Making Small Island Big Song – An Oceanic Songline

Cinema Australia Original Content:

Filmed over three years on 16 Island nations across the Pacific & Indian Oceans, this grassroots musical follows the ocean highways uniting ancient musical lineages. From Madagascar to Rapa Nui/Easter Island, Taiwan to Zenadth Kes/The Torres Strait. A heartfelt plea for environmental awareness and cultural preservation from those on the frontline of the climate crisis.

You can watch Small Island Big Song – An Oceanic Songline now via the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Here, director Tim Cole gives us an incredible insight into the making of his film.

“As artists we can play a vital role in shaping and guiding personal and societal narratives. The scientists have played their role, so let’s lift their burden and play ours.”

Article by Tim Cole

Culture defines and motivates our relationship to the environment both social and natural and clearly there is something wrong with our dominant ‘western’ culture, it isn’t serving us. The very core of our existence the planets eco-system which unites and sustains absolutely everything is collapsing around us and we fail to respond.

Growing up in Frankston an outer bayside suburb of Melbourne in the 70’s placed me in a culture of AC/DC, drive-ins screening ‘Herbie the Love Bug’ and oiled up summers skiffleboarding on Frankston Beach’s slippery sandbars. (Where have all the skiffleboards gone? So much fun!) 

The culture which once knew, named and sustained this place had gone and their names forgotten, I never even questioned that my homeland of brick veneers, milk bars and footy ovals had a deeper story and it’s own now, unspoken name.

So finding myself years later sitting amongst Aboriginal elders in the cooling twilight of Pintupi Country in the central Australian desert (a place beyond my knowing, because the roads on my school map didn’t go there) recording ancient Women’s Inma (Songlines) or waist deep in a pure volcanic waterhole in the remote Banks Islands of the Pacific filming the high spirited women’s water percussion of Leweton Village or on sacred Warumungu land documenting initiated only men’s Kunupa Kujica (Songlines) did challenge my idea of the roll my own culture plays in defying me. How did a suburban ‘white boy’ raised on a heritage of ‘3XY Rocks Frankston’ and up here? (Must say that thought has crossed my mind over the years).

‘Small Island Big Song – An Oceanic Songline’ for me is the sum of that introspection plus my attempt to temper my fears for the future of our planet added with a skill set acquired over three decades of working on cross-cultural music driven projects across Australia and the Pacific. And not to mention my ‘dream it and make it happen’ partner the film’s producer BaoBao Chen, although this essay is biased from my perspective the film’s production is equally the both of us, it was just the two of us on the road from the first shoot right through to signing off on the DCP (all shooting and post, so we saved some budget on letters for the credit roll).

This film of the oceans began in the desert community of Kiwwikurra 1,000 km’s off the bitumen.

BaoBao and I were living in Alice Springs, I had a job at CAAMA (The Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) an Aboriginal owned and managed media house, I was their senior music producer/engineer and one of my jobs was recording songlines with the elders out in community ‘on country’ (With Indigenous audio engineers). Wow if everyone could experience that, up to six hours of songs all sung in a specific order, short and long, all in sympathetic resonance to the land we were on, like fly’s hovering around by my headphones or the sun slicing through the trees as it’s scorching fingers enter the land. If we could all experience that, then we would be living in a much different Australia; respect to the songkeepers. These songs passed down over countless generations, within them too the knowledge to sustain these communities on some of the most challenging environments for humans on the planet, where to find water, what to eat, where their national borders are and how to maintain complex societal structures that have enabled them to survive on ‘Country’ for over 50,000 years (as recently has been proven). How old were these songlines? But then out there in the entrancement of the song and the land, it’s not a question that makes any sense to ask.

After a day of recording these songs I took the troopie out of Kintore to film the stars rising above or from Men’s Mountain, the camera clicked away time-lapsing as the AM radio crackled the ABC News from Perth over fifteen hundred k’s away, it was Oct’ 2014 and in that news was the 5th IPCC report from the United Nations. It’s predicted environmental loss across the planet slammed me, in particular the loss of Islands of the Pacific, homelands and their culture, friends I had been working with just before taking up the position at CAAMA. Still under the trance of the Inma (Songlines) it seemed so clear; these ocean cultures shaped, evolved over generations of surviving on islands with limited resources would be the first to loose their homelands and with that their identity the knowledge of place. The very people who do know how to live sustainably on an island will be the first to loose theirs because the rest of us on Island Earth and as hippy as it sounds we have to own it now that we are in the anthroposcene (of our own doing, may I add) don’t!

