Audra Simpson: Where was When the Dogs Talked made? And why was it made? How does it relate to the earlier short film by the Karrabing Film Collective, Karrabing: Low Tide Turning?
Elizabeth Povinelli: These film projects began as something quite different than what they ended up being. I talked a little about this in an earlier e-flux journal essay. A very old group of friends and colleagues of mine were working on a digital archive project that would be based in the community where they were living. But after a communal riot, they decided being homeless was safer than staying in the community. So what began as a digital archive that would be located on a computer in a building on a community was reconceptualized as a “living archive” in which media files would be geotagged in such a way that they could be played on any GPS-enabled smart device, but only proximate to the physical site the media file was referring to. We thought this augmented-reality–based media project would have two main interfaces, one for their family and one for tourists. And they thought this would be a way of supporting their specific geontology—their way of thinking about land and being—and create a green-based business to support their families.
But they faced two obstacles as they tried to build this living library. On the one hand, the Australian economy was increasingly oriented around a mining boom, supplying raw minerals to China. This raised the value of the Australian dollar and the price of goods and services, and crippled other domestic industries such as software design and tourism. On the other hand, a sex panic was gripping the nation around the supposed rampant sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in remote communities. The federal government used the sex panic to roll back Indigenous land rights and social welfare, and to attack the value of Indigenous life-worlds more generally. So instead of making the augmented reality project, my colleagues decided that we should make a film that tries to represent and analyze the conditions in which they were working—the small, cumulative events that enable and disable their lives. They thought this would give everyone a sense of the various kinds of media objects that could eventually be in their geontological library. And I should say that they wanted to make a film with people who could show them how films such as Ten Canoes were made. That is, they had a very specific kind of film in mind, one that, at least initially, demanded a level of craft that I didn’t have.
I asked Liza if she’d come out, meet the Karrabing, workshop the story with us as a collective, and codirect our first film, Karrabing: Low Tide Turning. I had seen and heard about a number of short films she had made, especially South of Ten and In the Air, and I thought she’d be perfect for what we wanted to do. South of Ten, for instance, is able to pay cinematographic attention to the ordinary material conditions of getting by in the wake of Hurricane Katrina without making them a weird dramatic personage. In one clip you see a woman washing dishes in a large white bucket with a FEMA trailer in the background. The heat, the industrial nature of the bucket, the FEMA trailer—these are the completely non-remarkable conditions of the cast-off and getting-by. In the Air also got my attention for similar reasons. It’s set in the crumbling US rust belt, now the Meth Belt, and encounters a group of kids who have set up a circus school as a way of organizing a center to their lives. For me this film is a study of the small, non-spectacular ways people try to create projects and events that can sustain them in the midst of social and material decay. Oh, and I should say that both films work with nonprofessional actors.
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