London: As old, stolen bodies return to Australia, Britain is being repaid in virtual reality.
In a neat coincidence this week, London’s film festival was treated to a cutting-edge, VR demonstration of the story-telling-power of Indigenous culture – while across town British museums handed over Australian Aboriginal ancestral remains for reburial in their home country.
At the film festival, Lynette Wallworth presented Collisions, a 15-minute virtual-reality journey to the Pilbara homeland of Indigenous elder Nyarri Morgan – whose first contact with western culture was witnessing an atomic test in the desert.
Wallworth, who has been experimenting with immersive film for years, decided that Nyarri’s story should be told through virtual reality, in 360-degree video viewed on VR headsets.
“In VR you’re no longer a viewer, you’re a participant,” she said. “You’re inside it, you recall it as though you were there. It can make certain stories more powerful.
“I can place you where Nyarri stood and it’s as if it happened to you.”
We are just at the beginning of discovering how incredible VR filmmaking can be, Wallworth said. It’s democratic and portable because it can be delivered to a smartphone.
And because it is unfamiliar, people don’t have the ironic comfort that they have when viewing a 2D screen.
“In the beginning of film, people ran away from the screen. For the moment, [VR] is that. You create the indelible memory. So why not use it to tell a powerful story?”
Clare Stewart – director of the BFI London Film Festival and former director of the Sydney Film Festival – said Collisions was a powerful and evocative piece.
“We’ve been following the virtual reality space for the last few years,” she said. “What is fantastic about it, and what is fantastic about Lynette’s work is that she is a filmmaker going into a space much more worked in by designers and programmers.
“We are seeing a shift. When filmmakers come in they use it in a way closer to the narrative forms of film.
“How do you take that out to wider audiences? I do think that it’s a very nascent moment where in the right hands this could become something very pervasive.
“This is a way we will be consuming moving images in the future and now is the moment to start grappling with it creatively.”
At the same time Stewart presented her work at the film festival, across town a delegation of Indigenous Australians were meeting with officials at the British Museum, negotiating the future return of old artefacts stripped from native lands.
They are trying to set up a deal where they take the old artefacts back “home to country”, and make replicas using traditional methods for the museum to use in their place.
Delegation member Major Sumner from the South Australian Ngarrindjeri community said the conversation at the museum had gone well.
“Some museums are not Aboriginal-friendly,” Mr Sumner said. “We want to start up a conversation, build up a relationship that’s good for both sides.
“But our main reason for being in London is to get our old people’s remains and take them home.”
A handover ceremony for 13 Australian Aboriginal ancestral remains will take place at Australia House in London on Friday. The remains come from the collections of Royal Pavilion and Museums Brighton, University of Birmingham, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the University of Cambridge.
One such piece is an old skull turned into a drinking vessel.
“That’s part of our practice, we have the skulls of important people and drink the water so that their knowledge and wisdom will go into us,” Mr Sumner said. “Now they’re classed as ‘modified objects’ in museums. Tomorrow the one from Brighton is being handed over. Then we’ll take it back home.”
The Ngarrindjeri have to create new ceremonies for reburial of such objects – smoking ceremonies, songs, dances and the summoning of ancestors’ spirits.
“We have an obligation to our peoples who are held over here,” said Grant Rigney, also from the Ngarrindjeri. “There are spiritual values to these materials. We have an obligation to get these home, to rebury in country.
“They were dug up and carted to museums all over the world. We have to put them back to rest in country so their spirit can be at rest and can move on into the next world.”
Grant Rigney, from the Nyoongar community in Western Australia, said when the remains returned to WA more research would be needed to be sure where they had come from – and then a reburial ceremony could be planned.
“My role here is to make sure that old person gets back home,” he said.
In the long term the team wants to set up a system that will work without them and survive them, so the repatriation of thousands of objects can continue.
The Australian government provides some support, through its Indigenous Repatriation Program which helps with research, identification of remains and travel for community representatives.
But the delegation said they need more support from state governments, to pay for the time and work needed for repatriation and reburial.
The story Virtual reality tells Indigenous story in London as bones set to return to Australia first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.