These songs that speak of deep cultural, human relationships of respect to the land, I should be recording those with the saltwater people of the ocean, If I could find that ineffable knowing experienced through the song keepers of the desert in the Pacific, then just perhaps we could play a roll in connecting others to the oceans deeper story and it’s own unspoken name. So as our time in Alice Springs was winding up BaoBao and I packed our life away into the back of a Ute and passed through the Gap at the southern end of town we were headed to the ocean.  

So I guess that’s all the why now here follows the how……

No budget, no script just the two of us a few cameras and microphones and a vision of creating an oceanic songline with profiled artists who could speak for their heritage their natural environments those carrying the unbroken cultural lineage of their homelands from across the vastness of the Pacific and as it turned out the Indian ocean too. 

Driving down the track (The Stuart Highway) gave us some respite from the chaos of winding things up, packing things away, hand overs, garage sales, good-byes and knotting up the loose ends. A silence settled in the cabin of the ute as we individually took in the moment the incredibleness of the past two years and the enormity of what lay ahead, are we really going to produce a feature film spanning over half the Earth’s surface with the regions most respected musicians all filmed on their homelands, and then get that film into cinemas across the world. My take on that was, ‘well if we fail what’s the worst that could happen, our reputation is destroyed, we are humiliated, we have to reboot our life’s’, in the big picture in the face of the climate crisis’s increasing momentum that didn’t matter, then on the other hand, ‘what if we did succeed, what if we could hold the gaze of the global zeitgeist, if only for a moment on those who could speak the oceans forgotten name’, well that could have some impact way beyond two daydreamers, we had to go for it. The silence was broken by the high pitched whining of our new brake pads as we pulled up on the track, “gotta take a pic”, the sum off all leading to here and the potential packed away in the now needed to be documented.

Yes both the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, it wasn’t really our choice, you see there is another story central to this film and as the film itself purposely gives as little context as possible (I would have preferred none), I’ll go into here, as it is absolutely incredible. You won’t believe this!

Well, we all know about the Polynesian voyages across the Pacific triangle of Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Aotearoa (New Zealand) but this is only part of a bigger seafaring heritage, the first inhabitants of Islands across the complete vastness of the Pacific AND Indian Oceans can be traced along the ocean currents and seasonal winds back over 5,000 years to a Pacific Ocean Island we now call Taiwan. That is well over half the Earth’s surface, still sharing elements of language, culture and,,,,,, music. They are in fact the worlds 5th biggest language group of 400 million strong called Austronesian, which includes all of Australia’s neighbours of the Indo-Pacific region along with The Torres Strait/Zenadth Kes. Yet at Overport Primary School I learnt more about the Tudors of England (which actually has been extremely useful, not) than I did of this incredible history of Australia’s recently retitled region the Indo-Pacific. 

Before the Pyramids of Egypt were built around the time Stonehenge was constructed people of the Pacific already had the technology, science, skills and confidence to successfully cross the horizon a threshold of human endeavour only recently met as we (humanity not BaoBao & I) voyaged beyond our atmosphere into space.

So as you see there wasn’t a choice, both the Pacific & Indian oceans it was. “Imposable! two people can’t make such an epic film, can’t be done” said in a grump elderly Oxford alumni voice. The way I looked at it we just had to go and have one session with one artist on their homeland which I had done countless times before and then onto the next and then the next and then the next until we had covered enough of these great oceans to make a cultural statement. Just the two of us handling all aspects of the production, which as it turned out was an asset, because if you approached it as a conventional broadcast production the cost and logistics would have made it unfeasible. We managed it on a scattering of small arts and philanthropic grants and still budgeted to pay all the musicians, through BaoBao’s super powers of finance and couch surfing.

