"Making Small Island Big Song – An Oceanic Songline" by Tim published on Cinema Australia

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Filmed over three years on 16 Island nations across the Pacific & Indian Oceans, this grassroots musical follows the ocean highways uniting ancient musical lineages. From Madagascar to Rapa Nui/Easter Island, Taiwan to Zenadth Kes/The Torres Strait. A heartfelt plea for environmental awareness and cultural preservation from those on the frontline of the climate crisis.

You can watch Small Island Big Song – An Oceanic Songline now via the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Here, director Tim Cole gives us an incredible insight into the making of his film.

“As artists we can play a vital role in shaping and guiding personal and societal narratives. The scientists have played their role, so let’s lift their burden and play ours.”

Article by Tim Cole

Culture defines and motivates our relationship to the environment both social and natural and clearly there is something wrong with our dominant ‘western’ culture, it isn’t serving us. The very core of our existence the planets eco-system which unites and sustains absolutely everything is collapsing around us and we fail to respond.

Growing up in Frankston an outer bayside suburb of Melbourne in the 70’s placed me in a culture of AC/DC, drive-ins screening ‘Herbie the Love Bug’ and oiled up summers skiffleboarding on Frankston Beach’s slippery sandbars. (Where have all the skiffleboards gone? So much fun!) 

The culture which once knew, named and sustained this place had gone and their names forgotten, I never even questioned that my homeland of brick veneers, milk bars and footy ovals had a deeper story and it’s own now, unspoken name.

So finding myself years later sitting amongst Aboriginal elders in the cooling twilight of Pintupi Country in the central Australian desert (a place beyond my knowing, because the roads on my school map didn’t go there) recording ancient Women’s Inma (Songlines) or waist deep in a pure volcanic waterhole in the remote Banks Islands of the Pacific filming the high spirited women’s water percussion of Leweton Village or on sacred Warumungu land documenting initiated only men’s Kunupa Kujica (Songlines) did challenge my idea of the roll my own culture plays in defying me. How did a suburban ‘white boy’ raised on a heritage of ‘3XY Rocks Frankston’ and up here? (Must say that thought has crossed my mind over the years).

‘Small Island Big Song – An Oceanic Songline’ for me is the sum of that introspection plus my attempt to temper my fears for the future of our planet added with a skill set acquired over three decades of working on cross-cultural music driven projects across Australia and the Pacific. And not to mention my ‘dream it and make it happen’ partner the film’s producer BaoBao Chen, although this essay is biased from my perspective the film’s production is equally the both of us, it was just the two of us on the road from the first shoot right through to signing off on the DCP (all shooting and post, so we saved some budget on letters for the credit roll).

This film of the oceans began in the desert community of Kiwwikurra 1,000 km’s off the bitumen.

BaoBao and I were living in Alice Springs, I had a job at CAAMA (The Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) an Aboriginal owned and managed media house, I was their senior music producer/engineer and one of my jobs was recording songlines with the elders out in community ‘on country’ (With Indigenous audio engineers). Wow if everyone could experience that, up to six hours of songs all sung in a specific order, short and long, all in sympathetic resonance to the land we were on, like fly’s hovering around by my headphones or the sun slicing through the trees as it’s scorching fingers enter the land. If we could all experience that, then we would be living in a much different Australia; respect to the songkeepers. These songs passed down over countless generations, within them too the knowledge to sustain these communities on some of the most challenging environments for humans on the planet, where to find water, what to eat, where their national borders are and how to maintain complex societal structures that have enabled them to survive on ‘Country’ for over 50,000 years (as recently has been proven). How old were these songlines? But then out there in the entrancement of the song and the land, it’s not a question that makes any sense to ask.

After a day of recording these songs I took the troopie out of Kintore to film the stars rising above or from Men’s Mountain, the camera clicked away time-lapsing as the AM radio crackled the ABC News from Perth over fifteen hundred k’s away, it was Oct’ 2014 and in that news was the 5th IPCC report from the United Nations. It’s predicted environmental loss across the planet slammed me, in particular the loss of Islands of the Pacific, homelands and their culture, friends I had been working with just before taking up the position at CAAMA. Still under the trance of the Inma (Songlines) it seemed so clear; these ocean cultures shaped, evolved over generations of surviving on islands with limited resources would be the first to loose their homelands and with that their identity the knowledge of place. The very people who do know how to live sustainably on an island will be the first to loose theirs because the rest of us on Island Earth and as hippy as it sounds we have to own it now that we are in the anthroposcene (of our own doing, may I add) don’t!

