The 6 August 2017 marked the world premiere of a new film about the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir entitled The Song Keepers.
Receiving multiple standing ovations at two packed viewings, the 90-minute independent documentary is more than just a chronology of their 2015 tour where German Christian songs brought to this country 140 years ago by Lutheran missionaries were returned ‘like a boomerang’ back to Germany in the languages of the Pitjantjatjara and Arrarnta speaking Lutherans. The film celebrates the living culture of the singers that has survived ‘invasion’ and colonial rule, yet it also challenges the notion that Christian missions did more harm than good.
Pastor Leo Kalleske’s wife Lydia receives special tribute from choir member Theresa Nipper for saving her as a baby from tribal infanticide (which occasionally happened years ago during droughts and economic tough times) because her father was a white man. ‘People don’t understand. They just think the missionaries came and took over … But they don’t see the other side of the missionaries. They saved a lot of children’s lives.’
Daphne Puntjina also explains how she fled from the ‘old women’ who considered eliminating her newborn son after her husband was accidentally killed in a tribal fight soon after she fell pregnant. Fortunately a staff member and his wife gave them shelter until they were later accepted back by the tribe. She reflects on the event: ‘I’ve thought about this a lot in my life. I still strongly value and practise my culture. I understand that (infanticide) was one law in the old days. We don’t practise this culture any more’.
Regardless of the faults of the culture they have inherited or the Christian faith they have learnt from the missionaries, all members of the choir still practise both. Pantjiti McKenzie explains: ‘My culture and my faith: I believe in both ways and it makes me stronger. On Saturdays I take the young girls out bush. I teach them traditional dance and singing. And then later, the choir gets together to sing hymns in the church. I don’t feel like I have to choose between them. They’re both equally important to me. We stand by both’.
The Song Keepers will be shown in limited release throughout Australia in 2018. Finke River Mission will keep you informed about future viewings.