Our whole goal was to create a statement of our relationship to the Earth in the structure of the film itself, rather than the film be a canvas or framework for sharing ideas on the subject as the director, I was looking for meaning myself so I set a process for the film to grow with as little influence from me as possible. 

Tim’s Filming Manifesto – Follow the Artists Choice’s and Guidance. 

We gave each artist the same requests

1 – ‘To share a song with which you are proud to represent your heritage and homeland with’ A song which a statement of your cultural identity, any song of your choice in any style you feel appropriate.

2 – ‘Take us to a place in nature on your custodial land with significance to you and your culture to record it’ To connect the song to the land it was shaped from, it also enabled us to introduce natural sounds into the recording and record in the open, not in a box. (You do hear a difference)

3 – ‘To sing it in the language of your homeland’. The language shaped by that environment. 

4 – ‘To only use the instruments of your homeland’. The instruments of that place, literally as in the case of the Yumi Yet bamboo band who cut and tuned the bamboo whilst we were there in the village. We used the bamboo orchestra to replace the acoustic guitars a few artists played as a guide tracks. There are no western instruments in the film or soundtrack, because they speak of relationships to another country.

5 – ‘To represent yourself how you are proud to represent yourself and your ancestry’. It was not our role to tell people how to represent their culture. We love the mix up of styles in the film, for us that is authentic.

6 – ‘To select other songs in the project to contribute to, in the spirit of uniting your homelands and ancestry’ This was the whole purpose of the process to unite the artists and islands of the Pacific & Indian oceans, as they contributed/overdubbed musical ideas from their culture and the nature it represents onto other songs in the project. This was the process which grew the songline from the artists guidance, BaoBao and I were initiators enablers but not the creators the artists who could speak for the land and ocean were. Interesting too that this process united cultures that shared an ancstry the Austronesian heritage and were united by the ocean. But had never actually met and some of their musical styles were quite different, say The Solomon Islands Au Reppi Pan Pipes of the Are’Are heritage, with Hawaian Ipu, Madagascan Kabosy and vocal percussion of the Merina peoples, the Qucaw (jawharp) from Taiwan’s Truku nation, Bamboo Percussion from Lontis Village in Bougainville, Water percussion from the Mwerlap people of Vanuatu and singing an Ancient language of the Are’Are people Solomon Islands all together in the scene/song Naka Wara Wara To’o.

Then in production the rule was only footage shot by us on the creating journey, every image and sound in the film an was shot and recorded by us in the Pacific & Indian Oceans. No stock footage, library sound effects or music samples, everything is authentic I didn’t even use any digital effects like reverb in the soundtrack, just eq and compression.

Pink Gorilla in the room #1 –  ‘this is not a film it is a just a bunch of film clips joined together, like watching rage for and hour and a half in a cinema’. Personally that sounds great to me, but it has led to the rejection of the film in the industry and closed doors for the broader public to reach it. It sincerely was an artistic decision to create the film in this form, over the years of working with Indigenous cultures I had really come to respect the role song played in community, in Indigenous Australian communities I came to know, song came first, it was the song which documented the knowledge the experience to share with others, to pass on and the dance and imagery followed and in these communities before the written word song played a vital part in transferring and keeping cultural knowledge. It was the same in the Pacific song was the prime method of story telling, cultural entertainment before film. At film school I remember my film crit’ lecturer Adrian Martin, opening my mind to observing film from different perspectives, Feminist Film theory, Post Modern, or Marxist film Theory which stuck with me, you can make a film where the community is the central character not the individual. For years I had been meditating on the idea what would an Indigenous Film Theory be, as I matured and my experiences with different cultural perspectives grew I felt it would have something to do with portraying time the lineage leading to the moment and all potentials packed in the moment in the frame, a sense of community we depend on each other as the central character somewhat like the Marxist perspective and of course inseparable from the natural enviromment as a character also. There is not a natural world and a human world nothing has come from an artificial parallel universe, everything is nature everything is connected and is apart of natures delicate web, the Earth’s eco-system. I never recorded an album for Indigenous artists without most of the songs referring to their ‘country’, and as clichéd as it sounds for many of the artists I produced for identity and ‘country’ are interchangeable inseparable. The other wonderful thing about songs is that they are a great medium to carry ineffable feelings and knowledge in. The artists creating the films narrative, soundtrack, songline have all made a choice to keep their traditional culture alive though their artistic practice, they sing foremost in their the language of their “country’, they play the instruments of their heritage and whether they are aware of it or not they are the song-keepers, they carry an unbroken cultural lineage of their homeland and heritage. A cultural voice shaped over countless generations of surviving with and depending on nature in that one place, a voice which shares a sympathetic resonance to their homeland whether we can put it into words and meaning or not as the case probably is! It is through these songs composed by the traditional custodians filmed in nature on their homelands drawing on their cultural lineage with extended interludes into nature and culture without context that I hoped to express this Indigenous Film Theory perspective, an Indigenous narrative structure.. the songline.

