Benny and the Dreamers: Path to progress

Benny and the Dreamers: Path to progress
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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After black-and-white footage of Pintubi people, Smithy Zimeran Tjampitjinpa recalls being moved to Papunya. Yuyua Nampitjinpa talks about her experience in the mission school. Summary by Romaine Moreton.

Pintubi people tell us about their experience in the mission schools, and how the strange ways of the white fellas scared them.


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


Education Notes

The clip shows schooling at the Papunya settlement in the 1960s and Indigenous accounts of experiences at the school. In current-day interviews, Smithy Zimeran Tjampitjinpa and Yuyua Nampitjinpa talk about their memories of the school. The interviews are intercut with black-and-white footage of a teacher showing students a globe of the world and students listening to a gramophone. The 1960s narration discusses schooling in the settlement. There is footage of children lining up and marching to class, and men and women working in domestic and farm roles.

Educational value points

  • The clip presents Indigenous people’s critical perspectives on their education at the Papunya school in the Northern Territory in the 1960s. Smithy Zimeran Tjampitjinpa explains his sense of alienation because of being in 'someone else’s world’. Yuyua Nampitjinpa explains her fear of the teacher and his 'strange whitefella ways’, illustrated by the example of children cooking apples because they did not understand how else to eat this new fruit.
  • The clip presents the 1960s non-Indigenous perception of the school as equipping Indigenous children for 'the modern world’. This is symbolised by the globe of the world and the example of Western technology in the form of a gramophone. The viewer is positioned to query the notion of schooling as a 'path to progress’ by the contrasting accounts of personal experiences of former students from the school.
  • The clip includes 1960s footage depicting Indigenous people working in practical roles on the settlement as part of their preparation to fit into 'the modern world’. The 1960s narration indicates that many Indigenous people were trained for work in the settlement in roles such as butchers and cooks but does not refer to payment for this work. Such training was usual on missions and reserves where Indigenous people were often given only very basic schooling.
  • The clip intersperses 1960s footage and narration with 1990s interviews to reflect an Indigenous view of the Papunya school. Personal reflective accounts provide detail and points of connection with Indigenous experiences at the school. This positions the viewer to be critical of the images of the teacher and the regimented children in the 1960s footage and to recognise the institutionalisation and dispossession that were taking place.
  • References in the 1960s narration to Indigenous people working and thinking in the same way as the rest of Australian society reflect common government assimilation policies from the 1930s to the 1960s, and popular attitudes of the time. Schools such as Papunya played an important role in assimilation. Emphasis on full citizenship rights was often part of assimilation rhetoric.
  • The Papunya school was part of the Papunya settlement established in 1959 by the federal government to facilitate the assimilation of desert peoples. Situated approximately 255 km north-west of Alice Springs in central Australia, Papunya included Pintupi, Warlpiri, Luritja, Arrernte and Anmatyere people, only some of whom went there voluntarily.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
CAAMA Productions
Ivo Burum
Executive Producers :
Ivo Burum, Phillip Batty, Harry Bardwell
Ivo Burum
Fionna Douglas
Michael Liddle

This clip starts approximately 32 minutes into the documentary.

Historical footage in black-and-white shows Indigenous children living in a settlement. The children gather together and walk into school through the camp gates and across the school yard. The bell rings and all of the children begin to run towards the main building.
Narrator At places like Papunya training is begun to equip Aborigines for the modern world. For the children, the path of progress leads to the settlement school.

A former student, Smithy Zimeran Tjampitjinpa of Pintubi people, is interviewed outdoors. The subtitles in English read:
Smithy Zimeran Tjampitjinpa I shifted to Papunya where I began my schooling. It was there I began to understand the way things were. I realised we were living in a different world now. It was someone else’s world. This was not our country.

The footage shows children assembling in the yard. The white teacher speaks to them from the balcony of the school building.
Teacher Right, quickly. Hurry up. Move up.

Yuyua Nampitjinpa of Pintubi people, a former student, is interviewed outdoors. Two small children are with her as she talks. The English subtitles read:
Yuyua Nampitjinpa We would think, 'Eh, these people aren’t using our language’. We used to think about wagging … and not turn up. We’d hide in the camp until the teacher came to find us for school. We were frightened of him so when he found us we went. We used to cook apples in our own cubbyhouse fire. We’d eat the apples cooked because we didn’t know better. 
Interviewer Why were you frightened of the teacher?
Yuyua Strange whitefella ways! We would get frightened because we didn’t understand them.

Black-and-white footage shows three children taking notes while sitting around a globe with a white teacher. A gramophone plays and a large group of children huddle around to listen.
Narrator The long-term object of Aboriginal education must be education for living in full citizenship as part of the Australian community. It must embrace the spiritual and the cultural. The children are being gently led towards our culture so that, in time, they will take their place in the Australian community, working and thinking as we do.

The interview with Smithy Zimeran Tjampitjinpa continues. 
Smithy After staying at school for a while I understood more. Because after a short time I began to understand English. And also what the teacher was getting at.

The white teacher stands on the balcony of the school giving orders to the children lining up in the yard below.
Teacher Alright, stand up properly. Put your hands behind your back. Up straight! Good. School, attention! Right turn! Quick march!

Black-and-white footage shows Indigenous men and women working in the settlement kitchen. The men prepare animal carcasses and cook. Women sit at the kitchen table preparing large quantities of dough.
Narrator As many men and women as possible are employed on the settlement, learning a trade and, at the same time, helping to run the establishment. In the settlement kitchen men are trained as butchers and cooks. The women also are taught to prepare meals.