Featured in
Issue 233

Karrabing Film Collective Fight to Reclaim First Nations Land

Artworks are secondary in the group’s struggle for stolen soil in Australia’s Northern Territory

BY Caitlin Chaisson in Opinion , Profiles | 06 MAR 23

I once heard Karrabing Film Collective on a 2021 e-flux panel liken their videos to ‘alibis’, which made me wonder what acts their artworks might be a cover for. In contemporary Indigenous struggles, might good alibis be strategically effective allies? Redirecting narratives and resources in a settler state, Karrabing’s burgeoning filmmaking practice makes a good case that they are. Their ‘alibis’ have been circulating through international festivals and exhibitions, garnering acclaim, press and, crucially, money that’s needed to support their primary and ongoing work of getting people back into their lands in Australia’s Northern Territory.

Through artist and screening fees as well as major awards, art provides – to some extent – the financial means to purchase the trucks, chainsaws and petrol needed to move around Karrabing Country. The Road (2020) is a two-minute video that depicts the artists bushwhacking a new route towards an ancestral Dreaming site at Mabaluk-Bamayuk. Captions in local Kriol headline details of contemporary First Nations life while network news coverage blips in and out of footage from the bush, shifting between slow motion and standard time. ‘If we don’t want the ancestors to end,’ a translation reads, ‘then we can’t wait for white people to change.’ The Road is an artwork, but only insomuch as it is a road – one that makes these culturally relevant places more accessible.

Karrabing Film Collective, The Family and the Zombie, 2021, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Karrabing first emerged in 2008, one year after the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act, otherwise known as ‘The Intervention’. Allegations of sexual abuse of children in First Nations communities led to a national panic that has since been widely condemned as politically motivated. The resulting legislation did not offer any meaningful protections for children; instead, it enabled the government to seize Indigenous lands, quarantine welfare payments and violated the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act. These state actions exacerbated already extreme poverty at a time when local tensions were otherwise being stoked by the Kenbi land claim. In the midst of this complex situation, violence erupted and many people who had been living in the town of Belyuen suddenly found themselves homeless. A desire for distraction and recreation – among many immediate basic needs – took hold, so the Karrabing Indigenous Corporation formed and began crafting their own media. Their expanding membership includes 50 individuals from five separate cultural and linguistic groups whose lands connect around the coasts of Anson Bay, providing a form of assembly outside of the settler state’s definitions of clanship. This understanding of ‘separate-and-connected’ characterizes the overall ethos of the project.

Karrabing Film Collective, Mermaids, or Aiden in Wonderland, 2019. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Andrea Rossetti

Settler tactics are never fixed: they are performed day in and day out in an attempt to disable Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies. At times, this manifests through outright force; at others, it infiltrates the minutia of daily life. Part of Karrabing’s brilliance is their ability to analyze Indigenous-settler relations through quasi- or non-events, such as overcrowded housing and noise complaints (When the Dogs Talked, 2014), drinking fines (Windjarrameru, The Stealing C*nt$, 2015) or inscrutable paperwork and phone directories at state offices (The Jealous One, 2017). Registers of settler interference also crop up as continuity errors in clothing, characters or locations – like when cast members are unexpectedly jailed and the production is forced to adapt. Karrabing doesn’t doctor the ruptures between cinematic and lived realities, suggesting improvisational realism as better suited to the temporal fractures produced by settler colonialism. Given these chronic frustrations, Karrabing’s filmic practice operates on principles of convenience and enjoyment: shooting when and where they feel like it with impromptu scripting, smartphone cinematography and recycled footage.

Karrabing Film Collective, The Family and the Zombie, 2021, film still. Courtesy: the artists

If filmmaking for Karrabing is akin to multitasking, it is because they don’t have time to wait and there’s a lot of work to do. But that’s not to suggest that their filmmaking is incidental or inconsequential to their land-based practice. Art has become one of many pretexts from which Karrabing’s obligations to Country can be met. Storylines and their teachings have tied the community to place and their ancestors since time immemorial, even when living relatives have been violently dislocated. Now, Karrabing’s videos are leveraging other modes of contemporary storytelling as a cover for their ultimate fight to return to their ancestral lands.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 233 with the headline ‘Activist Alibis’

Main: Karrabing Film Collective, The Family and the Zombie, 2021, film still. Courtesy: the artists

Caitlin Chaisson is a curator and critic.