And to finish this segment, for me a cinema experience is an hour or so watching projected images and listening to surround sound, whatever that is, is not the point, as long as you feel respected by the filmmaker and enlightened from the experience, culturally richer. 

Pink Gorilla in the room #2 – ‘this film presents Indigenous peoples and culture, but you as the director are not Indigenous”.  These are seas I have been navigating since the 80’s uncharted waters on a Frankston Boys cultural charts. My first encounter across this threshold into the Indigenous Australian landscape was as the sound mixer and roadie for Bart Willoughby, an Anangu songman and founder of the legendary No Fixed Address (Must Google!!) it was Bart who brought Reggae into Central Desert Aboriginal music, seeding a legacy of edgy community bands and the genre Desert Reggae. We had just finished a gig at the Curton Hotel in Melb’ and were sitting in the Hi-Ace 12 seater tour bus, waiting for the driver and reliving the high points of the show, when the vibrant band rider fuelled memories cut, as if the power was pulled form the PA. Unannounced someone had entered the bus an stood at the entrance, elderly with a wild greying beard possibly Torres Strait Islander, but I couldn’t really tell at that time. His presence alone was enough to hold the bus in respectful silence, ‘Look at you drinking, smoking carrying on who are you? You know who you are, go on tell me who are you? I don’t remember exactly but I do remember he was clearly calling out someone on the bus, the drummer. I later learnt he was from Zenadth Kes/The Torres Strait and his elder had travelled all the way from there over four thousand kilometres just to check up on him and make sure he was following kustom ways. The bus went into a deep exchange in and out of languages I had never heard, then the elder swung his hand at me pointing, freezing me to my seat “who is he what is this ‘balanda’ doing here he shouldn’t be seeing this kustom lore”. Then a moment which opened a door to me, a whole new yet ancient landscape I had walked on but never seen, when Bart turned to the elder and said, “He can see this, he is with us, he is ok”, without pause the elder swung back into challenging the drummer and I had crossed a threshold.

Yes absolutely indigenous stories told by the owners of the stories, and that has been my professional path for over three decades now, meeting each project, artist, Indigenous nation fresh as Tim the boy from Frankston, that’s who I am and I don’t claim to be any thing else and I can help you tell your story. If you have an issue with me being involved in the film, don’t work with me or select it for your festival, but the truth is everything is far more nuanced, interwoven and connected than the surface reveals and doesn’t that go for all of us? 

If you have read up to here Palya as they say in Alice Springs, thanks it has really been a chance for me to voice out a lot of thoughts I’ve been carrying over the past five years, immersed in the producing the film, I know as filmmakers you get it. And now as I am moving onto the next one, we had our first group zoom meeting with 12 artists of the Pacific & Indian oceans just yesterday and Small Island Big Song – An Oceanic Songline is streaming in Australia (MDFF 2020) and goes into cinemas across Japan next month it’s time to let it go and have it’s own life, and move on.

This next in the light of urgency over the climate crisis is going to ramp it up, uniting leading cultural voices, climate scientists, cultural elders and youth activists confronting the issue head on. As artists we can play a vital role in shaping and guiding personal and societal narratives. The scientists have played their role, so let’s lift their burden and play ours. 

Film Webpage – https://www.smallislandbigsong.com/film

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