Aboriginal Wisdom Lets It Rain

In an  evening of Traditional Water Wisdom, on April 1, the Water Docs 2017 Film Festival offers two films that examine different aboriginal cultures and their connection to rain and land. With their wisdom grounded in generations of cultural experience, are they able to predict rain and do they also hold the power to make the skies open up?

Putuparri and the Rainmakers

At the heart of Putuparri is the story of a man caught between two worlds who finds redemption through the discovery of his traditional culture and the acceptance of his responsibility for passing it on.
— Director, Nicole Ma

Putuparri and the Rainmakers is a universal story about the sacred connection between land and place that makes life meaningful. It takes viewers on an emotional journey to meet the traditional rainmakers of Australia's Great Sandy Desert, who have fought a 20-year battle to win back their traditional homeland.

Spanning 10 years, the film follows Tom 'Putuparri' Lawford as he navigates the deep chasm between his Western upbringing and his growing activism for his family's homeland. On a trip back to his country in the desert, Putuparri is amazed to find that the dreamtime myths are real – there is a country called Kurtal and a snake spirit that lies at the centre of a rainmaking ritual. 

Putuparri is a man caught between two worlds: the deeply spiritual universe of his people's traditional culture and his life in modern society where he struggles with alcoholism and domestic violence. As he reconnects with his ancestral lands and learns about his traditional culture he begins to accept his future as a leader of his people and shoulders his responsibility to pass this knowledge on to the next generation.

The Struggle for Aboriginal Community Background

Fitzroy Crossing, where Putuparri lives, is the principal town in the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia. It is the heart of a network of almost 50 Aboriginal communities that are on or near their ancestral lands.

These communities are threatened by cutbacks in government funding, putting their inhabitants in a dangerous position. Many had returned to their communities, spurred by the requirements of the Land Rights Act to demonstrate continuing occupation of traditional land. But with basic services to the communities slashed, the Aboriginal people are facing another displacement from their traditional lands.

Once forced away, they are in danger of losing their spiritual connection to the land – and water – and having their identities distorted and destroyed. (The original displacement of Aboriginal people by European settlers many years ago forced a lot of the people into lives as cheap labour facing severe social and economic challenges.)

Desiring to document the tribulations of these people, filmmaker Nicole Ma recalls reviewing a video given her by an anthropologist many years before, that she long ignored because it was a low-quality VHS tape:

"At the time Putuparri had shot it as evidence for their land claim. It was an amazing experience watching it for the first time as it showed the entirety of a rainmaking ceremony involving a mythical snake spirit and ending with a dramatic thunderstorm. I had seen fragments of this rainmaking ceremony performed on our trips to Kurtal in 2002 and 2008. It all started to make sense, the desert people making rain, underground waterholes that could sustain the tribe during the dry season."

The Rainmakers of Nganyi

In this short film, directed by Steve McDonald, researchers at Kenyan universities face a problem: their weather forecasts aren't being taken seriously. Threatened by climate change and weather extremes, farmers are losing crops and finding it increasingly difficult to predict the weather. Even so, they do not trust the scientific forecasts and will only listen to traditional rainmakers. 

To bridge the gap, the universities begin to use rainmakers in the village of Nganyi, Western Kenya, as communication agents. But then the researchers start to notice striking similarities between their predictions and the rainmakers’. Are they really forecasters? And can the rainmakers really make it rain?  This is the story of how new research is bringing together ancient and modern ways of knowing, to build climate resilience in Africa.

Both Putuparri and the Rainmakers and the Rainmakers of Nganyi play on April 1, starting at 6 pm, at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto. You can buy tickets here. If you're lucky, it might be raining.