Benny and the Dreamers: Desert economy
Aerial shots of Hermannsburg in Central Australia are followed by black-and-white historical footage of Indigenous people going about their business on the mission. Interview footage of Pastor F. W Albrecht talking about Indigenous people, their cultural practices and potential contribution to Western society. Summary by Romaine Moreton.
We get a sense of what it was like for the Pintubi when the strange new culture of the West came to their country. Establishing a trade between the Pintubi and the missionaries was an important aspect of this inter-cultural relationship.
Benny and the Dreamers synopsis
A documentary about the Pintubi people’s first contact with white people, and the affects of dispossession and institutionalisation when the peoples were forced from their lands into missions.
Benny and the Dreamers curator's notes
In the 1930s, the Pintubi people came into contact with Westerners for the first time. Benny and the Dreamers is a documentary about that first contact. It talks about personal responses to this first contact with whites, such as the attraction of having an easy and accessible food source, which was sustained through trade, and the eventual breakdown of the social group due to dispossession. There are many interesting aspects to this film, one being the gradual realisation by the Pintubi that their country was no longer theirs alone, and many of the main subjects in Benny and the Dreamers talk about the experience of being taken into the mission at Hermannsburg – the confusion of being confronted with strange cultural ways as well as realising that relatives they believed to have perished were all present in Hermannsburg.
The Pintubi peoples’ land is in the centre of Australia west of Alice Springs, and Benny Tjapaltarri is one of the few Pintubi who remembers life before contact with Westerners. Benny tells us about the first time he tasted Western food – in this case jam – and the taste delighted him. Freddy West Tjakamarra tells us how he thought that the tinned food contained human flesh. Ronnie Tjampitjinpa says that when he first saw white people he thought they were devil monsters. Yanatjarri Minyin Tjampitjinpa laughs as he recalls his first impression of trousers with zips on them.
Notes by Romaine Moreton
This clip presents an Indigenous view of Hermannsburg in central Australia, using 1930s black-and-white footage with original soundtrack and contemporary colour film with narration. Pintupi Elders Benny Tjapaljarri and Mick Ngamurarri recount their feelings about their first contact with the Hermannsburg Mission and Western technologies. The 1930s footage of life on the Mission includes an interview with Pastor Albrecht, who talks about Indigenous people, and scenes of Indigenous people trading animal pelts for Western goods, and the soundtrack contains local language, singing and subtitles.
Educational value points
- An Indigenous perspective of Hermannsburg Mission in central Australia is established through the narration, the recollections of the Mission by Pintupi Elders Tjapaljarri and Ngamurarri, and the 1930s voice-over commentary of the black-and-white archival material. The present-day narrator uses both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous names for the community (Ntaria and Hermannsburg) as well as the terms 'we’ and 'they’ to establish an Indigenous voice.
- The interview with Elders Tjapaljarri and Ngamurarri provides insight into the complex experience of change for Indigenous people who came to the Hermannsburg Mission in the 1930s. The director has used archival footage to show Indigenous people using new skills to work, as well as sustaining traditional practices such as hunting and body painting. In the present Tjapaljarri and Ngamurarri recall their amazement at seeing new technologies such as chimneys that produced 'straight smoke’.
- Although the narrator describes Pastor Albrecht’s 'confidence in the supremacy of Christianity and European ways over traditional Aboriginal beliefs’ as typical of his time, the clip also depicts Albrecht as showing sympathy for Indigenous people and respect for their spiritual values and common humanity. He was pastor at the mission from 1926 until 1962 and envisaged an Australian society that would include Indigenous people and value their contributions.
- Pastor Abrecht is depicted endorsing trading as part of the 'training’ of Indigenous people to fit into Australian society. He criticises Western materialism in the interview, but his reference to hair oil suggests a contradictory promotion of Western consumer goods. Although the archival material implies that trade was new to Indigenous people, such reciprocal arrangements were part of Indigenous relationships, with traditional trade routes covering the continent.
- The archival footage taken at Hermannsburg of traditional Indigenous ways of life suggests the significant role of the Mission in recording Indigenous culture even while trying to replace much of it. The clip begins with colour footage from 1992, and – combined with the Indigenous recollections of the Mission – this encourages a critical interpretation of the black-and-white 1930s film.
- Hermannsburg Mission was set up by Lutheran missionaries in 1877, and was named after Hermannsburg in Germany where the missionaries had trained. It was typical of many missions in that it was often used by Indigenous people as a refuge from settler violence and as a place to get food and water supplies. Hermannsburg was handed back to the Arrernte people in 1982 and today operates as an Indigenous community.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
This clip starts approximately 8 minutes into the documentary.
We see aerial shots of Hermannsburg in Central Australia.
Narrator The missionaries came from a mission they set up on the Fink River at a place we call Ntaria but they named Hermannsburg.
We see the footage change from colour to black-and-white. We see old footage of life in the village. We hear women singing.
Narrator of footage Mount Hermannsburg, mighty centennial, interstate setting is the Fink River Mission Station widely known as Hermannsburg.
Narrator Benny and Mick followed the camels into Hermannsburg in the 1930s for their first taste of white fella world.
Two men, Pintupi Elders Benny Tjapaljarri and Mick Ngamurarri, are being interviewed in the bush. There is more footage of life in the mission. English subtitles read:
Elder 1 We were ignorant and looked on suspiciously at what they were doing. ‘What’s going on here…what’s this stuff?’ We watched warily.
Elder 2 Yes, it was all very suspicious.
Elder 1 The smoke rose up the chimney. High above the kitchen chimney. ‘How can these people make that smoke go straight up?’
Elder 2 Yes…straight smoke!
Elder 1 We sat looking and thought, ‘Eh, that’s clever…really clever.’ We sat back and watched…amazed.
1930s black-and-white footage of Pastor FW Albrecht being interviewed in his office on the Mission. Footage of trade and life at the mission.
Narrator Pastor FW Albrecht lived and worked at Hermannsburg from 1926 to 1962. His confidence in the supremacy of Christianity and European ways over traditional Aboriginal beliefs was typical of his time.
Pastor FW Albrecht Our Aborigines from their nomadic past find themselves in a, um, world that is so strange to them. I think with careful handling and training, they have a future and they could make the contribution to Australian life and community.
Narrator of footage The missionary carries on a small trade with the people so they can buy what they need in the way of extra food, clothing, camp utensils and other living comforts. Here’s just a small range of the many items from which to choose – soap, razors, pocket knives, medicines, hair oil and so on.
Pastor Albrecht They are very charming people. They are so completely, very spiritual. See, what makes our life very often look ugly is our materialistic sense, they haven’t got that, because his emphasis is on magic. The basic need of the Aborigines is exactly like our own. They can’t cope with certain things unless God comes into their lives.