Jennifer Deger, Shimmering Screens

Review by David Rogers

Jennifer Deger. Shimmering Screens: Making Media in an Aboriginal Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

[1] In Shimmering Screens, Jennifer Deger explores issues of identity, community, and belonging amongst the Aboriginal people of Gapuwiyak, Australia. As the Yolngu tribe incorporates modern media into their culture, new forms of expression are emerging. But these expressions have become faithful extensions of their culture rather than a capitulation to Western influences. By witnessing the parallel development of Yolngu media, new questions are raised about the relationship between digital media, culture, and communication.

[2] The benefits of this development are not restricted to the people of Gapuwiyak alone. With the adoption of modern media comes the possibility of communicating cultural traditions and values to the rest of the world. Historically, ethnologues have been produced by anthropologists who were guests and strangers to the tribe. But today the possibility exists for tribes to communicate their message directly, without the mediation of a foreign anthropologist. This has been a persistent problem throughout the history of anthropology. No matter how objective the ethnographer may be, his/her experiences are always filtered through the perceptions of his/her primary culture. Digital ethnologues produced by the Aboriginal people themselves overcome the limitations of the anthropologists' lens.

[3] When Deger first approached this project, she initially ran into problems: "despite my prime position within BRACS (Broadcasting in Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme), the kind of cultural production I had set out to record and analyze remained elusive" (17). Her initial contacts had reservations about promoting their culture through digital media.

[4] But when she met Bangana Wunugmurra, an energetic Yolngu man in his thirties, she found the perfect partner. Bangana immediately recognized the potential for strengthening Yolngu culture and became the driving force beyond the project. Bangana literally adopted Deger into his family; she became his sister and was initiated into a dense network of kin relationships. His children taught her to speak Mathu, and Deger developed a broader scope for her project, one that encompassed audio recordings and photographs, as well as video.

[5] Together, Deger and Bangana wrestled through the issues associated with the project. At times, Bangana would lose patience with Deger's approach to learning, and insist she stop the questions and "learn like a Yolngu" (26). But in time they were able to produce the award winning Gularri video, and were planning the establishment of an AM radio network when Bangana suddenly died of a heart attack. He was only thirty-seven, and Deger shares that Shimmering Screens is in some measure intended as a eulogy for Bangana.

[6] Deger initially worked with a young man named Gambali at the local radio station. The broadcasts would fluidly intersperse the "Sultans of Swing" with Yolngu manikay (traditional song) like "Mantjarr," which is a sixty-second piece about leaves floating on water. Later in the broadcast, they played a pre-recorded community announcement known as a raypirri. This is a traditional speech often associated with formal ceremonies.

Come back to where you belong. Come back to the bilma. Come back to where you belong... Back to the foundations of the Yolngu culture, back to the old people. So when you want to understand both worlds, at least you have your rom, your culture and law and bilma. Cause we don't want you to miss what our fathers and our grandfathers and our great, great, great, grandfather, we don't want you to miss what they had and what they passed on to us. (65)

After the speech, Gambali smoothly fades into "Dancing Queen" by ABBA. These odd cultural juxtapositions "insist that simple separations and categories are impossible" (66). But they also motivated Bangana to use the tools of modern media to reestablish the relevance of his own culture. Bangana often told Deger "[w]hen people tune into my Culture shows they'll connect straight away" (80).

[7] Deger's analysis of Yolngu culture appropriates the "anthropological mimesis" of Walter Benjamin and Michael Taussig. Taussig's Mimesis and Alterity describes the process of mimesis as a pre-linguistic exercise in adaptation. Instead of imposing anthropomorphisms upon nature, in mimetic ritual, it is man who suppresses his nature in the assumption of naturalistic attributes. Yet according to Taussig, these rituals actually emphasize the discontinuity between man and nature. But Deger recognizes differences in the mimetic practice of the Yolngu from those described by Benjamin and Taussig. While Taussig and Benjamin may emphasize alterity or the "other" as the characteristic element of mimetic ritual, Deger argues that amongst the Yolngu these rituals emphasize "similitude and sameness" (87).

