Among the images that lingered for me after watching Intervention: Katherine, NT were those of a man called Conway Bush-Blanasi talking to camera about his family. Gesturing to a picture on a household pin-board, he says that if he and his wife weren’t good parents, their daughter wouldn’t be succeeding at work and their other kids wouldn’t be doing well at school. Things would be harder now that the Indigenous community employment scheme around Beswick, near Katherine, was being replaced with income quarantining as part of the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response (1). In the documenting of a year’s experience of the Intervention in the Katherine region, what is shared in this moment is the difficulty of contending with the ordinary.
In asking what makes the ordinary arresting, I recalled Dai Vaughan’s reflections on documentary language in a different time and place. Recollecting an episode in Roger Graef’s 1972 BBC series Space Between Words, on which he was an editor, Vaughan writes:
In Family there is a sequence in which, after a gradual increase in emotional stress between the mother and the son, the father is shown withdrawn in concentration upon mending a child’s toy. This shot is perfectly genuine, in the sense that it happened at the point which it occupies in the film. Yet it owes its remarkably moving effect not to its genuineness but to its poetic appropriateness. (2)
This suggests what Vaughan means by “the space between shots” (as in his essay title, altering that of Graef’s series). His concern is with arranging images in sequences that are “comprehensible” without claiming to be “comprehensive”, so that viewers can grant “further thought” to the film in its links with the real (3). This concern goes to the heart of Intervention, connecting questions of style with attempts to understand social contexts. It is through cross-references between shots, like those of Conway just mentioned, and surrounding sequences that the difficulties of ordinary responsibility are evoked.
To explore this, let me vary Vaughan’s phrase in turn, to speak of the shot resonating between spaces. The images of Conway at home are preceded by the observation of a meeting between a group of men from town and an Intervention survey team, where Conway pursues the question of fairness. Will it be recognised that there are good and bad parents “across the board”, rather than type-casting Indigenous people by association with abuse and failure? Yet there’s something else: in the sequence at home, Conway says he approves of some things in the Intervention and not others and, while the stress is on problems with the “blanket” emergency tactics, this relates to what he has said at the meeting, that’s it’s no use to intervene and “then forget” about Indigenous people. The household images are followed by a sequence in which Irene Fisher, from Sunrise Health Clinic, talks about the problem that people have to give up citizenship rights (with the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act) in order to gain adequate housing, indicating that issues of living conditions and health converge for many. Thus arranged, the domestic images show how family and community life are complicated by the Intervention, and these images are held in tension with surrounding sites and problems.
The view developed across segments is that the Intervention tactics are not yet solving the main problems, at least locally, and are counter-productive where people are coping. It picks up on Conway’s scepticism about the Intervention, reiterated later in response to the promises of the incoming Labor government (“I hope they mean what they say”). The film observes reactions to evidence that child sexual abuse in remote communities – the “guiding light” of the Intervention – isn’t rampant, as originally assumed. It argues the need not to “impose” solutions but to work collaboratively with communities to achieve normal conditions of housing, health, education and employment. However, it does not claim to be comprehensive. While recognising some qualified support for the Intervention, the film examines the specifics of those conditions in a way that contributes to public awareness and offers points of entry to considerations of policy in context.
In contrast to some other political accounts, the ethos of the documentary is not what Noel Pearson has called “moral vanity”: the use of others’ disadvantage to score points against ideological opponents and the assumed misprision of their actions while overlooking the practical realities that are at stake (4). “For those who bewail its absence, honesty is a moral problem”, writes Vaughan, but for “those who try to achieve it, it is a technical one” (5). To encourage viewers, through the formal arrangement of a work, to reflect on the realities indexed, remains an important capacity of documentary. It is within the inscriptions of these realities across different spaces that Conway Bush-Blanasi’s testimony of the ordinary becomes so eloquent.
- The “Northern Territory Emergency Response” was a legislated intervention made by the Australian Government into some 73 remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. It began under the Liberal-National Government in June 2007 and has continued, with modifications, under the Labor Government that came to office in November the same year. The Intervention followed the release of the Little Children are Sacred report to the Northern Territory Government on child sexual abuse in some Indigenous communities. The aims of the Intervention were to protect children and make communities safe and, in the longer term, improve conditions for Indigenous people in areas from education and employment to health and housing. There has been much controversy over its methods, including the compulsory quarantining of income via welfare payments, intended to increase spending on essentials such as food and clothing and reduce spending on alcohol and gambling, and over its outcomes to date.
- Dai Vaughan, “The Space between Shots”, in For Documentary: Twelve Essays, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999, p. 21. Originally published in Screen, vol. 15, no. 1, 1974, pp. 73-85.
- Vaughan, p. 25.
- Noel Pearson, “White Guilt, Victimhood and the Quest for a Radical Centre”, in Drusilla Modjeska (ed.), The Best Australian Essays 2007, Black Inc., Melbourne, p. 275. Cf. Marcia Langton, “Trapped in the Aboriginal Reality Show”, Australian Policy Online, 2008.
- Vaughan, p. 9.