Three Sisters, Women of High Degree is the result of 7 years of collaboration and filmed conversations between three Yimardoowarra Marninil, Nyikina women from the Fitzroy River, Lucy Marshall, Jeannie Wabi, and Anne Poelina, and French-Australian filmmaker Magali McDuffie. For over 30 years, Lucy, Wabi and Anne have been implementing cultural actions to create sustainable economies in their communities for future generations, and to protect their kandri, language and culture. Inscribing the women within their cultural landscape through their river stories, and spanning over 80 years and three generations, this film also retraces the recent history of the Kimberley through the sisters’ lived experiences of slavery on pastoral stations, and reveals the women’s agency in response to various government policies. Highlighting the use of film as a tool of empowerment, Three Sisters looks at the contemporary engagement of the women politically, at a local, national, and international level, in an increasingly neo-liberal context, with, in the background, the ever-increasing threat of massive industrialisation of the Kimberley region by multi-national mining corporations – the new colonisers.
Settled more than a hundred years after Sydney because of its isolation, it was only in the 1880s that the Kimberley region of Western Australia witnessed the arrival of settlers in search of land for their cattle or their sheep. Where once waterholes had sustained numerous Aboriginal family groups, fences went up, Aboriginal people were enslaved to work on the stations, or brought into the towns of Derby and Broome. The ones who dared to protest were imprisoned. Worse, massacres were committed, which are still in Nyikina Elders’ living memory. Mick Michael Wiljaniny, a Senior Walmajarri Elder, tells us the story of his imprisonment in the film, quietly, calmly, without a trace of bitterness in his voice...
The missionaries also came, evangelising Aboriginal people, putting them in missions to "protect" them, from which many did not come out... Diseases, such as leprosy, also ravaged Aboriginal nations…
Lucy and Wabi are part of the generation of people who grew up on pastoral stations, and who was subjected to forced labour in exchange for tea, blankets, and sugar… Despite the violence, privations, and the absolute control pastoralists had on their Aboriginal workers, they were still living on their land and continued to practice their traditions, ceremonies, and to speak their language ... In the 1960s, Australia witnessed a change – at the same time as the Civil Rights movement takes shape in the United States, the movement for equality of Aboriginal workers is organized. They become citizens of Australia, acquiring equal pay rights. But Kimberley Aboriginal people will not directly benefit from this new-found “equality”. Unable to pay their Aboriginal workers the normal wages of white men, the pastoralists send them away. They gather near cities, hoping to get work, or any other support. This exodus from their ancestral lands will of course have the disastrous consequences we know today: homelessness, violence, alcoholism, psychological trauma...
But even then, again, the culture survives. Anne Poelina, a generation later, is Nyikina, born not on her country, but in Broome, where many Aboriginal people gathered after they left the stations. Born of the union of a Nyikina mother, and a Timorese father, she represents this new multicultural generation, aware of its roots, but also very much part of the wider world. Anne grows up in Broome, but, spending time in the bush, on Nyikina country, she learns the stories of the Elders, her language, and refuses to submit to the ideology of the time, constantly being told that Aboriginal people are "good for nothing". She studies nursing and then, encouraged by her success, goes on to gain three Masters Degrees, and more recently, a PhD.
Films have been the chosen medium of Nyikina people for over twenty years. Originally, to document their traditions and culture, and later, to access funding of international philanthropic organisations, but most importantly, educationally, to share their culture, explain their initiatives on the ground, and to encourage dialogue between the Elders and the Youth. "These films are a way for us to exist, to assert our identity, to tell the world who we are, that we are here, and that this is what we do," said Anne often.
Magali McDuffie has been working with Aboriginal communities for the last 10 years, first on the East Coast, then, following a series of meetings and coincidences, and an invitation by Nyikina women, in the Kimberley. "When I arrived in Broome 7 years ago, in summer, in the tropical heat, I thought I would be staying only for two weeks to make a film with the community, and then leave for new horizons ... It has now been 8 years, I go back and live there often, and it changed my life. " 8 years ago, there was a positive atmosphere in the Kimberley - many projects implemented by Nyikina Inc. and Madjulla Inc., at the initiative of Lucy and Anne, had been very successful. Nyikina language programs, in particular, were very popular - Wabi, as the Nyikina LanguageRepresentative in KALAAC, has worked closely with a linguist, Colleen Hattersley, for many years to produce an interactive dictionary of the Nyikina language and a Nyikina Language Software Package, in collaboration with an Australian university. With Anne, they also published books of Nyikina stories. Fighting poverty through art, culture, language, and economic initiatives for sustainable development in the communities – a culture and conservation economy: these were the objectives of the three sisters, as successive government policies of assimilation, integration and self-management had only made the situation worse.
Unfortunately, a threat was looming over the Kimberley. The region was rich in precious metals, coal, gas and other raw materials. Suddenly there was talk of coal mines along the Mardoowarra, Fitzroy River, shale gas exploration, and of the establishment of one of the largest gas-processing plant north of Broome, at Walmadan – James Price Point. The three sisters, who had up until then been involved in their respective communities at a local level only, immediately saw the need to share their struggle to protect their culture and their country, on which, even with recently-acquired Native Title Rights, they still have no rights, in 2015: the community can negotiate with the mining companies, but certainly does not have a right of veto.
The films of the three sisters, therefore, took on a more political, activist dimension - seeking allies internationally, two of our films were screened at the UNESCO Human Rights Commission in 2012. Anne also signed the Redstone Statement in the United States in 2010, where she met Dr Jonathan Hook, a Cherokee environmental philosopher, who is interviewed in our film, during his visit in Kimberley in 2010.
These films do not only bear witness to the strength of Nyikina Culture – they also reveal an unequal fight between diametrically opposed views of development, those of the Western world against those of Indigenous world. In the final analysis, they also tackle a much wider picture of the world, as mentioned by Anne in the film: "we are all being colonized: it is not a black or white question any longer." Anne has become, in recent years, an activist, or actionist, as she prefers to call it, recognized not only in Australia, but throughout the world, and participated in many other film projects, for instance in Eugenie Dumont’s film, Heritage Fight, and another documentary by Thalassa (French Television) about the industrialisation of the Kimberley region.
This film, Three Sisters, Women of High Degree, retraces the fascinating journey of the three sisters, and through them, the recent history of Kimberley and the impacts of excessive industrialisation. It is their message to the world: "We are still here. We know who we are, we know our culture, we can run the country. We must stand together, shoulder to shoulder" (Lucy Marshall).