Naina Sen’s radiant documentary about the funny and spirited women (and a few men) of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir stole my heart.
Made over several years, the film primarily follows the choir as they travel for the first time to Germany to sing in Language the hymns brought by Lutheran missionaries to their communities over 100 years ago. Sen allows the voices and stories of the women to come to the fore, a testament to the time she took to build a rapport and provide a safe space where their voices would be heard.
Choirs were a mainstay of many of the Central Australian communities but lost favour with men in the past decades who were disenfranchised with the role that Christian churches had played int their communities. And they were lured away by country and western music. Conductor Morris Stuart, originally from Guyana in South America, was connected with six existing women’s choirs 11 years ago – the Hermannsburg Ladies Choir (Ntaria), the Areyonga Ladies Choir (Utju), the Titjikala Choir, the Mutitjulu Choir, the Docker River Choir (Kaltukatjara) and the Mission Block Choir of Alice Springs. He began working with them individually and then together as the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir.
The journey of the choir to Germany is a significant one. Many of the women have never been outside of Australia and some do not have the birthday certificates needed for a passport. There is consternation that their ‘wild chewing tobacco’ might be seized by Customs. Finally though they are at the airport in Alice Springs and collectively singing as the plane takes off to calm their nerves. In Germany, they sing in Lutheran churches and on the streets as a thank you for the songs and protections they were given by the German missionaries over the years.
The film is full of warm-hearted and tear-inducing moments as the women sing, joke and make each other laugh. The sobering moments are in the stories that intersperse the action. They tell of sorrow and hardship but also of the strength and mentorship the women provide to their community. Daphne, with her comedy and also her heartbreaking story, sticks in my mind. What hit home for me was the statement by several women at the end of the trip that they felt treated better, welcomed more, in Germany than in Australia. What a sad indictment of our country and our treatment of our First Peoples.
It’s not possible to walk away from this story without feeling profoundly moved by the resilience of these women and their “songs of strength, survival and hope.” And the singing is beautiful.
Have you seen this film? Let me know what you thought in the comments below.