television, commissioned by SBS. Yes, [the stereotyping of the airmen] is deliberate. Absolutely! I grew up watching B grade war movies … and [when I was preparing for the shoot] I definitely revisited a lot of these B movies, with my DOP as well, to get that ‘bad-beard effect’. Well, these things are all references, really, references to B.  And I don’t think anybody would be offended if I said, [the Aeroplane Dance] is a B dance. It’s not high art. And neither is the movie – it’s a movie made for television! OK, it’s not up to me to make that kind of judgement. I should retract that. I stand corrected.

I saw the film as a metaphor for white Australia and black Australia in that the way I wanted to frame everything, in terms of shooting it, was that the Indigenous people were always having fun. They’re always eating, singing or having fun opposed to the white American airmen who are starving, lost, and didn’t know where to go. That for me says a lot about the way that Australia has been settled and the way we’ve treated and viewed the land – I don’t think I need to say any more than that.

But that was another raison d’être – I wanted to point to that difference and to do it in a very visual way. And so the wonderful scenes of the Borroloola people having fun – which you all laughed at and that still make me laugh – to me, they create a wonderful sense of familiarity and fun that you don’t often see in films about Indigenous people. There’s usually some sort of issue in the story, whereas this film was a bit of a romp through history where the characters are fond of the dance, they’re fond of recollecting their story, they’re fond of relaying it, and they were very fond of Grady Gaston. It was a fun dance. It was always said to me that it had to be a fun dance, so the film had to be made in a fun way.

There’s just a final issue I’d like to talk about. The Borroloola people invited me to make this film, via John Bradley and a couple of other people who worked on the film, [such as] Jan Wositzky, the writer. And what I want to say is that the Borroloola people are very savvy. They’re incredibly savvy. It possibly goes back to Two Laws (1981). They knew that if this dance and this song were going to live on, they needed to have it recorded for prosperity because, at the time, there were only about fifty Yanyuwa speakers. They knew the future, they knew what the future would hold, and so that was their whole reason for making the film – to record the song in its entirety.

What’s come out of the process is the actual film Aeroplane Dance, but also a complete film recording of the story about how the song came about, and also the dance. According to John [Bradley], that recording is still being viewed in Borroloola in its entirety, which is over one hour long, shot over two nights. So it’s there for prosperity, there for the community’s use. It lives in the community and it’s in the Commonwealth archives; and this, I think, feeds into a broader discussion, and that is that a lot of remote communities really do understand the power and importance of recording their stories. And they’re very bossy about it. You know, as a filmmaker, you don’t just go into a community and just start to direct. There are elements in Aeroplane Dance that were deliberately left in there to show that there was that ‘bossing’ going on, that it’s their project.


About the Author

Trevor Graham

About the Author

Trevor Graham

Trevor Graham has worked as a writer, producer and director of documentary in the Australian film and television industry for over 25 years, and has a Doctorate of Creative Arts from University of Technology, Sydney. His documentaries have been broadcast nationally and internationally, winning two Australian Film Institute Awards for Best Documentary and numerous other national and international film and television awards. Throughout this period, he has worked with Indigenous communities and artists on a wide range of film and television projects, including: Land Bilong Islanders (1990), a documentary that he made with Eddie Koiki Mabo and which is the only record of the early chapters of the now historic Mabo land claim; From Little Things Big Things Grow (1993), a musical documentary on the work of Kev Carmody; Mabo – Life of an Island Man (1997), the biographical documentary that won the 1997 AFI Award, was nominated for a Logie and won both the prestigious NSW Premier’s History Award and the NSW Premier’s Award for Best Screenplay.View all posts by Trevor Graham →