It’s not every day you see a group of 30-odd Aboriginal women in colourful dress on the streets of Melbourne. But then it’s not every day 30-odd Aboriginal women get to attend the world premiere of a movie in which they star.
The Song Keepers is a remarkable and enormously enjoyable documentary about a rather improbable concert tour. In 2015, the Central n Aboriginal Women’s Choir went to Germany, to sing the hymns that had been brought to this country in the 19th century by Lutheran missionaries. And they sang them in their own languages, Pitjantjatjara and Arrarnta, to a rapturous response.
“It’s simultaneously contradictory,” says director Naina Sen of her debut feature, which turns all the easy assumptions about the relationship between Indigenous and occupying cultures on their head. “You do have all the colonial stuff, but you also have this preservation of language, and sacred music, and a culture that already has sacred songs taking on another culture’s sacred songs.”
This choir is a relic, the last of a once-thriving scene. Lutheran missionaries translated 53 German hymns within three years of arriving in the outback in 1877, and those hymns were sung – religiously, you might say – by a plethora of choirs right up to the 1970s. But when the men drifted into country music, the choirs first became women-only and then began to dwindle.
By 2006, when choirmaster Morris Stuart arrived on the scene, the remnants of just a few were all that remained. A black man from British Guyana, he arrived hoping to introduce them to African freedom songs. Instead, they introduced him to their hymns.
“We’re taking them back to Germany, like a boomerang,” Morris says in the film of the 2015 trip. “But this time, encased in these Aboriginal languages.”
The singing in the film is joyous, the women frequently hilarious, but there are serious moments of reflection, too, that challenge the idea that Christian missions did more harm than good.
Theresa Nipper recalls being taken in by the wife of her mission’s pastor after she was rejected by the elders of her tribe for being the daughter of a white man. “People don’t understand,” she says. “They just think the missionaries came and took over, brought their God with them, the Bible and all that. But they don’t see the other side of the missionaries. They saved a lot of children’s lives.”
Daphne Puntjina talks of giving birth to a son after her husband was killed, and how the old women wanted to take the child and kill it, as was customary. But a government worker and his wife took her and the child in, cared for them, kept them safe.
“I’ve thought about this a lot in my life,” she says. “I still strongly value and practise my culture. I understand that was one law in the old days. We don’t practise this culture any more.”
But it is Pantjiti McKenzie who best summarises the duality that survives and thrives in these women and their choir. “My culture and my faith: I believe in both ways and it makes me stronger,” she says. “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.”
It’s powerful stuff that perhaps points a way forward even as it seeks to keep the past alive. And it’s every bit as uplifting and inspiring as any hymn, whether you’re a believer or not.
“This is a story about a group of exceptional women,” says Sen. “It’s about strength and hope and survival – of people, of culture, of language. And at the end of the day it’s a joyous celebration of these women taking culture back to its source – but on their own terms.”
The Song Keepers is at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Sunday at 3.30pm and on August 8 and 14. Details: miff苏州夜网.au The choir also performs at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Monday at 7.30pm. melbournerecital苏州夜网.au