These songs that speak of deep cultural, human relationships of respect to the land, I should be recording those with the saltwater people of the ocean, If I could find that ineffable knowing experienced through the song keepers of the desert in the Pacific, then just perhaps we could play a roll in connecting others to the oceans deeper story and it’s own unspoken name. So as our time in Alice Springs was winding up BaoBao and I packed our life away into the back of a Ute and passed through the Gap at the southern end of town we were headed to the ocean.  

So I guess that’s all the why now here follows the how……

No budget, no script just the two of us a few cameras and microphones and a vision of creating an oceanic songline with profiled artists who could speak for their heritage their natural environments those carrying the unbroken cultural lineage of their homelands from across the vastness of the Pacific and as it turned out the Indian ocean too. 

Driving down the track (The Stuart Highway) gave us some respite from the chaos of winding things up, packing things away, hand overs, garage sales, good-byes and knotting up the loose ends. A silence settled in the cabin of the ute as we individually took in the moment the incredibleness of the past two years and the enormity of what lay ahead, are we really going to produce a feature film spanning over half the Earth’s surface with the regions most respected musicians all filmed on their homelands, and then get that film into cinemas across the world. My take on that was, ‘well if we fail what’s the worst that could happen, our reputation is destroyed, we are humiliated, we have to reboot our life’s’, in the big picture in the face of the climate crisis’s increasing momentum that didn’t matter, then on the other hand, ‘what if we did succeed, what if we could hold the gaze of the global zeitgeist, if only for a moment on those who could speak the oceans forgotten name’, well that could have some impact way beyond two daydreamers, we had to go for it. The silence was broken by the high pitched whining of our new brake pads as we pulled up on the track, “gotta take a pic”, the sum off all leading to here and the potential packed away in the now needed to be documented.

Yes both the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, it wasn’t really our choice, you see there is another story central to this film and as the film itself purposely gives as little context as possible (I would have preferred none), I’ll go into here, as it is absolutely incredible. You won’t believe this!

Well, we all know about the Polynesian voyages across the Pacific triangle of Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Aotearoa (New Zealand) but this is only part of a bigger seafaring heritage, the first inhabitants of Islands across the complete vastness of the Pacific AND Indian Oceans can be traced along the ocean currents and seasonal winds back over 5,000 years to a Pacific Ocean Island we now call Taiwan. That is well over half the Earth’s surface, still sharing elements of language, culture and,,,,,, music. They are in fact the worlds 5th biggest language group of 400 million strong called Austronesian, which includes all of Australia’s neighbours of the Indo-Pacific region along with The Torres Strait/Zenadth Kes. Yet at Overport Primary School I learnt more about the Tudors of England (which actually has been extremely useful, not) than I did of this incredible history of Australia’s recently retitled region the Indo-Pacific. 

Before the Pyramids of Egypt were built around the time Stonehenge was constructed people of the Pacific already had the technology, science, skills and confidence to successfully cross the horizon a threshold of human endeavour only recently met as we (humanity not BaoBao & I) voyaged beyond our atmosphere into space.

So as you see there wasn’t a choice, both the Pacific & Indian oceans it was. “Imposable! two people can’t make such an epic film, can’t be done” said in a grump elderly Oxford alumni voice. The way I looked at it we just had to go and have one session with one artist on their homeland which I had done countless times before and then onto the next and then the next and then the next until we had covered enough of these great oceans to make a cultural statement. Just the two of us handling all aspects of the production, which as it turned out was an asset, because if you approached it as a conventional broadcast production the cost and logistics would have made it unfeasible. We managed it on a scattering of small arts and philanthropic grants and still budgeted to pay all the musicians, through BaoBao’s super powers of finance and couch surfing.

Our whole goal was to create a statement of our relationship to the Earth in the structure of the film itself, rather than the film be a canvas or framework for sharing ideas on the subject as the director, I was looking for meaning myself so I set a process for the film to grow with as little influence from me as possible. 

Tim’s Filming Manifesto – Follow the Artists Choice’s and Guidance. 

We gave each artist the same requests

1 – ‘To share a song with which you are proud to represent your heritage and homeland with’ A song which a statement of your cultural identity, any song of your choice in any style you feel appropriate.

2 – ‘Take us to a place in nature on your custodial land with significance to you and your culture to record it’ To connect the song to the land it was shaped from, it also enabled us to introduce natural sounds into the recording and record in the open, not in a box. (You do hear a difference)

3 – ‘To sing it in the language of your homeland’. The language shaped by that environment. 

4 – ‘To only use the instruments of your homeland’. The instruments of that place, literally as in the case of the Yumi Yet bamboo band who cut and tuned the bamboo whilst we were there in the village. We used the bamboo orchestra to replace the acoustic guitars a few artists played as a guide tracks. There are no western instruments in the film or soundtrack, because they speak of relationships to another country.