“I was unaware at the time how privileged I was to film that journey and it was the beginning of my relationship with Spider, Dolly, Putuparri and their community.”
Tom ‘Putuparri’ Lawford is a man caught between two worlds – torn between his life in the modern world of Fitzroy Crossing and his destiny as a cultural leader of his people. Tom battles with all the temptations of western society at the same time as he reconnects with his ancestral lands, learns about his traditional culture and shoulders his responsibility to pass this knowledge onto the next generation.
Director Nicole Ma spent more than a decade documenting Putuparri’s journey, travelling with him and his family on numerous occasions to Kurtal, in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia. Kurtal is a site of great spiritual significance to Putuparri’s family where they have ritually made rain for many thousands of years.
The family have spent nearly two decades fighting for their native title claim over the area. Set against the backdrop of this long fight for ownership of traditional lands, Putuparri and the Rainmakers is an emotional, visually breathtaking story of love, hope and the survival of Aboriginal law and culture against all odds.
How have you found the journey from the beginning of the documentary to its current status?
Putuparri and the Rainmakers began in 2001 when I landed on an isolated airstrip and confronted a formidable group of aboriginal elders at Mangkaja Arts, the local art centre. I was there to pitch a documentary I was making about traditional communities. They listened politely but were not interested in participating. However Spider, Putuparri’s grandfather, was there and he invited me to come with him to visit Kurtal, his Country in the Great Sandy Desert. I was unaware at the time how privileged I was to film that journey and it was the beginning of my relationship with Spider, Dolly, Putuparri and their community.
Up to that point I was quite ignorant about aboriginal history and culture. What I knew came from the media and these were mostly negative stories. I gradually came to see that while there was truth in the problems that were being discussed there was also another side to the story. My experience in the Kimberley was of an aboriginal culture that was alive and proudly surviving despite colonisation and the serious issues that stemmed from that. I learnt about their spiritual connection to country and the belief system that ‘if you care for country, it will care for you’. I have found Putuparri and his family’s deep respect for what the land provides deeply affecting and this theme is embedded in the film.
Making this film and sharing the journey I took with Putuparri I hope to convey to an audience the beauty of his culture and the huge historical changes that have occurred in their lives. It is a film about hope and my hope is that an audience will be able to identify and empathise with their story.
Can you tell us a bit about Putuparri and why you wanted to tell his story?
Putuparri and the Rainmakers focuses on Tom Lawford whose aboriginal name is Putuparri. His story is a microcosm of the history of the Kimberley. He has a strong grounding in his traditional culture through his grandparents who lived a traditional life in the desert. On the other hand he was born into and lives within Western society’s laws. At times these two worlds are in conflict and this is played out in Tom’s life. The audience is taken on the journey by Tom experiencing historical events and life’s emotional highs and lows through his eyes. It brings a personal perspective to the effect of colonisation on remote indigenous communities.
What were some of the more interesting experiences making the film?
Visiting the Great Sandy desert with traditional owners was a life-changing experience for me. I am an urbanite – I grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore and have lived in London and New York. Living outdoors and hunting for food was not within my life experience. Luckily Dolly (Spider’s wife) took me under her wing. I had to let go of my idea of ‘personal space’ and become one of the tribe. Our survival depended on the water and diesel we were carrying. We had no way to communicate with the outside world. The team consisted of a nurse, a bush mechanic, an anthropologist expert in that area, camera crew and Tom and his family. The terrain was inhospitable; no roads, sand hills over 15 metres high with 50 degree temperatures during the day and falling below zero at night. We had to cut a track for the cars and on some days we only managed to travel 10 kilometres. It was a gruelling and exciting experience.
What would it mean to you personally to win the $100,000 film prize?
If I did win the $100,000 film prize I would feel proud that the trust shown to me by Tom, Spider, Dolly and their community to tell their story had been validated. It would mean that I had made a film people were interested in and wanted to see. It would be an acknowledgement that there was an audience for their story and this is very important aspect of the film – to have Putuparri’s story seen and heard by the wider non-aboriginal community.
When did you first become aware of CinéfestOZ and the $100,000 film prize?
Mark Woods who administers the MIFF Premiere Film Fund suggested the film to Malinda Nixon, CEO of CinéfestOZ. She invited us to screen our film at the festival and that was when we heard about the film prize. We thought at the time it was highly unlikely we would be short listed but we decided to give it a shot anyway.
Will you be attending the event in August and have you ever visited the South West of WA?
Putuparri Tom Lawford, Bester Rangie (co-star) and I will be attending the event in August. None of us have ever visited the South West of WA and we are looking forward to the event. We hear it is a beautiful part of the country. Tom and Bester are very proud to know that there is an audience interested in their story.