Booty Dancing and Petroleum Dreaming
Verb | 10:35am, Fri 23 Sep 2005 | Gunbalunya, Arnhem Land
Bam bam bam chk bam bam bam bam bam chk (repeat).The eighties hardcore techno track ‘Here’s Johnny’ pumps from the Blue Light Disco’s sound system of the youth centre as we enter through the roller doors. In front of us, the concrete dance floor is packed with waste-high kids bumping and grinding their little bums to the beat. The girls stand with their feet firmly planted on the ground, ass out, hands on knees in controlled motions. Some of the boys are more radical, busting out electric waves and robot breakdancing moves.
The dj is playing hits from the early nineties like ‘I Like Big Butts’ by Sir Mixalot. I’m getting flashbacks from high school socials when this stuff used to be in the charts - only no-one danced this well at Darwin High. Suddenly MC Hammer’s ‘You Can’t Touch This’ fills the room and Saritah and I decide to brave it. We dance around, sparring with Capoiera jengas and blocks and sweeps and before we know it, we are surrounded by a gang of fascinated kids. Capoiera was one of the roots of breakdancing, so this might explain why we got immediate disco cred and Saritah (who is a much better capoierista than I) is being mobbed by these instant fans. They begin to run into the circle in front of us, performing increasingly ridiculous dance moves that somehow mix rap, crumping and ceremonial dance. There’s a playful self consciousness that means whenever a kid knows someone is looking, they quickly run back to their seat and laugh hysterically. It’s kinda disco, kinda booty, kinda traditional, kinda hip hop. Completely Gunbalunya.
Out of the blue, I’m ushered over to the dj who I imagine is going to congratulate us on our dance moves. Or the mere fact that we are the only people over the age of twelve who were dancing ... Instead, she looks serious. “Uh, do you mind not doing martial arts in front of the kids? We don’t want to encourage them...” I’m already drenched in sweat, so I grab an icy pole from the tuckshop and wander out to the basketball courts where thirty kids are playing keepy-off with a football. I join in for a while, and notice the white kids sitting at a table in the corner of the yard. They obviously want to join in, especially now that I’ve broken the ice, but they don’t. I wonder how there could still be so much segregation when they are all locals. The largest of them, in his twenties and looking as out of place as I do, approaches
and says that he saw us on the dance floor before. He starts telling me that his father owns the youth centre and the pub and the supermarket here. I’m kind of disappointed, hoping that these main businesses might have been owned by the town council, but not surprised, since it always seems to be the white folk who run those places out here.
I had also thought Gunbalunya was a dry community. Apparently not.
“Is the pub still open then?”
“No way, it’s only open for an hour a night and has to close at eight thirty so the blackfellas don’t get a chance to get too drunk.” He tells me the pubs also open for an hour during lunchtime, and people are limited to two beers at a time. I don’t really like the way he talks about the blackfellas, but before I can say anything he takes a look at the door and notices a new crowd arriving. He tells me they’re all the boys from Jabiru, and they might cause some fights. He runs off to act the bouncer. One of the kids throws me the football, and I’m back in the game. Above, the moon will be full
I’ve travelled here to Arnhem Land with a Darwin video production agency called Formation Studios, headed by my friends Will Tinapple and Danni Green. They’ve just finished a six month project with the Gunbalunya town council making a community awareness video about petrol sniffing and have asked me to come and help at its launch. A few hours drive from Darwin and we’re on the border of Kakadu, the East Alligator River which is the only entrance to Arnhem Land by road. It’s a tidal river so you can only cross once or twice a day, in between high tides. Here English is a second or third or sometimes fourth language for the locals, and whitefellas are outnumbered at least a hundred to one. You also need a permit to enter the Aboriginal lands, which increases the feeling that you are leaving Australia and entering another country. Gondwana? Or perhaps this is the real Australia?
