Indigneous family film screens in Berlin

23 February 2012

Karrabing family members use mobile phones to track one another. The film was recently shown at the 2012 Berlin international film festival.
Karrabing family members use mobile phones to track one another. The film was recently shown at the 2012 Berlin international film festival.

A short film about an Indigenous family living a technologically engaged life in a remote region to the north-east of Darwin, has been screened in the prestigious Berlin international film festival (Berlinale).

Karrabing! Low Tide Turning was jointly produced by the University of Sydney's Associate Professor Tess Lea, and follows an extended Indigenous family as they attempt to track down a missing family member so as not to lose their government housing. As they move between their suburban ghetto and a remote region where they are trying to establish an outstation, they run up against obstacles of structural and racialised poverty - but are resilient to the end.

The film was directed by filmmaker Liza Johnson and Elizabeth Povinelli, a professor of anthropology from Columbia University who has blogged about the project here.

In the film, which was scripted by Karrabing Indigenous Corporation members, technology plays a leading role. Characters use mobile phones to track each other in the country, contemporary music is blasted.

Associate Professor Lea says Indigenous people use digital technologies "ubiquitously", as one of many ways in which the contemporary and the customary co-exist.

"You'll see someone playing a didgeridoo that's competing with a little stereo, and then ramping up the volume on the didgeridoo," says Lea.

Karrabing! offers a unique vision of Aboriginal life and forms just one part of an innovative multimedia project that aims to provide the people of the Karrabing Indigenous Corporation in the Northern Territory with a technologically engaged, economically sustainable, culturally congruent and environmentally connected way of life.

The Karrabing Indigenous Corporation was established in 2008. "Karrabing" is an Emiyengal word that refers to the tide's final ebb before it returns, and reflects the corporation's formal hope: to discover a way of life that joins Indigenous and non-Indigenous aspirations and creates modes of being where being Aboriginal is not always challenged.

Associate Professor Lea says Karrabing! is both a standalone narrative and a "proof of concept" for the larger project - which ultimately aims to create a unique range of commercial mobile phone apps with geographically specific multimedia information relating to the traditional lands on both sides of Anson Bay, on the mouth of the Daly River to the north-east of Darwin.

Ultimately Karrabing will become a real-world living library, where information is literally embedded into the landscape. Future visitors will be able to use mobile phones to photograph two-dimensional barcodes placed on the land, which will prompt the phone to download a webpage.

They might view videos or recordings of ancestors discussing the site, discover local environmental knowledge, or for the adventure tourist, information about good places to fish and hunt. They might enjoy a video stream about an aspect of Indigenous life, a dreaming, a story, or an historical event.


In addition to being an anthropologist, Associate Professor Tess Lea has worked as a policy adviser and a senior bureaucrat for the NT Government, and as such has been central to rolling out many government social policy projects in regional and remote Australia.

"The Karrabing is a group of people who are trying to be all the things that government say they want. They are trying to be employed, they are trying to be educated; they are trying to keep their families together so that they stay whole and sane," she says.

Lea came to the University of Sydney in July 2011. She holds a five-year QEII Fellowship, an ARC Discovery project, which has as its central question: "Can there be good social policy in regional and remote Australia?"

In 2009, Lea was named by The Australian newspaper as one of 100 emerging young leaders for her innovative ideas on solving critical issues in the Northern Territory, such as those surrounding Indigenous health and education.

"What interests me is the way social policies can contain seemingly identical ambitions to those of Indigenous people, yet when it comes to actually realizing these ambitions in practice, families are not well assisted by policies. What they experience is obstacle and obstruction.

"They [Karrabing Indigenous Corporation] won their land but it is infrastructure poor - it has no roads or bridges and they have next to no capital. And governments have now decided that outstation funding is not an option. So the Corporation started to think about ways to generate livelihoods that would harness traditions and technology, joining older and younger generations and tapping into natural talents."

With the Berlin success under their belts, the filmmakers and producers of Karrabing! hope this will help pave the way to producing additional episodes in the story through to movie length and attract funding to enable the full vision of the multimedia project to come to fruition.

Media inquiries: Jacqueline Chowns, 0434 605 018,