Meeting with Nicole Ma: ‘Thanks to them, I learnt what a home was’


Nicole Ma - IMG_7516Twelve long years… That’s what it took director Nicole Ma to tell the story of Tom. Tom Putuparii Lawford is an Aborigine who gave in to modern temptation but accepted the responsibility of guiding his community, fighting for his clan’s ancestral land and striving for the transmission of traditional skills. Nicola Ma followed him in a unique experience to his country, ‘Kurtal.’ The director will discuss the real story behind her documentary during Inside the Doc on Tuesday 2nd February from 11.15am to 11.45am. Meanwhile, a little taste of what to expect…


What led you to tell this story?


I was working on a film and I wanted to give it an Aboriginal dimension. So I approached the Aboriginal community, and I met the grandparents of the main character, Tom. These are figures from the Aboriginal cultural world. They weren’t interested in working on the first film, so they suggested that I return with them to their country Kurtal, deep in the desert. We took six days by car to arrive! To begin with, the film was superficial, I filmed ceremonies but I didn’t understand them, as I wasn’t familiar with Aboriginal culture. But that aroused my curiosity. So I continued the work …


In the film, we see the character age. How much time did you spend with him?


I followed Tom and his family for twelve years. I spent 3 to 4 months per year with them. First of all I met Spider and Dolly, the grandparents. Then Tom. To begin with I was scared of him, he refused to speak to me as I was a stranger. But I quickly realised that he was the character for the documentary as he has a foot in each world: modern and traditional. Dolly also told me that he was going to be the leader of their clan. I listened to her, as she was my mentor, she understood straight away that the film was the means of preserving the culture and their history. To begin with, I had to pull Tom by the sleeve to ask him for authorisation to film. The day he finally said yes to me, I could film what I wanted. I think that because I kept coming back to him like a boomerang, he ended up accepting (laughter). The film formed a link between us. Today I regard them as family.


What marked you the most when making this film?


The fact that Tom allowed me to show his sombre side. In Australia, we are familiar with documentaries or films about Aboriginal culture. Here, we show ceremonies of course, but above all a character who shows us to what point it is difficult to be faithful to traditions and to live in a modern world. Thanks to them, I also learnt what a home was. I have lived in many different places in the world but I have never felt at ease anywhere. In the end, when I slept in the desert, in their country, I felt at home!


It is in fact a question of land, and this incomprehension between two communities on this subject?


European Land Related Laws are based on individual priority, whereas for them, it’s a question of community. The Aborigines have to learn to buy land. They do not have this concept. And, then they don’t understand why white people think that this land is theirs when they have only lived there for 200 years and them 40,000 years? In reality, the Australian government is scared to admit that it’s their country legally as that would change many things at a legislative level, they would need to be compensated etc. Politicians therefore prefer to simply carry on as before. We call this ‘cultural amnesia.’


Lastly, what did you want to show through this documentary?


A film about Aboriginal culture without making the public feel guilty, as is often the case in this type of documentary in Australia. In fact, I just wanted to show what I experienced, to share the experience with these people without being critical. I hope that it will enable the public to better understand the relationship between Aborigines and their land. Dolly and Spider are not angry with white men, for them, it’s their fate. On the contrary, they want to share their culture and above all their history. It’s also important that the film is at FIFO, as it shows the importance of preserving culture and traditions. These people teach us to address spirits, to honour and preserve the land. This connection is missing today, but it has not been lost. It is important that people hear this message.