Will has spent a lot of time as a teacher on communities out in Arnhem Land, and Danni is a health worker. As filmmakers they bring an interesting insight to this kind of work. Will tells me he decided early on that he consciously didn’t interview any white people (balanda) for the video, because he thinks there is already enough media with
white people talking about what Aboriginal people should do. Will thought it was more important that the affected parts of the community began to communicate about the severity of the issue. “There’s a lot of community breakdown out here” he explained as we were driving out of Darwin earlier that day. “A lot of people don’t talk to each other about these issues, because they have their own social, health, cultural and political problems to deal with.” Although he recognises that a video alone can’t stop petrol sniffing, what it can do is assist the dialogue within a divided community. Media as community mediation.
I wake to the sound of hundreds of bats escaping the dawn light, screeching in the tamarind tree under which we have camped. We’re staying in the yard of the old Oenpelli mission house which has been converted into a visitors hostel. Oenpelli was Nomadology the original name for this town when it was a Christian mission, settling the nomadic tribes of the area. Nowadays it is called Gunbalunya, although there is another spelling Kunbarllanjnja, and all three seem to be used interchangeably. As the sun rises I wander down to the billabong that cuddles the town, past the two story air-conditioned houses which the whitefellas must own, and a small city of ant mounds. Behind them the almost full moon is still setting and I just have to smile, caught in the gaze of both the sun and the moon for this brief cosmic moment.
In the community hall the kids are climbing excitedly over the chairs, waiting for the video to begin so they can see themselves on screen. I play games with some of them while we wait, showing them how to use the video camera. Sitting up the back on the pool tables are some guys in military fatigues. They’re from Norforce, the ArnhemLand wing of the Australian Defence Force. Energy Resources Australia have placed a banner with their logo next to the screen, and it turns out they’re one of the sponsors. Interesting. The last time I was out this far was back in the days of the Jabiluka antiuranium mining protests, and ERA was the corporation trying to open the mine against the wishes of the traditional owners. I’ve since learnt that besides art and tourism, the entire town economy pretty much runs from the profits of Ranger mine.
On the other side of the room sits Yvonne Margarula, the outspoken opponent of the mine and elder of the Mirrar people. She speaks strongly in this film about the problems of parents not watching out for their children, calling for more community action on this terrible problem. The most confronting part of the film for me is actual interviews with petrol sniffers. One boy, whose face has been blurred, says: “It connects me to my dreaming.” Another young girl, whose cheeky smile lets you imagine she hasn’t really stopped using, says: “It’s like your dreaming, you can’t feel anything in your body at all. You begin to see spirits.” They’re the most honest descriptions I’ve heard from any petrol sniffers, and all the more confronting with their references to Aboriginal spirituality.
As I watch the images on the screen I begin to imagine that these kids have tapped into a world of corrupted industrial shamanism. Petroleum as black gold. The dark lifeblood of our entire industrial civilisation. I think of the millions of years of plants and organic material compacted into this dark liquid energy that propels our car culture and feeds our plastic society. I try to imagine the massive machinery employed to dig it up from deep below the ground, as if we were excavating hell itself. But it’s not hell – it’s just power – and the whole industrialised world is drunk behind the wheel on it. All over the planet, empires are fighting wars over its dwindling supplies and terrorists are responding in kind. I’ve read accounts of many Iraqis describing it as a curse for all the misery it has caused them. Last year at a climate change forum I attended, I also listened to a Nigerian man talk about the corporate/military complex that was tearing
his country apart. He made the whole audience repeat after him the phrase his people now say: “We thought is was oil, but it was blood.”
And here on the other side of the earth, at the other edge of industrial society, in Arnhem Land, and in Aboriginal communities all over Australia, these kids are getting drunk on it too. But they have no cars to fuel, only boredom and perhaps a gaping hole in their spirit left by two hundred years of colonisation and cultural domination. They destroy their minds, escaping their bodies to have some mindless fun. Too deadly, aye?
It’s just another thing that makes me think the sooner we run out of petrol the better. Of course I know that’s not the solution to all our problems, but what else could make us all sit up and take notice at what the fuck is going on in this world?
reprinted From Undergrowth #7 - Nomadology