[8] In fact she struggles to understand what the Yolngu mean when they assert that a mimetic practice creates the same identity for the participant and some other being. The Yolungu culture places tremendous emphasis on the relationship between subjects. The foundation of their world-view is recognition of the unity of all things, facilitated by an Ancestral Spirit. When, in a ritual, a Yolngu engages in dhudak'thun (to act, pretend, imitate, follow, learn), they believe that the performer actually participates in the nature of the object of mimesis. These rituals, then, develop the ontological beliefs of the Yolngu. According to Deger, they reject the atomistic binary identity of Western philosophy in favor of more contiguous theory of being. Bearing some similarity to the yin and yang of Eastern thought, the Yolngu recognize individuality to a lesser degree. They do not disregard it entirely, but rather they view the individual as somehow spiritually united with the rest of nature.


[9] Deger recounts the troubles she encountered the first time she organized a film crew to record an elderly woman recounting a traditional story. In the story, a boy refuses to share the fish he has caught, and is transformed into a sea eagle. The woman was very reluctant to perform the story for the camera, and this led to a confrontation between Bangana and the cameraman. The film crew could not understand the woman's reservations, but there was a firm insistence not to repeat the takes. Bangana later explained that "she feels sometimes that dhurrwara [lots of] photos is losing her, [taking away] who she is" (95).

[10] Yolngu are not unfamiliar with photography or technology. Many of them have televisions in their homes, and have seen the same films popular throughout the rest of the world. Jean-Claude Van Damme is a favorite action hero amongst the youth. Deger points out that the reluctance to be photographed is not merely a factor of "primitivism" as it is so often ascribed. Instead it seems more likely that their cultural emphasis on mimesis encourages a very circumspect use of the image. The old woman's reluctance stems in large measure from the loss of control and the potential for misappropriation that comes with surrendering her image.


[11] Perhaps the most exciting prospect presented by Shimmering Screens: Making Media in an Aboriginal Community, is the possibility of unmediated ethnographies that faithfully represent a communities' representation of itself. Rather than filtering the media through the reigning anthropological paradigm, individuals from diverse cultures can experience these ethnographies directly and draw their own conclusions.

[12] When we read an ethnography produced by a trained anthropologist, we are not reading an accurate reflection of the culture. Instead we are presented with an assemblage of impressions filtered through a series of criteria that have little to do with the culture in question. Often the motivation for conducting anthropological research is to justify or condemn some aspect of the researcher's culture. Thus the ethnography must always carry the caveat: the Yolngu "according to X."

[13] But when oral cultures are empowered to produce their own media, with the intention of promoting their own cultural identity, we can be certain that their media is consistent with their cultural vision. When editorial choices are made by the people themselves, the production becomes an objective artifact of cultural history.

[14] But this prospect raises another exciting possibility. There are thousands of oral cultures throughout the world that are steadily diminishing in number, and as they disappear, so do their stories and accumulated wisdom. It is difficult for us to understand the historical position that we currently find ourselves in, but the revolution brought about by information technology has forever transformed humanity. We are presently engaged in a vast amalgamation of cultures, and that which is not deliberately preserved will be irretrievably lost.

[15] There are international bodies devoted to the preservation of world heritage sites, and it is appropriate that we should seek to preserve these natural and architectural monuments. But how much more valuable are the oral traditions, the collected teachings, stories, and sayings? Buildings are nothing more than bits of stone and wood, but in these stories the heart of ancient cultures live on. International bodies like UNESCO should investigate the possibility of recreating Deger's work on a massive scale. Before these oral cultures are lost to us forever, we should create an archive of oral tradition, so that these stories can be preserved and studied by future generations.

[16] But of what value are the stories of this small tribe from an obscure town in Australia to the citizens of a cosmopolitan, global community? Deger's experiences among the Yolngu tribe remind us of the importance of storytelling, and just how much we need to be grounded in culture to maintain our identities. But there are subtle lessons to be learned as well.

[17] The old woman's reluctance to be overexposed on camera may strike a modern audience as somehow quaint. After all, the camera can't really steal your soul. Or can it?

[18] Our culture is currently obsessed with video, and people will do literally anything just for the chance to be seen by others. Those who manage to achieve celebrity status are photographed hundreds of thousands of times, and many of them are ultimately destroyed by the attention. Perhaps there is some aspect of the soul that is diminished when our likeness is appropriated too often, too carelessly. Perhaps there is something that western culture can still learn from an old Yolngu woman from Gapuwiyak.